Netflix, the much adored American movie rental service, has finally touched down on UK soil. Like the US service on which it's based, it provides film fans with an opportunity to gorge themselves silly on an unlimited supply of streamed movies and TV for a set monthly fee.
It sounds like the greatest thing since Blockbuster, but we decided to see for ourselves how it compares with established UK-based services such as Lovefilm and alternatives like Virgin Media, Sky or the tried and tested favourite of yesteryear -- getting up off your backside and going to the cinema. Let's see how it fared.
Unlike Netflix in America, which will post DVDs to your house, Netflix UK only allows you to watch content via the Internet. You can enjoy movies and TV programmes via your laptop or desktop as well as Wii, PS3 or Xbox 360 games consoles. It'll work on portable devices, too -- both Android and iOS apps are available -- so you can enjoy content on the move using Wi-Fi and 3G connectivity.
Netflix doesn't divulge exactly how much content is available on the service, but states it has 'thousands' of films and TV episodes in its library. There's certainly a fair amount of choice, including popular UK shows such as The Inbetweeners, Skins and The IT Crowd. The choice of films spans most of the genres we can think of.
However, it's sorely lacking in new releases. We couldn't find a single currently best-selling DVD at the time of writing. In fact, we struggled to unearth anything released in 2011 that wasn't either incredibly obscure or utterly pants. The first three movies in the action and adventure section, as presented to us, were Apocalypto (2006), Battle Royale (2001) and Robocop (1373 BC), which really made us doubt the breadth of the Netflix library.
The pricing structure is very basic. Customers pay £5.99 per month and receive unlimited streaming access to every single movie in the Netflix library. What's more, you can watch those movies as many times as you want. Plus it's possible to watch multiple films simultaneously using the same account.
If you and your loved one can't decide what to watch, there's nothing stopping you -- at the moment, at least -- from watching both of your programmes at the same time using a separate gadget. Attempting to watch a third causes an error message that states you're trying to access Netflix on too many concurrent devices.
Ease of use
Using Netflix couldn't be easier. If accessing the service via the website, you simply enter your login details and you're presented with a grid of DVD cover artwork. If you're spoilt for choice, Netflix will show you a list of what films your friends have been watching. If they've connected the service to their Facebook profile, Facebook will alert you to the fact they've just started viewing a particular programme so you can engage in witty banter or watch too.
Better still, Netflix will allow you to rate the films you've already watched. It uses these ratings to recommend other programmes you may be interested in. You don't even have to have watched them on Netflix -- just use the ratings wizard, which lives under the 'suggestions for you' tab, and you can start telling the service what tickles your fancy.
Netflix has a really cool fast-forward and rewind function that lets you see a thumbnail of each scene as you skip back and forth. It will even let you switch devices mid-movie. If you've started a film on your Xbox 360 in the living room, for example, and fancy finishing it in the bedroom or toilet, you can simply fire-up your iPad and carry on watching from the exact moment you left off.
Image quality on Netflix is, in a word, variable. The output depends almost entirely on your Internet speed. Access it on a slow connection (Netflix says a minimum 500Kb connection is required), and the footage will look like something that was shot with an old camera phone. Log on using a faster line, however, and things improve dramatically -- particularly if you're watching something from Netflix's limited 'HD' section.
We're reluctant to call it 'high-definition' -- that's an insult to Blu-ray. But if your Internet service provider's pipes are fat enough, the service can deliver a picture that's more than acceptable, even when piped through to a big 50-inch display.
It's worth noting that even if the hardware heavens have aligned and you're getting a fabulous picture, consistency is not guaranteed. The Netflix service will dynamically degrade or improve its picture quality to maintain smooth playback, so be prepared for variations in picture quality as your available bandwidth rises and falls.
You can give yourself the best possible chance of a decent image by changing the default video setting to 'best quality' and telling little Johnny to lay off the YouTube videos before you hit play.
Netflix is a genuinely impressive service for many reasons. It's enormously convenient, its picture quality is potentially quite good and it's affordable. However, the site is far from perfect. It's of little use to anyone with a slow Internet connection and the current library of movies is hugely disappointing.
We can't really recommend it to anyone who likes watching new DVD releases or sticklers for stable, high-definition image quality. But if you're into browsing older, perhaps more obscure titles, or want to hit movies you missed the first time around, it's certainly worth your cash.