by Jerry Jackson
As a frequent traveler and user of multiple computers, I've all but given up on trying to watch movies using DVD or Blu-Ray disks. Half of the laptops I use don't even have optical drives, and even if they did, I don't want to haul a bunch of DVDs around in my travel bag. That's where online streaming video services come to the rescue. There are several different websites that offer online streaming of TV shows and movies, and Notebook Review is going to take a close look at several popular services, beginning with Netflix.com. I took a close look at both standard definition and high definition content to see if Neflix really is poised to replace your DVD or Blu-Ray player.
Most people know Netflix for their reputation in the movie rentals by mail ... essentially a mail order video store. In addition they now offer a library of more than 20,000 movie and TV downloads. Netflix offers movie downloads direct to your PC or compatible set top box such as the Roku Digital Video Player or Xbox 360. Pick a movie or TV show and start watching in less than 30 seconds over a high speed internet connection. Although Netflix offers more than 100,000 DVD and Blu-ray titles by mail, the selection available via the "Watch Instantly" service is not nearly as diverse. This means you can't find popular new movies like Transformers but you can find knock-off sci-fi movies like Transmorphers. On the bright side, Netflix is constantly working to add new films and TV shows to their download library and updates occur quite frequently.
Downloading movies and TV shows from Netflix is simple. Search through their Watch Instantly section of more than 20,000 titles and click on the movie or TV show you want to watch.
Netflix system requirements are very basic, so chances are even a budget-priced laptop can handle Netflix. Your PC needs at least a 1.2GHz processor, 512MB RAM (1GB for Macs), and a compatible web browser. Supported operating systems include Mac OS 10.4.8 or later, Windows XP with Service Pack 2 and Windows Vista, though we didn't have any problems using Windows 7. You will also need Windows Media Player 11 or higher which can be downloaded free from Microsoft.com.
Video Playback Quality
Playback quality is where Netflix really varies from one movie or TV show to another. First, standard definition (480p) content will naturally look less detailed than high definition (720p) content, but that's to be expected. What might take you by surprise, however, is the fact that some content (both standard definition and HD) suffers from significant compression artifacts. This is likely an issue of various studios and networks submitting digital files to Netflix using different compression rates, but it makes it frustrating when the playback quality varies significantly from one movie to another.
As you can see in the image above, upscaled standard definition content looks pretty bad, and in dark scenes the compression artifacts are pretty obvious (particularly if you have you display brightness turned up to maximum). Rather than smooth blacks and shadows you see strange block-like shapes similar to what you might see in a heavily compressed JPEG image. Again, the high definition (720p) content available on Netflix typically doesn't suffer from compression artifacts that are "quite" so obvious ... but this isn't Blu-ray quality.
Prices range from $8.99 to $23.99 a month depending on how many DVD's by mail you would like. For movie download purposes the $8.99 a month plan includes unlimited downloads. The Netflix free trial includes unlimited movie downloads. I have been using Netflix's Watch Instantly service for more than a year using the $8.99 unlimited download plan and I've been extremely happy with the service ... despite the playback quality issues I've mentioned.
Bottom line: Netflix left me both impressed an disappointed at the same time. Unlike other pay-per-download services, I only pay about $10 per month for Netflix and I can have an almost limitless queue of movies and TV shows available for instant viewing on my laptop. Unfortunately, Netflix isn't always able to provide the newest movies ... which is where many of its competitors have an advantage. If I'm willing to pay a bit more I can use Amazon or iTunes to download new releases as soon as they are available on DVD and Blu-ray. The single biggest problem Netflix faces is file compression resulting in playback quality issues, but this varies from one movie or TV show to another. In the end, I suspect Netflix will only get better over time, and the value will likewise increase as technology (and bandwidth) improves.
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