Netflix offers unlimited online streaming of movies and TV for just £5.99 a month, but can it take on main rival Lovefilm? Find out here...
Netflix has been offering online movie streaming in the US since 1999, but it's taken until now for the service to make its way over the pond to the UK. For £5.99 a month, you'll get unlimited access to the Netflix library of films and TV programmes, which means that the service will be going head-to-head with the Lovefilm Instant offering, currently priced at £4.99. The gloves are off in the Netflix vs Lovefilm rumble, but how does the new kid on the block fare?
There’s no denying that just six quid a month will get you a sizable chunk of films and TV to choose from, although it’s worth considering how much strain it could place on your Broadband data cap. If you go above the set limit on your ISP package, you could well end up getting charged for the extra data - an important point to keep in mind if you’re planning on getting the most out of your monthly £5.99
As well as streaming from your computer, Netflix works on pretty much all of the major platforms, including Sony PlayStation 3, Nintendo Wii, Xbox 360, Apple iPhone and Apple iPad. There are also client for various web TVs from the likes of Samsung, along with LG Blu-ray players and LG home theatre systems, along with media streamer boxes from brands like Roku.
The fact that Netflix works on Apple TV as well as across numerous Android devices is also a major boon, and something that Lovefilm doesn't currently offer (there is an Android app where you can manage your list and settings, but no streaming).
However, Lovefilm is aiming to be make its service available on as many devices as possible so it's a reasonable assumption that we won't have to wait too long to see streaming capability on Android devices.
The ability to stream Netflix via the iPhone app using 3G is also great news, although it probably depends on what the 3G signal is like where you live, or more likely what it's like at your gym or on your commuting route, as we're guessing those are the the places where most people will want to watch Netflix on their phone's relatively tiny screen.
Buffering on both the iPad and Android tablet apps is surprisingly swift meaning that you get get stuck into watching your chosen title pretty much straight away.
Syncing between devices is a nice touch, which means that you could start watching something on your laptop, and then pick up where you left off at a later time on another device. The UI is simple to use and more or less the same across different platforms, so the whole experience is pretty much uniform, no matter what you're gadget you're watching on.
Netlflix also gets one over on its main rival by offering HD-quality streaming, along with Dolby 5.1 audio while Lovefilm can only muster standard-def pictures at present. You can choose from three different video quality settings on Netflix - 'good' (up to 0.3 GB per hour), better (up to 0.7 GB per hour) and Best (up to 1 GB per hour, or up to 2.3 GB per hour for HD), which is welcome news is you want to keep your data use to a minimum.
Netflix recommends a minimum broadband speed of 3Mbps for 720p, but you'll probably need at least double that to stream 1080p successfully to your TV (although it's worth noting that not all its titles are actually available in HD).
Video quality on Android devices is going to vary greatly depending on what you're using, but the picture certainly looked crisp and punchy on the Motorola Xoom 2 Media Edition.
In order to keep playback as smooth as possible, Netflix automatically adjusts the picture quality according to the bandwidth available, so while the quality is decent for most of the time, if your pesky other half decides to start doing some streaming or downloading of their own on another device, your picture may suffer.
For most people, content is going to the be the clincher when it comes to choosing between the two services. Netflix is cagey about exactly how many titles are on offer, but it has "10,000+ hours of content", compared to Lovefilm Instant's count of 6,000 titles (of which, around 4,000 are films).
When it comes to films, we reckon Lovefilm has the edge as we actually found it quite hard to track down films that we wanted to watch and hadn't seen before on Netflix.
What's really lacking is new titles, something that Lovefilm offers, albeit only on disc (over 70,000 titles) or on a Pay Per View (PPV) streaming basis at £3.49 for the newest titles. However, the PPV titles can only be streamed to Mac or PC.
While not too strong on film, Netflix offers an impressive selection of TV programmes with big US shows such as Dexter, Breaking Bad and South Park getting a look in, while Lovefilm only has these available on disc. It also includes plenty of British TV programmes, although not much that you couldn't find on catch-up services such as BBC iPlayer or 4OD.
When you first sign up, Netflix will ask you to assign star ratings to a number of films to work out what sort of things you like and make recommendations as to what you might list to watch. Obvisouly there are all sorts of complicated algorithms at work here, but without the content there to back them up, the recommendations are of limited use at present.
For example, after we gave high ratings to Gangs of New York and Sin City, Netflix suggested a small selection of supposedly similar movies under the comically niche heading of “Visually Striking Violent Crime Films”.
It's not quite there yet, but as the amount of available titles increases, as Netflix has promised it will, the recommendations should hopefully become more useful.
It would also be nice to have a wishlist where you can save films for later, otherwise you tend to forget about titles that you've spotted while browsing.
The Netflix Facebook integration is one of its key selling points, as it lets you share what you're watching with your chums. Using Zuckerberg's social networking site for the inital sign-up route also means that you won't have to input all your name and contact data separately, although you will need to provide credit card details, even if you're only signing up for the free one-month trial.
Like Spotify notifications that tell your friends what you're listening to, each time you watch a title on Netflix, this will be announced on your Facebook profile. This is a nice touch that's not as likely to become as tedious and annoying as updates at three-minute intervals about every single song your friends choose to stream from Spotify.
Not to panic though - if you don't fancy all your friends knowing what you've been watching, you can simply disconnect your service from Facebook in the account settings menu, or just click the 'Don't share on Facebook' option for individual titles.
As well as keeping your mates posted on your streaming history, Netflix will also suggest titles based on your friends’ ratings – handy if you’ve got pals with good taste in films, but potentially fruitless if their choices are significantly different to yours or you simply don't give a tinker's cuss what you're mates are watching.
Lovefilm doesn't have the same level of Facebook integration. For example, while you can 'Like' a film on the desktop version on your computer, as you would with a news story or blog post, there's no such option on the iPad app, so it all seems a bit clunky and disjointed.
Netflix certainly has plenty of potential and we were hugely impressed with its ease of use, intregration between devices and its neat Facebook functions, all for just under six notes a month. The fact that it currently operates across more platforms than Lovefilm, such as Android and Apple TV, also helps to give it the edge. However, for real movie buffs, the range of titles is simply too limited at present and Lovefilm offers a far better selection of classic movies (especially if you opt for a package that includes disc rental).
But, that's really the only thing wrong with the service at present. Granted, it's a Big Thing, but just so long as the selection of titles increases to rival Lovefilm's offering, Netflix is set to do very well indeed.
Netflix availability: Available now
Netflix price: £5.99 per month (unlimited streaming)
Check out our Netflix vs Lovefilm video: