Roku's Netflix Player vs. Apple TV: unboxing and first impressions

Posted:
in iPod + iTunes + AppleTV edited January 2014
Netflix and Roku are stepping up to the plate with a media hub that promises a much less expensive way to watch movies online without a per-movie cost. In this preview ahead of our full review, we unpack the device and give our first impressions on how it stacks up to Apple's offering.



Like Apple TV, the partnership between Netflix and Roku has given way to a compact box for streaming select movies and TV programs directly to your television. The $100 box serves up unlimited content from Netflix's "Watch Instantly" section as part of the standard subscription price of its DVD by mail service. The 10,000 Watch Instantly "movies and TV episodes" include many documentaries and older films, but provide a wide range of options that were previously only viewable from a Windows PC, due to the use of Windows Media DRM that is incompatible with Macs.



Roku's box is simple to setup and use, and essentially stands in as a substitute for having to hook up a Windows laptop to view the Watch Instantly titles. Here's an unpacking and setup tour of the new device, which we'll review in greater depth and compare to Apple TV in a future article.







Inside the simple blue box is the unit itself, about the size of short stack of CDs, along with a remote control and a brief getting started guide.







Also included in the box is a small external power supply and stereo audio and composite video cable (below).







The unit itself includes output jacks (below) for composite, S-Video, and component video, along with an HDMI port for both video and audio output. It also supplies optical audio and stereo audio outputs. In addition to the wired Ethernet port, it also supports 802.11 b/g wireless networking, but not the faster 802.11n used in Apple TV.







The Roku box is smaller and lighter but taller than the Apple TV (below top) and supplies roughly the same outputs (below bottom), although it lacks USB (which Apple TV currently does not use), and provides a composite video output that the Apple TV does not support.











Setup and configuration



Configuring the Roku Netflix box is simple and straightforward: once plugged in, it boots up and presents an easy to follow series of pages that connect the device to an existing wired or wireless network. It then talks to the Netflix server to download a software update and finally presents a code that needs to be entered into a computer logged into the Netflix website. Once completed, the activation allows the user to select programs from the Watch Instantly section of the Netflix website on a Mac or PC. The selected programs are then made available from the box. It is not currently possible to browse for other content directly from the box; everything needs to be queued up from a web enabled computer first.































The device seems to work well as an appliance for watching streamed content for Netflix subscribers. The video quality is close to what you'd expect from digital cable and seemed to play smoothly over our fast cable Internet connection, which is rated at 16 megabit. Over slower connection rates, the system dials down video quality automatically. Because there's no hard drive storage in the system, all programs are streamed when played, so the device needs a constant connection and takes a few moments to begin playing. It also takes some time to skip ahead in the program being watched.



The device challenges Apple's iTunes strategy of selling video programs Ã* la carte, as the cost of all content viewable from the Roku device is included in a Netflix membership. At the same time, the box doesn't currently support online shopping, direct purchases, HD rentals, PC audio streaming, photo and home movie access, podcasts, YouTube, and the other features of Apple TV. The significant differences and minimal overlap between the two may make both devices attractive to users who want a variety of options. We will present a more in depth comparison of the Roku Netflix box to Apple TV in a followup article.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 135
    irnchrizirnchriz Posts: 1,571member
    Its hardly a rival to the Apple TV. All it does is stream media from Netflix, which you need to subscribe to and at this time its only SD content.



    The Apple TV lets you store your music and video content on the device itself, you can stream your own content to it or use it standalone for the iTunes store.



    The Netflix box is cheaper but all it does is stream media not store anything so of course its cheaper.



    A pretty stupid comparison to be honest.
  • Reply 2 of 135
    nasseraenasserae Posts: 3,152member
    Hopefully Apple will consider lowering the price of AppleTV now that it is a constant stream of income instead a just a hardware.
  • Reply 3 of 135
    solipsismsolipsism Posts: 25,726member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by irnchriz View Post


    Its hardly a rival to the Apple TV. All it does is stream media from Netflix, which you need to subscribe to and at this time its only SD content.



    The Apple TV lets you store your music and video content on the device itself, you can stream your own content to it or use it standalone for the iTunes store.



    The Netflix box is cheaper but all it does is stream media not store anything so of course its cheaper.



    A pretty stupid comparison to be honest.



    It's a rival if the public think it's a rival. Since the AppleTV started offering movie rentals people were comparing it to Netflix.



    "Why would I pay $5 for an HD movie on the AppleTV when I can get it for free from Netflix with much higher quality, extras, etc.?"



    With Roku the comparison comes more into full swing as Netflix is now offering free video?and I believe considerably more titles, including TV Shows?to those with a Netflix account. On top of that, the device costs less and connects to more TVs. Of course, it doesn't have nearly the usefulness of the AppleTV but if you only want to watch movies and you already have a Netflix account then Roku is probably the only choice for you.
  • Reply 4 of 135
    The Netflix box is better because it works on non HDTV's. You also don't need to pay for every single movie or show you rent if you all ready have Netflix. I haven't been to a video store in years and I love Apple but I refuse to pay for every single movie rent when i could watch non stop movies through the Netflix box.
  • Reply 5 of 135
    bdkennedy1bdkennedy1 Posts: 1,459member
    Never going to survive without a hard drive to cache the content. When the connection craps out and you have to start the movie over again there will be some pissed off people.
  • Reply 6 of 135
    mrjoec123mrjoec123 Posts: 223member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by solipsism View Post


    It's a rival if the public think it's a rival. Since the AppleTV started offering movie rentals people were comparing it to Netflix.



    "Why would I pay $5 for an HD movie on the AppleTV when I can get it for free from Netflix with much higher quality, extras, etc.?"



    With Roku the comparison comes more into full swing as Netflix is now offering free video?and I believe considerably more titles, including TV Shows?to those with a Netflix account. On top of that, the device costs less and connects to more TVs. Of course, it doesn't have nearly the usefulness of the AppleTV but if you only want to watch movies and you already have a Netflix account then Roku is probably the only choice for you.



    Netflix may have more titles available for the Roku, but not many of them are new releases or popular titles. Only a few of the top 100 movies on its own site are available for streaming with this box. Apple actually has them beat on the new release front.



    There are also no HD titles available via this box, either. It's all standard def, and the quality decreases even further if your Internet connection can't keep up.



    And since when is Netflix free? Pay that monthly fee for a year, and you've paid the difference for an Apple TV.



    Bottom line, this is an interesting device, but no competitor to Apple TV. This box may be fine for some people, but for all the people who complained about Apple TV's quality when it came out, this is far inferior. Sure, the initial box is cheaper, but it gives you far less. The 802.11n on the Apple TV alone almost justifies the cost difference. Especially if you're sharing that wireless bandwidth with another computer or two in the house. Plus, you get a hard drive, access to any networked machines and their media content, a far better user interface, Flicker and .Mac photos, YouTube, Music and Videos from iTunes. You can't tell me that all isn't worth $129 more.



    Since I don't pay for cable or a Netflix account anymore, I'm getting plenty of entertainment for less money with my Apple TV. All the shows I actually want to watch, with no commercials, whenever I want to watch them. A decent, albeit far from perfect, selection of movies that will only improve over time. No more waiting for DVDs to show up in the mail. Works for me.



    I'm glad Netflix is getting into this game. But they're going to have to do better than this box.
  • Reply 7 of 135
    kim kap solkim kap sol Posts: 2,987member
    That was like undressing an ugly chick and posting the pictures as some kind of triumph. Nasty beyond words. Disappointed to see unboxing pictures of something so ugly and uneventful.
  • Reply 8 of 135
    solipsismsolipsism Posts: 25,726member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by mrjoec123 View Post


    And since when is Netflix free? Pay that monthly fee for a year, and you've paid the difference for an Apple TV.



    It's free if people perceive it as free. Most people have signed up for the DVD's by mail, the streaming media is just a bonus. They can watch it on their PCs or with the Ruko device which extends the quality and range of their Netflix account.



    You may have paid the difference for the AppleTV after a year, but that doesn't include at content outside YouTube, Podcast and the occasional iTunes Store promo. That, unfortunately, is what people are going to focus on.
  • Reply 9 of 135
    macnewbmacnewb Posts: 5member
    Initially I was interested in the device, considering plopping our 40GB TV in the bedroom and the Roku in the living room. After further inspection, this device is not what I wanted.



    First off, we have a Netflix account, and to see whats available for streaming on Windows (yes they still don't support OS X streaming) and the Roku was an eye opener! Pretty much all garbage, nothing recent or worthwhile to me. Secondly, it only has the ability to stream their content, so pretty much anything I rip or *ahem* acquire cannot be played back on the device. Makes me wonder what HD content they will provide in their "Take 2".



    So this devices reaffirms a second, 160GB TV later this year. I am enjoying the 99¢ weekly iTunes movie, renting an occasional HD movie, instant access to kids shows for my son, and listening/watching my favorite podcasts. Also, I've got all my music for iTunes hooked up through TosLink digital sound, with a slick UI and not to mention integrated YouTube. That's the device for me, and the Roku just can't compete.



    Probably gonna get flamed, but that is my take on this device war. And really this isn't going to be, they will serve two different markets. It just feels like Netflicks is riding the TV coattails with the Roku, but really not offering anything spectacular.
  • Reply 10 of 135
    macvictamacvicta Posts: 346member
    As long as I can't play my own personal content, the Apple TV will always be a bigger bargain in my eyes. Some speak of the limited iTunes store choices but the point is that I have those movie rentals & purchases and TV shows on top of my own burned/downloaded content in my iTunes library. It's that range of choice that makes the Apple TV more attractive. While I'm not surprised the Roku is considered a competitor, I'm surprised there's not widespread agreement that the Apple TV is head and shoulders above it.



    Price wise I think it would help if the cheaper Apple TV was $199 like I wanted it to be in the first place.
  • Reply 11 of 135
    emoeric87emoeric87 Posts: 72member
    I think it's pretty strange that so many people just come up with the opinion that one brand (Apple) is automatically better than another and that the other companies are probably lying if reviews challenge an Apple product.



    As of now, the iTunes store lists about 1,000 rentable titles. Netflix touts 10,000+.



    Clearly iTunes and all those other things are nice, but friendly competition are exactly what make businesses and their products and services get better.



    That is my opinion.
  • Reply 12 of 135
    dluxdlux Posts: 666member
    This has been brought up before - Apple should either partner with or buy outright Netflix. The timing may be right. The studios have been wary of Apple's dominance in the music field, and thus haven't cut the expansive deals that they might have in the past. Netflix, as a separate entity with almost no online presence, seems to have a different (non-threatening) relationship. If Apple were to now partner with Netflix they might be able to leverage that relationship. Of course, this is all speculation, and the million-page legal contracts probably prohibit too much leeway, but one can dream.



    As it is now, Apple recognizes that YouTube is THE site for online personal video, and supports it directly in AppleTV. The same goes for Flickr for photos. If Netflix becomes the go-to place for mainstream movies (which is currently the case for physical DVD rentals) then Apple could merge Netflix's inventory into their own iTunes rental space as a separate service (available for existing Netflix customers) while still offering the one-shot, non-subscription rentals to everyone else.



    The other reason to do this is for Apple to get their foot in the door for future Netflix media encoding. Much as YouTube has added H.264 for the iPhone market, Netflix could do the same - with Apple's assistance - for their library. Otherwise Apple leaves the media format choice open to Microsoft or Flash, which would be strategically detrimental if Netflix online takes off.





    Oh, and 'Prince', you full name appears on the grab of the Netflix activation screen
  • Reply 13 of 135
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Dlux View Post


    Oh, and 'Prince', you full name appears on the grab of the Netflix activation screen



    Prince McLean = Danielle Dilger?



    poor man's apple tv. Limitations aside, i do think there's a market for it. Not everyone loves itunes, but i agree that no HD has the potential to be a headache.
  • Reply 14 of 135
    8corewhore8corewhore Posts: 833member
    They are different but similar. For some, one or the other will be a "no brainer", but for a good many, they are in the same ballpark and will be compared. For many, paying by the viewing is no big deal, for many others, a subscription is a better value. I'm in the later. I love getting DVD's at home for what averages out to be less than a dollar a pop. Netflix has hundreds of Blu-ray titles now. (or is it thousands?) I use bootcamp to watch the streaming stuff. I can get The office at no additional cost for SD which still looks great. Getting The office in HD is just not worth the extra expense. (I have a faster speed now if anyone remembers me saying it was choppy - a problem for a small minority) I'm paying about 10USD a month, I get DVD's coming all the time, and UNLIMITED viewing of thousands of programs streaming. That's a great value. Not to mention the benefits of having a physical DVD in hand. P.S. HD streaming from Netflix is on the way.
  • Reply 15 of 135
    Doesn't netflix have a limit on how many hrs of streaming i can watch?
  • Reply 16 of 135
    polvadispolvadis Posts: 87member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by bdkennedy1 View Post


    Never going to survive without a hard drive to cache the content. When the connection craps out and you have to start the movie over again there will be some pissed off people.



    I agree. I have used Netflix' stream feature via my PC to TV connection and the quality wasn't that great as my connection that evening seemed slow. I would have gladly waited 20 minutes for it to download at least half the movie in best quality and then watch it.



    Some sort of storage system is a must. But I think by the time these things really take off it won't be hard drive any more, pure SD for sure. But at the same time these devices just prove that the Blue Ray HDDVD war was bogus. It's gonna go from DVD to stream media.
  • Reply 17 of 135
    splinemodelsplinemodel Posts: 7,311member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by MySchizoBuddy View Post


    Doesn't netflix have a limit on how many hrs of streaming i can watch?



    Not on most plans. As of recently, "watch instantly" is unlimited.



    So, to discuss Netflix "watch instantly." I have had a flu the past couple of days, so I had the chance to use the hell out of Netflix watch-instantly. I used my work PC, a dell laptop, over my 6Mbps cable connection. It works great. There's a little bit of buffer, fore and aft, to mitigate connection jitters. Netflix's system is at least as good as the "video on demand" run by most cable providers. In fact, it's better, since it's cheaper and the catalog has more diversity.



    The Netflix device and its successors will bury the Apple TV and the iTunes video rental service unless Apple makes a way to use Netflix with the AppleTV. I can't see how Netflix would care, since it seems likely that they are selling the units at cost -- perhaps even below cost.



    Netflix is also now competing with the cable companies, which will have a much harder time pushing their premium channels, since it doesn't take but a few months for movies and TV series to hit DVD/Netflix. Netflix has here a great product that may well change the way people think about (and buy) video content. It's a great step forward since it really raises the level of competition for cable companies and video services alike.
  • Reply 18 of 135
    slate1slate1 Posts: 6member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by emoeric87 View Post


    I think it's pretty strange that so many people just come up with the opinion that one brand (Apple) is automatically better than another and that the other companies are probably lying if reviews challenge an Apple product.



    As of now, the iTunes store lists about 1,000 rentable titles. Netflix touts 10,000+.



    I'm no Apple fanboy and I think the competition is nothing but healthy and will force the AppleTV to become better and better.



    That being said - this 1,000 vs 10,000 argument is pure hogwash. The 10,000 Netflix claims includes TV shows, Documentaries, Movies, Shorts, etc. - everything in the barn!



    If you add up all the movies, TV Shows, Documentaries, Music Videos, etc. in the same manner on the AppleTV (essentially the whole iTunes library...), Apple actually has Netflix hammered in the content arena.



    The whole cost thing is irrelevant to me in some regards - when 9,950 of the 10,000 items Netflix offers are not something I'd spend an hour of my life watching.
  • Reply 19 of 135
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by emoeric87 View Post


    I think it's pretty strange that so many people just come up with the opinion that one brand (Apple) is automatically better than another and that the other companies are probably lying if reviews challenge an Apple product.



    As of now, the iTunes store lists about 1,000 rentable titles. Netflix touts 10,000+.



    Clearly iTunes and all those other things are nice, but friendly competition are exactly what make businesses and their products and services get better.



    That is my opinion.



    And how many of those 10,000+ Netflix titles are stuff you're actually interested in watching? Be honest. ;-)



    I cancelled Netflix a year ago, but signed up again for a free trial when I saw this Roku and streaming 10,000+ titles to see if it was a viable option for canceling my Time Warner Video Lover Extreme monthly package. My thinking was that despite having 10 different feeds each of HBO, CineMax, Starz, Showtime, Playboy, and The Movie Channel, there's really not a lot on those channels to justify the monthly cost, and I'm stuck with their decision on what's available right now.



    After checking the titles of what's on there for instant viewing, it's not going to be an ideal replacement unless you're into older titles or anime, etc.



    And SD? Ugh. SD's fine on a small screen, but butt ugly if you're over 40".





    edit:



    By the way, Netflix HD may be coming, but I'm not sure that the "current" releases of movies are coming any time soon. I read something on the Netflix blog about the studios having multi-year deals with television networks (unamed, but probably HBO, etc) for first grab on new releases. Anyone thinking of buying the Roku thinking that HD streaming of current releases is on the way any time soon should do some serious research on what and when before plonking down the $100 for this thing.



    Also, I'm no AppleTV lover, I've tried to love it, and it has its uses, but for all the hassle and limitations of even a hacked AppleTV, I think the best decision would have been to just go with a Mac Mini or laptop hooked up as an all in one media center for the Home Theater. All formats supported, Parallels for Netflix streaming (the guy above booting into Boot Camp for Netflix, why not try Parallels or VMWare?), iTunes if you want it, etc, etc.
  • Reply 20 of 135
    djkuodjkuo Posts: 3member
    What's the point of having an HDMI port when you won't be able to stream HD videos? Doesn't make much sense to me.
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