In an alternative universe, piracy doesn’t exist. Instead, we pay a pittance for instant, high-quality streaming of pretty much every movie or TV programme imaginable.
Our universe doesn’t quite have that yet, but Netflix is pretty close.
For six quid a month you get access to an enormous library of content – Netflix says its catalogue is bigger than LoveFilm’s, so that means more than 6,000 titles – across computers, consoles, connected Blu-ray players, internet TVs, smartphones and tablets.
Netflix quality and cost
Netflix is currently £5.99 per month, and there’s a month’s free trial. It’s a flat-rate, unlimited service, so you won’t click on a film only to discover that you’ve hit your rental limit or that it’s a pay-per-view title. Check your broadband’s small print, though: streaming lots of video can easily burst through ISPs’ monthly bandwidth caps.
Netflix uses Microsoft’s Silverlight to stream movies to your browser, and on a decent broadband connection it delivers impressive results: where HD versions of movies were available, they looked great from across the room on a big HD TV.
Playback and scrubbing were instant on our cable broadband connection, although from time to time after fast-forwarding the quality dropped from HD to SD for a few seconds until the streaming buffer caught up.
For HD viewing you really need a reliable 5Mbps (720p) or 8Mbps (1080p) connection, since Silverlight’s adaptive streaming is designed to degrade on-the-fly when a connection is too slow or too congested.
Video quality depends on what you’re watching. Recent films and TV programmes are generally flawless and usually in HD, but some of the encoding of older content such as kids’ cartoons is hopeless.
4:3 aspect ratios are fair enough when you’re dealing with pre-widescreen programmes, but our nostalgic excitement at spotting Inspector Gadget episodes was tempered by video and sound quality that would embarrass a mobile phone.
What Netflix works on
Although Netflix works just fine on a PC or Mac, it’s better suited to the living room. If you’ve got the right cables you can connect your PC or Mac to your TV, or you can use one of Netflix’s apps for consoles and tablets, such as its iPad app.
Netflix on the iPad is a joy to use, and while it doesn’t offer AirPlay, it doesn’t need to. Streaming Netflix is fully integrated into the current Apple TV. The ability to browse kids’ shows by character on Apple TV is a nice touch, and we were pleased to discover that you can watch one thing via Apple TV while you watch something else on your iPad or PC.
Netflix is available on some connected Blu-ray players and TVs, and you can also get Netflix apps for the iPhone and Android phones, the Xbox 360, PS3 and Nintendo Wii. Inevitably, the Xbox version requires a Gold subscription even though you’ve paid for a Netflix subscription, because Microsoft is nice like that.
Browsing the catalogue is simple enough – hover over or tap on a title to see more about it, and then click on the play button to watch it.
If you’ve connected via Facebook, Netflix will give you recommendations based on what your friends have watched. The effectiveness of this, of course, depends on whether or not your friends have any taste.
There’s also a Taste Profile that enables you to fine-tune Netflix’s suggestions by telling it that you never watch rom-coms or that you prefer movies that bend your mind. If you spend a bit of time with it, you can create a very nuanced profile. So, for example, you can say you prefer critically-acclaimed controversial 1970s movies about evil children, and Netflix will adjust its recommendations accordingly.
The Netflix catalogue
If you’re a fan of TV box sets, Netflix could save you a fortune: its TV section is superb, with a selection that includes stacks of kids’ programmes plus grown-up treats including Breaking Bad, Prison Break, The (US) Office, Dollhouse, Misfits, The IT Crowd and Arrested Development, as well as older classics such as The Thick of It and Twin Peaks.
As a rule of thumb, if you can get it on DVD or 4od, it’s on Netflix – so for example Breaking Bad seasons 1 and 2 are there, but not Season 3, which hasn’t been released in the UK yet.
Netflix operates in what it calls the “post-DVD window”, which means some studios don’t let it stream their films until long after their DVD release. If you compare Netflix with the current UK DVD chart, you’ll see what that means: there’s no Bridesmaids, no King’s Speech, no Drive, Due Date or Inbetweeners Movie.
In some cases films don’t turn up on Netflix at all, because distributors think Netflix’s subscriptions are too cheap.
While the choice of programmes and films is very wide, there are noticeable omissions such as Disney, whose most popular films and TV shows – The Lion King, Phineas and Ferb and so on – are absent.
ABC shows such as Lost and Modern Family are missing too; in the UK ABC’s signed with LoveFilm, not Netflix, although that isn’t an exclusive deal.
The Amazon-owned LoveFilm is Netflix’s main rival, and so far it seems like studios are choosing favourites: for example, where Netflix has announced streaming deals with Miramax and MGM, LoveFilm is pally with Sony Pictures and Warner Bros.
Here’s some more articles you might like:
- The beginner’s guide to media streaming
- All You Need To Know About Buying 2012′s Best Televisions
- How to Tether your Smartphone to another device
- Unlimited streaming
- Multi-device support
- Low price
- Variable bitrates
- Needs speedy broadband
- Missing content
We like Netflix a lot. It works very well, the apps are great and the all-you-can-eat model is simple.
The things we don’t like – the lack of some big names, the long wait for some recent films to appear – aren’t its fault; they’re the same contractual issues that have plagued not just video on demand services but also iTunes and Spotify.
Perhaps one day the film studios will realise that every film streamed over video on demand is a film that isn’t being torrented illegally.
Until they do, however, services such as Netflix are going to have gaps. If you can live with them, Netflix is superb value for money
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