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Netflix: the electric car of home entertainment?

By Jim Bray
August 16, 2012

Netflix promises video nirvana for eight bucks a month – and you can try it free before you buy! Sounds like a nice way to give DVD's and Blu-rays a good run for your money, doesn't it?

But is it?

I've been intrigued by this video streaming service for quite a while now. It's hard not to know about it, given the amount they spend on advertising, but I never bothered actually signing up because when I visited their website I was less than impressed by their selection. Heck, I have literally thousands of movies in the DVD/Blu-ray library I've collected over the years, so if Netflix hopes to compete with my basement shelves they'd better have their act together.

And not only must they have lots of titles, the home theater snob in me insists that the audio and video quality also be up to snuff.

Then my son signed up for a free month trial and kindly suggested I check out the service with him. Hard to turn down an offer like that so, together, we've been poring over their selection, sampling titles we found interesting, and streaming them to a variety of devices.

Devices included the iPad (version one), the PC (supposedly state-of-the-art hardware running Windows 7), the PS3 (feeding a 1080p plasma) and Oppo's BDP-95 audiophile universal Blu-ray player, the latter two devices having Netflix software built in. The screen sizes we tried are the approximately 10 inches of the iPad, my 24 inch LG LCD monitor, a 50 inch plasma and a 106 inch front projection screen used with the Oppo – a screen size that definitely demands a high quality video signal to do it justice.

Depending on the device, the interface can be slightly different, but it's still rather straightforward. It works best via the PC, with the iPad a close second. The Netflix operation is ponderous on the Oppo, taking what seems like forever to scroll through titles and categories. All the devices' Netflix interfaces are easy to use, though, offering a clickable thumbnail view of the show and you can scroll up and down or left/right (depending on the number of titles in the particular category). Click on a thumbnail and up comes a bit of a description, and from there you can click to have the program start streaming.

I wish you could just scroll through an alphabetical listing, even if organized by categories. The thumbnails are fine, but if they'd let you also use mere text links you could get a lot more titles onto the screen at once, with less scrolling. Of course, maybe there aren't enough titles to warrant that…

The search function worked best on the PC version, which functions through your web browser. I searched there, arbitrarily, for "Dick van Dyke" it brought up both Bye Bye Birdie and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The iPad version won't let you do that, however; it only lets you search for individual titles rather than actors' names.

Netflix also insists on showcasing titles it thinks you'll like, based on your history. I'm of two minds about this, 'cause it can be a useful and thoughtful feature. I wish it were less prominent, however, perhaps just showing up as another category in the main menu. And, technological curmudgeon that I am, I'm fully aware that Big Brother is tracking my every move – but that doesn't mean I have to like it, and these Netflix recommendations are a constant reminder of the digital footprint we leave practically everywhere we go these days.

No, I'm not paranoid! They really are coming for me; I can hear the black helicopters over my home office even as I type this. Oh wait; that's the traffic report helicopter…

The streaming works well; in my limited tests I had no hang-ups (though I have yet to watch a title all the way through), so bandwidth doesn't seem to be an issue there.

On the other hand, it may be an issue when it comes to the quality of the video, which seems to be all over the map. It was definitely an issue – a major one – on the 106 inch screen. Titan A.E., for example, looked okay on the iPad, but once we fired up the big screen it appeared worse than VHS, smeary and pixilated. Chitty Chitty looked okay on the 24 inch monitor, but wasn't even close to the spectacular video quality of the Blu-ray version. I don't even think it matched DVD quality.

Star Trek the Motion Picture was far better than Titan A.E. on the big screen – so much so that if I weren't familiar with the Blu-ray version I would probably have found it acceptable.

Bottom line: if picture quality is important to you, perhaps you're best served with DVD and, especially, Blu-ray. Or one of the on demand services that claims 1080p quality, though I haven't tried any and so can't recommend them.

The audio quality was okay on the titles we tried. I didn't notice a lot of surround, though there was some. The fidelity was pretty good, though not in the same league as the lossless tracks you can get on Blu-ray. Call it DVD quality, perhaps. Certainly better than VHS!

Despite my angst over the programming selection, I did find several titles that I'd watch if I were to subscribe, some reasonably obscure guilty pleasures such as Buckaroo Banzai and John Carpenter's They Live, but there weren't enough hot new titles to compete with the video stores that – oh, wait; they all went out of business in my neighborhood. Netflix is missing an opportunity here.

And there just weren't enough titles, including of TV shows, that I'd care about enough to actually pay for.

Don't get me wrong; I think the idea of streaming stuff instantly is a great one, convenient and, at eight bucks a month for unlimited access across all your devices, cheap. But what if you want to keep a movie? Collectors are out of luck, it appears. Fortunately, there are still plenty of places to buy DVD's and Blu-rays.

Then there are torrent sites…

To sum up, then, my chief problems with Netflix as it appears currently are lack of inventory, clumsy interface and spotty (to be kind) overall quality. Yet the concept is terrific! If they could up the ante so that you could watch your favorite current TV shows and movies, even a week later than originally broadcast or released, that would go a long way toward making the service more worthwhile, especially if the stuff streams sans commercials. That might cost more than eight bucks a month, though – but it might be worth it.

And of course, in this day of HDTV, they need to offer a service that's competitive with the physical media, especially Blu-ray. Why would anyone want to watch a washed out, pixilated picture when you can have the "pop off the screen" realism of the high def disc?

Until these issues can be addressed, the Netflix service reminds me of the electric car: a dynamite idea with terrific potential that's saddled currently with technology that can't do it justice.

That does, however, open the door to a bright future for the service once that potential is reached.

Hmm. Maybe we'll even get some decent electric cars some day.

Copyright 2012 Jim Bray

Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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