Netflix in the UK, a PC user’s perspective
Well this year it finally arrived. Netflix, the premier US digital media provider came to the UK giving us access to quality movie and TV show streaming (they do not provide a disc service in the UK) for a reasonable price of £5.99 a month.
I had been waiting for this for quite some time as I had the opportunity to test out the US service a while back and I was very impressed. Due to licensing restrictions and contracts, the content available in the UK differs both in quantity and variety and it is fair to say that the American offering is currently superior. Despite this it is my opinion that the selection is much better the the offering from Amazon’s LoveFilm , who at the moment have a smaller selection, no HD content and a poorer quality streaming service technically.
How To Watch Netflix Content
Netflix offers many ways to watch their content from mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets to gaming consoles to Blu-Ray players. They also provide streaming access via their website using Microsoft Silverlight. It can be argued that Netflix see 3rd party devices as the primary method of watching as it seems to get the most support, something I personally find quite annoying. Since I consume my media exclusively via Home Theatre PCs it makes life a little difficult when it comes to Netflix.
The PC problem
Netflix provide some fantastic apps for 3rd party devices. If you have the right device in your living room you can sit back and relax using your remote control to navigate Netflix and playback your content. Unfortunately as far as Netflix is concerned, the PC user seems to be a second class citizen. There is virtually NOTHING available for the PC that optimises the experience. (There are a couple of options that I will go into later).
For PC users their are certain other limitations.
Firstly as the streaming method uses Microsoft Silverlight you need to be running an operating system that this supports, namely Windows or Mac OS X. There is no Silverlight support for Linux operating systems which many Home Theatre PC enthusiasts use their the basis for their “bare bones” media centres due to the fact that these installations are so customisable and have the ability to be fine tuned.
The second limitation is Silverlight itself. Although, in my opinion, it is about 500% better than Adobe’s Flash for video streaming, HD content from Netflix does not play nicely with low powered “net top” PCs which are a popular choice as HTPCs for many enthusiasts including this one. I don’t pretend to know all the technical details but the doesn’t seem to be any GPU acceleration support in Silverlight streams from Netflix. Net top machines, typically Intel Atom / Ion2 based systems rely on this feature to be able to reliably support HD quality playback. Both my HTPCs are Atom/ Ion2 based and they are capable of 1080p video and Blu-Ray playback but when fed a 720p Netflix stream the best they seem to be able to produce is a video running at about 2 FPS! Luckily for those in my position there is a workaround but you do lose full HD playback. In essence, you read a pretty beefy CPU to handle an HD Netflix stream.
If you do manage to get smooth HD playback on a PC you will find that your movie’s audio in only playing back in stereo! Netflix offers many movies and TV shows in HD and WITH 5.1 audio but this is not available via PC streaming. As far as I know this is an artificial limitation as Silverlight does have the ability to pass through 5.1 audio. I see this as another example of Netflix’s disinterest in the PC user.
But there are PC “apps”
There are PC apps available for Netflix you say? Well yes there are but all of them are really front ends to the web streams. The best one both in terms of usability and looks in my opinion is the addon for Windows Media Center. Boxee used to provide a Netflix addon for their PC users but this has since been disabled (and Boxee for the PC has been abandoned in favour of the Boxee Box by its creators) and removed. Several “media centre” systems such as XBMC and Mediaportal have their own front end plugins too.
If you are a HTPC Netflix user in the USA you most likely use the Windows Media Center plugin. This has been available for while and it is very nice. As it is basically just a sophisticated front end UI the same hardware limitations apply to it as streaming directly from the website, so using a net top for HD is a no go.
To make matters worse, it is incompatible with UK Netflix accounts. When Netflix launched in the UK I naively thought I could get this to work and I was very disappointed when it didn’t. The first hurdle is actually getting the app to appear on a UK machine. As standard it doesn’t and you have to tweak your registry a little and set your machine to be situated in the US which is a major problem as you would then lose your UK TV settings if you are using Media Center as a DVR. If you get it to appear you can log in to your UK Netflix account and browse content (only if it thinks you are in the US, but I’ll get to that later) but nothing will play. It appears UK accounts are not supported by the Netflix API which these apps use. There is a small exception as i did manage to get the XBMC Netflix plugin XBMCFlicks “partially” working which i will go into in another post.
After contacting Netflix support with the enquiry if the Media Center app would be updated for UK use and being ignored (and also finding out it was never updated for Canadian users who got Netflix over a year ago!) I’ve come to the conclusion that Netflix are just not interested in their PC customers.
Limitations and benefits of Netflix UK
So apart from it’s content is Netflix UK they same as Netflix US? Well, not quite. For some inexplicable reason Netflix decided not to grace UK users with an instant queue at the time of writing. With the amount of content available, an instant queue is pretty essential in keeping track of things you may find while browsing the catalogue for later viewing. There is no technical reason that I can see for not including this and I am baffled. Perhaps they will introduce this “revolutionary” feature later?
You may ask why I am a Netflix customer after reading this article as I don’t seem to have much that is good say about them. Although there are problems in usability for the PC user, once you get your content playing it is superb quality and a great value for money service. The other added bonus is that since Netflix went “international” so did their user accounts. If you’re abroad in a country that has Netflix you can sign in with your account and have access to the content available in the country you are currently in. The beauty of this is if you use a VPN service or something similar it has the same effect, instant access to US content for example. I have personally gone down that route as the American content is far superior.
If you are a TV and movie fan you can’t go wrong with joining Netflix. With so many viewing options it is a superb value for money service. Just don’t choose a PC as your preferred consumption method unless you are already invested in it like me!