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The Experiment

This past weekend, I brought the newly-configured 3610 upstairs and connected it into our main entertainment center, which includes a 50" Panasonic plasma. Since many of the programs we like to watch are on break, I thought I'd try to see what alternatives the 'net could provide.

We also ended up missing an episode of ABC's Castle, due to a DVR setting mixup. Never fear, I said to Ms. SmallNetBuilder, we should be able to use the magic of the Internet to watch it! [Aside: I tried checking DirectTV's "Beta" OnDemand feature, first. But I got so disgusted after wrestling with its "new and improved" brain-dead search function, that I've vowed never to go there again!]

Since I didn't want to get sucked up in the ongoing games between Hulu and Boxee, I decided to use Hulu Desktop to watch the show. But the quality was significantly less than what we've gotten used to using our Roku HD Netflix box, which sets the standard for Internet-based viewing, as far as I'm concerned.

The whole show suffered from low frame rate and glitches during fast action scenes and even quick camera pans. We managed to get through the whole show and then wanted to watch another older episode. But since I didn't want to subject our eyes to the same experience again, I took a shot and fired up Boxee.

Imagine my surprise when I found that the picture from Boxee (via Hulu) was perfectly watchable, although a tad softer, with none of the slow-frame-rate we'd seen on Hulu desktop! I even switched back to Hulu Desktop and loaded up the same new program to make sure that it wasn't a fluke. But, sure enough, Hulu Desktop once again showed the same problems with the new program. So I switched back to Boxee and we watched a few more episodes using it.

Given this experience, I thought I'd run an experiment. I watched the same show via as many methods as I could conjure up without going too crazy. I chose a current-season episode of 30 Rock, since NBC seems to be making it available on multiple platforms. Table 1 shows the results:

Player Result CPU %
Hulu Desktop - Low frame rate
- Horizontal glitches during fast pans and quick scene changes
60-70
Boxee - NBC ("Recommended" source)
- Soft picture
- Low frame rate
- Occasional blurs
- Horizontal glitches during fast pans and quick scene changes
35-40
Boxee - Hulu - Occasional jerkiness
- Horizontal glitches during fast pans and quick scene changes
70-80
Boxee - Netflix (Had to use different program since Season 4 not yet available)
- Occasional jerkiness
- Horizontal glitches during fast pans and quick scene changes
40-50
Windows
Media Center
- Netflix
(Had to use different program since Season 4 not yet available)
- Occasional jerkiness
- Horizontal glitches during fast pans and quick scene changes
20-30
XBMC - Hulu
via PlayOn on same system
- Soft picture
- Video noise band at bottom of screen
- Frequent stutters
- Occasional blurs
90 - 95
XBMC - Hulu
via PlayOn on Acer 1810T
- Slightly sharper picture
- Video noise band at bottom of screen
25 - 30
Roku HD - Netflix (HD quality stream)
+ Clear, crisp picture
+ Proper frame rate
+ No glitches
+ No jerkiness
N/A
Table 1: Video play test results

The biggest surprise from this experiment was the poor quality of the Hulu Desktop playback. Given that they are the authorized online distributor of NBC Universal programming, I expected much better.

It's clear that the winner so far for both picture quality and ease of use is Netflix via the Roku HD box. And it has high WAF since I've found that Ms. SmallNetBuilder already knows how to switch to the Roku box using the Harmony One, navigate to Netflix, choose her content and start watching.

Picture quality is excellent and so glitch free that we forget that we're watching Internet-streamed content. And it seems that Netflix has done some codec tuning, since we now frequently get HD-quality streams on our 3 Mbps down connection, where we got only "four-dot" plays before.

The only drawback is that you can't browse all Netflix "Watch Instantly" selections with the Roku box—you need to go to the Netflix website and put the selections in your Queue. If only Roku could update the box so that it behaved more like the Netflix apps on Boxee and WMC. But I suspect memory limitations will prevent that from ever happening on the current hardware platform.

As far as I'm concerned, Netflix and TV content providers should stop screwing around and get licensing terms worked out ASAP. Netflix has excellent compression and delivery technology that provide the best (and most glitch-free) picture that I've seen on any Internet-streaming platform so far. Its customers already pay for the service (so don't have to be convinced of the value of pay vs. "free") and its player is available on just about any entertainment device that has a network connection. The little ol' Roku boxes could kill the Boxee box (and anything that Apple is thinking of doing with AppleTV or its replacement) before it even hits the streets. C'mon folks. Let's get this party started!

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