I used to dream of a time when anything and everything I ever would want to watch—classic movies, old Three Stooges bits, episodes of TV shows that no one else remembers, long-forgotten Saturday Night Live sketches, Looney Tunes shorts, even brand-new episodes of current TV series— was available to stream on-demand to my computer. Or, better yet, to my widescreen LCD TV.
I’d long dreamt this, and I continue to believe that this is the future of home entertainment, barring some Mad Max-style collapse of our society that has us all scrambling for gasoline, never mind wireless high-speed Internet access and reliable electricity. DVDs are ridiculous, frankly. It takes oil to manufacture the discs and the packaging, and it takes oil to get DVDs to you, whether they go to the stores where you buy them or they come directly to you by mail. Movies in the 21st century are just bits and bytes; they can easily be delivered over the Internet. And with the oil crunch on the horizon, it’s simply inevitable that we will someday no longer be able to waste it on the latest Adam Sandler opus.
Regardless, I used to figure my dream was a decade off. And then I heard about Roku.
I’ve been a Roku user for almost a year, and it’s edging so darn close to my dream—and I love it so much—that once in a while, I get frustrated that it isn’t actually closer. (It will be soon. I have no doubt of that.) Roku is a cute little box, about a quarter of the size of your DVD player, which you buy for a hundred bucks and plug into your TV and your Internet. Then you can stream movies and TV shows directly from Netflix to your TV.
Now, don’t get too excited. It’s true that this service comes free with your Netflix subscription, so that if, like me, you’re on the eight-DVDs-at-a-time plan, you can be sitting on eight physical discs with their red envelopes taunting you, while at the same time still streaming as many other movies and TV shows as you like to your geeky little heart’s content, without paying a penny extra.
But not everything is available to stream via Netflix. You usually won’t find the brand-new-to-DVD blockbusters in streamable form. You can find them, however, streamable via Amazon.com’s on-demand program, for rates comparable to running out to your local rental place, without the hassle of running out to rent and return—and Roku works great with Amazon. This year’s newly minted Best Picture, The Hurt Locker, for instance, is available for $3.99 for a 24-hour rental. With the Netflix program, meanwhile, you save your by-mail rentals for the new movies, and use the streaming feature for everything else; many old movies and old TV shows you didn’t even realize were available again are yours for the streaming.
But what’s the experience like? So far, I’ve had no problems at all. I’m streaming Roku video via my cable ISP and a wireless router, and the picture is lovely. It’s not quite HD quality, even though the Roku connects to my TV via an HDMI input, but it’s very nice indeed, streaming smoothly, with no jerkiness in the playback. And since I’m often looking at old movies and TV shows that, even when remastered, don’t approach HD quality anyway, it’s hardly an issue worth mentioning. The only real drawback to streaming versus DVD is that precise freeze-framing and rewinding/forward are tough. And you won’t get any bonus features, such as audio commentary tracks. But if you’re just interested in the original content, it’s a spectacular way to expand your viewing options.
And you know what? You don’t even really need the cute little Roku box. An array of gaming consoles, Blu-Ray players, DVRs, home-theater components and HD TVs already have built-in streaming capabilities (see Netflix.com for a complete list of devices). You may already own one.
Give it a try, and you won’t know how you lived without it.