By Eric Benderoff
As my family looks to control spending, one option is to lower our in-home entertainment costs.
We watch a lot of movies. But spending for HBO, Showtime, The Movie Channel and Starz each month really adds to the cable bill and is starting to feel excessive.
So I asked myself, is there a better way to enjoy the show? And would there be enough content for the kids to enjoy a weekend treat in Mom and Dad’s bed with a bowl of popcorn?
To find out, we’ve been testing an option from Netflix, the DVD service that delivers movies directly to your mailbox. With the Netflix player by Roku, movies are sent straight to your TV via the Internet, sidestepping the U.S. Postal Service, the cable company and even the DVD player.
The one problem: There’s not a lot we want to watch.
Oh, sure, there’s good stuff — we’ve started a "Heroes" addiction, and I’ve spent some quality time with my son watching "Son of Godzilla" — but if you’re looking for recently released DVD A-list movies, this is a B-list service for now.
We couldn’t catch up on recent award winners such as "The Last King of Scotland" or a box-office hit like "Sex in the City." Both are available via Netflix DVD rental but not the Roku box.
There are two reasons Netflix offers more than 100,000 DVDs via mail but only 12,000 titles on Roku, said Steve Swasey, Netflix’s vice president of communication:
—The movie studios have different licenses for content. Many classic titles, such as "Patton," "The Godfather" or the "Star Wars" movies, frequently appear on television. Licenses for those are not available for Internet distribution.
—Licenses for new releases can be expensive, and "we are not electing to pay for them," he said, because it could make the Roku service more expensive.
Blockbuster is getting into the streaming business as well, as the competition to attract customers escalates. Consumers can download older titles and new releases, but you pay separately for each title. Also, Blockbuster is starting to introduce direct-to-your TV products — AT&T HomeZone offers one — and has a Roku-like player that is expected before the holidays.
The Roku player costs $100. Once you buy it, you can watch as many movies or TV shows you want as a Netflix member. The DVD-rental service offers many pricing plans, but free streaming starts with the $8.99 monthly plan, which is a good value considering you also can have a DVD checked out from Netflix.
And, Swasey added, "we continue to add content" for streaming.
Indeed, when Netflix launched its first streaming product, a PC-only service in January 2007, 2,000 titles were available. That has increased six-fold thanks to recent deals with the Disney Channel, CBS and Starz, which itself offers more than 1,500 titles.
Roku streams only Netflix movies, but the box, the size of a hardcover book, is not the sole device you can use to view titles. Some recently released Blu-ray DVD players from LG and Samsung include a Netflix streaming service, and service will launch soon for TiVo owners and the Microsoft Xbox 360 game platform.
So how does Netflix’s Roku player work?
Via the Internet. You can connect it directly to a router or use a Wi-Fi connection, which is how I set it up. To select movies, go to Netflix.com and choose what you want to watch. It will deliver the content to your TV when you’re ready.
Setting up Roku was easy. (Getting the cover off the remote to put in the batteries was trickier.)
I unplugged the DVD player we use on our 13-year-old bedroom TV and plugged in the Roku box. Newer TVs likely can accommodate a separate video player plus the Roku box. You can connect via HDMI, component video, S-video and composite video.
The biggest concern I had was with our Wi-Fi connection. At times, the wireless gadgets I test on the second floor of my house suffer from a weak signal.
Only once did the Roku player, after many hours of viewing, have a problem receiving a signal. When that happened, the show we were watching stopped. But once the signal was restored a few minutes later, it picked up where we left off. We didn’t have to start at the beginning, as feared.
The quality of the content did vary, which seemed influenced more by the age of the title we watched than the quality of my Internet connection. "Heroes" looked great, but Jackie Chan’s 1978 classic "Drunken Master" was muddled.
Right now, I don’t think Roku is ready for prime time unless you’re a film buff. Despite my concerns there isn’t enough content, I feel strongly that Roku will improve over time.
Consider how our options for viewing movies and TV have changed: Classic and top-rated TV shows are available for free when we want on Web sites like Hulu, Joost and network TV sites. Plus, major sports leagues broadcast each game online.
The latter option costs money, but households are beginning to see a lot of viewing choices. It’s starting to get pretty easy to figure out where the fat is in your cable bill.
(Eric Benderoff writes about technology for the Chicago Tribune. Contact him at ebenderofftribune.com or at the Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago IL 60611.)
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