One thing I hate: buying music. I haven't bought a CD or MP3 in years. Instead, I subscribe to music. I pay a small monthly fee to Rhapsody, an online digital-music service, and can access most of the world's music--more than 5 million songs--by streaming it via the Net to my home audio system. I can listen to just about any song I want, anytime, anywhere. That's known in the geekosphere as "music dial tone."
So where's video dial tone? I'd love to subscribe to a service that gives me any TV show or movie I want for a flat fee. But most of the services that tackle this problem want us to either "rent" downloadable video--typically for a day or two--or buy the bits outright. Products range from the nifty Apple TV set-top box--which has the added virtue of connecting to YouTube--to Vudu, whose sleek device links your TV to a library of 6,000 films and TV shows. Both products are promising and let you rent or buy. But I want video dial tone.
A consumer-electronics company called Roku, in partnership with Netflix, has just launched a set-top box that brings us tantalizingly close to my dream. The Netflix player by Roku ($99 at netflix.com is a black, palm-size device that connects your broadband network to your TV (wired or wirelessly). For as little as $8.99 a month, you can have unlimited access to Netflix's library of more than 10,000 movies and TV shows on demand. Watch what you want, instantly, for as long as you want. You can even start a movie on your home TV and finish watching it days later on your PC laptop at Starbucks. (Netflix's on-demand service isn't supported by Mac OS X.)
Setting up the Roku was about as painless an experience as I've had and took less than five minutes. I cabled it to my TV, powered up both, then followed the onscreen prompts. I watched video by logging into my Netflix account (you'll need one) and adding movies and TV seasons to my "instant" queue. The queue shows up on the Roku box in mere seconds. To test the gadget, I moldered on the couch in my office for a few days, watching The Office reruns, some old Kubrick and Peckinpah movies and a Jimi Hendrix documentary. It was great.
I have a few quibbles. On two occasions, movies paused for a few seconds to buffer. That's a buzz kill. The Roku folks say that can happen when your broadband speed drops below 1 megabit per second. (My standard Comcast connection is usually above 2 megabits per second, but congestion happens.) On the Netflix front, it suffers from two limitations. Netflix doesn't yet offer high-definition movies on demand, while its competitors (Apple, Vudu) do. And 10,000 titles is still a relatively modest selection. Indeed, a head-to-head comparison with, say, Apple's online store shows iTunes has far more new releases. A Netflix spokesman said it was adding titles at light speed while negotiating daily with studios, which have their own strategy for dealing with online distribution. So now I know: we can blame Hollywood for delaying video dial tone. Surprise, surprise.