Michael Palmer got his hands on a Netflix Streaming Disc for the PS3 and gave it a whirl. Here's what he thought of it...
By Michael S. Palmer
Following Sony’s new marketing campaign (“It Only Does Everything”), Netflix Streaming has finally arrived on the PS3. When announcements were made last month that we’d finally be joining the ranks of the Xbox 360 as well as various LG, Samsung, and Insignia networked Blu-ray Disc players, I immediately signed up for my free Netflix “Instant Streaming Disc.” I wasn’t exactly sure why they were sending me a disc, thinking that it would be some type of firmware update. But it turns out (or, if I had read the announcement further than “go here to sign up for your free disc”) the Instant Streaming Disc is actually a Blu-ray, which uses BD-Live to stream movies and television episodes from the Netflix server. Meaning, every time you want to stream content, the Instant Streaming Disc must first be inserted into the PS3.
Setting It Up.
Netflix Streaming on the PS3 rquires: a Netflix membership subscription plan with unlimited viewing included (1-at-a-time DVDs with unlimited streaming is $8.99/month, and $10.99/month for a 1-at-a-time with Blu-ray Disc access), the free Netflix Instant Streaming disc, and a broadband internet connection (hard wired or wireless).
For installation and title selection, you’ll at first need both a computer and your PS3 (in the future, one could use the PS3’s internal internet browser). First, insert the Instant Streaming Disc into the PS3. An unlocking code will show up on your TV’s screen. From there hop over to your Netflix account, in the “Watch Instantly” tab, where it will ask you for that code. Once entered, the PS3 will sync up your Instant Queue. Selected titles can be arranged as you see fit, just like your DVD Queue. It’s handy to pick carefully here, because if you have a lot of titles, scrolling over to the last one can be a bit time consuming.
Running the disc brings you to your Instant Queue. Clicking to the right (using either a remote, or a PS3 game controller – I personally am using a Harmony 880 via the Nyko PS2 USB adapter. Logitech now makes a PS3 adapter for their remotes) scrolls you through your Queue. Click UP and then to the right to access other categories, such as Recently Watched, New Arrivals: Movies, New Arrivals: TV, Comedy, Drama, Action, and a myriad of other genres.
Click (or press down) on any title to “play,” give the title a star rating, or “remove from Instant Queue.” Once a movie is started, options will change to “resume playing” or “play from the beginning.” TV shows are organized by season, so play options include “Play Episode 1” or “Choose Episode.” “Play,” “pause,” “fast forward” and “rewind” buttons work as they should (though fast forward and rewinding require 10 or so seconds to buffer). But pressing stop will exit you out streaming all together (taking you back to the PS3’s menu); to go back to your Instant Queue, simply press “menu” and then click “up.”
Movies and TV episodes are available in “HD” (AVC encodes oscillating between 1.5 and 5 Mbps) and SD (running just under 600 kbps), with all audio in two-channel, stereo Dolby Digital. There are over 17,000 movie and TV titles. TV shows are a mix of old and new; movies are generally older, given contracts movie studios have in place with pay cable outlets which streaming would violate. “Starz Play” titles are newer releases (anything that’s currently playing on the Starz network), but they don’t appear to be in “HD.”
For anyone savvy enough to have a Netflix account and a PS3 already, this is a no brainer. It’s free (well, included in your subscription), and easy for those of us who have no trouble surfing the web. For folks less technically savy, this service is more difficult than using cable or satellite On Demand services because you can’t manage your account from one location.
Quality-wise, Netflix Streaming certainly isn’t a Blu-ray killer, let alone even competitor, but I suppose that’s not really the point. This is an added feature to allow subscribers more content and added value. Quote-unquote HD content is “serviceable.” Not as good as HD cable/satellite, but a bit more resolution than DVD. I checked out ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ (a fantastic Blu-ray, btw) and the opening sequence of ‘Scorpion King 2’. These two features weren’t as clear as the Vudu HDX titles I’ve seen, nor as good as Quicktime HD movie trailers. They suffered from banding, blocking, and digital artifacts. Once my expectations were in the proper place, I was generally pleased. This would be a good way to see a title when you didn’t want to wait for Netflix to send out your next disc. The one thing to mention here is that my Internet connection did drop out once, and so ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ paused, and started replaying in SD, which was no comparison. To get it back up to “HD”, I hit “menu”, and “resumed playing” which re-buffered the feed, and brought it back in “HD.”
On my 52” Sony LCD, the SD streaming content was subpar (but truthfully, most SD content doesn’t look great). It’s like watching a non-anamorphic widescreen DVD, and “zooming in” your TV to make it fill more of the screen. Images and text are hazy, fuzzy, and colors are muddy. Here I checked out ‘Armageddon’ (which was in anamorphic widescreen), ‘Dead Space: Downfall’ (non-anamorphic widescreen) and ‘Big Bry’s Western Style BBQ’ (1.33:1). Each title had its own disappointment. ‘Armageddon’ was blocky, and less engaging without its 5.1 mix; ‘Dead Space’ looked clear, but it had letterboxing and pillar boxing happening at the same time; and ‘Big Bry’s’ audio was out of sync for the entire presentation (though, this might not be the fault of the service).
Despite its ease of use, and the fact that it’s free (Xbox 360 owners have to pay over $50/year for Xbox Live Gold service), my biggest complaint is the necessary Instant Streaming Disc. Sure it’s a nifty use of BD-Live, and no doubt there’s a specific, genius-computer-programmer reason as to why it had to be designed this way, but frankly, it’s cumbersome. Is it really THAT hard to get up off the couch and insert a disc, like when playing any Blu-ray or DVD? Of course not, but like the PlayStation Store or Network, streaming content seems better served for when you can exit out of a movie or game, and then click over to something else. Now streaming is forced to be a conscious choice, and given the quality of the service, it might be a better value to pop in another Blu-ray or in some cases, a DVD. At least with many DVDs, you’re getting a discreet surround sound mix.
Though Netflix Streaming may have its uses (digging back in to childhood classics like ‘Voltron’!), and it’s great to bring another feature to the PS3, video/audiophiles need not apply. The current lack of quality will be bothersome. Hopefully, with time, the streaming / video encoding quality will grow along with the selection of “HD” content. For now, enjoy what you can.