Sunday, March 13, 2011

Roku HD Player

Image representing Netflix as depicted in Crun...Image via CrunchBaseI have been struggling for months with performance issues whenever I try to play NetFlix HD streams on my laptop. It doesn't matter which version of Silverlight, or browser, or even using Media Center, it will always choke the machine. Replacing the GPU is of course is out of the question, and the machine is just a year old, I need to get at least two more years of work out of it before I can justify picking up a new one.

The sad part is that if you don't take into account the HD streaming issue, the machine is pretty damn good. Even better if you take into account the SSD and that most data that used to sit in USB2 drives is now in an external SATA drive. 

Do I need the streaming at all? The way I work I need a constant source of background noise. Music doesn't work because it is predictable, which makes it distracting. What really works for me is things like daytime court shows, trash talk shows, or movies. I have a dual monitor setup (company paid for one of the monitors, I paid for the second one). The company-issued monitor is where I do 99% of my work, and the personal monitor is either showing my cable TV feed or as an extended desktop, playing streaming video.

A coworker accidentally reminded me to check out the Roku devices, which I had not seen since my AppleTV days. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the 720p version of the Roku HD is only $70 through Amazon ($10 cheaper before shipping if you order direct). In theory, it should not make a difference to me as the user between watching Netflix in a browser window and just switching the input and watching it through the Roku HD as HDMI.

In reality, there are three benefits:
  1. The laptop is no longer taking a performance toll for playing the videos.
  2. The Roku HD also has Amazon Video on Demand, and I am a Prime customer so I get the "free" streaming. 
  3. The Roku HD also has Hulu Plus.
After a few days it is obvious that the investment is going to work. Is it perfect? Of course not, but it beats watching these videos through a browser window. In terms of picture quality, I am yet to have trouble with any of the HD streams. The Netflix application crashes about once per day, but restarting the Roku box is less of a hassle than rebooting the damn laptop. The Hulu Plus application is not really good, but it does the job, and once the video is playing the experience is extremely smooth. The Amazon Video on Demand application has really stupid UI issues but again, once you get the video, everything is smooth.

As it stands right now I'll probably hand this one to Ivette and I'll pick up one of the slightly more expensive units that have a USB port, since as far as I can tell there is no "free" way to stream media from the laptop to the Roku. Again, for the $70 I paid for it, I got one hell of a value.