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Netflix - End Of Term Report - "Must Try Harder"
Member Name: Nibelung
Date: 27/01/13, updated on 30/01/13 (68 review reads)
Advantages: Good value, good selection. Easy to search for what you want. HD picture and 5.1 sound
Disadvantages: In my case, at least, it didn't work initially
UPDATE: 30/01/13 - I very nearly got rid of this service during the first free month and it's no thanks to Netflix themselves that I didn't. I'll explain why later.
I've never been a fan of subscription TV, well, 'subscription anything' for that matter. Unless something is markedly cheaper as a monthly contract, it's PAYG for me every time.
I certainly don't have any need for lavish Sky or Virgin TV contracts; generally speaking, Freeview with a two-tuner recorder and access via my new 'smart' TV to an on-demand service like BBC iPlayer have been plenty for me.
There's just one exception; TV serial dramas that after a couple of seasons, transfer to Sky. In the past these have cost us a considerable amount in buying the boxed-set DVDs just to 'give closure' to the series.
It was only after my wife bought the first three seasons of 'Breaking Bad' on DVD, a series that was clearly never coming to non-subscription TV any day soon, that I started to investigate what the various on-demand services could offer us.
My first toe dipped into these waters was with 'Blinkbox', a service run by Tescos. I'm still a member of Blinkbox, and even have some of their £5 free trial credit left. The major advantage of Blinkbox is that if you don't use it, it costs nothing being strictly PAYG. Its major downside was that it didn't appear to have much of interest to me, hence the fact that I haven't even spent the first free credit!
Somewhat more of interest to us was Netflix, the acid test being 'did it have seasons 4 and 5 of Breaking Bad?'
The catch to Netflix is that it's a monthly fee of £5.99, but to be fair, you only have to watch about three items in the same month for Blinkbox to become dearer than this. However, NF very fairly offers you a free month to try it out, leaving you to cancel the next debit before it happens. Refreshingly there's no contract period beyond remembering to cancel before the next payment is due, so the most you stand to waste is £5.99. No early-opt-out fees, nothing, nada, nichts.
The free month has a double use, to my way of thinking.
a) You get to see if it's going to be of any use to you, content-wise and
b) You get to find out if your broadband set-up is good enough. Most people who've tried something like iPlayer will already know this. However, Netflix make a big fanfare of the fact that their movies and other programmes are transmitted over the internet in HD format with 5.1 channel surround sound. If you are in any doubt, try the HD option on iPlayer to see if your kit is up to it. Unlike iPlayer, there is no fall-back choice of standard definition to take the strain off your broadband.
Later on, I'll describe the problems that this has given me.
Even though I fully intended to use my TV for the programme streaming itself, I still used my PC to sign up for the simple reason that it gives me a proper keyboard to enter the details. Then, when it came to connecting via the TV for the first time (and first time only), I only had to input my agreed ID and password the once, and haven't been asked since.
Whilst you CAN type on a 'smart' TV, it's none too smart and quite laborious! I have also downloaded the Android 'app' version to my Google Nexus tablet, although you can only use one bit of kit at a time*. To be honest, apart from having confirmed that this works, it won't be getting much use as my main aim was to provide more content on my TV, not watch The IT Crowd in bed!
(*It goes without saying that there's an iPhone app too, and the possibility of using the service on games consoles - PS3, Wii, Xbox, Apple TV etc)
Once you've signed up, all you need to do during your evaluation period is to diary the date for cancellation, should it prove necessary.
I'm going to deal here with how it presents itself to me, on my LG Smart TV, which has an 'app' for it. No doubt this is very similar on equivalent Samsung TVs, tablets, and games machines.
Booting up the app from my TV gives me, initially a log-on screen. You only have to do this once. After that, it boots straight to screen showing my most recently watched programmes - useful if you're part-way through watching a series. Below this, you can scroll to such categories as 'Top 10 Movies', 'Films Popular on Netflix' which ironically seems to be anything but those I'd actually want to watch, 'Popular on Facebook' - why the hell I'd want to know this is anyone's guess.
However, you are not stuck with their suggestions, useful though some of them might be. Pressing the Yellow Button gives you access to a browser, where movies and TV programmes are split by genre. If you really can't guess what the genre would be, pressing the Green Button gives you an alphabetic search facility.
Right, so you've found what you want, selected it, and pressed the OK button to start it running. There'll be a brief pause to allow for the building up of a suitable-sized buffer (as with iPlayer) and then the movie/programme commences.
First impressions are that picture quality is near-as-damn-it the same as live TV, including the HD versions. Apparently, there's even provision for Netflix to step down the quality from HD to SD should continuity be compromised by line speed and buffering problems. In my experience this doesn't work................
Yes, a few, which were sufficient to make me give up the subscription unless I found the solution. Don't get me wrong, I was happy with the selection of programmes for £5.99 a month - after all this was never intended to do cinema box-offices out of business.
It's the technology as it's available to me that was the problem.
There were two main difficulties that I didn't feel I'd ever get to the bottom of.
The first was 'buffering'. You may have come across this whilst trying to watch iPlayer. Part-way through your intended viewing, the screen goes bank and a buffering 'thermometer' appears. This wouldn't have been so bad if it ever reached 100% and got on with playing the movie, but on several occasion, all with HD movies, not shorter TV programmes, it locked-up so I've had to re-boot the application. Admittedly, it takes me to where I left off, but that's not the point. If I'm paying, however little, to watch a movie, I want it to be unbroken.
Those in the know will immediately question my own set-up.
Is my broadband fast enough? Well it frequently tops 65 mbytes when tested, so I don't see it dropping below 8 meg which even then should be more than enough even for HD movies. Cable broadband has always tended to be 'what it says on the tin', rather than any of that 'up to xyz mbytes, subject to distance from the exchange' lark.
What about my connection between TV and router? I've eradicated the uncertainty of wi-fi in a brick-built house, including the partition walls, by creating a direct Ethernet connection to my router, which in any case is a shed-load faster than the broadband itself.
As far as I coud see, I'd erased all local problems, at least those I had some control over. There was still a remote possibility that it was the LG TV's Netflix application that maybe couldn't handle the streaming, but then, that's what it was designed to do, and I didn't want to watch on a PC or tablet just to prove the theory. If it doesn't work on my telly, I don't want it.
I don't suppose they'd ever admit it, but it could also have been a capacity problem on the Netflix server.
The second less annoying fault was the loss of lip-sync, either permanently or momentarily. It's never much, but enough to get annoying. I can actually adjust it on my set, but it then needs changing back just as frequently. Pausing playback sometimes cures it, but as I said before, I don't pay just to have to keep fiddling with it.
WHERE TO FROM HERE?
Well, I'm not the biggest techno-phobe in the country, and I didn't mind doing some further digging around on this if was going to help me keep the service, which, technical hitches apart, is good value for money.
If I couldn't, I'd definitely be giving it the heave-ho. Changing the TV was not an option - I only just bought it!
The first free month is a boon, and in my case has saved me making a mistake. It's enabled me to save about £24 on boxed sets of Breaking Bad Seasons 4 and 5, the watching of which did sometimes suffer from the aforementioned problems. It has allowed me to have a laugh at the entire 'IT Crowd' series (all of which went without a hitch - SD recordings I'll bet) and proved to me that on-demand TV may well be here to stay, but only if it works!
In its working state, Netflix represents good value for money and isn't going to break the bank at £5.99 a month.
THE FIX, AND WHY I'M STILL ONLY GIVING IT 4 STARS
The application on my TV was exactly that, a means of browsing, choosing and playing movies and other programmes. The application for Android (and probably for iPhone - I wouldn't know) is no doubt the same. However, in a last ditch attempt to find out if there was any hint at the web-site, I logged in and went to the My Account section, where I noted at sub-menu for picture quality. Here, I was able to choose between Good, Better and Best picture quality. Having been using a TV app version, this had never been set. The site mentions this ability in the light of some people having download maxima to worry about. Strangely enough, I was able to set mine to Best (described as 1gbyte per hour, or 2.3 gbytes per hour for HD content and both buffering and lip-sync problems have gone away.
I can only summise that a combination of having no parameter set and my 60 meg broadband was allowing Netflix to swamp my TV's streaming abilities, causing to to lock up whilst buffering. Now that I've got some kind of flow control in place, all is well and I'll be keeping the service on.
So why am I p*****d at Netflix? Because, nowhere on the TV or Android application is there even a note that further settings can be adjusted at the www.netflix.com web-site, that's why!
Summary: On-Demand TV services on films and TV series