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20 Seconds, and a Movie Has Arrived

Last year, the movie industry raked in more than $40 billion.

What are they doing wrong?

Well, for one thing, most people can’t consume the product — movies — without getting in the car and driving somewhere, to a theater or video store.

Imagine, though, if you could watch any movie, any time, without budging from your sofa, by downloading it. All kinds of companies have been tripping over each other to deliver this movie paradise, including Amazon.com, TiVo, Movielink, Apple, Vudu, Netflix, CinemaNow, Vongo and MovieFlix.

Unfortunately, each service is fatally flawed.

Internet download services offer instant gratification, but most require you to watch on your computer screen, which is nobody’s idea of normal. Set-top boxes like TiVo, Apple TV and Vudu deliver movies to your TV, but erase your rented movies after only 24 hours. DVD-by-mail services like Netflix offer terrific selection, but it takes at least a day to receive the movies.

Netflix Roku
Netflix
Netflix Roku

This week, Roku and Netflix unveiled a little $100 box that aims to eliminate all of those drawbacks. Delivery to your TV, not your computer? Check. Instant delivery from the Net? Check. Eliminate the 24-hour viewing window? Check.

Oh, yeah — and all the movies are free.

To understand what makes the Netflix Player a flawed masterpiece, it helps to understand its history. (This will take six paragraphs, which you can skip if you want just the punch line.)

Netflix is the largest DVD-by-mail service, with 8.2 million members and about 100,000 movies. Its Web site offers terrific tools for finding, recommending and organizing movies that you want to see. The glaring downside is having to wait for the next DVD to come in the mail. (Yes, Western civilization has come to this: complaining that it takes a whole day to get a movie.)

Early last year, Netflix tried to address that problem with Instant Watching, a service that lets you watch streaming Netflix movies in your Web browser. The movie wait was reduced from one day to 20 seconds.

The best part: there’s no extra charge for this. It’s free with regular Netflix DVD-by-mail membership (for example, $14 a month to check out two DVDs at a time). You can watch movies all day long, if you like.

Instant Watching introduced a new verb: movie surfing. Watch 10 minutes of a movie and then decide it’s not for you? No problem. Switch to a different movie.

The only wrinkle: You’re watching on your PC. Only the weird watch “Lord of the Rings” sitting in a desk chair.

“O.K.,” said Netflix. “You want Instant Watching on your TV? We can do that.” And it came up with the Netflix Player, manufactured and sold by Roku (Roku.com).

This thing could not be simpler. I was watching my first movie six minutes after opening the box.

Like all Internet movie services, the Netflix Player requires a high-speed Internet connection. It found and connected to my wireless network instantly and flawlessly. (You can connect it to your home network with a cable if you prefer.)

It connects to your TV using any kind of modern video connection: HDMI cable, component cables, S-Video or even those old red-white-yellow RCA cables. The nine-button remote lets you choose a movie, skip around in it or pause.

Usually, fast-forwarding or rewinding an Internet streaming movie is a hellish game of guess and wait. You can jump to a new spot on the movie’s scroll bar, but you have no idea where you’ll land; you don’t see a sped-up picture, as you do when fast-forwarding a DVD. Only when you release the mouse and wait 15 or 30 seconds for the movie to “rebuffer” do you see where you wound up.

On the Roku box, little thumbnail images of the movie scenes flash by, one for every 10 seconds of movie. When you stop scanning, you still have to wait 15 or 30 seconds — but at least you’ll know you landed at roughly the right scene in the movie.

You’re supposed to line up movies for this box at Netflix.com, where a new, second movie queue awaits. Any changes you make here appear on the box in seconds. On the TV, your wish list appears as a parade of colorful DVD cases on a scrolling shelf.

Having to scurry over to your computer can be a drag, but it does afford three benefits. First, it keeps the player’s on-screen menus extremely simple. Second, it lets you use all of those great Netflix.com tools to find and pick your flicks. Third, it lets Mac fans enjoy Instant Watching (since so far, watching on your computer requires Windows).

A "no-brainer" for Netflix subscribers

The video quality depends on the speed of your Internet connection. The clarity over slower hookups, like DSL, will disappoint you. If you have a fast cable modem (technically, 2.2 megabits a second or better), you get what Netflix calls near-DVD quality. I call it TV quality.

The ever-growing Instant Watching catalog now offers 10,000 movies and recent TV episodes. Unfortunately, as on most Internet movie services, the majority of it is the dregs, with titles like “Tan Lines,” “Dead and Breakfast” and “National Parks of the West.”

Netflix lets you sort movies by rating, year, genre, whatever—but it really needs to let you sort by “likelihood you’ve ever heard of this movie or anyone associated with it.”

Fortunately, there are still plenty of recognizable titles buried in the junk: “Unforgiven,” “Air Force One,” “Amadeus,” “Driving Miss Daisy,” “The Killing Fields,” “Philadelphia” “The Shining,” “Men in Black,” “Blade Runner,” “Five Easy Pieces,” “Cool Hand Luke,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “March of the Penguins” and so on.

But what do they all have in common? They’re old.

Netflix Instant Watching is at the bottom of the release pecking order. It gets movies after they have finished their runs in the hotel, airline, DVD and pay-per-view “windows.” It gets them when movie channels like HBO and Starz get them, and sometimes even later.

Netflix makes little apology for the age. It views its DVD-by-mail and Instant Watching features as two parts of one service. When movie freshness matters, get them on DVD; when delivery speed matters, use Instant Watching. As long as Hollywood’s lawyers run the show, you’ll never be able to have both.

In the game of Internet movies, the Netflix Player is revolutionary. It’s the first Internet service that delivers movies to your TV without a per-movie fee — an incredibly strange, liberating feeling. It’s also the first that doesn’t require you to download or store your movie collection.

Finally, it’s the first without a 24-hour time limit. If you feel like watching a movie again, you can watch it next week or next year, without paying a penny more.

Roku also says that this box is wired for the future. When Instant Watching goes to high definition, the Player will be ready. Roku also says mysteriously that its deal with Netflix is not exclusive; technically, the box is equipped for future rivals.

Is the Netflix Player, then, the movie box the world is waiting for? Not quite. It falls short on the age of its movies, the smallish selection of good ones and the not-quite-pristine video quality. And as with all Internet movies, you don’t get subtitles, director commentaries or any other DVD extras.

But it comes darned close. For movie lovers who already subscribe to Netflix, at least, this one-time $100 expenditure is practically a no-brainer.

David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: pogue@nytimes.com.