Recently, Roku released a preview video of an upgrade to its Netflix channel that added a more robust interface, more instant queue options, and--in a first for embedded Netflix players--the capability to search the library directly from your TV screen. According to the company, it will begin releasing the upgrade to Roku Player boxes over the course of the seven days, starting Friday, May 27.
I received the upgrade early, and was able to give it a quick hands-on test.
Roku's current Netflix interface is something of a yawner. It is serviceable, but it does little more than provide you with access to your instant queue, which you needed to previously setup in a browser. Its new interface is livelier and the animations while navigating are smooth. Each title you highlight gets a pop-up summary with movie information such as star rating, MPAA rating, runtime, release year, and synopsis.
This is Roku's biggest addition: You now can search Netflix's database of titles from the box and add any titles to your instant queue--or just play them instantly. It's looks basically identical to what you find on the other Roku channels, such as Amazon Video on Demand, and It has an onscreen keyboard that you manipulate with the remote.
You can only search titles, not actors or directors, but it works well. We appreciate that we no longer need to keep the laptop or iPad nearby at all times. However, it would be nice if one of the Roku iPhone remote apps available on the iTunes App Store would enable a keyboard function, so you could use the iPhone as a keyboard rather than using the Roku's remote's d-pad to type on the onscreen keyboard.
Additional instant viewing options
In addition to your instant queue and search, when you can now scroll down the onscreen interface, you will now find a wider variety of instant viewing options available. Most of the options are genre based--comedy, action/adventure, drama, sci-fi, fantasy, indie, romance, thrillers, TV, children and family, horror, documentary, and foreign--but there are also new arrivals sections for TV and movies, plus lists targeted by your recent viewing habits (for me, they were: critically acclaimed violent crime movies, suspenseful revenge movies, gritty movies, visually striking movies).
Overall, it's a solid upgrade for Netflix viewers, and--for the moment--Roku's new integrated search function puts its Netflix channel above that of its counterparts on game consoles and Blu-ray players.
In a separate update, the company is also adding two more audio channels in the next few days, according to Roku. Radiotime is a sort of virtual radio service that provides easy streaming access to your local over-the-air radio stations--it's a mainstay on such audio streamers as the Logitech Squeezebox series. Roku will also add a Radio Paradise channel that, according to the company, is "a commercial free, non-computer generated radio station that mixes modern and classic rock, world music, electronic, classical and jazz."