Netflix streaming video

December 1, 2008 / Giving streaming a go.

All Netflix subscriptions currently give you access to a subset of titles you can “Watch Instantly.” I finally got curious about this and did some digging and discovered it’s available on Intel Macs (not PowerPCs) and PCs. Having two PowerPCs I was lamenting this fact aloud to Elena like a dim, thinking-out-loud person, when it dawned on me that we do have a PC—in the attic, since the move. Now that we have a new TV with a HDMI port, it would be possible to connect the PC to the tellie, and then maybe we could really use this in the living room. And so, a test.

The first thing was to see if I can get the Watch Instantly feature to work, and the second whether it would produce an acceptable result on the TV. Part 1 was successful (after ridiculous problems occasioned by bringing an 18-month dormant PC online), and that small victory has got me wondering about Part 2. I don’t have a connecting cable on hand just yet. The standard LCD display I tested on has a resolution of 1280 x 1024 pixels. Our TV is 1366 x 768 natively, so I’m assuming it will be comparable when the Netflix player is in full screen mode.

I’ve tried two movies so far, Dan in Real Life and Cashback. For these two movies, at full screen, the picture is not sharp. But as far as streaming video goes the playback is rock solid, and the audio quality on my powered desktop speakers seems decent. According to Netflix the overall picture quality is variable by design with four main encoding levels; the player uses your network connection speed to determine the delivered quality:

Our first-gen PC streaming player uses 1-4 bars to represent the delivered quality, representing 500, 1000, 1600, and 2200 kbps. The 3400kbps encodes are represented as 4 bars. The player measures bandwidth once at the start of the title, and chooses a bitrate for delivery that has at least 40% headroom from the measured speed.

The amount of headroom (it seems like a lot?) might account for why I didn’t notice any stuttering during playback. Also, starting, pausing and scrubbing the timeline were all very responsive operations. It felt as though the response was instantaneous, or nearly so. My PC is connected to the Internet by wireless and the signal strength is currently a bit weak because of its physical proximity to the base station. I was getting three bars (out of four), according to the Netflix site, when I initialised the movie. I’m planning to test the service again when I can connect it to the TV, and hopefully that will mean a faster network speed as well.

While I’m at it, I’m also planning to try out Criterion Collection’s Online Cinematheque, which requires an Intel Mac or a PC, in this case using Flash Player 10. I wonder how that will hold up over a full length movie. Allynn tells me that Flash video typically has audio/video track syncing problems for movies longer than about 30 minutes. They must have addressed it, so, curious…

Update: InstantWatcher is a third-party web site that makes it easier to search and browse the Netflix streaming video library.

† My testing setup included Windows XP (SP3), Internet Explorer 6 and Windows Media Player 11 on an otherwise bare bones Athlon 1.8 GHz PC with 736 MB RAM.

2 responses

  1. Allynn

    Had to reply after I saw my name (and old website) mentioned!

    I’ve actually gone back to Netflix because of the streaming service. I’d given up entirely on the shows offered by cable and satellite but for $9 a month I have access to a bunch of content I actually might want to watch (and no commercials).

    I’m using an Intel mini on a sluggish wireless (probably be better if I weren’t bittorrenting this weeks Coronation Street episodes at the same time ;-) connected to a 24″ CRT TV. The quality is usually ok though it broke down badly last night while watching Fawlty Towers. I read somewhere most home users can expect 480i quality – standard def, analog TV. I’m interested in testing it on our “fat pipes” at work though I would have to find something with an original quality higher than a 1970s TV show.

    I think Netflix with the Microsoft Silver Light (DRM enabled) player is onto something and I really hope the streaming service will take off. The current content on offer leaves a bit to be desired unless you’re a Gene Autry fan; then you’ve hit pay dirt! But that’s all just a matter of time and licensing. There are some long-forgotten little gems in there. May I recommend Richard Burton and Lee Remick in the ITV production of “The Medusa Touch”

    December 13th, 2008 at 8:23 am #

  2. Adrian Cooke

    I’ve been experimenting with the PC in the living room, and we got lucky the other night with three bars and the first episode of Weeds :) The quality looked as good as normal cable, even a bit better. But most of the time I’m only seeing one bar, and the picture at that encoding level is so blurry it makes your eyes hurt.

    December 15th, 2008 at 8:26 pm #

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