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My family and I do not have traditional television in our homes (see My move to free HDTV Part 1 and Part 2).  In our home for “live” TV (which of course we have none) we rely on services like Hulu (which has been working perfectly fine and we haven’t felt we’ve missed anything).  We get Hulu, Netflix and Amazon media through our XBOX.  It works for our needs for things that are mainstream.

This weekend we wanted to watch a conference that wasn’t on any of these outlets and the stream provided wasn’t working on their website.  A friend pointed out to me that they did, however, have a channel on Roku.  I had been wanting to try out a Roku for a while but never really pushed over the edge because the main content I cared about I was already getting through my other devices.  This gave me a good excuse to try it out and the content was convincing enough for the wife to not wince at the purchase.

First impression and setup

Roku 2 XSThe box itself states “Plug it in.  Add to home network.  Enjoy” in a 3-step instruction on the box.  It also states “no PC required.”  Both of these statements actually couldn’t be further from the truth. 

First, I got the Roku XS because I wanted the wired network option (call me silly).  I also have an HDTV so I was pleased to see that it had HDMI.  I thought I read that it came with an HDMI cable, but it doesn’t.  For something that touts a feature for 1080p streaming, they should really own up to that and provide one.  It comes with standard (not even composite) a/v cables only.  No worries there, but just kinda lame in this digital age.  I mean, ship a cheap HDMI cable and make customers happy.

The “plug it in” was just as it sounded.  There is no power button for Roku, it’s like a little smart box…goes in and out of standby mode.  The “add to home network” step was, in fact, easy.  But I had a wired network, so no brainer there.  I tried the wireless just to make sure and if you are going that route be ready to be annoyed to type that long passphrase of yours using a remote with no keyboard (this is one thing that annoys me about XBOX as well).  Easy enough though and I was connected to my network.

The “enjoy” step took longer to get to.  And requires a browser.  You need to activate your box.  You can’t do anything until you do so.  I needed to create a Roku account and provide payment information.  What?! you may be asking is the payment information for?  It is for in-device purchases.  Roku is set up with “channels” and some are premium that you can pay for straight from the box.  Nothing gets charged during payment info setup, they are just trying to provide a seamless experience.  Whatever, I’m not bothered by this but did catch me off guard.

The physical size of the device is appealing but honestly I chuckled that after plugging in my Ethernet cable and a decent quality HDMI cable, the cables tipped the box up.  It’s almost too light and small.  But it definitely doesn’t take up space nor does it have any noise emitting.

Channel setup

The next thing you have to do is set up some channels.  This is offered during your account set up on their website pointing to the free apps like Hulu, Netflix, Amazon, etc.  Notice I didn’t say free “services” – these are just their channel apps.  You don’t get Netflix for free here if that is what you were thinking.  I set up my most popular and figured I’d do the others later.  I was off and started.  The Roku device started downloading some updates and I took the time to figure I’d add my custom channel we got the device for.

Turns out, this is not intuitive IMO.  Since it let me set up the Hulu, Netflix, Amazon during my account creation I thought I’d be able to add other channels via the website and my profile.  Nope.  You can browse all the channels but there is no “add to my device” option.  In fact, I had to search the help FAQ to even find out how to do that.  It would have been at least nice to have that prompt in the areas where you’d expect to add a channel.  I found this to be incredibly lame and my first area where I think Roku can improve.

Nonetheless I searched for the channel on the device and added it no problems afterwards.

For the other channels that required authentication (i.e., Netflix, Hulu) it was a mixed bag.  With Netflix I had to log into my account on the device.  Again, “typing” with a remote is extremely annoying.  The others pointed me to a website with a code.  While I needed a PC, it was much quicker to set up than things like Netflix.  I went to the site, logged in, entered the code on screen, then the screen realized I was linked and proceeded. 

Games

One quick word here.  I think games on these types of devices is quite lame.  But take that from someone who isn’t a gamer.  The Roku XS came with Angry Birds and I just found it lame to play on the remote.  Casual games are for casual use, not my big HD screen…that’s for “real” games.

Bottom line: don’t let the games thing sway you.  In fact if you don’t care about games or don’t care about wired Ethernet access, then you should get the Roku XD for less money.

Content Quality

Impressive.  Of course this depends on the source of the content but my quality was very good HD quality and no buffering experienced.  I have no complaints here.

Content Acquisition

“Acquisition” is the best word I can think of for this experience – that of finding and the start point of your desired content.  The Netflix interface is horrible.  For an avid Netflix user (on XBOX) this needs to be improved, seriously.  Same with Hulu Plus actually.  I don’t have solutions other than “make it more like XBOX” because that is what I’m used to.

The Amazon app is a welcome one to me because, while I can get my Amazon content on XBOX it isn’t the greatest experience I’ve set up…and I can’t get my rentals easily without an extra step.  The Amazon app gives me direct access to my purchased and Instant Video content (for Amazon Prime members) on the device.  I anticipate I will like this feature the most for my Roku usage.

Pandora is a welcome app.  Although admittedly it seems lame to “listen” to music through your TV, it’s nice to have that option.  I think Pandora can step it up as well on their UI for their app…at least make it a bit more engaging to me.

Parental Controls

Stop looking, there isn’t any.  The FAQ points to the fact you can set up a PIN to prevent anyone from purchasing in-device content.  Um, that’s not parental controls at all.  I don’t consider myself a prude but I also don’t think my daughter needs to browse through Netflix and see movie covers with gore or half-dressed folks on them.  She’s 9.  And same for my son browsing his Inspector Gadget videos…he doesn’t need the occasional NC-17 cover passing him by.

Seriously, if Roku wants to be a serious family device, give me *some* throttles.  XBOX does this well and it flows through their apps.  I set permissions on the device and the apps flow.  I can set a limit of PG movies/content and anything above that isn’t showing pictures (it still lists the titles) and requires a PIN to play.  That’s all I’m asking.

Developer story

One of the things that bothered me about TiVo was the lack of an initial (and even later) good developer story.  Roku puts a developer link on their home page and has a whole section complete with SDK, design guidelines, Photoshop templates for screen designs, etc.  I’m just now digging into this to play around, but it is pretty cool to see the company encourage this.  There is a free and premium developer account and I suspect the free allows very basic RSS type feed insertion where the premium allows you to be more of an app.  I’m still checking it out, but while deep it appears not to be entirely intuitive as well.  Some searches showed some Roku/C# forum posts so I’ll be checking those out.

Overall

Good purchase so far.  Annoyances exist for me as does any product but nothing I can’t get over for my specific use case.  I’ll be looking at the developer platform, but I think for now the inexpensive purchase for our immediate need paid off and we’ll see how much I use the little thing over the XBOX for the mainstream content we already get.  I suspect that I’ll be more annoyed by the apps’ user interfaces and revert to XBOX, but we’ll see.

If you’re in the market for a single device to get things like Hulu, Netflix, Amazon, Pandora, etc., etc. and don’t have an XBOX, Playstation or a TV that has those built in, then the Roku might be for you and at $79 or $99 it’s well worth the investigation at least in my opinion.

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I did my best to disconnect for a 2 week+ holiday at the end of this year.  It’s winding down and while the kids are napping (and the wife) I am bored and thought I’d post my list of movies I watched this break.  Having a full-time job that also happens to be your hobby plus two kids doesn’t leave a ton of time for theater going.  So this holiday I maximized my Netflix subscription both in DVD and (mostly) online instant watch via my XBOX.  Here’s some of my favorites. 

  • The Yes Men – an interesting indie film of two guys’ satire site for the WTO turns them into representatives and gets them invited (by people who think they *are* the WTO) to conferences, etc.  What’s funny is that the only audience who called their BS and outlandish statements were university students.  Other world leaders and business executives didn’t budge on their absurdities.
  • The Way We Get By – a touching documentary of a senior citizen group in Maine (gotta love those accents) and how they greet EVERY incoming US armed forces troops back to the states.  The dedication of this group is pretty humbling.
  • MonsterCamp – no idea why I started watching this one, but didn’t last long – fantasy games are just not my thing…then introduce real-life re-enactments…sigh.  It was pretty funny to watch people call out their strengths: My destroy power 10 eliminates your 2 power power fist…or something like that.
  • Food, Inc. – hands down, my favorite movie of the year.  You must set aside some time and watch this.  Amazing.  About the food industry over time and how very few actual companies control the food production in the US.  And the story of Monsanto is a bit frightening.
  • McLibel – a close second to my favorite.  Apparently there is a law in the UK (not sure if it still exists) that people must apologize in public if a company thinks they are wronged.  Two people (not companies) refuse to do this and stand by their claims against McDonald’s.  The film documents their trial.  Stick it to the man.
  • Outfoxed: Murdoch’s War on Journalism – interesting behind-the-scenes expose film about the FOX news network.  Truth be told, I bet similar things could be found about all media agencies.  This film though challenges your thought on mainstream media.
  • America the Beautiful – a documentary about perception of beauty in America.  Film was ‘meh’ for me.  Not well done.
  • Google Me – watch as Jim Killeen sets out to interview his search results.  I actually really enjoyed this one.  It was fun if anything for the voyeuristic nature of learning about different people.  The best part of the film is near the end with the rapid-pace answers by each of the 7 Jim Killeens hailing from all over the world.  Incidentally I had a question about the film, wrote to Jim (the director) and he quickly wrote me back…cool.
  • 9/11: Press for Truth – chronicles mostly the Jersey wives that were in the news about getting the government to actually launch the 9/11 commission…and some of their disappointments.  I know 9/11 is a hot topic for people who are passionate about all sort of issues around the subject.  I was interested, and watched this film.  I leave no opinion here about the content.
  • The Soloist – was hoping this would be a good movie for me.  I found myself doing other things in the background.  I think it was just too slow for me.
  • The Maiden Heist – meh.  Lots of reviews of how funny it was.  It wasn’t.
  • Watchmen – it took a while to get through near 3 hours of this film.  Was hoping for a little more comic book-ness out of it rather than what I got.  I liked the style of the film though.  Could have cut a lot of time out of the movie…like the superhero sex.  We get it, they hooked up.  I don’t need to see the dude’s arse.
  • The Corporation – a documentary about the entity of ‘corporation’ and the history.  This was recommended to me by a few.  The style was not attention grabbing and I lost a lot of interest as I watched it.  It was, however, insightful of the history of the corporation.  Reminded me of learning about copyright laws from Lessig.
  • Sherlock Holmes (theater) – I never remembered ol’ chap Sherlock being such a bad arse.  But he is in this movie.  I guess it’s the modern day budget interpretation of all the quirks of dear Holmes.  Entertaining flick.  Jude Law was the winner in this film.  I’m going to be him for Halloween…or the Butcher from Gangs of New York.
  • Old Dogs (theater) – I thought this was an entertaining flick.  Call me lame, but it was some fun humor.
  • The Blind Side (theater) – wow, great movie.  Had no idea about this story.  Cool to see how recent it was.  Recommend seeing this one.

Yes, I killed a lot of brain cells in the name of film entertainment for my holiday.  When you don’t sleep well and everyone’s doing their own thing, heck Netflix instant watch is a good thing to have on hand!  And yes, I like documentaries.  I like things that challenge mainstream thought as well as my own.  I enjoy ‘fun’ movies as well, but there hasn’t been a lot that have really reached my favorite bar in a while.  NOTE: My favorite movie is The Big Lebowski.  I’m looking forward to A Serious Man and The Informant.

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I’ve not hidden my love affair for Netflix both as a consumer and as a Silverlight developer and how they’ve implemented the technology.  Long before the instant watch came to the desktop and the XBOX, there were a lot of folks wanting the Netflix experience on their Windows Media Center boxes and extenders.  One such person was Anthony Park (who is now with Netflix as of this writing), who picked up a the MyNetflix media center plugin a while back.

Well, today Netflix officially has a Media Center solution for their customers.  I just got done firing my media center machine up and started the process of getting Netflix on the box.  It showed up under the Program Library and I followed the minimal instructions to get it working…restarted Media Center (not the machine) and boom, done.  I love how the branded experience of their application matches their online app as well as their overall brand identity very well:

Netflix Media Center Login

After logging in, I’m able to view my Instant Queue, DVD Queue, genre’s and new releases. 

Netflix Media Center DVD Queue

Once I find a movie from one of the categories not in my queues, I can even add it at that point!  Nice!

Netflix Media Center Add to Queue

Once you choose to watch a movie through the experience, you’ll notice something familiar – yep, that’s Silverlight powering the playback of the Netflix Instant Watch feature in Media Center.  Nice.  This is a great continuum story for the platform and for Netflix to be able to re-use their platform and their custom implementations in various areas: online (browser), XBOX, and Media Center.  Very cool to see this.  I still think the coolest feature of Instant Watch is how all the experiences are synchronized…I can pause anywhere and pick up another medium (XBOX) and start where I left off – awesome.

NOTE: It looks like at this time it is Media Center for Vista only and Windows 7 RC machines are not enabled.  Additionally, I am guessing that the same licensing rules apply for the media content, so probably only US customers. 

Kudos to the Netflix team for enabling this feature and extending their reach to where (and how) people want to view their media.  If you want to figure out how to enable it on your media center machine, you can watch this video (just try to disregard the creepy mitten-wearing hands…odd): Get Netflix on your Media Center.

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First a word on the “continuum” I keep hearing about for applications.  I’d like to apply it to my digital lifestyle.  You know that vision where you only have one place to keep your music, but can access it anywhere, etc., etc.  I still haven’t hit nirvana like that yet, but for movie watching it’s getting close.

I used to be a customer of Netflix when they first launched.  To be honest, at that time their pricing was singular and I just wasn’t watching enough movies at home to warrant the cost, so I ended my relationship.  Now I have kids, travel a bit, have an XBOX, etc.  For me, Netflix has become more relevant as a matter of convenience…oh and the fact they have a pricing model that totally fits in line with my use.  The thing that is great about Netflix for me now is that they “get it” with regard to how digital and old-school movie rentals can/should occur.  Why? Simple, it’s everywhere for my lifestyle now.  My Netflix account enables me to get DVDs the traditional way (even with Blu-Ray even though I don’t have a player, but nice to know the option is there) as well as digitally.  Recently they changed their Watch Instantly capabilities to use Silverlight.  But that wasn’t all.  With the launch of the XBOX next generation experience, Netflix now has an application for the XBOX.  So now I can get DVDs, watch on my computer(s) and watch on my home theater system.  All with one account, one place, etc.  The only missing piece is a supported/legal way to download to my portable media player (iPod, Zune, etc.).

The one thing that I really like about the instant watch capability is the fact that it remembers where you were.  So if I am traveling and start watching a video but couldn’t finish, when I get home to my XBOX, it starts where I left off.  Nice polish on that feature.  I can still start over if I want, but it is great to see that added value of watching where I left off.  For me, Netflix truly has figured out fast how I want to watch movies and innovates to offer the options for me.

I was showing my family these features and went to a PC in my house to show them the instant watch capabilities as an example.  It just so happened to be a machine that didn’t have Silverlight installed on it yet for some reason.  After logging in to my Netflix account and picking the first movie to demonstrate to them, I was greeted with this images:

It was a reminder of two things for me: 1) that I didn’t have Silverlight installed and 2) what paying attention to the install experience of your web application features can do to enhance the experience and loyalty of your customers.  You see in reality Netflix could have just left the default Silverlight install experience:

on a blank screen.  For me, I would have known what that meant and still been reminder.  But I’ve ranted about providing a great Silverlight deployment experience, about some easy ways of implementing it and how important it is not to assume and to optimize your rich client experiences for your users.  Netflix nails it and is the best example I’ve seen yet.  Period.  Let’s examine the key areas here (numbering mine):

Netflix focused on the main tenants of first impressions with new technology:

Maintain Visual Cues

Netflix keeps the user engaged, not by using the default Silverlight install image, but by maintaining a consistent user experience in the design.  Although the user has chosen to “watch instantly” and they are not there yet, this design helps keep a consistent brand recognition and even shows a player in the background a little bit.  This tells the user that they are still starting along the same action they desired.

Focus on the Content

Content is king.  Content is king.  Nobody will install anything if they don’t believe the content is relevant.  Look at how Netflix uses some personalization in this experience.  In section 1 you can see that they’ve alerted you about the content you chose…they haven’t forgotten about your desire.  They also put the DVD cover as a part of this experience to remind you of the content you wanted to watch.  This is HUGE to the experience.

Reduce Barriers to Entry

Some people might be apprehensive about installing new things.  In section 4 Netflix helps alleviate some concerns by showing the value of the action, and assurance that this is not something that has to do with advertising, etc.  They are providing you with additional information to help you make a decision and help you feel that the process is relative only to the task you requested (watch instantly).

Set Reasonable Expectations

In section 2, the authors of this experience help give some reasonable expectations to the user with “it only takes a minute” instructions.  This gives the user a reasonable expectation of time.  They have a reasonable assumption now that they aren’t downloading the entire movie, or something huge that will take 20 more minutes before they can watch their selected video.

Minimize Decisions

They haven’t given you any other offers here.  No option to create a new account, or sign up for other methods.  You’ve asked to watch instantly and that’s what they are presenting here…the option to do that.  They are making that decision clear in section 3 as well – this is the call to action…no other.

You may also notice the absence of giant Silverlight logos.  To me, this is a good thing.  It is important that you provide some context to your users about what they are installing if it isn’t directly from you though, whether it be from Microsoft, Adobe, wherever.  Here Netflix points out “Install Microsoft Silverlight” which puts in your mind the brand of Microsoft.  This way when the installer shows up it isn’t a surprise it isn’t from Netflix.  Perhaps adding the Silverlight brand/logo in a subtle way wouldn’t be a bad touch here to have some visual recognition and continuity from this screen to the installer.

Summary

Creating these experiences is an important step in managing first impressions.  It isn’t difficult to do either.  We provide some tools and support scripts (Silverlight.js) for you to understand the different scenarios.  Over time as more and more get Silverlight installed this will be less of an issue, but still shouldn’t be ignored.  I’ve seen many Flash sites that use the default “Get Adobe Flash” small icon and wish they would concentrate just as much on the experience as well.

I mentioned that the Silverlight.js file can help aid in detection/installation of Silverlight.  I’m curious your thoughts on it.  If you have a few minutes to spare, I’d love for you to take this very quick survey of your impressions of this technique and using the Silverlight.js script.  No personal information is required.

Bravo to the Netflix team…very well done.  Oh, and the experience isn’t that bad either ;-) -- Seriously though the player and bandwidth/quality detection is great.  Overall Netflix has won me back as a customer for sure!

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Are you a Netflix customer and have a Media Center PC?  Check out what one of our Media Center MVPs re-birthed.  Anthony Park, a Media Center MVP, has regenerated a project from back in 2004 (originally developed by Ryan Hurst) and released MyNetflix v2.1.

I'm not a Media Center nor Netflix user but the user interface is impressive and done very well to look like a part of the overall Media Center experience.  Here's a view of your Netflix queue:

You can see other screenshots of browsing 'top' categories, movie details and he's also now incorporated 'watch now' information as well.

Great work on extending and keeping MyNetflix alive Anthony!