November 6, 2010
The terms Netflix streaming, instant queue, and watch instantly might not sound as familiar as DVD, MP3, and home theater but that’s likely to change in the near future. Now that 1080p and surround sound have made their way to Netflix’s streaming movie service, look for an ever increasing number of compatible devices appearing on store shelves.
Many of you have already tried or already use Netflix online but there are just as many who’ve yet to try it. I wanted to share some thoughts of what its like to enable and use the service for a beginner, because even yours truly is a Netflix novice when it comes to streaming; this past weekend was my first experience with the service but hardly the last.
I actually had to resubscribe to Netflix prior to this review. Between work, HD cable, Blu-ray, and reading, I haven’t had a lot of free time for movie viewing. But as the days get darker earlier I’m finding myself anxious to catch up on titles that slipped through the cracks. I’m only about 10 months or so behind… ahem, that might be a conservative estimate.
First up was Netflix for the PS3. Installation of the Netflix app on the PS3 is pretty straightforward; just click on the Netflix icon that was already present in the video section and wait the 30 seconds or so it takes for the application to install. (It’s no longer necessary to insert the special Netflix disc for viewing). From there, you’ll be asked if you already have a Netflix account or need to create one. If you don’t have an account I recommend creating it on a PC with a real keyboard versus the PS3’s virtual keyboard. The less typing with that virtual keyboard the better, in my opinion.
Once I entered my login and password I was ready to go. On the main loading screen you’ll find a section for “new arrivals”, I saw titles like 2012, GI Joe, Batman Under the Read Hood (in HD), Legion, and a smattering of other titles broken down by genre. To the right of each section is a “See all” button that lets you drill farther down into the category to expand the number of titles.
Across the top of the screen (PS3 version) you can search by title (triangle button), browse by category (square), and of course return to the previous screen (circle button). One thing I found a little disappointing is the lack of a HD only section. The HD titles seemed to number (a total stab in the dark) around 15-20%, while HD titles with surround were an even smaller portion of the library at (again total guess based on my limited browsing) 5-10% of available titles. I also would have liked a little more fine tuning once a subcategory was picked. For example in the documentary section, I’d like to further sort by release date and rating, but hey, all in good time I suppose.
I wanted the first title I viewed to be something I was at least somewhat familiar with, to gauge the relative quality and I wanted it to be in HD and have surround sound. This was no small feat as it turned out… I eventually settled on Amadeus. As advertised, the title pretty much started instantly and only took a few seconds to get past the initial minor stuttering before it was rock solid and ready to view. We watched the entire director’s cut of Amadeus (all 180’ish minutes) without a single dropout or stutter. Say what you want about the quality, but Netflix’s delivery platform, assuming you have a fast connection, is rock solid.
Now the important part, its the image quality right? Well to be honest, it wasn’t bad. It wasn’t mind blowing by any stretch of the imagination, but it was slightly better than what I expected for streamed HD. The colors were fully saturated without bleeding or smearing, and the black level was easily on par with HD cable if not slightly better. I’d venture to say Netflix HD looks about as good as some of the mediocre Blu-ray transfers I’ve seen, that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement but its far from a condemnation either, considering the platform.
I suppose the biggest difference to the casual eye between Blu-ray and Netflix online would be the sharpness. While still sharper than standard definition, many of the titles I viewed were slightly softer than their Blu-ray counterparts. There were also a few minor compression artifacts but that’s not a knock mind you, the quality is still rather impressive considering the instant-on streaming. With further refinement to the codec and platform, maybe even the addition of (more) caching, Netflix online could pose a serious threat to traditional content delivery systems (don’t think those traditional outlets haven’t already noticed).
Moving on to Netflix for the Xbox360. Once I installed the Xbox 360 Netflix app from the video marketplace, I received a prompt to upgrade to a Xbox gold membership (something I’d canceled over a year go) to be able to use Netflix on the Xbox 360. Somewhat annoying but I figured what the heck, I’ll catch up on a few game demos while I’m at it. As a quick aside, I wanted to make sure auto-renew was set to ‘off’ after signing up again, shocker that portion of my account was unavailable after signing back up. It took nearly 15 minutes on the phone with Xbox Live support to have them confirm that I wouldn’t be auto-renewed. (They finally did so after a series of rather inane, redundant “security” questions)
Alright, minor annoyances aside, the app was installed and I was on my way. Once inside Netflix on the 360 I was presented with the choice of resuming Amadeus where I’d left off on the PS3 at 93%. Neat option, but I went ahead and restarted from the beginning to compare the quality versus the PS3. I’m going to assume the version on the Xbox360 was 720p as it appeared slightly softer than on the PS3, but it still looked fine overall. It would be nice if there were more specific information on the resolution and sound other than “Presented in HD”. There was one difference that I was quite sure of, the fact the Xbox360 doesn’t offer surround sound, yet. According to Netflix the PS3 is the first to offer surround sound on streaming content but that “more devices would be added over time to support streaming digital surround sound.” No doubt the 360 will be one of those other devices.
So in backing out to the dashboard, I did prefer the way the titles were presented in a coverflow format versus the PS3’s more basic presentation. Although the 360 didn’t seem to have a search function for titles (search has been added to the fall dashboard update), that said I’d rather add to my instant queue from a PC anyway, sites like Feed Flicks and Instant Watcher offer good Netflix online search tools. That was where the negligible problems ended for me with Netflix on the 360 vs. the PS3, the one thing I just couldn’t get past was the fan noise from my year old Xbox 360 Elite. Yes it is much, much quieter than my original but still not as quiet as the newer models or my launch PS3 for that matter. Before any of you console guys get worked up, yes I know there are newer 360’s that are much quieter than the older versions, unfortunately no such unit at Mi Casa.
The bottom line is both the Xbox360 and PS3 are more than capable of streaming movies from Netflix online but as of this writing, the PS3 is my streamer of choice. I honestly don’t see that changing in the near future as the background noise from my 360 is above my comfort level for movie watching and then there’s the whole lack of surround (again as of this writing) which is an even bigger hurdle to overcome. Of course the Xbox 360 slim is reported to be very quiet and surround will of course come to other platforms in the near future, I’m just taking stock of where I’m at today, your mileage may vary.
Oh, lest I forget, the Nintendo Wii is Netflix capable too but without the ability to stream in HD, much less offer Dolby digital, it certainly isn’t as desirable an option as the PS3 or 360. It does make for one hell of a nu-retro gaming platform though. All kidding aside, keep in mind there are plenty of A/V components out there that offer Netflix, Amazon, and Vudu streaming, (keep an eye out for my Boxee Box review in early December) such as certain DVD players, to stand-alone boxes and even some televisions. I just wanted to highlight a few streamers many of us already have, i.e. game consoles.
- Vast Library
- Unlimited viewing for flat fee
- Ease of access
- No lossless sound
- Not all titles in HD (yet)
- Limited search refinements