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: firstname.lastname@example.org.