NEEDED: DIGITAL POPCORN 


If you're one of the 6 million or so people who subscribe to Netflix, you may have noticed something new on their site lately. Between January and March, Netflix gradually rolled out a new feature they call "instant viewing," and it's now available to all subscribers. It's a way of streaming movies directly to your computer, over the Internet, in real time. It's similar to movies-on-demand from your cable operator, but the on-demand offerings of cable and satellite providers offer a small rotating list of selections, and most of the time there is a significant surcharge tacked on to your bill at the end of the month. Netflix, however, includes instant viewing as part of your subscription — no additional expense is involved. The selection of titles is remarkable as well.They currently offer more than 2,000 titles, and they plan to have a library of 5,000 by the end of the year.

"Netflix `mail order rentals` started with only 2,000 titles," says Steve Swasey, corporate communications director at Netflix. "Now we have over 42,000." Swasey says Netflix will be investing $40 million this year to expand and improve the instant viewing feature. Even over the last couple of weeks, hundreds of movies have been added to the instant viewing library.

So how useful is the new feature? That depends. Right now, to stream movies from Netflix, you need to have a relatively modern PC capable of running Windows software and a high-speed Internet connection. Instant viewing relies on Microsoft's Windows Media Player software and Internet Explorer. This means Mac users need a newer Intel Mac and Boot Camp or Parallels software to run Windows and IE to enjoy the feature. It also means it can be a bit of a hassle if you want to watch the movies on anything except your computer.

I tested the feature using a new Dell laptop, running Windows XP, Service Pack 2. The first time I tried to stream a movie, I encountered some weird video distortion, but I quickly corrected the problem by updating my system to Windows Media Player 11. Once my software was updated, Netflix installed a small piece of DRM software for Windows Media Player, and I was off to the movies.

The movies stream directly to a web browser window, but they can easily be maximized to play full screen. Depending on your connection speed, video quality can vary, but on my standard cable modem connection, I was consistantly able to get the highest-quality stream with no problems. At this level, the video and audio quality were perfectly acceptable. I found that video quality was generally better than VHS, but not as good as DVD. It compared favorably with DIVX DVD rips that one commonly sees distributed through BitTorrent. With BitTorrent, however, you can't play the movie until the entire file has downloaded, which can take hours or days. Netflix movies can be started nearly immediately — I found there was an average delay of less than a minute-from when you selected the movie until playback started. Once the movie began, interruptions or buffering were rare. I only had two or three instances of buffering occur after watching more than a dozen movies. There were occasionally video artifacts or jerky motion, but no worse than one sometimes sees with digital cable television.

I quickly decided that I wanted to watch-movies on my television rather than on the computer screen. In my case, this was pretty easy — two simple adapters got video to my TV and audio to my stereo using standard RCA connections. People with Windows Media Center machines in their living rooms should require no extra setup at all. Your mileage may vary, depending on what kind of hardware you have. Once I was set up using my regular entertainment devices, I liked the quality even better. The stereo sound was clear, and the video looked better on my standard definition television than on my high-def computer monitor. In fact, the only film I had any serious quality complaints about was Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes 2, and after looking at other customer comments on the movie, I learned that this was because the original DVD transfer had been so poor.

What I liked best about instant viewing was that I could decide on the spur of the moment what I wanted to watch, instead of wandering about in a video store looking for something that piqued my interest, or waiting a couple of days for my next Netflix DVD to arrive. If, after watching a little of my selection, I decided I wanted to watch something else instead, then it was trivial to switch to something else. It also allowed me to try out stuff that I might not have taken a risk on otherwise. This kind of random-access "movie surfing" is more akin to flipping TV channels or picking through an MP3 collection than to renting movies. It was like my DVD collection had grown by thousands of titles overnight.

Are there any downsides? Sure. Most Mac and all Linux users are unable to use this initial incarnation of the system; Netflix claims they are addressing this shortcoming in a future iteration.

There is no high-def content, so quality may not be the best on your 42-inch plasma. There are special licensing considerations for the streaming service, so not a lot of current blockbusters are available; most films are several years old. Netflix negotiates these rights directly with the studios that produce the films, and streaming licensing can compete with broadcast rights on cable and network television. However, there's enough of a selection to keep most people interested.

Also, there is a cap on the amount you can watch. You get an hour of instant viewing time per month for every dollar your subscription costs; if you spend $14.99 a month for the two-at-a-time DVD plan, you get 15 hours of instant viewing that month for free.

This additional feature represents a significant added value for Netflix customers, and serves as a little peek into the future of media distribution — instant, on-demand access to enormous libraries of content. The value will increase even more when you can access the service from more devices (the Xbox 360, for example, seems like a no-brainer) and as the number of offerings increases. Now, all we need is a way to get our popcorn delivered digitally.

film@orlandoweekly.com

More by Ian Monroe

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