Sunday, December 7, 2008

Netflix Player by Roku: The Future of Video Subscription Services

I've been a devout Netflix subscriber since 1999.  One thing I've always been impressed by is their commitment towards making improvements and also their thoughfulness about their future direction.  To that end, I've been following the growth and development of their "watch instantly" feature.  When it first came out it wasn't terribly interesting since the amount of available content was pretty minimal.  However, that has changed in recent months, and with the recent deal they struck with Starz the amount of available content is now very respectable.  The other recent development is their embedding of the "watch instantly" function in selected hardware.  The feature is now available on the XBox360, on Blu-Ray players made by LG and Samsung, and also on a standalone unit made by Roku.  For those of you unfamliar with Roku, they've been in the streaming audio business for some time now, and I happen to own a couple of their Soundbridge units.  So for them to manufacture a Netflix video streaming unit seemed like a natural fit.  And best of all, if you are a current Netflix subscriber you can watch any available content at no additional cost whatsoever outside of springing over $99 for the Roku box.

I just picked up the Roku Netflix Player last week, and boy have I already become addicted to it.  The setup is incredibly simple...Just power it on, connect your A/V cables (I used HDMI), connect to your wired or wireless network, register the device on the Netflix website, and you're done.  Took me literally 5 minutes to set the whole thing up...piece of cake for anyone.

When you go to the "home" screen you are presented with your "watch instantly" queue, and just like everything else with the player it is brain dead simple to navigate through the queue and select what you want to play.  Once you make your selection, it does take a few seconds for the player to start downloading/buffering the content before playing it on your screen, and the player also determines the "quality" level of the stream depending on how fast your internet connection happens to be at the time.  If you are like me and always demand the highest quality, then there is a back door way of forcing the unit to stream at a set quality level - you can find out how by visiting the Roku Netflix Player link on Wigix.  Sadly there is no way for you to search for new titles to add to your queue from the player itself; you must go back to the website to do this.  However, you can remove an item from your queue as well as rate it from the player.

Probably the main drawback to the player is its lack of a hard disk, so the player is only able to buffer a small amount of the video if your internet connection takes a hit.  I suspect that the reason for a lack of a hard disk is mainly due to the paranoia that the Hollywood studios have about content piracy.  However, in the 10 or so hours I've used the player so far I've only experienced one instance where playback stopped, and even then it only lasted a few seconds.  

I was also pleasantly surprised by the quality of the video stream produced...I think it was pretty comparable to a standard DVD player.  And the player is also capable of streaming HD content, and Roku has stated that HD content will be available by the end of this year...this is great news!  Unfortunately, though, both the current content as well as the HD content will not support any multi-channel audio formats.  Again, this appears not to be a limitation of the device but by the studios' refusal to release those formats with their content.

How does the Roku compare with other video streaming products?  Well, I'm not really an expert here, but there are two others that I had considerecd.  The first was Apple TV, which appears to be getting better and better with each release.  And the unit does come with a built-in hard drive and so it shouldn't be as prone to any hiccups due to connectivity issues.  However, with the Apple TV you need to purchase any of the content you want to watch.  Vudu is another competitor, and their big advantage is that they have quite a bit of HD content available.  However, similar to the Apple product you must purchase or rent all content, and I don't think Vudu is getting many subscribers and so I have a feeling they may end up going out of business.

Overall I'm as please as can be with the Roku, and I really think this is the future of where video subscription is headed.  And I'm sure Netflix would love nothing better than to not have to physically ship all those DVD titles to their subscribers, which is why they are pushing really hard on "watch instantly" and working with various hardware providers to support it.

UPDATE: Roku launched support for HD content during the holidays.  The amount of HD content is pretty minimal right now (mostly TV shows) but will grow rapidly over time.  Netflix is in the process of re-encoding all their Watch Instantly video streams, and as part of this effort you'll see more HD content availability.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Finally Joined the Blu-Ray Owners Club

Well, I finally broke down and bought a Blu-Ray player. I've been following the technology pretty closely for the past several months, especially after the demise of HD-DVD. I finally settled on the new Sony BDP-S550. In addition to having great picture and audio quality it supports all the latest features like Profile 2.0 and can either bitstream or internally decode all the new lossless audio formats such as TrueHD and DTS-MA. The setup was probably the easiest of any DVD player I've owned too. Watched Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk tonight...both were awesome! The interactive features on some of the titles are a bit of a disappointment to me, at least when compared to some of the HD-DVD titles I am familiar with. Not sure if this is an issue with with the BD spec or just the content, though.

The other thing that bugs me is how long it takes to load and navigate through a disc. Again this is not an issue specific to this player, and in fact the Sony fares much better in this regard than other BD players. But with HD formats and all the bits that have to be transferred between the disc and player, navigation is noticeably slower than with normal DVD's. And hearin lies the problem with Blu-Ray and physical media in general. In this day and age of DVR's like Tivo and internet-based on-demand services, the whole process of physically loading a disc into a player and waiting for it to spin up seems so archane, and I'm finding myself getting extremely impatient since I've come to expect instantaneous feedback. And the interactive features are extremely excruciating to navigate through at times. This is why I think that perhaps Blu-Ray may ultimately fail in the end and lose out to some type of internet -connected, media sever type of device, especially when higher speed (> 5 Mbps) internet service is more the norm.

Friday, September 26, 2008

T-Mobile G1 - No UMA!

After my last post regarding Android and the G1, it occurred to me that T-Mobile and/or HTC decided not to include support for UMA on the device.  That's a real bummer, as I am finding UMA to be a great feature on my Blackberry 8320.  Quick simply, UMA allows one to make mobile calls and related data access (e.g. text messaging) using Wi-Fi, and also allows one to seamslessly roam between GSM/GPRS networks and Wi-Fi, particularly handy in cases where cellular coverage may be spotty.  T-Mobile is the only US-based carrier that supports it, and they've made it available on several of their newer devices.  In my particular case, I use the UMA feature quite extensively whenever I travel overseas.  While in my hotel room or overseas office I simply disable access to the local mobile network and use Wi-Fi exclusively.  This means I can make mobile calls back home without incurring any roaming charges since T-Mobile doesn't appear to have the ability or desire to trace calls by IP address.  And this also means all of my text messages and Blackberry email do not incur any data roaming charges either.  I've also read on Blackberryforums that some users are claiming that T-Mobile doesn't even log some of the UMA calls, so those users aren't even being charged for the minutes against their account.  So...I'm wondering if the UMA ommission from the G1 was a major oversight on T-Mobile's part, or maybe a purposeful ommission given the folks like me that leverage it in order to save on their monthly charges.

I am Intrigued by Android

I've been a die hard Blackberry user for nearly 10 years now, sans the week or so I played around with a T-Mobile Dash last year. I currently use the Blackberry 8320, which is the best Blackberry device I've used to date. My friends and family always ask me why I don't use the iPhone since they know my penchant for gadgets and figured I'd always have the latest hot thing. There are actually a few reasons why I haven't jumped on the iPhone bandwagon yet:
  1. Push email if vitally important to me, and my corporate email address is not MS Exchange based.
  2. I need the ability to get push email for all of my email accounts
  3. The Blackberry allows you to create server-based filters, so that I determine which emails to be sent to the device and which ones I can just read later when I'm on my laptop.
  4. Ability to type easily - nothing beats the tactile feel of a real keyboard.
  5. Cost - Right now I pay $79 a month for 1000 minutes, unlimited email, data and SMS, and T-Mobile Hotspot.  The equivalent set of services if I were to move to an iPhone would probably cost me an additional $50 a month with AT&T
As everybody knows by now, earlier this week T-Mobile and Google announced the new Android G1 device which will be available in late October.  I read several of the reviews, and I have to say that I'm quite intrigued by Android and this could be the platform that finally gets me off Blackberry once and for all.  With built-in push email support for Gmail accounts this will address most of my email requirements.  The G1 also has a full keyboard, and the monthly cost would actually be lower than what I'm paying right now for the equivalent set of services.  Plus, I am hopful that Android will really take off as a development platform and that we'll see a ton of cool 3rd-party apps developed for it.  To be honest I'm getting really tired of Apple's heavy handedness these past few years, and we're seeing that once again with their App Store.  I mean come on, not allowing an app to run in the background?  If that is such a big concern to Apple then their stinkin' OS should be smart enough to lower thread priority and/or swap the app out if it becomes too resource intensive.  

The G1 may not be the sexiest beast out there, but it's the first of what I hope to be many new Android-based devices to come.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Now, for a Self-Serving Post on Wigix

For the past year and a half or so I've been involved with a startup called Wigix, where I am the CTO and co-founder. In a nutshell we are a serious alternative to eBay and offer a number of advantages including a "stock market" style of trading, product research information and community contributed content a la Wikipedia. Our goal is to build the world's largest structured catalog of products and to be the de facto product search destination on the internet.

Here's a funny and short video that we recently produced:

I invite anyone and everyone to join Wigix and see what we're all about. Thanks for reading!