Review: Netflix Watch Instantly on 4 Devices
We compare Netflix streaming on TivoHD, Samsung Blu-ray, Roku Netflix Player and Windows Media Center.
August 10, 2009 by Stephen Hopkins
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.

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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Stephen Hopkins is chief technology editor for EH Publishing. He writes product reviews, features, and focuses heavily on 3D TV, iPhone and iPad apps, and digital content.

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