Netflix’s Watch Instantly Feature is an Instant Hit

I decided to join Netflix today after reading a lot of great things about their new “Watch Instantly” feature. They’ve got over 12,000 titles available for immediate download to your PC, or as the case may be, your Home Theater PC. With my new HTPC working quite nicely, the only next thing to worry about is what to watch? I’ve been enjoying watching recaps of the Olympics, which utilizes Microsoft’s new SilverLight plug-in for IE. (All I have to say about that is it looks fantastic and playback is crisp and clear and uninterrupted). But when it comes to options for downloadable movies, Netflix seemed to be the obvious choice for it’s great selection, low monthly subscription costs and unlimited movie downloads. That’s right, unlimited downloads for all but the most basic plan. I opted for the $8.99/month plan which allows only 1 DVD out at a time but unlimited movie downloads. I plan on testing this unlimited concept over the next 14 days.

So far the kids have watched just about all of the Charlie Brown episodes and Free Willy 2 while I’ve only watched Almost Heroes (Matthew Perry is so funny in that movie) and an episode of 30 Rock and all of them have played flawlessly. The picture quality on our 50″ HD LCD TV looks near DVD quality and even somewhat better than network broadcast SD content. The original aspect ratio of the movie is maintained during normal and fullscreen playback which is what I personally prefer since there’s nothing worse than geometric distortion in movies. You’d never even notice that you were watching streamed video online from a computer. Movies are decoded as 2.0 Dolby Pro Logic and sound just fine through the S/PDIF out. Though 5.1 would be really nice, I don’t suppose it’s totally necessary for casual movie watching. Though if Netflix wants their download feature to take a serious position in the average home theater, they will need to to add 5.1, I believe.

Netflix has a great gallery view of movies that are broken down into genres and further into subcategories of each genre. By just hovering over a movie, you get a quick glance at other details, such as the rating, runtime, etc. There’s additional details submitted by reviewers that goes into more details on how the movies are rated, so you can further monitor whether or not that PG movie is going to have anything that might be inappropriate for your 5-year old (though not quite as detailed as Amazon’s IMDB). The web pages are easy to navigate and well laid out. Additionally, once you start to rate a few movies, Netflix begins to get an idea of the kinds of movies you like and makes recommendations, which is very cool.

The movies play back using a Windows Media Player plugin for Internet Explorer (IE6+ and WMP11 required) which must be downloaded the first time you watch a movie and takes only a few seconds to install. The quality of the movie you get depends on your internet connection speed and comes in 3 flavors. The highest claims to be about 2.2Mbps bitrate video. That’s about 1/2 what you might get from a DVD so expect there to be some amount of additional compression but the picture still looks quite good. The last time I ran a bandwidth check on my Internet I was getting just over 19Mbps, so needless to say, everything we’ve watched has been the highest quality. Even my laptop over a wireless-G connection will play the highest-quality downloads. There’s definitely room for Netflix to move up to an HD-quality stream, especially since WMP is already set up to decode up to 1080p without issues. The infrastructure is in place, it’s just matter of when HD will be available. On their site the only comment they make is that they are working to offer HD content “in the future”. I’m hoping they kick it in gear really soon, because ideally, high definition downloads on-demand would be awesome.

Anyway, if you also live 20 minutes from a Blockbuster and they’ve called you half-a-dozen times letting you know that you’ve basically just bought the last three movies you never returned (no, that’s never happened to me :-p) and you’ve got a PC you can hook to a TV, I would definitely recommend checking out Netflix. We all know it’s been around for a while but if you haven’t looked into it, now’s the time to try it out.

Update 10/1/2008 – Netflix announced a deal with Starz today that resulted in over 1,000 new movies being available to watch instantly, a lot of which are, believe it or not, actually worth watching. Up until today I would have given Netflix a D- in terms of decent content. They tout a lot of movies, but after watching a few oldies-but-goodies, there wasn’t much else that was even remotely worthwhile. Renting DVDs through the mail was the only way to get anything good. Now they’ve got Spiderman III, Pirates of the Caribbean and Meet the Robinsons just to name a few. The kids are watching Disney’s Enchanted right now and the picture quality looks great (not that they are paying any attention to that). I have noticed that there is a much more dominant strobe effect to the background during pans and scans. It’s not always noticeable, it depends on how quickly or slowly the camera is panning over a scene, but it is definitely choppier than a regular DVD. It’s probably due to movies being filmed at only 24fps but is most likely compounded by the extra compression in getting a 5GB down to only 1GB. Though I haven’t read about anyone else complaining about the same thing. Anyway, I haven’t browsed all that’s new, but I’ve added at least 10 movies to my Watch Instantly queue and can’t wait to sit down a watch a few of them.

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