John C. Kirk (johnckirk) wrote,
John C. Kirk

Netflix/LoveFilm - streaming video

I've had a LoveFilm DVD subscription for a few years, and it's quite useful: it's helped to reduce clutter in my flat, since I can easily rent films and/or TV episodes rather than buying them. The only real downside is that I can't choose what order things arrive in. For instance, I've put Scrubs season 8 on my list (high priority), which consists of 3 DVDs. I received the first disk several months ago, but I don't know when the next one will arrive, so this means that I have a long gap between consecutive episodes. Also, sometimes a film arrives which I'd like to watch at some point but I don't particularly want to watch right away. I can keep it for as long as I like without any late fees, but until I watch it (or return it unwatched) it's "blocking the queue" for all future rentals.

More recently, I've been looking at Netflix. The basic idea is to stream episodes/films over the internet, in a similar way to BBC iPlayer. This seems like a good idea: it has the same advantage as renting DVDs (no clutter) while eliminating the disadvantages (I can choose what to watch next). This is also better than downloading stuff through a P2P application (e.g. the way that Sky used to do it), because I can start watching immediately rather than waiting a couple of hours for the whole thing to download. Unfortunately, there have been some flaws in their execution, so I've now got rid of it. I've upgraded my LoveFilm subscription to include online streaming instead, which is cheaper than keeping two separate subscriptions and has fewer problems.

The Netflix website says "Choose from thousands of TV episodes & films". However, it doesn't actually tell you what these thousands are: you have to sign in first. Technically this doesn't cost you anything, because you can do a free 1 month trial. However, you have to enter your card details, then they'll start charging you unless/until you cancel. (I kept my subscription for longer than I intended to because of that.) This seems pretty iffy to me. If you look at other websites, e.g. Amazon, they'll happily show you the list of products for sale, and you only have to log in at the point where you want to buy something. I think it would be much better for Netflix to do the same thing, i.e. list all their films and have a "Watch now" button next to each one that will redirect you to the signup page.

Looking at what they do have, I was quite disappointed that most of the things I'd want to see aren't there. For instance, one of the Sky channels used to have Star Trek: Voyager on continuous repeats: they'd show 1-2 episodes every day, then start again when they hit the end of season 7. I never liked the series enough to buy it on DVD (unlike DS9), but I was happy to rewatch an episode while I ate dinner in the evening. I cancelled my Sky subscription a few years ago, so I'd like to do the same thing via streaming episodes, but Netflix don't have any of the Star Trek series available. Some other notable gaps:
* Buffy, Angel.
* Any of the Stargate series.
* Battlestar Galactica, Caprica.
* House
* The Simpsons.
* Xena.
* The X Files.

There are also some series where they only have a few seasons online, e.g.
* Doctor Who (they have Doctors 8-10, missing 1-7 and 11).
* Scrubs (they have 1-5, missing 6-8).
* South Park (they have 10-14, missing 1-9 and 15).

Still, nostalgia aside, maybe I should take this as an opportunity to watch new things. So, here are some series that I've been recommended (notably by sulkyblue at Narrative Devices):
* Being Human
* Big Bang Theory
* Chuck
* Fringe
* Luther
* The Big C

None of those are available at Netflix. I gather that this may depend on production company, e.g. whether Paramount have signed a contract with Netflix. However, for the most part I don't know or care which company makes each TV series, I just want to know what's available.

Also, everything I've said here applies to the UK. I gather that their selection list varies between countries, so people in the USA may enjoy a wider selection. For instance, I read a Cracked article (4 Things I Missed About 'The Twilight Zone' as a Kid, written in July), where the writer said: "Recently, I started watching all the episodes again on Netflix, where all but 18 episodes of the 156-episode series are available for streaming." None of the episodes are available in the UK.

So, if you want to know what's available before you sign up, you can't look at their website and you can't rely on what you hear from Americans. My subscription expires on Tuesday (25th September), so if you have any specific questions I can look them up for you in the next couple of days.

If you do sign up, you can then search for things through their website. However, even this is a bit iffy. For instance, here's a screenshot from the top-right corner of their website, when I searched for "House":

Netflix search results

As you can see, there's a short list of titles/people underneath, and I can click any of them to go to the relevant entry. Alternately, I can press Enter to do a general search. Don't bother! If the thing you want isn't in the short list, you won't see anything of use in the long list, so this is a completely useless option.

As an example, I searched for Cars (the Pixar movie, suitable for young children). They don't have it, but instead they suggested Sin Nombre. This is a foreign thriller: "Fleeing a violent Central American street gang, a young hood takes refuge atop a moving train and hopes for a fresh start in a new country." Conversely, searching for Dark City (a sci-fi film about the nature of reality) returns Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

By the way, "foreign thriller" is their terminology rather than mine. Similarly, they apparently think that "British" is a genre. I suppose it's good that they are at least aware of the world outside the USA, but it's fairly clear where their priorities lie.

Having said all that, they do have some things that are worth watching. Or at least things that I'm curious to watch, even if they turn out to be bad (e.g. The Expendables). This then leads to the next problem. If I rent a DVD then I'll watch it on TV, i.e. I'll sit in the lounge and watch it from a distance. Unfortunately, I can't do that with Netflix. I bought a new TV and Blu-ray player in March: these both have ethernet ports, so I've patched the Blu-ray player (Sony BDP-S480) into my LAN and given it internet access. That means that I can watch TV programs via a "catch up" service (e.g. iPlayer or 4OD) in the same way as normal TV. In theory, Netflix should work this way too, but it doesn't. Apparently this is because I "only" have a 2011 model rather than a 2012 model. My old DVD player lasted me for 12 years, so I'm not going to replace the new device after a few months!

So, the only way for me to watch stuff on Netflix is when I sit in front of my computer. That's certainly possible, and I do watch YouTube videos that way, but it's not ideal. This may be partly just tradition, but I also find it difficult to pay attention to what I'm watching when I have my email etc. pinging away in the background and I don't want to have to close down all my other programs just to use this one. If I do successfully ignore all of that, it's then a bit jarring when my screensaver suddenly kicks in because I haven't touched the mouse/keyboard for too long! Also, this wouldn't be very practical if I wanted to watch a film with guests, although that's not a major concern for me at the moment. There are probably ways around this, e.g. if you have a computer connected to your TV, but it's another mark against Netflix for me.

Finally, I've found that when I do watch stuff on my computer, the volume is pretty iffy. I have to turn it up a lot before I can hear dialogue, and then I have to turn it back down when loud stuff happens (e.g. music or explosions).

So, on a more positive note, let's look at LoveFilm. They start out with two big advantages over NetFlix:

1. They have a list of what's available, and you can look at it without signing in.

2. I can use their service with my Blu-ray box. I just had to log into the Sony Entertaintment Network and link that to my LoveFilm account, and I didn't have to reboot the Blu-ray box for this to take effect.

Unfortunately, they still have a fairly limited selection. Still, they've had a few things that I've wanted to watch, e.g. some of DC's animated films. They also have a useful option for "what's new", which saves digging through the whole catalogue.

What I'd like them to do is link the online service to my rental list, or at least have some way to queue things up. That way, if I decided that I was going to watch all episodes of a particular series, I wouldn't have to search through each time. I also hope that they will expand their range.

Cost wise, I was paying £4.07/month to LoveFilm (maximum of 2 disks, 1 at a time). I now pay them £7.99/month (unlimited disks, 1 at a time, and unlimited streaming). So, that's an extra £3.92/month, and I get some benefit even if I ignore the streaming. By contrast, Netflix charge £5.99/month just for streaming, and I really haven't used it enough to justify that.

Anyway, hopefully this is useful to anyone else who's considering those services. If you want to try out LoveFilm, I have some codes for a free trial, so just let me know if you want them.
Tags: films, rant, tv

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