Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Netflix streaming - watch out for the differences!

Since one of the main ways I watch content after I cut the cord is via Netflix streaming, it is worth reviewing the different ways to do this.

First of all, there are now lots of different devices (and multiple ways) you can watch streaming Netflix content (more seem to be showing up every day).  For the latest supported devices, check out Netflix's list here.

The surprising thing is that each device offers a slightly (or significantly) different UI and set of features.  This is important because choosing the wrong device could leave you disappointed with what is really an outstanding service.

I happen to have a few devices on hand to compare that highlight some of these differences:
  1. Windows 7 Media Center on my Media PC
  2. FireFox browser
  3. Nintendo Wii
  4. Boxee's Netflix app
  5. Samsung BD-P1600 (and LG BD300) BluRay Disc players
  6. Sony PlayStation 3
Let's take a look, starting with what I think is currently the best, all around couch friendly interface.

Note that you can have multiple simultaneous streaming devices in your home depending upon your Netflix plan (up to a limit of 6 activated devices).  HackingNetflix provides some helpful info here.  This is a fantastic feature and one that helps solve the problem of having "TV" in multiple locations in the house.

I'll go over each device/method and list the pros and cons that I've found.

1. Netflix via Windows 7 Media Center

So far, Windows 7 Media Center is my favorite Netflix streaming device.  There are a number of reasons why I like it better than the alternatives (which should become clear shortly).  However, all of the Netflix playback devices have upgradable software so this can easily change.   In any case, it is great to have multiple choices!

Here is a video overview of using Netflix in Win7 Media Center on a Media PC.


  • Best (IMO) of the non-browser interfaces that I've seen
  • Couch friendly
  • Looks great in High Definition
  • Supports search w/on-screen keyboard
  • Access to DVD and Instant queues
  • Generally pretty fast and responsive
  • Can't browse all genres (only preselected ones)
  • Limited browse depth (100 or so titles per genre)
  • Can't do advanced things like sort by rating, etc
2. Netflix via browser (Firefox)

If you have Netflix, you can't avoid using a browser as it is the main way to access your account.  It is also the easiest way to search for content (DVDs, BluRays, and streaming titles).

If you are used to the browser interface about the best you can hope for from any other device is that you get most of the basic features.  If your favorite device doesn't have all of the features you want, one strategy is to have a laptop handy and a Netflix browser tab open.   This is what my Mom does as her Samsung BluRay player has a limited UI.

I won't bore you with browser screen shots, but suffice it to say that you have complete control over your netflix account, netflix streaming, browsing, searching, etc.


  • Most powerful interface
  • Access to all of Netflix's features
  • Now streams in High Definition to your PC
  • Constantly being updated
  • Not couch friendly (a Hulu Desktop equivalent would be nice...)
  • Need keyboard & mouse to use
  • Your PC must be up to the task of streaming content or else you may get poor performance
3. Netflix Streaming on the Wii

Streaming movies on your Wii is really easy to setup.  If you have a Wii, all you need to do is request a free Wii streaming disc from Netflix.  Once you load the disc (and activate your Wii with Netflix), you will see a pretty simple (but functional) interface:

Unfortunately, the Wii can only display standard definition resolutions (480p), not high definition (720p or 1080i/p).  This shows up right away as you can only see a few thumbnails at a time and they are clearly not as sharp as what is shown in Media Center or via your browser interfaces.  Nevertheless, what the Wii lacks in resolution, it makes up for in a simple, easy to use interface.

Since screen real-estate is limited, you have at top a drop-down menu that allows you to select your instant queue, recently watched movies, or some pre-selected movie genres to browse:

Once you select a movie, you can get some information on it, play it, add it to your queue, etc:

 Finally, once you start playing a movie, skipping to your favorite scenes is super easy with the Wii controller:


  • Simple and easy to use UI
  • Free (with your Wii and Netflix)
  • Fast interface
  • Picture quality is limited to standard definition (480p), no High Definition possible.
  • You need to have the Netflix Wii disc loaded
  • No search or on-screen virtual keyboard
  • Can't browse all genres
  • Only displays one row of movie icons
  • No advanced features, just basic functionality.
4. Netflix via Boxee App (on a Media PC)

Using Netflix in Boxee is just as easy to set up as the Wii.  You need to authorize Boxee to login to your Netflix account.  This requires you to enter both your Boxee and Netflix information (and accept a cookie).  You also need to have Silverlight installed (which you probably already do if you are running a Media PC).

Once you launch Boxee and click on the Netflix app, you will see a simple interface with a left-hand side menu system:

Once you click on a title (or series in this case), you will see a bit more information about the title and can select play:

Playback looks a bit different using Boxee, but the controls work as you'd expect:


  • Embedded (as an app) in Boxee
  • Ability to browse genres (unlike Media Center or the Wii)
  • Search via on-screen keyboard
  • Shows ratings under each title (nice, IMO)
  • Poor use of screen real-estate (only 8 movies shown at a time)
  • Can't access DVD queue
  • No advanced features (show alternative movie titles, etc.)
As far as I can tell, the only minor advantage that Boxee has over Media Center is the ability to browse genres.  Otherwise, there aren't as many features and in general the interface is less polished and seems slower to me.

5. Netflix Streaming via Samsung BD-P1600 BluRay Disc Player

The Samsung BD-P1600 multi-function/purpose BluRay player has quite a bit going for it and is surprisingly cheap.  It will play BluRay discs, stream Netflix, Pandora, Blockbuster and even YouTube.  However, as we will see in a minute, it's UI is one of it's major weaknesses.  That said, you really can't knock it too much for the price (under $100) and it has good picture quality.  If you don't want the complexity of a Media PC, you might want to consider a device like this.   First of all, it is pretty small, about the size of most compact DVD players and has a flip down front panel:

To launch Netflix, you power it up and press the B function on the remote:

The biggest drawback of the Samsung's Netflix UI is that it only allows you to browse your instant streaming queue.  You can not add to your queue, or browse Netflix looking for new titles to watch.  Clearly, you need to have a computer handy to add titles to your instant queue before you want to watch them on the Samsung:

Once you select the title you want to watch, you get basic information about the movie:

Finally, you have basic playback controls and can skip to specific scenes pretty easily.


  • Cheap (<$100), stand-alone multi-function/purpose player
  • Supports streaming High Definition Netflix content
  • Extremely limited Netflix UI, you will need a browser to add titles to your Instant queue
  • Some annoying UI quirks (like insisting you remove any discs before you can stream).
  • Samsung's remote control is not great
Update:  LG BD300 BluRay Disc Player

I had a chance to use one of these at my friend's house.  Although I didn't have the Samsung BD-P1600 on hand to do a side-by-side comparison, the two players had nearly identical Netflix interfaces.

From memory, I'd say the LG's interface seemed a bit snappier.  However, it has the same Cons listed above as the Samsung.

Note that we applied the most recent update to the BD300 before trying it out.
6. Sony Playstation 3

Like the Wii, the Sony PS3 has the ability to stream Netflix movies.  However, the PS3 has the added advantage in that it supports High Definition.

When you launch Netflix, you see your instant queue.  Pressing the left and right arrows navigates to the preselected genres/category (and you see a single row of movies available):

When you select a movie, you get basic information about it and can start/resume playback.

Finally, playback is pretty simple, but functional.  Like other players, you can seek forward/backward in the movie by thumbnail.


  • Free (with your PS3 and Netflix)
  • Streams in High Definition
Cons (similar to the Wii):
  • You need to have the Netflix PS3 disc loaded
  • No search or on-screen virtual keyboard
  • Can't browse all genres
  • Only displays one row of movie icons
  • No advanced features, just basic functionality.
UPDATE:  Some people have search, others don't.  See comments below.
    Related reading / links

    This seems to be a popular topic and I've found a few other good articles comparing Netflix streaming devices.  If you find any more, let me know and I'll add them here.


    1. PS3 has search (main screen, up, left) with an on-screen keyboard. I think that the fast-forwarding UI is a drawback, as compared with using a web browser.

    2. No Xbox? It's similar to your description of the ps3 version, except that no disc (or absence of a disc for that matter) is ever required.

    3. I'd actually plug the Xbox 360 in above the Samsung Blu-Ray player, at least. You have the ability to watch in HD and to search for new titles with it, all from your couch using the controller as a remote.

    4. Regarding the PS3 search feature, I've read in several places that only certain people have the search available. Perhaps there are special discs that weren't released to everyone. My friend's PS3 doesn't seem to have search. Hopefully, Sony/Netflix will provide an update and add this.

    5. The Search feature on the PS3 just showed up for us one day a few weeks ago. No new disc was involved, though we were inexplicably prompted to revalidate the PS3 with Netflix. That may have happened around the same time....

    6. The ps3 is a very glitch driven choice, freezes after a month of use, lock up the console, sometimes it takes a very long time to even load. I have personally been through more than 10 discs after 6 months of use. I have the original 60gig ps3.

    7. The apple TV 2 (or, is it Apple ][ ? ) has excellent hi-def netflix steaming; the UI is one of the best, support vimeo, youtube and many others and is also really cheap (< $100).


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