Since I’ve had it, my Roku 2XS has generally been very stable; I can use it for hours a day watching Netflix, in high definition, without any problems. For the last ten days, however, it’s been nothing but trouble, Netflix support has been useless, and I’ve had to resort to spending the evening watching old Laserdiscs – until with the help of other Roku users on Twitter, we worked out a solution, which seems so far to have eluded Netflix themselves.
The problem has manifested in a straightforward way – when I select the Netflix channel on the Roku box, it hangs at the splash screen. Other channels on the box work fine. On one occassion, I got in, watched a show, and at the end was dumped to the Roku menu, and unable to get back in again.
Tweeting about it brought absolutely no response from Netflix for over a week, though their various accounts seemed quite happy to gush to people who were asking questions about what shows were coming – leaving me pretty frustrated.
It stopped working on a Saturday; Sunday and Monday didn’t work either, despite rebooting the box, uninstalling the channel, reinstalling it, updating firmware. And then it sprang back into life; at this stage, my box had firmware 5.5 build 320, and Netflix 3.1 on it. Since I only noticed versions after the updates, I can’t say at which point things broke, unfortunately.
All was looking good – until the following weekend, when it broke again. Again, to a deafening silence from the Netflix twitter accounts. By now, various other users had contacted me on Twitter to say they were having exactly the same problem. One of them had even been told by Netflix Customer Service that it was a known issue on Roku that was being looked into. A shame they didn’t see fit to share that with other customers; I’d have been considerably less disappointed if they’d simply tweeted “we know about this; we’re working on it” instead of ignoring every comment.
Matters weren’t helped by calling the customer service line, prompted by an eventual response to one of my tweets, which suggested I did so. The rep I spoke to agreed I’d done all the right things, and called up my account details, and told me she’d have to put me on hold for a minute while she spoke to the engineers about it. A minute turned into more than three quarters of an hour, after which I hung up because there’s only so much plinky plonky guitar hold music a man can stand.
Tracking it down
Fortunately, the other users of twitter were much more helpful when it comes to solving this, and Julie Brandon (@geekycow) wondered if it was a DNS problem. Even better, she did A/B testing, and discovered that Netflix would reliably hang if her network was configured to use the Google DNS servers, rather than her ISPs.
— Julie Brandon (@geekycow) July 15, 2014
She then set up a DNS proxy to capture the traffic and see what was doing on, and you can see the results here. In short, when using Google DNS, the box never gets as far as the content delivery network; exactly why is unclear, but in the working trace, redirects-eu.nccp.netflix.com and api-eu.netflix.com are never looked up, so perhaps there’s something odd going on there – and certainly it’s only EU customers who have mentioned this problem to me. I checked the settings on the router that my Roku’s connected to and discovered that I had two DNS servers configured in it, one on my ISP, and one Google one that I’d put in for backup. I removed the Google server, restarted the router and the Roku, and everything’s back to normal.
What to do
If you’re suffering from the Netflix app hanging when it starts, first make sure that you have up to date firmware on your Roku (and see update 2 below, too); earlier versions ignored what your router told them about DNS, as this exchange explains:
Then, check your router for the DNS settings it uses; it may pick them up from your ISP, which is probably going to be fine, but if there is an entry that says either 126.96.36.199 or 188.8.131.52, then you’re using a Google DNS server. (Update: soe have also reported this problem using OpenDNS servers, which are 184.108.40.206 and 220.127.116.11). Remove any entries that match the ones I’ve listed, and either leave it blank (and hope the router gets info from your ISP) or change it to the address of your ISPs own servers. Restart the router, and power off the Roku too. When it starts up, it should get the new DNS severs, and hopefully you’ll be back to normal; in my case, I noticed that the app starts much faster too, fetching the catalogue a lot sooner than it had been doing recently.
(One other tweak, suggested to my colleague Bob Dormon at The Register, is to disable network ping; I’ve not had to do this, but you can turn it off on the Roku via the service menu; to reach that press Home five times, followed by FF, Play, RW, Play, FF, *. That menu also allows you to reboot from the comfort of your armchair, incidentally.
So far, so good. It’s only a while since I did the tweak, and last week the service was up and down anyway – but hopefully this will turn out to resolve the problem for other Netflix & Roku users, in which case many thanks to Julie for tracking it down, a task that she did far, far better than Netflix Customer Service, whose sole contribution appears to have been to keep me on the phone for 50 minutes, and deduct a paltry £1.50 from my next bill.
Update: some ISP DNS servers may have problems too, it seems. Here’s info about finding alternatives:
— Julie Brandon (@geekycow) July 17, 2014
Update 2: there’s now a new update to the Netflix app on Roku which apparently fixes this issue too. Thanks to Roku forum user craigski for pointing me to this, and no thanks, as ever, to Netflix Customer Support, who still haven’t got back to me.
The new version of Netflix, confusingly, still identifies itself as Version 3.1 12th July in the screens you normally see on the Roku, but it should if you go into the software update option, it should update itself and, hopefully, get you back up and running, whatever your DNS settings. I won’t speculate on whether it’s laziness or a desire to pretend this never happened that has it calling itself a 12th July update, when it was released almost a week later.
You can find out exactly which version you have via the Roku’s secret list of installed software. Press Home three times, Up twice, then Left, Right, Left, Right, Left. The first ‘July 12th’ Netflix update is build 6036, while the new working one is build 6037.