The real test of a media streamer is how well it performs, and how usable is the user interface. While it's preferable to use a wired Ethernet connection if possible, I recognize that many people will be using a wireless connection. So for these tests, I unplugged the Ethernet cable on both devices and connected to my wireless network.
I tested some of the most popular apps/channels including Netflix, Hulu Plus, Pandora and Picasa. While there is a lot of overlap of applications, the Roku has hundreds more applications - you could spend a long time if you checked out all of them. I've included a lot of screen shots in the gallery below. Be sure to check them out.
Netflix - Roku
The Roku Netflix player has a fairly straightforward interface. It launches in about 6.5 seconds and lands immediately at the main interface that shows a linear presentation of your instant queue across the top. It only displays eight titles at a time. The other two locations on the screen are used by balloon information that shows you information, such as running length, resolution, rating, etc.. related to the currently selected item
Roku Netflix screen
As you scroll down the screen, additional categories such as recently watched, Top 10 for you, Popular on Netflix, etc. appear. You scroll left to right to highlight your selection, which appears in the middle of the top line.
Below the instant queue, there's a large magnifying glass for that you can use to search for movie titles. The Roku client appears to have relatively poor search capabilities as you can only search for a movie title or TV show name. I tried searching for Jeff Bridges and although Jeff Bridges appeared in the suggested search results, there were no movie or TV results featuring Jeff Bridges. However when I searched on True Grit, the movie starring Jeff Bridges appeared alongside with the original True Grit with John Wayne.
The Roku Netflix player launches video very quickly. It appears to load the first 30 seconds or so in standard definition video to get the movie started quickly. Then as it buffers, the video switches into high def. Here are some sample load times: True Grit – 5.94 sec; Margin Call – 6.19 sec; Big Lebowski – 5.56 sec.
Video quality looked good – even streaming over my wireless connection. There weren’t any dropouts, and with the exception of the opening moments of the movie in standard definition, the video looked very good. Voices were in synch with the video, and sub titles worked as expected.
Netflix - NETGEAR
The Netflix player on the NeoTV takes between 30 and 40 seconds to load before the opening screen appears. The landing pages lets you select between Netflix or Netflix Just for Kids. The NeoTV makes better use of the screen real estate by displaying 12 titles at once along with additional information about the highlighted movie/TV series on the right hand side of the screen.
At the top of the screen, there are icons for Search or to change to the “Just for Kids” section. Like the Roku Netflix player, you scroll through the categories presented by Netflix with your Instant Queue and Recently Watched items appearing at the top.
NETGEAR Netflix screen
The search feature on the NETGEAR seems to work significantly better than one on the Roku. Not only can you search for a movie or TV show name, you can also search for a person. Using the same search criteria that I used on the Roku, I searched for Jeff Bridges. As I typed in the first letters ”J”, “E” and “F”, the matching searches progressively appeared. I was able to easily select Jeff Bridges with just a couple of keystrokes.
Once I selected the name, a list of all the movies with Jeff Bridges currently available on Netflix instant viewing appeared. For those of you keeping track, there are currently 13 Jeff Bridges movies available on Netflix for instant viewing. With the Roku, there would be no way to determine all the movies that a particular actor appears in.
On the downside, it took the NeoTV significantly longer to start playing video than the Roku. It took a little over 28 seconds after pressing the play button before True Grit appeared on the screen. Resuming playback of a previously partially viewed title appears to take less time, however. Margin Call took just a little over 13 seconds and The Big Lebowski took about 15 1/2 to resume playing. As with the Roku, there were no video dropouts and the audio remained synchronized with the video, using my wireless connection. Subtitles worked as expected, if included in the movie.
Pandora - Roku
You can create an account or sign in with your existing account. Input is done via the remote and an on-screen alphabetically arranged keyboard.
Once signed in, the landing page gives you the option of creating a new station, enabling shuffle of all stations, or selecting one of your existing stations. Only five stations appear on the landing page - you have to use the remote to scroll through more. An options icon in the upper right corner, accessible by hitting the "*" on the remote lets you play or delete a station, sort stations by date created or alphabetically, sign out/switch accounts or close.
Roku Pandora Home screen
The screen displays the channel name, artist, album name and length of the cut. The album cover icon contains a progress bar for the current song playing, but there isn't a way to see how long the current track has played or how much longer is left to play. To change channels, unlike the Interface on the NeoTV, you have to navigate back one level to the landing page.
You can create new stations based on genres or artist, track or composer. If you choose genres, there are 27 genres pre-populated with between 6 and 19 pre-configured channels. Within the Roku interface, you can't add artists to channel seeding.
No playback issues were experienced during my tests using a wireless connection.
Pandora - NETGEAR
The Pandora user interface on the NeoTV device is one of the best that I’ve seen. The home page provides you with virtually all of the information you could want. Your stations appear along the left side of the screen. In the center of the screen, you see the currently playing station name, artist name and album name as well as the elapsed time/remaining time for the current track. You can skip, pause or thumbs up/down or even change stations all from the same page.
NETGEAR Pandora Home screen
In addition, the right side of the screen shows a track history. The options menu is more comprehensive than the one on the Roku. You have the additional options of bookmarking and artist ortrack, checking to see why the current track is playing, and postponing playing the current track for a month.
From the options menu, you can create a new station. Unlike the Roku, you can create a new station based on an artist or a track. However, the Roku holds an edge on station creation. The NeoTV doesn’t allow for station creation by genre; the Roku does.
As with the Roku, no playback issues were experienced during my tests using a wireless connection.