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Roku built its media player business by being the first to support Netflix Watch Instantly. But now that Netflix has been pretty successful at getting itself embedded in everything except toaster ovens (coming as soon as they get network connections, though), Roku has needed to step up its game.

The first way Roku did was to upgrade to one of the nicest Netflix interfaces I've seen on a $100 (and below) network media player. The Netflix GUI shown in Figure 9 had some teething pains, but seems to have settled down nicely to the reliability that I've come to expect from the Netflix experience on Roku.

Netflix on the Roku

Figure 9: Netflix on the Roku

Netflix has continued to expand its value by adding more content partners. Its deal with Liberty Media-owned Starz is up for renewal in 2011, but could be jeopardized by the deal it made in August with the Epix pay TV channel. The Epix deal makes Netflix the exclusive Web-only distributor of films from Paramount, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios and Lions Gate Entertainment, but only 90 days after the movies appear on regular pay TV and on-demand distribution. So far, though, I haven't seen much (if any) of this new content appear on Watch Instantly.

I'm hoping this changes with Netflix' more recent deal with NBC Universal, which is supposed to bring access to SNL, 30 Rock and even Battlestar Galactica to Watch Instantly. These shows were supposed to start appearing this week. But so far, I haven't seen any sign of them.

But this isn't really an edge for Roku, given Netflix' ubiquity. So can the little Roku box bring any unique value-add over other cheap and cheerful networked media players? Roku takes an app approach (they call apps "channels") to enhancing its players' capabilities.

Among the first channels Roku added were Amazon Video On-Demand and MLB.tv, followed more recently by the addition of UFC (Ultimate Fighting Channel) and, just yesterday, Hulu Plus (but not available until the end of 2010). All these are "Premium" channels that require per view payment or a monthly subscription.

The channel list has significantly expanded since, and recently got a boost from the Developer Contest, which has a $10,000 top prize. Among the more notable channels are Pandora, Radio Paradise, Last.fm for music, Flixter for movie trailers, Roku Newscaster for audio and video newscasts and flickr, Picasa and Facebook for photos.

The channel add process, however, needs improvement. When the Roku Channel Store had only a dozen or so apps, the single-line scrolling interface (Figure 10) was adequate.

Roku Channel Store - on player

Figure 10: Roku Channel Store - on player

But with the list of officially-available apps now 58 (at least according to what's shown on Roku's Channel Store online page (Figure 11), this channel selection method gets old really fast. The Channel Store has a few filters that don't really help (Contest, What's New, Most Popular, Top Rated) and lacks a search function. The online version doesn't even show everything that shows up on the player Channel Store. So this area really needs work.

Roku Channel Store - online

Figure 11: Roku Channel Store - online

Some of the apps also require you to hit their website to enter a code to link up your player, which can get tedious. To add channels, you need to open a free account with Roku. The My Account page would be a great place to bulk-add apps to players. But what you see in Figure 12 is all you get.

Note the Add Private Channel link, which can be used to add channels that haven't yet made it into Roku's official channel list.

Roku My Account

Figure 12: Roku My Account

The Roku Channel Database has attempted to aggregate the available "private" channels into a Google Docs spreadsheet (you need a Google account to access it). The list has 120 entries, but many have since become "official" apps that appear in the Roku Channel store. But if you're looking for porn channels, the database is the place.

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