By Dustin Sklavos
Doing a roundup of online video streaming services should seem easy enough, but when it comes to Netflix, the review winds up being maddeningly difficult to write. We reviewed Netflix's "watch instantly" service last year and found it to be good if a bit flawed; the question now is how has the intervening period treated it?
Netflix has quietly become the de facto online DVD and Blu-ray rental service. Like a horse with blinders on, they paid little attention to competing services from other companies that sprung up, then withered and died on the vine.
In the same fashion, Netflix's "watch instantly" has gone from being a cute little curio and value-added service to a legitimate threat to the way major content producers have traditionally distributed their material. Suddenly televisions, Blu-ray players, consoles and media boxes are supporting it from the factory. And in the intervening period, Netflix has continued to improve the number of movies and television shows on tap.
Netflix is essentially the market leader, but their market is in a state of constant flux, and rather than sitting still they continue to pursue better deals with companies big and small to improve their streaming offerings. In the meantime they've kept their subscription rates as low as they've always been. So now, nearing the end of 2010, what can Netflix offer you for $8.99 a month?
For stock titles, the selection of movies available on Netflix for instant viewing is staggering. My friends and I have been going through the healthy number of Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes available on the service and my watch instantly queue is well over 100 movies. Every genre is well represented, so if nothing else there's bound to be something you like.
Television shows are also surprisingly healthy on the service. When I got into Dexter the first two seasons were available for instant viewing while I had to get the third on disc; if nothing else at least that should tell you that the offerings on tap are fairly big names. This is a place where Hulu has its work cut out for it; while Hulu may have a superior selection overall, Netflix isn't sitting still, having recently inked deals to bring the entirety of shows like Battlestar Galactica, Psych, and maybe most impressively of all Saturday Night Live to their service. That's right: every episode of Saturday Night Live ever. That means the good ones.
Unfortunately Netflix is still pretty short on new releases, and that includes physical disc rentals. Most of the "New Arrivals" on the site are more stock titles, and while it's good to see these movies being available, the big companies seem to still be unwilling to give Netflix access to their bread and butter. In fact many movies are even on a thirty day delay from date of release for physical rental; I don't know that many people that are excited to see Splice, but I still don't like the idea of having to wait thirty days to see it.
The result is that Netflix's "watch instantly" service feels in many ways like a video store without a new release wall. If you're a huge film geek, this isn't going to be a big problem (especially with the staggering number of Criterion Collection films up -- we're talking Bergman and Kurosawa), but the more casual viewer who just wants to catch up with newer releases is going to find the selection lacking.
I do want to take issue with Netflix's site design: it's gone virtually unchanged since Netflix launched, and honestly it can be a pain for finding stuff to watch. While the interface in Windows Media Center can sort out just the movies available for watching online, the main site can't. If you run a search for, say, Mystery Science Theater 3000, be prepared to sift through a lot of disc rentals to get to the ones you can stream.
Where Netflix gets really hit and miss is in just how much content is available in high definition. Short answer: not much. "HD" is actually listed as its own genre, and a large number of content found there is National Geographic material.
When you do get to playback, I've found the quality to be acceptable if not eye-meltingly awesome. Netflix uses Microsoft Silverlight to stream video, and though it was limited early in its lifetime to just Internet Explorer, you can now use Firefox, Windows Media Center, and every current generation video game console to watch movies (among a staggering number of other options).
For standard definition playback Netflix doesn't really cite any internet connection requirements; for high definition they suggest having a connection with an advertised speed of 5Mbps or better. Hardware requirements are negligible; even a netbook should be able to handle standard definition Netflix video gracefully.
I use Netflix a lot on my media center PC, which is fairly modest, with a 2.8 GHz Athlon II X2 dual core processor and 2GB of DDR2. That PC is actually connected wirelessly to my router and my experiences with dropouts have had more to do with my crappy wireless network than Netflix itself. They claim to adjust video playback quality on the fly, but I sit about three feet or so from my 42" HDTV and I have a hard time noticing much difference.
And how's the quality? Pretty good. It's not as sharp as having the physical media handy, but Netflix's "watch instantly" service produces video quality that's not distractingly bad or painfully riddled with compression artifacts. The major problem for the die-hards is going to be the lack of 5.1 streaming audio; Netflix is stereo only at present. For what it's worth, though, every episode of MST3K I've watched has looked good and the high-definition streaming video for the animated series Archer is copious in both quality and humor. The only thing I've streamed that I thought looked like crap in the entire time I've had Netflix was Lars von Trier's The Kingdom television series, which looked dubbed off of video tape. Older Starz Play entrants also were frustratingly full-frame instead of widescreen, but full-frame movies on Netflix are far more the exception than the rule these days.
Netflix's Achilles' heel is going to be, at least for the foreseeable future, the lack of big new releases available for instant viewing. Even the physical disc service has a problem with those (though the flipside is that their physical service has movies that were never even released in the States, like Battle Royale). The flipside is that video quality is just fine (even if typically standard definition), Netflix's availability in the marketplace is only continuing to grow, and their library of movies and television shows available for instant viewing has gotten very substantial. It's not the usual cheap crap that I like, either; Criterion Collection films from Bergman and Kurosawa among others are up, and even the Godfather trilogy is available for streaming.
If you're a movie buff, you should either already have an account or be signing up for one now. The more casual viewers may want to at least opt for a free trial first. And as far as video quality goes, well...it beats watching videos of cats on YouTube.
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