Goop’s Netflix series: It’s so much worse than I expected and I can’t unsee it: “Disclaimer: This review contains detailed information about the Netflix series the goop lab with Gwyneth Paltrow. If you plan to watch the show (please, don’t) and do not wish to know details in advance, this is not the review for you. Normally, we would refer to such information as ‘spoilers,’ but in our editorial opinion, nothing in this series is spoil-able.”

A few days ago, I was finally able to follow through on something that Prairie and I had been discussing of and on for a few weeks — I called Comcast and disconnected our cable account. As we live in the Kent valley and are too blocked by mountains to get effective digital broadcast reception, this effectively bans broadcast television.

We’ve been working our way towards this for some time now, for two major reasons: one, sitting around and watching too much TV just isn’t healthy, and two, though there are a few shows that we enjoy watching, the commercials were just driving us up the wall. We had started by developing a number of “rules” — all in place before disconnecting the cable, but still in place — governing our TV consumption:

  1. No reruns. Not even if we haven’t seen that particular episode before. If it’s not a first-broadcast show, we’re not watching it. It’ll be out on DVD or made available for online streaming eventually, and we’ll watch it then, at our convenience, without commercials.

  2. The TV does not get turned on before 7:30 or 8 p.m. On any given “normal” night (that is, those that don’t have me at school until late in the evening) we tend to eat dinner at right around 6 p.m. In the “old days,” it wasn’t uncommon for us to grab our food, plop down in front of the TV, and zone out until 10 or 11 when we went to bed. Now, we’re eating at the table, finishing dinner, doing the dishes, and spending an hour or so playing games (our current obsessions are Set and Monopoly Deal) before the TV even gets turned on.

  3. The TV does not get turned on unless we exercise. We have a non-motorized treadmill and a reclining stationary exercise bike in the living room, and we have to put in at least half an hour each on either the treadmill or the bike if we want to watch TV.

  4. We watch only what we’re actually interested in. No more just turning the TV on just to see what’s on, or to flip channels, or for background noise (admittedly, not something we were in the habit of anyway), or anything similar. Unless we know we want to see something, we’re not bothering.

All of this was a great start, but over the course of the summer, one more piece of the puzzle fell into place when I added a Roku player to our entertainment system. I rambled on about our love affair with this little box a few months ago, but here’s the Reader’s Digest Condensed Cliff’s Notes Executive Summary: inexpensive, dead-simple, on-demand access to Netflix, Amazon Video on Demand, and a whole lot more.

Thanks to the Roku and Netflix’s library of streaming titles (plus the DVDs we get through the mail), there was never a question of whether there was something we were interested in watching — just a question of what we felt like that night. After a few weeks, it became clear that the only reason we were holding on to our cable subscription was because there were still shows that we wanted to keep up with. We toyed with the idea of ditching cable, as we knew that more and more TV was being offered online either through legal channels such as Hulu and Amazon VoD or through the quasi-legal Bittorrent network, but watching shows on my computer in my office just wasn’t as comfortable or convenient as sitting in the living room in front of the TV.

A few weeks ago, however, I discovered Roksbox, an add-on channel for the Roku that allows me to stream media from my computer to the Roku in the living room. Bingo! That was the last piece we needed.

So, cable and broadcast TV are no more for us. Instead, we have our personal DVD library, DVDs we order from Netflix, the entire Netflix on-demand library, and, for the current-run TV shows we want to keep up with, I simply download them and toss them into the Roksbox library for us to watch commerical-free at our leisure.

It’s a great setup. We’re spending less time watching TV, and when we do watch something, it’s hassle-free, commerical-free, and at our convenience. As far as we’re concerned, this is definitely the way to go.

So that’s the general, non-techie overview. In part two of this, I’ll get into the geeky fiddly bits of how I’ve automated the process of finding, downloading, and prepping the TV shows we pay attention to.

Readers Digest condensed Cliff’s Notes executive summary version: Do you have a Netflix account and a reasonable (1.5 MB/s or better) broadband connection? Then you should have a Roku player. That’s it.

So a couple months ago, I had a birthday, and with that birthday came some a little bit of spending money (courtesy of Prairie’s mom) that I wasn’t sure what to do with. As I’m in school, not making money, and existing solely on financial aid and Prairie’s good graces, I’ve gotten very used to spending money only on what’s necessary, and not on toys or frivolities. Because of this, I didn’t have much of a “wish list,” and the things I’m generally likely to spend money on — used books and vinyl — I currently have stacks of, waiting for me to find time to either read or import into the computer, so adding to the stacks (as enjoyable as that is) didn’t seem like the best way to go.

I let the money sit for a while as I played with various ideas, and eventually decided to go for something I’d been eyeballing for a while, but which had always fallen into the realm of “neat toy that could be fun, but isn’t really necessary right now”: a Roku digital video player.

Roughly two months in, I can easily say that this was one of the best impulse buys I’ve made in a long, long time.

First off, the basics, in case you haven’t heard of the Roku before. Originally developed at and for Netflix, and later spun off into its own company and opened to more content providers, the Roku is a tiny little set-top box that plugs into your TV, giving you access to the Netflix library of streaming “Watch Instantly” titles. Prairie and I had just recently started discovering the joys of Netflix’s streaming library (with the addition of my new iMac, as before that, none of our computers were new enough to support Netflix’s streaming service), but camping out in my office to watch shows on my computer wasn’t nearly as comfortable as our living room, so the Roku sounded like a nice addition to the house.

Setup is dead simple. The box is small, and if you have a WiFi network at home, requires the bare minimum of cables: power, and the connection to the television (if you don’t have WiFi, you’ll need to run an ethernet cable to the box). It has the three primary video connection methods (composite video, for old-school TVs like ours; component video, for higher-quality video on TVs that support progressive scan input; and HDMI for High Definition TVs) and both standard stereo and optical audio output.

Getting started took just a couple minutes: I plugged it in, told it which WiFi network to use and put in the password, and after a brief moment to let the box download and install new firmware and reboot, it was up and running. I popped into the Netflix channel, chose something in my Instant Watch queue, and was watching a show no more (and probably much less than) ten minutes after opening the box. Impressive!

The Netflix interface is slick and simple, and — thanks to a recent software update that actually came out just before I got the Roku — allows for searching and browsing the Netflix streaming library, and shows off all the recommendations of things that Netflix thinks we’ll enjoy watching.

There’s a lot more than just Netflix available, though. Roku’s channel store has an ever-growing library of options, with lots of internet-based shows and podcasts, sports channels, Pandora radio, and — our personal favorite after Netflix — Amazon Video on Demand. Last weekend after seeing Inception, Prairie and I were still in the movie mood, decided to see what new releases Amazon had available, and ended up renting, watching, and thoroughly enjoying Whip It!.

Our feelings at this point: Blockbuster is doomed. Outside of needing something rare enough that it’s not available to stream from Amazon or Netflix and soon enough that we can’t put in our physical Netflix queue, we have absolutely no reason to physically rent a video anymore. Movie theaters aren’t in much better shape, either — the entire experience of watching something at home is so much nicer, more comfortable, more convenient, and cheaper than going to the movies that we’ll be doing that far less than we already do (and we haven’t been going terribly often as it is).

The video quality of the Roku is great, as well. Admittedly, ours is helped somewhat by my television (geekery: though it’s an older, standard-ratio TV, this model Sony Wega offers an “anamorphic compression” mode that squeezes the picture down to a 16:9 ratio from the standard 4:3 ratio, increasing the resolution as it does so; this allows me to tell the Roku that it’s connected to a widescreen TV, at which point it outputs an anamorphic signal that results in a higher resolution and better quality image than if it were outputting the standard 4:3 640×480 TV signal), but the image quality easily matches (or at least comes very, very close to) what we see out of our DVD player. One of the very few disappointments I’ve had with the Roku (and a very minor one at that) is that while my TV can accept component video, the Roku apparently will only output component video as progressive scan output, which my TV doesn’t support, so I’ve had to resort to the lowest-quality composite video connection. Still, the quality we get is good enough that I can’t really complain — and when we finally get around to upgrading to an HDMI-capable HDTV, the quality will only get better!

There are a few relatively minor caveats to the Roku. Most importantly, you do need a reasonable (1.5 MB/s) broadband connection, and for HD video (not an issue for me at the moment), it requires at least a 5 MB/s connection (which, even if I had the hardware to display HD video, isn’t available from Qwest at my address yet). A WiFi network, while not necessary, as the box does have ethernet input, is highly recommended, as it keeps you from having to string more cabling around your house. And, of course, with any online-based service, there is the potential for network or server issues to occasionally get in the way, though we’ve had very few times where this was an issue (and when it was, Roku and Netflix were both good about communicating with their customers, and we even got a bit of a refund from Netflix to make up for the service interruption).

In short, we love this box. We’ve been using it nightly, bouncing among a number of shows that catch our eye (recently: Bones, Futurama, Law and Order, Red Dwarf, and 30 Rock), and saving movies for when we have the time and interest to invest in a movie. This has increased our usage of the streaming service to the point where we’re considering dropping our Netflix subscription from our current 3-at-a-time down to the basic 1-at-a-time service, as Netflix (so far, and I hope this continues) is kind enough to offer their streaming service without limitation at all subscription levels. Good deal!

Once again: if you have Netflix and broadband, you really should have a Roku.

Yesterday word starting flying around the ‘net about a new feature on Netflix‘ site: Netflix Friends. I read about it on Hacking Netflix and was definitely interested, but by that point there were already a ton of people asking for invites, and I wasn’t entirely comfortable joining in the “add me!” crowd, so I just tossed a link into Eclinkticism instead.

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Of course, what I didn’t think about was MovableType’s automatic Trackback discovery feature, so when I posted my link, Hacking Netflix got pinged — and Mike was kind enough to toss an invite my way after all.

After playing with it a bit last night and this morning, I’m really enjoying this. The first thing I had to do was toss out some invites to people that I knew had NetFlix accounts, and some have already responded and joined in. The more people listed as friends, the more choices there are on your friends page, of course, and it’s been fun watching the recommendations change as more of the few people I invited in join in the fun.

NetFlix Friends

The main NetFlix Friends screen is divided into a few sections. Over to the right is a list of your friends and how many movies they’ve rated, a list of people you’ve invited but haven’t accepted yet, and links to either invite more people in or edit your friends list (delete friends or edit their display name on your list). The main column of the page starts off with a list of movies that your friends have watched and rated recently, with their ratings displayed in purple below the movie. Further down the page (and not displayed in my screen shot) are sections for “New and Upcoming Favorites” (recently released and soon-to-be released films), “Unique Films Your Friends Love” (movies that people you know have given an above-average rating), and “Friends Top Favorites” (four- and five-star ratings from your friends).

NetFlix Friends Share Page

Clicking on one of your friends names in the “Your Friends” section of the page takes you to that person’s “Share Page”, with a larger list of what they’ve watched recently on the right side of the page, along with the same “Recently Watched” and “New and Upcoming Favorites” lists (in slightly longer form) from the main Friends page.

Netflix Movie Page

One of the nice touches is that once you’re part of the Netflix Friends program, there are little adjustments throughout the Netflix site that tie in to your Friends pages. On any page in the site, if a movie is displayed that one of the people on your Friends list has seen, a little purple person icon appears in the lower-right corner of the movie icon or next to the movie’s name. Also, on individual movie listing pages (which recently gained a “Watch Preview” option — nifty!), there is now a listing towards the bottom right of ratings from any friends who have rated the film, and you can add short one-line blurbs about what you thought of the film.

So far, it’s looking like Netflix has a really good thing going here. If you’ve got a Netflix account and want to join the fun, just let me know!

iTunesConnected” by Alabama 3 from the album Exile on Coldharbour Lane (1997, 6:15).