4/30/2007

Netflix Movies Online

Posted in Side Topics at 11:10 am by Sam

Netflix has been rolling out its streaming video service slowly over the last several weeks, and this process is expected to be complete in July. But if your Netflix account doesn’t have that “Watch Now” tab enabled on it yet, you can speed up the process, apparently just by clicking this link, presumably from a browser that is already logged into your Netflix account. The link itself is http://www.netflix.com/InstantWatchingRollout?lnkctr=yas_wnopt if you’d rather copy that into your browser’s URL box directly.

So far, only Internet Explorer is supported, and only on Windows XP Service Pack 2 or Windows Vista. Support for other platforms is on the way, but I don’t know what or when.

I was sort of annoyed to have to start using IE again to make use of this feature (plug for Firefox: it’s faster, more feature-rich, less of a resource hog, and less buggy). Ultimately, though, it was worth it. Here’s an account of my experience with it so far.

The hardest part was putting Service Pack 2 on my laptop. I’d tried it way back when it came out, and it made the wireless connection flaky, so I uninstalled it, and it started working cleanly again. I figured after all this time, somebody would have fixed that, but no. So I had to ditch the wireless and plug in an ethernet cable.

Once that was done, though, it was pretty easy. Netflix has you download and install this pretty small program, and then you’re good to go. It’s all DRMed up, so when you click to watch something, it has to go fetch a license, but this doesn’t really take any time at all. I’m pretty staunchly anti-DRM, but this is streaming — one time viewing only. It’s not like I’ve just purchased something to own, and it’s encumbered with limitations and inconveniences.

So you get a “Watch Now” tab in your Netflix account. Click that, and you enter an area where you can browse only those movies that are available to view online. You can search by title and genre; unfortunately, for some reason, you can’t search just the Watch Now area by star. Searching by star bumps you over to the regular “Browse” area.

Minor inconvenience. The other features of the Watch Now area are pretty nice. Compiled together on the same page is a section on movies from your queue that are available to stream, then a tabbed section with recommendations in the genres you’ve marked as your favorite genres, then also a genre-free recommendations section at the top. The image quality varies based on your connection speed. I was told my connection was fast enough for the highest video quality, and it seemed to be comparable to what the DVD itself would have given me. (Sometimes it’s hard to tell, because, especially with older titles, the quality of the prints they use to burn the DVD is more of an issue than the digital video compression is.) I was really impressed with how lightweight the streaming is on the system. My laptop is old and tends to lag a bit when I’m streaming TV shows off TV network sites, or playing an actual physical DVD, but streaming from Netflix in full-screen mode didn’t really result in any lag issues at all.

You get one hour of free viewing per dollar you spend per month. I’ve got the standard 3-at-a-time plan, $17.99 per month, so I get 18 free viewing hours per month, which averages out to about 10 full movies.

The nice thing about being rationed by the minute, rather than the movie, is that you can just watch a minute or two of something. Maybe you want to preview something before you put it in your rental queue. Maybe you just want to rewatch some particular scene of a movie. These uses for the service could be nice even if you’re not the type of person that would want to watch a full movie on your computer.

I have no such qualms. There are some movies I want to make sure I see under better conditions, but then there are skillions of movies I’d enjoy seeing but not so much that there aren’t dozens of others that take priority in my queue.

Currently, the selection of movies available to view online are pretty limited. There are about 1000 titles, a tiny fraction of Netflix’s full catalogue of something like 75,000. By the end of the year, the plan is to ramp up to 5000, which is still small, but a mammoth jump percentagewise.

What’s available now, though, is kind of strange. Almost no high-demand titles, perhaps by design — you don’t test new infrastructure by offering Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest right out of the gate and grinding it to a pulp. But there are plenty of great movies, all the same. Singin’ In the Rain. Cape Fear. Harvey. The Jerk. House of Games. North By Northwest. Jaws. Oliver! Casablanca. The Dirty Dozen. Rebel Without a Cause. The Matrix. Clue. Westworld. The Andromeda Strain.

There are a smattering of newer titles, just not the ones that tore up the box office. Sherrybaby, which nearly secured Maggie Gyllenhaal an Oscar nomination. The Prince and Me. The World’s Fastest Indian. Game 6.

Like I say, though, the mix of titles is weird. There are a bunch of stand-up comedy concerts (Michael Winslow, Joe Rogan), a few television show seasons (The Outer Limits, Miss Marple), documentaries (Born Into Brothels, Enron: The Smartest Guys In the Room), low budget pulp (Astro Zombies, Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys), blaxploitation (Superfly, Shaft In Africa), and a whole ton of things whose availability in lieu of something anybody’s ever heard of will leave you scratching your head. In other words, they seem to have done a good job to get a good cross-section of their inventory available to stream to make up for presumably temporary smallness of the catalogue.

That’s perfect for me. I’m not going to want to watch the latest summer blockbuster, nor probably the latest Oscar winner this way. But, for example, I watched “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” last week, a movie I missed seeing in the eighties, and I’ve always been interested in the Born Into Brothels documentary. Streaming them is a perfectly fine way for me to watch these sorts of titles.

So if you have Netflix, the right platform, and the interest, give this new toy a shot and chime in with your thoughts.

3 Comments »

  1. Stephen (221) said,

    May 1, 2007 at 8:19 am

    I wonder how long until this is hacked to work on an Apple TV, since that would be a great application for one of those boxes (and they’re hacking them to play everything else they’re not supposed to).

    I checked it out, and I agree that the process is pretty seamless. The video quality seems quite good, though I don’t think it’s quite DVD. I’ll have to really check it out against some DVDs I own a little later.

    One huge complaint: Once Upon a Time America wasn’t widescreen. What the heck is up with that? It’s like they ripped the original, pan-and-scan DVD for the service. If so, that makes zero sense.

  2. Stephen (221) said,

    May 2, 2007 at 12:21 am

    Playing around with it some more, I have to say I’m pretty happy. It’s smooth for me, and like Sam my computer is a little underpowered for some tasks but it handles this just fine. It’s pretty easy to fast forward and rewind — though sadly nothing like DVD chapter stops — and the whole thing is quite fast over a cable Internet connection.

    I’m just a little concerned about the quality. I tried playing The World’s Fastest Indian, a new release that should have a perfectly fine transfer, but it looks a lot softer than most DVDs look on my monitor. Also the blacks are really gray and have lots of digital artifacts, which reminds me of the early days of DVD, with these sorts of crappy transfers.

    I think probably the service doesn’t justify a Netflix subscription, but considering they’re just giving it away to subscribers it’s quite nice. Like Sam there are some movies I wouldn’t mind watching this way, and it makes it a good way to grab random stuff if you’re bored and none of the movies you have out seem like a good pick at that second.

  3. siochembio (82) said,

    May 20, 2007 at 1:10 pm

    I’m trying to get this set to run on our desktop. Our laptop is a Mac without IE, so it’s a no-go, at least for now.

    Unfortunately, our C drive on our desktop is pretty small, only about 15Gb, and 14 of it is used in apps. We have a much larger D drive, but of course, the Netflix app will only go to the C drive. Hubby is repartitioning the C and D drives as we speak so that I can watch Netflix movies on it.

    I hope it works, because I might as well take advantage of this, seeing as how I already have the account.

    I noticed they have a pretty decent amount of British TV stuff available for Watch Now. I wouldn’t mind watching Ballykissangel again, or checking out “The Way We Live Now,” which is in my queue anyway.

    Interestingly, I noticed that they have the Leslie Caron movie “Lili” available for Watch Now, but not available to rent (it’s never been released on DVD). I wonder about that - where did they get the movie, then? But hey, if it means I can watch “Lili” when I want to, then I’m good.

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