With the announcement that the PlayStation 3 would be able to stream Netflix Instant Watch content in HD, it remained a mystery how that might work without a major system software or firmware update. Netflix and Sony soon announced the solution: A special Netflix-enabled Blu-ray disc that would access BD-Live via the Internet in order to stream content from Netflix’s growing Instant Watch library. Depending on which tech forum you read, this required disc will probably disappear sometime in 2010 when Sony will release either a software or firmware upgrade that will make access to a user’s Netflix account more seamless.
The fact that this isn’t yet a reality either stems from Sony not wanting to do an immediate upgrade or, more likely, due to a contract issue that Netflix has with Microsoft for the Xbox 360 regarding exclusivity. Whatever… the disc solution is a viable alternative. It works, and is relatively painless to set up and run while presenting no barrier to enjoying streaming movies and TV from your Netflix account. For Netflix users and cinema geeks, it’s yet another dream come true.
The service is, of course, limited to those who already have a Netflix subscription, but for the second lowest subscription price (2-disc delivery plan) the door is open to a wide-ranging catalog of titles available for streaming. Users have a choice of loading up their Instant Watch queue via computer, or by choosing from various genre and title categories found directly in the onscreen Instant Watch menu.
First things first… there’s the little issue of procuring that special Netflix disc. Users to either the Sony or Netflix site are usually directed to: http://www.netflix.com/NRD/PS3. The disc usually arrives within a few days of requesting it, and comes to your mailbox in a typical Netflix snail mail red envelope. Be aware of this envelope because it (and the red disc sleeve) contains instructions on what to do next… not that it’s incredibly hard to figure out, mind you. You’ll want to keep that protective disc sleeve handy, as this is one disc you won’t be returning to Netflix… and, yes— if lost, broken, etc. it can be replaced.
The disc is required to access Netflix via the PS3 through the BD-Live network that most Blu-ray discs still have yet to fully exploit. Once you receive the disc, you’ll need to activate it via your Netflix account, but otherwise you’ll just load the disc as you would any DVD/BD disc. Users can access the Netflix icon that will appear under Video in the PlayStation’s XMB menu if the disc doesn’t start-up the moment it’s slipped into the PS3, but that’s about it for set-up.
The disc will spin, access BD-Live through your PS3’s Internet capability and show a bright red Netflix splash screen before the Instant Watch menu comes up. The menu, you’ll note, is in HD, but the selections from Netflix vary and can be either SD or HD quality. Menu selections can include Recently Watched, New Arrivals, Drama, Horror, Romance, Television— the usual gamut of categories— but users will notice that these selections will change depending on what you add to your queue, watch and rate and are updated frequently.
I was able to access my Instant Watch queue immediately after loading the disc… well, most of it anyway. The queue seems clipped to a manageable amount of titles that the streaming onscreen menu can show. Similar to the Roku and the Xbox, the PS3’s Netflix menu offers a horizontal scroll back and forth through the titles available in your queue or by category in the tabbed header menu. It’s all accessed via the directional arrow buttons on the PS3’s controller or other type of remote recognized by the PS3 or an HDMI link.
I’ll give higher marks to the Xbox (and Roku) for a more elegant look and easier navigational feel, but the PS3’s menu is just fine. By using the directional arrow button of the controller you’ll be able to get a more in-depth look at the title, be able to add it to your queue, watch it immediately and even rate it. Movie selection is limited to Instant Watch titles only and it’s easy to add them to the main queue via the onscreen navigation or by way of a computer logged into a Netflix account. In fact, that latter mode of operation still might be the preferred way to load up your own queue.
As with the version of Instant Watch via computer, Netflix’s library is limited by licensing issues and the iron-fist of the studios and other distributors of content all looking to make a buck and get you to buy the newest, most popular films and television episodes rather than rent them. You can find a ton of cut-out Z-grade titles as well as older movies (the classics and not-so-classic). There’s a fine selection of BBC shows and a variety of quickie documentaries and biographies, but don’t despair… Netflix does manage to sneak in more popular fare and newer titles when it can, and its relationship with the Starz channel allows them to show a lot of great titles that premium cable generally carries. I’ve got Mystery Science Theater 3K episodes loaded as well as a Pixies concert, a documentary on the old, magnificent Z-Channel and The Visitor starring Richard Jenkins, who snagged a best actor nomination for the role a year back. Dexter, Weeds and other premium cable shows are available, but though you’ll find complete seasons of such stuff, you won’t find every season.
Once you’ve made a selection for viewing, the title will load and buffer, but from there operating the Instant Watch system is much like operating a DVR… you can pause, fast-forward and reverse through the selection as it plays, with an onscreen scene breakdown and timeline making it easy to navigate to and fro. As for image quality, well… that’s where Netflix on your HDTV leaves a lot of room for improvement.
Standard-def content is the Instant Watch norm for now, but as HD titles begin to come online, they are added to replace the SD versions. SD movies and TV content varies between VHS-quality and the quality of early DVD releases before studios figured out that re-mastering their titles added value to them. Viewers will find an SD image that often lacks definition with soft edges and muddy colors that tend to bleed into one another. The soft image quality tends to affect everything from the weave on clothing to hair and film grain, making the details of some content hard to distinguish. In some cases, and depending on the strength of the network signal used, images can appear blocky and pixilated with some digital noise apparent during fast-moving scenes and scene transitions.
However, that’s not the case for every title or viewing experience. If you have a solid and speedy Internet connection (especially over wi-fi) the image quality of most SD titles can be pretty darned good, though it won’t make you stop renting traditional DVD discs anytime soon… but, again, this is something that will evolve as Netflix continues to improve the compression and buffering of content while broadband networks also improve. For most folks, the image quality won’t be any worse than connecting a laptop showcasing Netflix Instant Watch to an HDTV via DVI-to-HDMI connectivity.
HD content, of which there is an increasing amount, is of much better quality though it still suffers from some digital issues during scene transitions. The quality is generally up to 720p, and it helps to set your PS3 to a comparable resolution for playback. Adjust the picture setting of an HDTV display and the image quality of Instant Watch HD titles is very good though, again, it won’t make anyone with a true love of cinema stop renting or buying discs. The quality of Netflix’s HD content will almost certainly get better with time, but for now it’s more than serviceable and worth the cost for instant gratification rather than waiting for downloads (of negligible quality) from other on-demand services.
Netflix for the PS3 is perfect for those that can’t get enough content or have ditched their cable or satellite service, and most users will be very happy with the service even if they are new to the Netflix experience. The Netflix/PS3 disc may become superfluous within the next year, but for now it works wonderfully and does everything that was promised when the service was announced. As Netflix irons out licensing issues and other legal bugaboos, expect the service to evolve to include newer titles, though I love being able to find a lot of truly quirky and indie stuff via the Instant Watch service, and never tire of having access to the variety of content provided. I’ve repeatedly sat up to the wee hours since getting the Netflix/PS3 disc, watching more Instant Watch titles than I thought I’d dare to in one sitting. Much like Homer Simpson at an all-you-can-eat buffet (“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, do these sound like the actions of a man whose had ALL he could eat?”) I don’t regret a moment of it… yet.