Local Rhythms – Netflix Shakes Things Up

After spending a few days renting movies from the Internet, I’m no longer convinced that the DVD’s future is any safer than its compact disc cousin. Chapter selection, deleted scenes and commentary – everything’s there, and without the $4.00 a gallon drive to Blockbuster.

Netflix customers already save on fuel costs, but waiting for the mailman can be tiresome. So the just-announced Netflix Player, a set-top box that works with most any TV, intrigues me.

The device, made by Silicon Valley startup Roku, isn’t the first of its kind by any means. Apple TV pairs with iTunes for movie rentals, and the Xbox connects to a Microsoft video store as well. Tivo hooks into Amazon Unboxed – it’s a growing field.

What makes the Netflix Player interesting is the way it mirrors, and extends, their existing service. Customers who already pay one price for an unlimited number of mail order discs can now can do the same with Netflix online for no additional charge.

It’s a bit like Rhapsody, the music subscription service, and may inspire a bit more risk-taking with film selection. If one flick doesn’t agree with you, another one is but clicks away. That’s quite a contrast to other high priced rentals. For example, six dollars for an Xbox HD movie doesn’t encourage dabbling.

Netflix has over 10,000 streaming titles – unfortunately, there’s not a lot of recent ones. That should change over time. The best news is the cost of the player – $99, which beats the competition by more than half.

The Netflix Player doesn’t have built-in storage, which concerns me a bit. My iTunes movie rentals were lag-free, with pristine picture quality, because I downloaded them first. Early reviews of the player suggest a faster-than-average broadband connection is essential to enjoy it properly.

But it’s early, so my excitement is focused more on the gadget’s promise than with what it does now. There’s no HD content or surround sound, that’s a minus. But with a picture size toggle switch, it also doesn’t require a widescreen to work.

It could be a nice addition to a bedroom TV, providing on-demand entertainment for less than a cable box rental fee. Best of all, it’s all you can watch, and when the red Netflix envelope arrives with a DVD, the living room flat panel is just a few steps away.

Now, what about the best destinations for live music in the coming days?

Thursday: Dan Weintraub, Murphy’s on the Green – Look up “prolific” in the dictionary and you’ll probably find this man’s shiny-headed visage smiling back at you. Weintraub’s tunes range from funny to poignant, and there’s 70 of them on his website, all recorded in the last year and a half, each a free download. Mix Randy Newman with Tom Petty, add a dash of Weird Al – that’s Dan.

Friday: Hurricane Alley, Seven Barrel Brewery – This well-regarded melodic band is splintering across the region this weekend. Leader Reid Traviskis and singer Jan Bear are working in Maine, while an augmented version of Hurricane Alley play the West Lebanon brewpub. Singer/guitarist Dave Sheehan and bassist Ben Butterworth team with Dave’s brother Steve for a selection that ranges from “Abba to ZZ Top.”

Saturday: Roxanne & the Voodoo Rockers, Anchorage – A sure sign of summer is the return of live music to Lake Sunapee. Memorial Day weekend includes this bluesy band, a favorite around the harbor. They have a pair of Newbury Gazebo performances slated for later in the season. Mark and Debbie Bond, familiar from several area bands (including Last Kid Picked), perform at Anchorage Sunday. Bond’s CD, “Broken,” is a real treat.

Sunday: Kurtis Kinger, Bentley’s – This singer-guitarist specializes in crunchy blues numbers mixed with straight ahead rock. I don’t know much about him, but some of his music is up on the Yellow House Media site. Yellow House recently debuted a cable access show featuring local musicians called “Homegrown.” The first guest is accordion/keyboard player Jeremiah McClane (it’s also streaming on the site).

Tuesday: Submarines, Iron Horse – John Dragonetti and Blake Hazard met in Boston, joined a band and toured Europe together, fell in love, moved to LA and broke up four years later. Their musical paths kept crossing, and it turned out both of them were writing sad tunes about missing each other. Now they’re married, and their songs are much happier – “You, Me and the Bourgeoisie” deserves its own iPod ad.

Wednesday: Van Halen, Verizon Wireless Arena – This show was postponed and rescheduled from earlier this year, which means tickets have been available for close to 6 months, and it’s not even sold out. The biggest reunion tour of 2007 is old news in 2008. To paraphrase Boz Scaggs, there’s a breakdown dead ahead for the concert business, and it serves them right.

The PC in the Family Room

netflix.jpgTen years ago, slow dial-up access limited most Internet use to e-mail and text-based web browsing. Now, with over 56 million broadband customers in the United States alone, the experience of watching video online has moved from the computer screen to the television. A wide range of consumer choices have sprung up as a result. Here are just a few ways home computer technology is moving into the family room:

Hardware

Digital video recorders, or DVRs, are really just dedicated processors that do one task: organize and time-shift the viewing experience. Tivo is the most well-known, and later this year Comcast will add Tivo software to their set-top boxes, in addition to their existing DVR service, though it won’t be available locally right away. It’s also possible to use a home PC for the same task, connecting a Mac or a Windows Media Center-equipped system to a home television set.

But that’s a bit complicated for ordinary folks. At this month’s MacWorld conference, CEO Steve Jobs unveiled Apple TV, a set-top box with a 40 GB hard drive that streams movies and other content to digital TVs. It works with the latest generation of big screens, and is equipped with leading edge, high-speed 802.11n wireless. It’s also optimized for movies purchased from Apple’s iTunes Music Store.

Slingbox made a splash in 2005 with a candy bar-shaped unit that lets viewers watch their TV or Tivo anywhere in the world with an Internet connection. At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, the company unveiled Slingcatcher, which does the Slingbox trick in reverse, sending video from a computer to a television. It also features Clip+Sling, a video sharing utility sure to excite prospective YouTube impresarios.

Content

Following YouTube’s runaway success, full episodes of prime time shows like CSI, American Idol and Grey’s Anatomy are now online, albeit with must-see commercials. Many of the same programs are offered uninterrupted on iTunes – for a price, typically $1.99 per episode. MSNBC’s web site shows ad-supported highlights from their news shows, as does Fox News; CNN has the ad-free, subscription-based “Pipeline.”

The emerging market is online movies, with NetFlix, which disrupted the video store world, leading the charge. The company, which pioneered “no return date” DVDs, recently started letting customers with certain types of accounts watch up to 18 hours of movies online. Competition may eventually come from long-time rival Blockbuster, but they’re busy trying to cut into the NetFlix rent-by-mail business.

Seattle-base Reel Time Rentals recently launched a movie streaming service; their selection doesn’t rival NetFlix, but it is technically impressive, with surprisingly good sound and picture quality. With a few copyright deals, Reel Time could be a factor in the online rental business.