Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Cut the cord with Netflix movie rental and streaming


When I first thought about trying to "cut the cord" from my cable company one of the things I thought I'd miss is the video on demand (VOD) service.  I have probably watched a couple dozen or so movies through the Comcast's VOD, not many really.  The biggest problem was that it was hard to find movies that I was interested in watching.  The ancient menu system offered by old Comcast DVR was certainly part of the problem, but the other was that there wasn't that many movies available.

Update:  check out the differences between streaming devices.

My kids, on the other hand, found Comcast's VOD essential.  They discovered quite a few serial programs that they loved to watch (like Pokemon and other cartoons).  When I "cut the cord", I needed to find a replacement.  Certainly there are a lot of cartoons available through the Internet and you can get to them via various portals and video aggregators such as Hulu, Boxee, (and my favorite) Zinc.tv.  These services are great, but not quite as convenient (or have commercials, ads, etc).

In addition, I've been thinking about subscribing to Netflix ever since our local video store went out of business a couple of years ago.  We started using the DVD kiosks at our local Safeway ($1 rentals are nice), but they often out of the top titles.  And let's face it, returning videos (especially in the middle of the week) is a hassle.  So, after receiving a NetFlix gift certificate (thanks for the Christmas present, Mom!), I thought I'd try to solve both problems.

BTW: If you are a new subscriber like I was, NetFlix's free trial (two-weeks) works in combination with any gift subscriptions you may have received.  Just sign up for the free trial and your gift subscriptions will be applied to your account when the free trial is over.

Since Netflix is really two services in one (Video Streaming, and Movie Rental), I'll share my experience with both.

Netflix Streaming

When I signed up, Netflix claimed to have over 17,000 titles to watch instantly via streaming.  I remember when they announced that they had crossed 10,000 titles so they are clearly growing their movie inventory. The titles available also include a fair number of series programs on TV including some available on the STARS network.

You can stream Netflix to lots of different devices including certain new TVs, Bluray players, game systems (Wii, PS3) and dedicated boxes (Roku).  You can also stream it to a computer and this includes obviously a Media PC.  I've primarily used Netflix via my Media PC and various laptops.

When using a Media PC you can use Netflix directly inside of Windows Media Center (very nice), or just like any other computer, you can use a browser.  I find that the browser interface is much easier to find new content, but the Media Center interface is more couch friendly.   Both work fine, and it is nice to have a choice between the two (definitely a major advantage of a media PC over dedicated Netflix devices).

Video quality streaming to a computer is good, but not as good as some dedicated devices like the Samsung Bluray player.  If you are after the best video quality possible, you probably want one of these players.  However, once I start watching a movie on my Media PC or laptop I forget all about the quality, so in my book it is comparable to a DVD in most cases.

Update:  It appears that Netflix has launched HD streaming for PCs.  I was watching "Flame and Citron" last night it Windows Media Center and it was clearly HD, probably 720p.  Here is a post from Engaget that seems to confirm this wasn't a fluke.  Great news!

Best of all, my Kids have found lots of family programs and cartoons to watch.  Between this and regularly recording our favorite broadcast TV programs, we don't miss Comcast VOD at all.

Netflix Movies by Mail

Renting movies by mail works pretty much like you'd expect.  It is a bit of a pain to select your movies in advance, but you get over it.  Currently, I seem to get new movies two to three days after I mail in my old selections (then again Netflix headquarters is just down the street!).

I currently am using their two-movies-at-time package.  I haven't opted for the Bluray option (even though I can play them with my Media PC).  I just don't care about the enhanced resolution and DVDs look really good already in my opinion (but that is just me).  If you enjoy Bluray movies, the extra cost with Netflix is certainly a good deal and worth considering.

I've never gotten a movie that wouldn't play or skipped in any way.  I could be lucky, but after months of movie rentals I imagine that Netflix probably has solved this problem.

Minor problems

With Netflix streaming and my Media PC, I have noticed a slight "judder or studder" when playing movies.  This never happens playing movies with other formats (and doesn't seem to happen to other devices), so I can only assume it is specific to my Media PC and/or video drivers.  Netflix does use a new streaming technology (Microsoft's Silverlight), and it could be "teething" issues with this.  It is a relatively minor imperfection and I only notice it during fast "camera panning" scenes.  I'm not alone it seeing this so hopefully a driver update in the future will eliminate it.

I've only encountered one period when the Netflix streaming was down for any appreciable time.  It took them a few hours to fix some system problem.  Occasionally, I've had a movie stop mid playback for no reason.  I was able to restart the movie where it left off without issue.

Closing thoughts

For the price, Netflix is a great deal for both services and they work well.


  1. A lot of people dog Netflix for their streaming content, or "lack" of it. I remember clearly when I started using Netflix streaming and they announced over 5,000 titles. That wasn't too long ago, and now they have over 17,000 titles. I made a remark to my son very recently at how much they have grown over the past 6 months. I'll admit, I was considering dropping Netflix because of the lacking area of streaming about 7 - 9 months ago. But seeing their progressive growth over these months, I have changed my mind. While I applaud Netflix for growing their streaming as quickly as they are, I have to say I am HIGHLY disappointed that titles "disappear" monthly. I am sure their is a good reason for it. Most likely space for the movies, or complex legal issues I am destined never to understand, but hopefully it all can be worked out in the near future to where titles don't disappear with two weeks (or they may give more, I dunno) notice. It is a bummer when I have a title or 20 saved, only to see that they are being moved off the list for other movies/tv shows. It is especially disheartening when it is a TV show with multiple seasons that I have absolutely no chance in watching because of the sheer volume of shows I'd have to watch. Or when they delete Season 3 of whatever show and leave seasons one, two, four, and five. I like, no LOVE and demand, watching TV shows in their order. I cant stand (and never have) skipping seasons on DVD.

  2. I'll just add that Comcast's VOD service had the same issue of on demand titles disappearing after a period of time. Like you, I suspect it is due to legal wrangling with the content owners over their profit.

  3. I cut the cord 3.5 years ago. I built a mediaserver using Snapstream BeyondTV and BeyondMedia using the Firefly remote. BeyondMedia has since been discontinued, but the newer versions of Windows include the media center functionality and support for the mediacenter remote. Combined with Hulu Desktop and Boxee (for netflix content), you can view just about anything. I can't see the sense in paying $79.00 a month for basic cable service plus 5-10 per additional box and other fees for a DVR. Also the cable/satelite companies are a closed system because of their contracts with content providers, meaning, a DVR from a cable company will usually not allow you to download the video in order to burn to disc and share with family members and friends. BeyondTV has a dvd burning functionality so shows can be share, or burned to disc and archived.

  4. I BUILT THE CONFIGURATION here. I paid for and downloaded cyberlink Powerdvd 10. I then rented
    Blu Ray disks from Netflix. The audio plays, but there is no video. Does anyone have any experience with this? Blogs say to check HDMI connectiolns. They are fine. No other assistance is offered. Anyone else have this issue and solved it?

  5. Hi Matt,

    You don't mention if video works when you play back other non-bluray sources (up to 1080p), or if the problem only occurs with powerdvd 10. If it is the latter, I doubt that the problem is an hdmi connection / hardware issue.

    It is also certainly worth trying different graphics driver releases. It is very common for one driver to work while another has problems. For ATI, there are archives of the monthly driver releases that you can try out.

    You can also try different (or demo versions) of other bluray playback software.

    Good luck,



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