Roku Goes HD: A Notable Advancement, But Still Somewhat Dowdy
Last weekend, after the conclusion of a lengthy internal-then-external beta process (in which I participated), Roku rolled out high-definition playback capabilities for its $99.99 Netflix Player:
The initial-boot ’splash screen’ for the v1.5 firmware upgrade (specifically, build 901) indicates that access to services beyond Netflix are slated for ‘early 2009′. Unfortunately, this isn’t yet early 2009. But more on that in a minute…
My current 2.5 Mbps (actual, 3 Mbps spec’d maximum) AT&T DSL broadband service tier is unfortunately below the threshold needed for reliable HD streaming, so you’ll need to peruse other users’ feedback for a comprehensive perspective on the new firmware’s capabilities. However, I was still able to tap into some of Roku’s new code’s goodness. In previous v1.0x firmware releases, the box’s maximum resolution was 480p widescreen; my Hanns-G 28" LCD’s circuitry upscaled from there to the display’s native 1920×1200 pixel resolution. Now, however, the Netflix Player can natively output 720p resolution images; the user interface clarity improvement is immediate and striking.
One of the first titles I attempted to watch after upgrading the unit to its first v1.5 beta image was Transsiberian. Playback was indecipherably garbled; it looked somewhat like what happens when you try to drive a progressive-scan-only video input with an interlaced video signal (or visa versa). Conversely (and confusingly), the Xbox 360 (which gained standard- and high-definition Netflix online playback capabilities over a month ago) was able to handle Transsiberian with aplomb.
A quick email to my contacts at Roku set me straight. The Xbox 360 is playing back Windows Media Video 9 (WMV9) streams coming from Netflix’s servers. The v1.5 firmware-equipped Netflix Player, conversely, is tapping into Netflix server-sourced streams encoded using the Microsoft-developed and SMPTE-certified VC-1 Advanced Profile codec, a WMV follow-on with somewhat better bit efficiency at equivalent quality levels. Transsiberian (along with, apparently, some other titles in Netflix’s library…it’s the only one I’ve stumbled across. however) has encoding issues that Roku is working with Netflix to resolve, hopefully by the end of this year. I’m a little surprised that Roku rolled out the v1.5 firmware upgrade prior to the Netflix library cleanup completion, but then again I don’t underestimate the appeal of ‘HD’ to last-minute Christmas-shopping potential customers, either.
To qualify what follows, let me state upfront (reiterating points I recently made) that at $99.99, the Netflix Player delivers significant value even if tackling Netflix content is all it ever does. Unlike Microsoft’s competitive approach, there’s no need to regularly purchase a Gold membership (along with, for that matter, a $200 or higher piece of console hardware) in order to access Netflix material. Similarly, although MediaMall Technologies’ PlayOn is a one-time $30 purchase. you need a computer to run it on, along with a game console or some other UPnP/DLNA-cognizant client to play back the material…which, don’t forget, has also gone through a quality-degrading transcoding step within PlayOn’s software stack.
Conversely, with Roku’s solution, you’re good to go once you’ve made a one-time hardware acquisition…assuming you keep your Netflix membership current, that is! (this requirement, if it’s not already intuitively obvious to you, is necessary with all three Netflix access alternatives mentioned here). However, with this all said, I’m still underwhelmed by Roku’s still-Netflix-only status. Part of the reason, I suppose, is that I’m aware of the Netflix Player’s internals and their access-and-playback potential. And part of the reason is that Roku’s Netflix-only focus is increasingly limited in the face of an increasing number of Netflix-plus competitive alternatives.
Consider, for example, the burgeoning list of Blu-ray players that also access Netflix over their Ethernet ports (I’m sorry, though…I still can’t get beyond the seeming irony of a piece of hardware capable of both pristine 1080p physical-disc playback and reduced-quality online content access). Consider TiVo’s Series 3 and HD units, which recently got Netflix Watch Instantly support, too. Or consider a box such as SageTV’s recently introduced Theater HD-200:
At $199.95, it’s twice the price of the Netflix Player, and it also doesn’t mirror the Roku unit’s built-in Wi-Fi capabilities. But it already claims to support several DRM-free online services (such as YouTube), and its combination of UPnP client capabilities and diverse audio-and-video codec support enable it to access not only varied LAN-housed content but also additional online services (such as Netflix and Hulu) via MediaMall’s PlayOn. Plus, although it doesn’t act as a Media Center Extender, it offers functionally similar features in conjunction with a copy of SageTV Media Center running on a PC elsewhere on the network.
Several weeks ago, Roku asked me what features I’d like to see added to the Netflix Player in the future. Here’s the list I came up with, in no particular order:
- UPnP/DLNA client support, along with additional audio and video codec capabilities
- Windows Media Connect support
- Windows Media Center Extender support
- A built-in web browser, in combination with infrared wireless keyboard and mouse accessories
- Direct access to both DRM’d and DRM-free online sites (I used boxee as a case study); YouTube, Flickr, Picasa, ABC.com, CBS’s TV.com, NBC’s Hulu, Fox, CNN, Comedy Central, ESPN, etc…and
- SoundBridge-like support for Internet radio (though I realized this was a stretch, since the SoundBridge Radio costs 3x the price of the Netflix Player!)
I intimately realize the practical schedule limitations of non-infinite budget and headcount. Roku’s Director of Hardware Engineering, Greg Garner, and I have had several frank (and refreshingly so) conversations in recent months on this theme…the contents of which I unfortunately can’t share with you at this time due to their confidential nature. Although the company has open-sourced portions of the Netflix Player’s code, there’s not (at least yet) a public API available that’d enable third-party developers to supplement the company’s internal software development efforts. I say this realizing, of course, that for Roku to implement such a program wouldn’t be a universal panacea; as Apple is learning with the App Store (and, I suspect, Google’s also discovering with its Android Market), an enthusiast embrace also brings with it plenty of headaches.
The consumer electronics marketplace is a brutally competitive landscape; stagnation is a death sentence, especially for smaller vendors. Unless CE companies continue to adapt and evolve in a rapid and adept manner, they’ll be quickly steamrolled by other upstarts and larger competitors alike. Ironically, the latest issue of Scientific American, which I’m reading now, is a tribute to Charles Darwin (honoring the 150th anniversary of the publication of On The Origin Of Species), along with a more general themed treatment of evolution, natural selection and genetics. Analogies to the topic of this particular post are, I think, apt.