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Tech Lab Pictured are the Apple TV (top) and Netflix Player by Roku. The Apple TV costs $229 or $329, depending on hard drive size. The Netflix Player costs $99 and requires a subscription to the video service, which starts at $8.99 a month.
Tech Lab

Viewing video's future

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Hiawatha Bray
June 5, 2008

There's still a Blockbuster video rental store in my neighborhood. But for how long?

These days, you can rent DVDs from a Redbox vending machine in supermarkets for $1 a day, order them from your cable television company's pay-per-view service, and sign up for movies by mail from Blockbuster itself, or its archrival Netflix Inc.

And then there's the Internet. Netflix and Apple Inc. offer gadgets that will bring movie downloads into the living room. I've been testing both devices - Apple TV and the Netflix Player by Roku Inc. While neither is perfect, they leave little doubt that Blockbuster's woes are sure to get worse.

Introduced about a year ago, Apple TV has yet to catch on. There's its stiff price - $229 or $329, depending on the size of the internal hard drive. There's also the cost of viewing. A typical rental costs $2.99, or you can buy movie downloads for $10 to $15. In addition, it only works with late-model widescreen TV sets, preferably the high definition kind.

Apple TV is also an energy hog if you don't remember to turn it off - and there's no off switch. You must remember to hold down the play button for five seconds. Apple should have included software to power it down when idle.

Then again, Apple TV is a lovely piece of equipment. It connects to a home network, either with Ethernet cable or Wi-Fi wireless networking, and syncs up with the iTunes software on a PC or Macintosh computer. Now you can stream your iTunes music and videos into your living room, and also display a photo collection on a TV screen. There's even a connection to YouTube.

Apple TV comes with a remote control for selecting movies that is the size of a ketchup packet. A few clicks, and your order is charged to an Apple iTunes Store account. You can press play in less than a minute, but you might want to wait longer before starting to watch, especially with a high-definition video. Otherwise, the picture may freeze because of download delays. It happened a couple of times while I watched "Batman Begins." Wait an hour or two after ordering, however, and the entire movie gets stored on the Apple TV's hard drive. Then it will play without a hitch.

Apple TV has the makings of a good home entertainment server, capable of delivering music, movies, and photos to your living room. But if you just want an easy way to view online movies, Netflix and Roku have kept it cheap and simple with the new Netflix Player. The result is one of the best entertainment bargains around.

The Netflix Player is available for $99 from Netflix.com or Roku.com. While you wait for it to arrive, sign up for a Netflix subscription, which entitles you to DVD movies by mail. For $8.99 you can rent one disk at a time, and get a new movie when you return the old one. Or pay $16.99 a month to get movies three at a time. Now select your movies. There are two online queues - one for mail-order flicks, and another for instant online viewing. The Internet service only offers about 10,000 titles, a fraction of the total Netflix library of 100,000. Most are older movies or reruns of popular TV shows like "Heroes." Roku chief executive Anthony Wood said the selection will improve, as Netflix and the Hollywood studios draw up licenses for putting more movies online.

Selecting movies is harder than it ought to be, due to a confusing search system. But I was still able to find lots of appealing fare, like "Bonnie & Clyde," "Bullitt," "Network," and "A Man For All Seasons." Good thing I love old movies.

Now, plug the player into a TV and use either Wi-Fi or an Ethernet cable to connect to a broadband Internet service. I tried the system with a Verizon DSL connection that delivers about 2.5 megabits of data per second. Within 30 seconds, I was watching "Network." It wasn't DVD quality - more like a VHS videotape in good condition - but adequate. Wood said that each video stream is offered at four quality levels, so people with faster bandwidth will see a better-quality stream. The player is also compatible with high-definition videos. Netflix aims to offer HD videos eventually, but it will require at least a four-megabit connection.

Unlike Apple TV, the Roku box has no hard drive, just 64 megabytes of memory to act as a buffer. That means the movies are streamed live over the Internet. Yet you can pause a video at any point, switch to a different movie, and return to the first. You can even fast-forward and rewind, though there will be a delay before the movie restarts.

I kept waiting for the image to freeze or stutter due to network congestion. It happened only once. Except for that, it was pretty much like watching TV. Then again, nobody else was using my Internet connection at the time. If the kids start downloading music while you're watching "I Shot Jesse James," you can expect trouble.

But if you have got the necessary bandwidth, the Netflix Player might be the deal of the century for movie buffs. While Apple TV gives you 30 days to start viewing a rented movie, and 24 hours to watch it all once you've started, there are no such limits with the Roku box. You can keep movies in your viewing queue as long as you like and watch them as often as you choose, while still receiving Netflix DVDs in the mail.

The Netflix Player is also energy-efficient, thanks to its lack of a hard drive. And unlike Apple TV, it goes into sleep mode when not in use.

For now, the Netflix Player's chief limitation is its paltry video library. But that will likely take care of itself, as movie studios bow to the inevitability of online viewing. There will also be a growing catalog of movies for Apple TV. Even Blockbuster is developing an online movie download service. Maybe they will sign up subscribers at the remaining Blockbuster video stores - and then close them.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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