Is Netflix Streaming Good Enough for the Serious Movie Buff?  
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Written by Thomas Spurlin   
Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Since 1997, Netflix has changed the way that we think about "renting" movies.  Instead of schlepping it to our nearest big box rental shop or mom 'n pop store to pick up a tape of DVD, they've made us all lazier -- excuse me, enhanced the convenience of renting a movie -- by sending discs directly to our mailbox based on a queue arranged on their website.  Wait times can be a hassle for high-demand items, but the service has nevertheless made believers out of many consumers.  However, with the likes of free movies available at various venues across the Internet (Hulu, The Auteurs), a new type of viewing experience has become predominant within the past few years: instant streaming, along with free on-demand rentals through cable providers.

In reaction to this, Netflix has also come out of the gate with movies available to play instantly via their streaming service -- though it's only become available on specific standalone Blu-ray players (such as LG’s BD300), as well as on the computer itself.  Well, Netflix has again tinkered with the way we think about viewing movies in the home by trumpeting out instant streaming via gaming units, first with the Xbox 360 earlier this year and now with a newly-fangled Streaming Disc for the popular Playstation 3.  The marriage between the Playstation 3 and this new streaming disc is a naturally stellar union, offering a highly-integrated, quick, and intuitive process to entry.

Netflix Instant Streaming Disc

 Setup:

Getting the PS3 set up for the streaming disc is pretty easy.  First step is to send a request to the company for a disc, done here (http://www.netflix.com/InstantStreamingDisc). Since the mailing is handled by the local distribution centers, it should arrive on your doorstep in about the same timeframe as receiving any other disc in the mail -- roughly two days.  It arrives in the signature red envelope just like the other discs from the service, only with bright writing that states that the user doesn't have to return the disc at any point. A second sleeve, similar to a standard DVR slip, also comes with the disc to protect it when it's not in the machine.

Once it arrives, it's a really straightforward process: insert the disc, access the Netflix option in the "Video" row of the XMB (if you don't have Auto Load turned on), and wait for it to load on the system.  Once it boots up, the user will need to communicate a code via the Internet to "pair" up the individual PS3 system to the account.  It asks if you "already have your Netflix streaming disc", making a field available on the website where said code, which will pop up on your screen, can be entered. That process happens almost instantaneously. After the two have been linked, the system's ready for streaming.  

Categories and Instant Queue:

Once it's loaded, the navigational interface is both nicely laid out and very pleasing.  File tabs appear at the top, which can be "flipped" through with the directional buttons on the PS3 controller (or the directional pad on the Bluetoothe Blu-ray remote).The Instant Streaming framework comes equipped with several standard options to surf through, including New Arrivals, Recently Watched, basic categories (Comedy, Sci-Fi & Fantasy, etc.), and a few elaborate categories (Serial-Killer Thrillers, Movies About Weddings, Raunchy Movies, etc.).  Each of the categories typically has twenty-five (25) suggestions, and some of the offerings are rather respectable at the start -- including the likes of Full Metal Jacket, Blade Runner, and modern hits like The International.

Netflix Catagoies and Instant Queue

What makes the Instant Streaming infinitely valuable is the first folder, the Instant Queue.  The user can built their list of movies to watch by browsing, searching, and adding titles on the Netflix home website, all of which pop up very shortly after it's done.  This feature is available by clicking on the "Watch Instantly" tab at the top of the home web address, further refined by categories directly underneath the main bar.   Genres range from Action & Adventure and Horror to Faith & Spirituality, as well as a category specifically set aside for high-definition (HD) films.  Every film either has an "Add" or "Save" button underneath the cover artwork; however, the films available for Instant Streaming are annotated with a blue "Play" button.  Hovering over that blue button makes a second option pop up underneath, "Add to Instant Queue".  Simply click on that button and the network will update the selection. 

Each film has a home page that has a small interface at the top that enables playing the film / TV episode, giving a star rating between one (1) and five (5), and removing it from the Instant Queue.  Underneath all that, some descriptors for the film / TV episode are available: a small cast listing, a synopsis for the film, runtime, year the film came out, the director, and its category.  For instance, Federico Fellini's Amarcord flops firmly in the "Foreign Classics" section.   To activate the film, click on the "play" option and wait for the film to pop up.  Wait times for the content to begin streaming vary, but they're mostly very quick -- taking roughly 20-30 seconds to load up.

Performance:

Netflix tailors its streaming service to the speed of your internet connection, without downloading anything to the hard drive, to ensure the best quality image possible based on individual setups.  Via high-speed internet and a wireless connection going to a slimline PS3, the quality for standard-definition content comes in mostly just a few steps underneath DVD quality -- that is, just a step or two underneath the most recent DVD.  It's all going to depend on the source, varying between slapdash cable replications from partnered networks to crisp quality images that come very close to retail sharpness.  Furthermore, some digging around in the catalog will give you access to a few movies that don't currently have in-print DVDs (such as Love Me If You Dare, as of this writing).  To top it off, there are many full season TV sets to sift through, with an intuitive episode-by-episode toggle that changes after each one is finished.

Play Screen

After watching a handful of films available in both anamorphic and non-anamorphic presentations on home video, many of the prints range from looking very similar to their retail counterparts to drastically different and, sadly, incorrect.  Let's get the negatives out of the way first. The print damage from 10 Things I Hate About You looked similar through an aliased yet colorful widescreen-enhanced image, about what it looks like to zoom in on the non-anamorphic disc, but From Dusk 'til Dawn comes out full-framed and looking rather drab. 

On the flipside of things, the presentation for Chris Marker's La Jetee (sourced from Criterion / Janus, of which there are plenty) was properly framed at 1.66:1 and Tell No One at 2.35:1 -- both truthful to the director's intent and of very high quality.  It's worth noting that full-frame sources, tested by both "The Office" (UK) and Tetsuo: The Iron Man, come out as stretched 4x3 material even if the selection for "Normal" upscaling is elected from the Video Settings menu.  Also, all the audio cranks out as a non-dynamic 2.0 Stereo sound track, but it never distorts, blips, or cuts out.

There's another side of the Netflix Instant Streaming: HD content.  Two films were tested, Ballast and The Last Detail, each one offered in mostly correct aspect ratios (Ballast at 2.35:1, The Last Detail at 1.78:1) and in low bitrate AVC encodes.  Naturally, the results will differ based on the source material, but the quality wasn't anything to scoff at.  Yes, compression artifacts grow a bit heavier than Blu-ray tech and detail isn't nearly as pronounced, but the leap in clarity over standard-definition is very respectable and about on-par with HD offerings on cable channels.  Again, the big crippling aspect is the sound option, only available on 2.0 Stereo -- not uncompressed PCM, but run-of-the-mill Stereo.  Print damage for The Last Detail resembles the standard-definition counterpart as well, which is pleasing but desperately needing a clean-up job.

Final Impressions:


Those who subscribe to Netflix and own a Playstation 3 will certainly find this to be a no brainer: take the time out and send a request to the company for a streaming disc.  The selection of content available for immediate viewing is outstanding.  The quality is passable, considering the instant accesibility, and the speed of communication is very, very appealing. Since the streaming service doesn't interfere with the disc distribution -- almost operating as separate entities -- it'll come in handy if you're a one-disc subscriber and waiting for your next disc. 

The SD quality obviously isn't as good as on standard DVD, nor HD quality compared to Blu-ray, especially when considering the audio, but it may be a tolerable gap depending on your needs. Now, whether this new streaming service is enough of a selling point to cough up $9 for Netflix, if you aren't subscribing yet, is a pretty easy question to answer.  Those finicky with quality won't be very fond of the audio limitations and may want to stick to physical media. But for those seeking immediate access, the myriad of films available for instant viewing easily makes the entry price worth the subscription fee.






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