Thursday, November 19, 2009

Instant Netflix on PS3 and TiVo

Got Netflix? You and 11.1 million others in the U.S., as of 9/30/09; Netflix is huge. Unless yours is a so-called "limited" account, you have an Instant Queue (IQ) you can load up with movies that you can then watch instantly to your heart's content. You can do that on a computer. You can also do it on your TV screen, via a TiVo or other set-top-box, a game console such as a Sony PlayStation 3 or a Microsoft Xbox 360, certain models of Blu-ray player (typically, recent ones with BD-Live capability), or even certain TVs that have Internet connections. All these so-called Netflix-ready devices (NeRDs?) connect to the Internet via WiFi, or via an Ethernet cable if you use one.

It's taken me a while to catch on to Netflix streaming. I ignored it when, some time ago, my TiVo #1 began carrying Netflix (see this press release). Then, the other day, I was fiddling with my Sony PlayStation 3, which sits in my living room below my TiVo #2 unit and, just like that TiVo, feeds signals into my favorite flat panel TV. After a firmware upgrade, the PS3 alerted me that I could now use it to stream Netflix (see this press release). Seemingly, all I had to do was use the PS3's built-in browser and visit to begin streaming movies from my Netflix IQ. So I did.

Actually, the browser just let me link to Netflix to ask for an Instant Streaming Blu-ray Disc for the PS3. The disc had to be mailed to me. (I couldn't believe the software can't be downloaded!) Also, you'll need to be sure you've upgraded your PS3's firmware to version 3.01 or later, to allow the Netflix software to work.

Once you get the disc — which you keep and never mail back — you insert it in your PS3 and see an activation code come up on your TV screen. You have to run to your computer to enter that five-character code into this web page, because with the disc in the PS3, the PS3 can't use its own browser, or any of its normal functions(!). With the disc inserted, the PS3 becomes a dedicated Netflix streamer, until you eject the disc or use the Back button on the PS3's remote to idle the disc.

The dedication of the PS3 to Netflix streaming while the disc is active, by the way, is why you need to keep reinserting the disc each time you want to watch Netflix on the PS3. Netflix claims it used an external disc as the quickest and cheapest way to get streaming capability to the PS3, but rumors abound that the real reason was that the company's exclusivity arrangement with Microsoft (whose Xbox 360 already streamed Netflix) had to be worked around — technically — by keeping the Netflix interface off the PS3's Cross Media Bar (XMB). The XMB is the fancy menu system the PS3 uses to allow the user to navigate among the game console's various functions. The Xbox 360's equivalent is the Dashboard. Netflix seems to have felt constrained to keep its streaming function off the PS3's version of the Dashboard.

This is apparently a temporary situation. By late 2010, Netflix expects its software to be embedded in a new release of the PS3 firmware.

After you activate your shiny new disc on your PS3, you'll immediately see your IQ on the TV screen and can navigate to and begin watching any item in the queue. Play begins pretty quickly. It's not at all choppy or pixellated. The video and audio are, I find, basically of DVD quality. Netflix says here that it "automatically chooses the video quality to give you the best image possible based on the speed of your Internet connection. The faster your Internet connection, the higher the quality that we can deliver to you."

Did I mention that watching movies from your IQ is free? It's included with the cost of a regular (i.e., non-"limited") Netflix account! With Netflix, you don't have to pay extra for video-on-demand. Take that, cable companies!

Also, the PS3 Netflix application's attractive and easy-to-use interface lets you locate and add stuff to your Instant Queue, using just your PS3 remote. The IQ updates right away, so you can begin watching new items immediately.

But what you can't do is type in, say, "Kubrick," to see all the available films of Stanley Kubrick. You'll need to use your computer for that sort of thing. Or try the Instantwatcher iPhone app, which lets you manage your Instant Queue from an iPhone or iPod Touch:

There is also an Instantwatcher web site, which you may want to check out.

It gets better. My two TiVo units (as I'd been so blind to) also stream Netflix.

The user interface is different: it's TiVo-like, which has its good points and bad. A good point is that you can opt to have the Netflix IQ show up as a folder (appropriately, red) in your Now Playing list. The folder's individual titles can be sorted alphabetically. If you add (say) the entire first season of The Office to your IQ, it shows up as a subfolder within that folder.

A bad point is that there seems to be no way to add items to the IQ from the TiVo, as is easy to do from the PS3. (But once you add an item via the PS3, you can watch it right away on the TiVo, if you prefer. Or you can just watch it right on the PS3.)

It gets better still. Some of the content that you can stream from Netflix is in HD!

HD streaming works seemingly identically on my two TiVo units and on my PS3. On all of them, I seem to be finding that the resolution is always 720p, never 1080i/p, even on TV shows like The Office that are broadcast in 1080i. I guess the 720p limitation is a compromise to allow Internet streaming of HD content at all. Or it may be that if I had a really extremely fast Internet connection, I'd see 1080i — who knows? 720p looks great, anyway, so I'm not complaining.

You can get another blogger's take on HD content streaming from Netflix to the PS3 here.

Speaking of content, there are today some 17,000 titles at Netflix that can be streamed instantly. That may seem like a lot, until you stop to consider that Netflix has over 100,000 DVD titles (not to mention Blu-rays). It looks as if few if any of the very latest movie releases make it to Netflix streaming until they're past their period of hottest popularity.

That makes sense. Netflix streaming is essentially a free feature — for those who already pay for an account. Why should Netflix give away its most sought after titles? Plus, the movie studios probably wouldn't care much for it. In fact, I'd bet money that it won't be long until Netflix starts charging to stream stuff, either some or all of it.

Netflix says more on-demand titles arrive "every day," and I suppose one reason why it takes a while for new releases to appear may be that they have to be specially rendered into the necessary video format or formats. For example, if The Office is in 1080p on Blu-ray, it has to be converted to 720p for Netflix. If, as I suspect, there are different formats for different connection speeds, that only compounds the problem.

See other posts in my Netflix Streaming series for more ...

No comments: