Sunday, November 15, 2009

Netflix Streaming: The Holy Grail of Online TV?

I write a lot about online entertainment. I suppose it makes sense, because I'm writing as a hobby and most of my other hobbies somehow involve online entertainment. I also write a lot about Netflix. I really like the company and the service fits me almost perfectly. Are they the best, though?

When I previously wrote about Hulu and ABC I mentioned Netflix. Actually, I tend to use it as the bar with which other streaming sites are measured. It's bothered me since then that I never came back to write a review of Netflix's Watch Instantly.

Netflix was founded with a purpose: Deliver users television and movie content via the Internet. That may go against what you think of the company. Chances are you associate them with mail order rentals. It's true that they shifted to that business model, but only after they realized that the infrastructure for streaming video was not in place in the late 90's. When they finally were able to start offering this service they were neither pioneers nor were they pushing the limits of technology. However, they have a long history of getting things right and they continued that tradition here.

The Watch Instantly service was originally somewhat of a dud. The interface and process was well done, but the content on there was mostly terrible. There were a few exceptions, mostly documentaries, but the majority of that first generation of content was the stuff that doesn't even get late night plays on third rate cable stations. I watched a few movies from that era and I was excited, but I also wasn't worried that I would go over the 17 hours of playback per month they offered.

I think the potential must have been obvious to the studios because Netflix struck several deals and significantly expanded their offerings. Of the 17,000 or so streaming titles in their catalog it's fairly easy to find something you would like to watch. Still, the vast majority is rubbish. That's the way the long tail works. One can hope that as the catalog expands better content will continue to float to the top. Still, this is a stark contrast to Hulu which has a wide variety of first rate content.

When you're looking for that content you can go a few ways about it. What I usually do is browse through the Watch Instantly selection where I can drill down into subcategories, from there I can sort titles alphabetically or by rating. The rating data is useful, but I wish it were more applicable to me - more on that later. This works a little like Hulu's "Channels" and allows me to quickly find new content that I may want to watch. It's not as focused as Hulu is, though, and there's a lot more noise to clutter the decision. The other way is to browse through the catalog as usual but instead of adding a DVD to your queue you either watch the content right then or you add it to a streaming queue. It's kind of nice, you look for something and get a surprise that you don't have to wait.

Once you've decided on a program to watch you get to experience the real gem: the player. Netflix play is great in that it gauges your computer and connection in order to deliver the best possible quality of video with the least interruptions. At first I found this annoying, I wanted to be able to get the highest quality of picture and I was willing to let it cache for longer in order to get that. Now I'm convinced that this is a good way to go.

Why? It seems that Netflix has more shades of gray in their quality settings than Hulu does. With Hulu it's high or low quality (and their standalone player has a medium setting). The difference between the two is stark, the low quality is often unacceptably bad and the high can burn out all the fans in your system in a single viewing. Netflix dynamically pics the right quality setting and only occasionally have I been let down by this. Unlike Hulu, I can watch a show with acceptable video quality without noticeable dropped frames or having to crank the volume because my computer is doing double duty as a furnace.

The down side to this is that every time you skip back and forth the stream is interrupted and the player goes through the negotiation process again. If you're watching a series and you want skip the opening and ending sequence you have to renegotiate. If you missed something and you want to go back 30 seconds you have to renegotiate. Also, sometimes if your connection has a hiccup you'll find it switching to the lower quality setting. A refresh normally fixes this, but that's annoying.

Still, it's a bonus that once you start watching you aren't constantly reminded that streaming content is still playing catch-up to traditional TV. If I were watching this over my TV I'd probably not think about the source at all.

Other notes about the player: I like the interface for skipping around. When the movie loads it loads a series of still frames taken at 10 second intervals. When you skip it gives you a timeline of these and you select one to skip to. It's very fast, but you lose precision. You cannot skip to 3:16, you have to go to 3:10. The other controls are fairly standard. I'd like to see integration with media buttons for the in-browser player, as it's the only thing available for Mac.

It uses Silverlight. I'm not a huge fan of Silverlight, and Flash made some big strides shortly after Netflix committed to the change. Still, I think that Flash is a resource hog and Silverlight may be slightly better.

Of course, Netflix also has the widest variety of available players. They don't have a standalone player for Mac that I know of, but they do have integration in Windows Media Center and that works very well. You can also access this content on a few gaming systems. Plus there is the Roku player and a whole host of other devices that are ready to stream from Netflix. For the sake of this review I'm focusing on the in-browser player. I'd like to do a head to head comparison of Windows Media Center Netflix vs. Hulu standalone. I'll save that for another day. I probably won't be comparing any of the other devices anytime soon. I don't feel particularly compelled to buy any of these TVs or Blu-Ray players that only work with Netflix, being a two trick pony isn't that much better than being a one-trick pony. I think I'd rather buy the Roku player since that company seems to be expanding its offerings all the time.

The elephant in the room: subscription fees. I'm going to ignore this elephant, sort of. If you're not a Netflix subscriber then I don't think you should become one just for streaming. You should become one because the DVD-by-mail rental model is superior to other rental models and the streaming is a bonus. That's my take on it. I've had Netflix since 2002, long before they offered streaming content. When they offered it I considered it a perk, and they didn't charge me any extra. For me this service is essentially free. I'd pay for Netflix even if they took it away. Some may not agree with that, and certainly if you're one of the people who dislikes the DVD rental model they use then you would value it differently.

My biggest gripe: no streaming for additional profiles. As I've said before I'm very particular about the way I rate movies and I have very different tastes from my wife. This really hurts Watch Instantly because I can only access it via my wife's account. Netflix doesn't even have a way to migrate accounts, so if I were to offer to pay them more and have separate accounts. I would have to go back and re-rate all of the movies I've seen, 1400 and counting. When I go into my wife's account I find that many movies I enjoy or I may enjoy are rated poorly. This is because Netflix displays ratings based on what you've rated in the past and how you've rated different types of movies. It doesn't completely kill the value of the ratings shown, but it comes close.

The verdict: Netflix is king of the browser. For all its faults, Netflix still reigns supreme if you want to watch content from your browser. It isn't perfect, but neither is the competition, so I say that it wins. That's just for the browser. On the desktop the showdown has only recently begun. Next up: Netflix Media Center plug-in vs. Hulu Desktop. Stay tuned.

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