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In the past I've been quite vocal in my opposition of online streaming services as a replacement for physical media. To my mind we have a long way to go before any streaming service can match the quality afforded by Blu-ray, but over the past few months I've found myself taking a greater interest in the online services for a number of reasons. Firstly, I'm now at the stage where I own the vast majority of films that I really want to own on Blu-ray. I might have a casual interest in watching the 1985 space-vampire movie Lifeforce, but I don't have a burning desire to spend much money to do so. Secondly, I'm a bit restless in my viewing habits and sometimes I spend longer deciding on which film to watch than I do actually watching it (and in some cases I give up and go to bed). Sometimes I don't want to watch a good film or TV show; I want to watch total rubbish that requires zero thought on my part. I want audio-visual junk food and I want it there and then.

Now I suppose could just go out and buy Michael Bay's entire oeuvre, but that would be costly and leave me feeling dirty. So when the opportunity to trial one of the UK’s new streaming services, Netflix, fell into my lap it was too tempting to pass up. Now I’m aware that other streaming services are available, but as of this moment I have not had the chance to sample the competition. That may change in the future, but for now I’m simply offering my thoughts on Netflix, not comparing it with similar steaming services. Anyway, now that I’ve clarified things let’s get on with the review…

Netflix Reviewed
Let’s kick things off with the good. Netflix UK has a fairly healthy library of films and television shows, so there should be something to cater for everyone’s tastes. Just browsing through the web interface as I write this I see listings for the fantastic Ryan Gosling film Drive, the gritty comic book noir Sin City, the sci-fi satire RoboCop and Coppola's classic The Godfather. There are also entire runs of great TV series like Arrested Development, Lost, Firefly, Peep Show and The Thick of It. What I personally found appealing about the library was the availability of some old favourites that I hadn’t seen in many a year, or even ‘cult’ films that I’d never found the time to watch. Over the past few days I’ve watched films such as Brain Damage, Howard the Duck, The Stuff, Primer, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai and Dreamscape. There’s also a reasonable selection of anime and children’s entertainment, the latter of which is of nostalgic interest thanks to the presence of things like the Spider-Man, Spider-Woman and Incredible Hulk cartoons I used to watch as a boy. Much of the aforementioned content is also available in HD, which is even better.

Of course the size of any streaming service’s library is irrelevant if the quality isn’t up to the job. Thankfully Netflix scales very well to individual devices and broadband packages with a range of quality options. These are labelled 'good', 'better' and 'best' quality, which use up to 0.3GB/hour, 0.7GB/hour and 1GB/hour respectively for SD streams. The best quality setting also allows for HD streams that can gobble up around 2.3GB/hour, which is worth bearing in mind if you’re on any sort of metered Internet package. Watching on the highest setting provides some quite impressive results, with standard-definition quality that easy matches broadcast TV and DVD. However, when a particular title is available in high-definition the advantages are obvious. For review purposes I began playing the Korean film Lady Vengeance on ‘best’ quality, and viewing on my 24” 1080p PC monitor it started off looking quite respectable. However, after a little buffering the HD stream kicked in and the difference was immediately obvious. As you can see from the comparison image included below it is some way off of Blu-ray quality, but on an average-size HDTV it’s certainly on a par with the better high-definition broadcasts and a lot better than DVD.

 Netflix HD Stream Utilizing 'Best' Quality
Netflix HD Stream Utilizing 'Best' Quality

 Lady Vengeance Blu-ray
Lady Vengeance Blu-ray

Audio quality will be largely dependent on how you're listening. Obviously if you're streaming your content to a mobile device you can expect tinny audio, but on a regular TV it sounds just fine. If your playback device is hooked up to a home theatre things are even better, especially as many titles are accompanied by multiple soundtracks offering a choice between 2.0 Stereo and 5.1 (in Dolby Digital Plus).

Although it can initially seem a little confusing, Netflix's website can be customised to suit your individual preferences. The main page presents a selection of recommended titles from a number of genres, but if you prefer you can also view individuals genres (say, ‘World Cinema’). This shows all of the films in a particular category, rather than a small sample. It's also possible to view the entire library if you're that way inclined, but obviously that takes some browsing! Thankfully you can change the default view from the gallery to list and then sort by a number of criteria, such as title, rating, and so on (and your choice is retained when you switch back to the gallery view). Clicking on a title will take you to another screen with further details, including audio/video specs, a synopsis and user reviews. Netflix also remembers your viewing position for a number of titles, so you don't have to worry about having to fast forward through two hours of The Godfather should you need to turn it off prematurely (and you can pick up where you left off even if you’re using a different device). You can also create a ‘taste profile’ by rating films and specifying you favourite genres (and those you dislike), which allows Netflix to intelligently suggest suitable viewing material. It’s also possible to write reviews to assist other Netflix customers in their viewing decisions, which makes for a more sociable experience.

 Netflix Homepage
I also tested the interface on a couple of other devices, namely my Android phone (Galaxy S) and my PS3. Both are obviously simplified versions of the full website, but they allow for basic browsing and playback is fine. Netflix is also available for other devices such as Apple's iPad/iPhone, Nintendo's Wii (although don't expect HD there) and Microsoft's Xbox 360. However, true to form Microsoft requires users to pay for Gold membership to use the Netflix app, which means an additional outlay if you don't already use their online services.

Of course not everything is rosy in the Netflix garden and there are one or two areas that could use some improvement. I realise that it was in the list of positives, but unfortunately Netflix's library is also one of the service’s failings, at least when compared with its older relative from across the pond. The US Netflix service offers a much larger selection of content, with greater diversity to boot. You’ll find many more films and TV shows on the US site, especially recent ones, and content that is found on both sites is usually more complete in the US (the UK only has five seasons of South Park, for example). It’s fair to say that compared to the US the UK catalogue looks quite weedy, but as mentioned before new stuff is added at regular intervals so it's not all doom and gloom. One would hope that this aspect of the service will improve as it matures.

I was quite enthusiastic about the audio-visual quality above, and while it's true that can be very impressive the caveat is the requirement of a fairly robust broadband connection. If you have a slow connection, or indeed if you're on a metered package that precludes the possibility of using the 'best' setting, you'll have to opt for one of the more conservative options. While the lowest of these quality settings is labelled ‘good’ that’s somewhat optimistic on Netflix’s part. In fact, both ‘good’ and ‘better’ options leave a little to be desired on anything other than smaller screens. (The ‘better’ setting is supposed to be a compromise between the low and high settings, but in reality I couldn’t spot much of an improvement over ‘good’.) Examining a similar scene from Lady Vengeance to the one above, this time in ‘good’ quality, there is obvious blocking, aliasing and blurriness. Imagine this on an average family television set and suddenly it doesn't look so attractive. The stills below are taken from the film in the ‘good’ quality setting and from the US DVD (480i), and as you can see the DVD is definitely superior.

 Netflix SD Stream Utilizing 'Good' Quality
Netflix SD Stream Utilizing 'Good' Quality

 Lady Vengeance DVD
Lady Vengeance DVD

But let’s face it, things are the same with any streaming service and it's one of the main reasons I don’t believe they’ll replace physical media for some time. The UK’s broadband infrastructure simply isn’t up to the job, especially in rural areas. While it seems unfair to criticise Netflix for something that is essentially beyond their control, it is a consideration potential customers will have to make.

Additionally, while the Netflix web interface is generally quite user-friendly, there are a few niggles. As far as I can tell – and please correct me if I'm wrong - there is currently no way to add content to a 'watch later' queue, so if you spot something that takes your fancy you either have to remember it or play the first few seconds to add it to your 'recently watched' list. It would be much, much easier to simply create a personalised viewing list that is available across all devices. The categorisations also get a little mixed up from time to time. As an example, recent English-language film The Devil's Double is listed in the 'foreign' films section (if this was the Iraqi Netflix maybe they'd have a point).

The P3 app is another disappointment. While it's generally easy to navigate and offers a rudimentary search option, it has one major omission: genre searching. This requires you to know the name of the film you want to watch or at the very least have an actor/director in mind, lest your movie watching choices be left to the Netflix gods. What's worse is that the service tends to recommend the same old films/shows over and over on the main page, so unless you scan the website first you could miss out on something of interest. It would be far more useful to be able to view all of the titles in a particular genre, or even the entire catalogue. Apparently genre searching used to be part of the PS3 app, so why it was removed it a total mystery to me (please sort it out).

Another annoyance is the registration process, which attempts to force Facebook integration down your throat to the point of irritation. Maybe I’m being picky, but I’m a little sick of this sort of website cross-pollination. I don’t want all and sundry having access to my profile.

 Netflix 'Taste Profile' Ratings Page
So, overall is Netflix worthy of your hard-earned? Well I think that’s dependant on your expectations. It most definitely is not a replacement for Blu-ray at the high end of the market, and there are one or two minor niggles with the interface, but it does offer more than acceptable quality and a respectable selection at an affordable price point. £5.99 for unlimited streaming is a fair sum, particularly if you don’t buy many DVD/Blu-rays and don’t subscribe to a cable/satellite service. Hopefully the coming months will see further expansion of the catalogue to provide even greater choice and value for subscribers. While it won’t replace physical media for me any time soon Netflix is a decent accompaniment to my high-definition library, but you don’t have to take my word for it. If you sign up now you can enjoy one month’s free service and you can cancel via the website at any time during the trial without being charged. This ‘try before you buy’ period is generous enough to give you a solid idea of whether you’re going to make effective use of the service, so if like me you’ve been sitting on the streaming fence now is a perfect time to take that first step.

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