Navigating a movie on the Netflix Player requires patience - it's like spooling tape on a VCR. There are no chapter menus, and you can't jump directly to a scene. There are three fast forward or reverse speeds, but I found the most useful one to be the slowest speed, which presents five frames across the screen at once. The still images are sampled at about half-second intervals, with the middle frame enlarged to indicate that's where the movie will start playing. If you do press play, you'll first spend about 18 seconds staring at a progress bar as the buffer rebuilds. Try backing up a bit, and you'll wait another 18 seconds. Despite the slow restarts, the visual search interface works well for certain types of content. By simultaneously letting you view two frames past and two frames ahead on your widescreen TV, I was able, for instance, to spot the Unisphere in the 1997 movie Men in Black, and pick up the action exactly where I wanted.
The remote may be pint-size, but it was beefy enough to fit comfortably in my hand with every button within reach of my thumb. While playing a movie, the Select and Play/Pause buttons serve the same function. As long as you remember to pause before pressing the Home key (which bounces you to the titles menu), you'll have the option of resuming play from where you left off, even after watching other movies. That lets you bookmark your favorite scene in each of up to 500 titles at once- my idea of couch control.
Before you get too excited visualizing picks for your dream video jukebox, there's still the little matter of title selection. Name ten movies and you'll be lucky if even one of them is available for instant viewing. Sure, Netflix will be happy to mail you a disc from its library of 100,000 titles, but getting the bits to stream into your home is something else.
Netflix claims that there are 12,000 titles available for instant viewing. You've never heard of most of them, and individual episodes of older TV series, exercise videos, and nature documentaries pad the count. Recent additions consist mainly of independent films like Starting Out in the Evening, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, and The Color of Freedom (all released in 2007) and TV series ranging from Weeds (episodes from 2005) to The Incredible Hulk (1978). I watched some musical gems including Company (2007), The Frank Sinatra Show with Ella Fitzgerald (1959), and An American in Paris (1951). There is the occasional classic like Blade Runner (1982), but you're more likely to find clunkers like Teenage Catgirls in Heat (1993).
Browsing Netflix on my computer, I searched for movies that contained the word "versus" in the title. Of 537 results, only five were available for instant viewing including Kramer vs. Kramer, Puppetmaster vs. Demonic Toys, and The People vs. Larry Flynt. If you browse by Academy Awards categories, you have to go way back to 1993's Unforgiven to find the most recent Best Picture available for instant viewing. In fact, for the last 25 years, the only other time a Best Picture shows up is 1985's Amadeus. Of course, every winner is available on disc. Check the Netflix Top 100 list, and only two movies, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and March of the Penguins can be instantly viewed. The Penguins' narrator, actor Morgan Freeman, by the way, may be the streamer-in-chief among actors whose name you'd recognize. He shows up in 10 titles. Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks? Not so many.
The Netflix Player by Roku is both evolutionary and revolutionary. If you count earlier Internet-to-TV movie appliances like Apple TV, Vudu, or Amazon Unbox in TiVo, the Netflix player is just another box with an Ethernet input and HDMI output. The big difference is the pricing and leveraged use of a huge existing subscriber base. At $100 for the box, the Netflix player is cheaper to get started, and then, if you're already one of the millions of Netflix members, it's essentially free to use to cram as many movies and programs into your life as possible. Clearly, the player isn't for those who want to watch only the latest releases and won't settle for substitutes, but Netflix is off to a good start with an alleged 12,000 titles available for instant viewing, and I found enough amusement that I stopped thinking about when the next red envelope would arrive
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