Review: Netflix Watch Instantly on 4 Devices

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We compare Netflix streaming on TivoHD, Samsung Blu-ray, Roku Netflix Player and Windows Media Center.


Aug. 10, 2009 — by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

It seems that every TV or settop box manufacturer is now supporting Netflix for their CE products. Enter the Netflix menu and you can review and select titles in your Watch Instantly queue – from the convenience of your couch.

But the Netflix experience is different across all of the different products. Which is the best?

I’ve been lucky enough to incorporate into my home theater several different devices with Netflix Watch Instantly support:

How do they stack up?

TivoHD
The TivoHD has always been the most used source device in my theater.

When Netflix support originally appeared on my TivoHD, I was excited by the promise of a new content avenue. But I was instantly let down by the lack of interesting content. Luckily, over the last several months, partnerships with Stars, CBS, Disney, and other studios have expanded the available content.

The TivoHD implementation of Netflix feels very much at home on the device.

Menus retain the standard Tivo format, fonts, and overall feel, with Netflix branding only going as far as the logo and color scheme. Netflix on the Tivo feels like an extension of the Tivo service, not a separate application that happens to be added on to the Tivo hardware. 

Your Watch Instantly queue is shown with titles in LIST view and cover images to the right, in contrast to the rest of the devices that implement a side-scrolling panel view. This arrangement fits the feel of the Tivo interface well, but at the same time makes it feel much more like you’re getting ready to watch a TV show as opposed to a rented movie.

Content loads quickly and the on-screen UI (user interface) elements are logical, although a bit more of a departure from the rest of the Tivo style.

One major boon of the TivoHD is it locks in at higher quality levels all the way up to HD a bit more consistently than the rest of the devices. Image quality for HD titles is somewhere between DVD and HDTV and very acceptable, even on larger screens (like my 100-inch 720p front projection setup). SD titles, however, are tough to watch on larger screens, though passable on anything 42 inches and below (what most casual viewers will be using).

Tivo has done a great job integrating Netflix Watch Instantly into the TivoHD without it feeling like an add-on. It feels like it belongs right where it is and has been there all along.  It probably won’t be the reason you buy a TivoHD, but it’s a great addition if you’re considering the box or already have one.

Having multiple devices, it’s not my first choice for Netflix viewing, but if it were my only option I wouldn’t feel the need to add a different dedicated device.Roku Player
The Roku Player, to date, is the only box purposed specifically for Netflix Watch Instantly. It has added Amazon Unbox support (also included on the TivoHD), but Netflix streaming is its primary function.

I’ll go ahead and say up front: if you’re only looking to add Netflix Watch Now support, this is the device to get. It’s cheap ($99), it’s wired or wireless, and it’s dead easy to set up and use.

The Roku interface is extremely simple to use. Titles from your queue are presented in a side-scrolling panel of cover art icons. Title, run time, rating, and an HD indicator are shown for the title highlighted, while description and playback/rating/deletion options are shown once the title is selected.


You get a twofer with the $99 Roku Player: Netflix and Amazon.

It’s hard to expound on details of the interface because it’s so intuitive. I’m not sure if I’m breaking any literary rules here, but it has a very basic elegance, where most CE GUIs almost seem like an afterthought.

Playback performance mimics that of the TivoHD. I used the film Serenity for my playback tests, partly because it’s one of my favorites, but mainly because I could easily compare the Netflix HD image quality to DVD and Blu-ray (played back through the Samsung P2550), and HDTV (recorded on the TivoHD from UniversalHD).

HD images look great, if not quite as sharp or rich as HDTV, but are a very noticeable step down from Blu-ray. It’s a tougher comparison to DVD. The picture definitely has more resolution in static images, but motion seemed to blur a bit more on Netflix playback. I’d still say the Netflix 720p HD image quality still falls somewhere above DVD but below 1080i HDTV over cable.

To reiterate my opening statements on this device, if you’re ONLY looking for Netflix playback on a TV or theater display, this is the device to get.

The Roku player is my second choice of the devices I have in my theater.Samsung BD-P2550 Blu-ray Player
I picked up the Samsung BD-P2550 for one reason: its Reon HQV video processing.

Other than a few BD players offering Realta HQV and Anchor Bay VRS video processing — all of which were well out of my price range — it was one of the few BD players offering a high-end video scaling solution.

As a secondary benefit, the Reon HQV video processing is also applied to the player’s Netflix playback.

I won’t go into too much detail about this player’s UI, mainly because it’s identical to that of the Roku Player. From a connectivity standpoint, the P2550 lacks the Roku Player’s wireless connection option, but the same can be said about the TivoHD. Both devices can work wirelessly with a wireless Ethernet bridge. All of my testing was done, however, using a wired 100 Mbps Ethernet connection and 5 Mbps cable Internet connection.

The P2550 has become my go-to Netflix streaming choice for one reason: image quality. The Reon HQV processing goes a long way in making non-HD Netflix content watchable on my 100-inch screen. Blocking and noise are greatly reduced, and just enough sharpening is applied to bring out detail without looking artificial.

It’s still not DVD quality, but it comes close. There are titles I simply could not watch on the other devices that are at least passable on the P2550. The Reon HQV processing is much less noticeable on HD content, mainly since it’s not performing scaling or deinterlacing duties (at least not for my 720p display, which matches the resolution of HD Netflix content).

There is some subtle noise reduction applied that does a good job of also masking the rare streaming artifact without killing detail.

Here comes the bad news: The P2550 is now discontinued, and Samsung has moved away from the Reon processing in the P3600 that replaced it.

This means there’s currently not a Netflix playback device available with a higher-end video processing chipset. The P3600, and even the lower-end P1600, do a good job of scaling DVD and Netflix material, but not as good as the P2550, especially on large screens.

It’s not all bad news. The Samsung P2550 has a near-identical sister, the P2500, with the only difference being a lack of Pandora music streaming.

If you’re looking for a BD player with the best DVD and Netflix available, I’d grab a clearance or refurbished P2550 (new for about $350) while you still can. You can find the P2500 (new) on clearance at Amazon.com for $250.Windows Vista Media Center Plug-in
Netflix recently introduced a free Windows Media Center plug-in for Watch Instantly.

It’s surprising that it took Netflix and Microsoft so long. The hardware and bulk of the software is already there on the Media Center and connected to both the display and Internet.

It’s also surprising that the long-awaited Netflix plug-in for Media Center is so weak. The plug-in’s UI builds well enough on the WMC style and integrates well, but it feels very basic and incomplete, almost like Beta software.

Titles are presented in two rows of tiles, scrolled left-to-right. This makes the screen look cluttered, and the wrapped sorting isn’t extremely intuitive when it comes to finding anything in the middle of your queue. You can’t predict if it’s at the end of the first row or beginning of the second. For larger queues this is a major problem.

Also, the highlighted title grows in size only marginally, and only the title is shown in the bottom corner in small text. Once a title is selected, all the info you would expect is presented, but there’s a large amount of dead space.

There is one significant benefit of the WMC Netflix implementation: you can search and play any Netflix title available for Watch Instantly. You can also add new titles to your queue. Or you can simply explore Netflix as you might do with your PC.

With the other devices, you still have to set up your queue on the PC, and the TV interface just gives you access to those titles.


You can browse the entire Netflix library and add titles to your queue. However, the two-tier display is not intuitive

The WMC feature is not enough to save the poor UI experience. I would probably recommend one of the other devices even for folks who already have an HTPC integrated into their setup.

The playback experience is another big mark against the plug-in. Playback is limited to the same quality that you would see in browser-based Watch Instantly. This means no HD playback whatsoever.

The MS Silverlight implementation also limits hardware-accelerated decoding and scaling, so CPU loads are going to be higher than they should be. It almost seems as if the plug-in is geared towards a desktop integration, even though the WMC environment is obviously meant to integrate the PC with the TV/theater environment.

The WMC Netflix plug-in, to date, is not developed enough for me to recommend it to anyone running an HTPC on a screen larger than 32 inches. The playback quality is hindered by the lack of HD support and the UI is cluttered and unintuitive.


Summary
This is a hard group to compare because the primary nature of the various devices are so different.

The device that represents the best value for a given situation is probably going to be the device you already have or need in your setup.

If you need a DVR, the TivoHD will serve that purpose well and offer a solid Netflix experience.

If you need a BD player, a BD player with Netflix will give you the best of both worlds. And if you can get your hands on the Samsung P2550, you’ll benefit greatly from the best Netflix image quality available thanks to the Reon HQV processing.

If you’re looking for just Netflix integration (great gift for the parents!) the Roku Player is an unbeatable value proposition.

If you already have an HTPC, the WMC plug-in is free and will give you a good first taste, but will probably leave you wanting more.

As the content expands and the number of available devices grow, most theater setups will soon probably have more trouble deciding which of their several Netflix enabled devices to use, not which Netflix enabled device they should invest in.



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