TiP Rating: 4/5
Release Date: 8/26/10
Seller: Netflix, Inc.
Requirements: Compatible with iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad. Requires iOS 3.1.3 or later.
Link to app. (Clicking launches iTunes Preview)
App Store Description: Get Netflix on your iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch. Just download this free app and you can instantly watch TV shows & movies streaming from Netflix.
Summary: Netflix for the iPhone offers terrific video quality, though streaming isn’t quite perfect, with occasional hiccups and crashes. An enhanced search tool and addition of queue management would take this very good app and make it great. But the shortcomings are a small price for a service that works well most of the time, and offers a lot of content for so little. (The app is free, the service costs a minimum of $8.99/month). Frankly, I think this is well worth the subscription price.
Review: If you already have a Netflix account, grabbing the iPhone app is a no-brainer. But if you don’t already have one, you might be on the fence about whether signing up for a paid service, just for mobile streaming (along with DVDs delivered to your home, of course). So here goes, a closer look at the Netflix app for the iPhone, after a few weeks of testing.
Since the convergence of Netflix streaming technology and the proliferation of touchscreen smartphones, led by the iPhone, this has been a bit of a holy grail. Having used the Netflix app on my iPad since day one, I have to admit I was a little giddy to hear about the iPhone version at first. Well, giddy but hesitant.
The Netflix app on the iPad has been great overall, but it does have a tendency to be slightly “crashy.” Every once in a while, pressing “play” quits the app almost instantly. Sometimes it happens, sometimes not, but a clear-cut reason cannot be found. So I wondered, as I downloaded the iPhone app, if I’d experience deja vu. So I braced myself and launched the application.
Let’s start with the obvious â€” how it works: Customers with Netflix accounts can add titles to their Instant Watch queue and play those vids on their iOS devices (as well as others, like desktops and Tivos). On the iPhone and iPad, videos can also be plucked from search results and played immediately, even outside the queue.
Netflix for iOS also offers device switching, so users can start watching a vid on their iPhones and pick up where they left off on another device, like the tablet or desktop web browser.
This “resume” experience does make life easier and it works pretty well, although it’s not quite instantaneous. It took about a minute or two for the account to update across all the devices â€” iPad, iPhone and desktop computer â€” to get on the same page and display the Family Guy: Vol. 7 episode I was watching. Not a big deal, but something to be aware of, if you had expectations of instantaneous switching.
In terms of video discovery, the app offers a search tool, recommendations based on your tastes and a list of genres â€” including Television, Action & Adventure, Comedy, Drama, Horror and other genres â€” with some notable exceptions, like HD and Starz Play.
Starz titles are indeed accessible on the iPhone; there’s just no dedicated category for it. (But Starz assets do come up in search results.) As for HD, well, it seems hardly necessary on such a small screen, and if the extra data would make the experience more laggy, then who needs it? The quality certainly certainly doesn’t seem to be lacking.
When it comes to video quality, simply put, it’s just amazing for streamed content. I daresay it retains about 95 percent of the clarity that my pre-loaded iTunes vids offers, on both Wifi and 3G.
Clarity and quality look good on the small screen, but streaming itself hasn’t been quite flawless. The iPhone app seems to experience some of the same bugs that the iPad application has.
When I open a list of episodes for a TV show, and hit play or resume, I get about a 90 percent success rate for playback. Ten percent of the time, though, it crashes on launch. And on 3G, vids will sometimes play for 15 seconds or so, then pause and resume. It looks like it’s trying to re-buffer, happening as often as five times in succession. On Wifi, the problem is less acute, maybe limited to one or two times, but it’s still pops up. Given that this has happened via both wireless and cellular, it’s hard to chalk this up to a connection strength issue, as opposed to a software glitch. (Either way, I tend to have better success if I start the vid, then pause it for a few minutes before watching. It seems to reduce the blips.)
Things that should definitely go on the list of enhancements have to do with queue management and search features. There doesn’t seem to be a good reason why a user couldn’t reorder their Instant Watch vids â€” or delete, add, and prioritize their DVD queues. Unfortunately, the app lacks these features, as well as a decent search function. You can’t search an actor or director, like the tool on the website. The search tool only parses movie/TV titles.
Accessing/posting user reviews would’ve been a nice touch as well. And given the fact that the Netflix iPhone app launched last month, well after iOS 4 debuted, it would’ve been handy if this supported multitasking. I’m not suggesting it should run in the background, but if it was left in a frozen state, I could accept a call and then resume my vid immediately. (Now, going back to the app puts you on the app’s homescreen again each time. Not a big deal; it’s just a bit annoying.)
But I may be picking nits here. It’s Netflix on the iPhone! In general, the shortcomings seem like a small price to pay for a service that works well most of the time, and offers so much content for so little. Netflix can be had for as little as $8.99/month, which includes unlimited Instant Watch vids and one DVD-at-a-time service. (New subscribers can also give it a free trial.) Given that Blu-ray players and TVs with built-in Netflix software are becoming more and more popular, this is a price that really can’t be beat, especially since the service is available across iOS devices now. Even in its work-in-progress state, I still think it’s just about the best nine bucks a month you can spend.
I can’t end the review without touching on one major facet of this and other video streaming apps: Data caps. I reset my data consumption meter on the iPhone right before I started my first streaming video for Netflix. I fully expect a jump in usage this month. Then again, I might use it more on Wi-fi than I am expecting. The tracking has begun.
Lucky for me, though, this is more of curiosity test than anything else, since I still have an unlimited data plan. If you have a maximum limit, then you need to be extremely cautious about Netflix usage. (When it comes to streaming movies, you’d be surprised how little it can take to blast through your data cap. In some cases, it might just be a couple of flicks.)
The moral of the story is this: Use Wifi whenever you can. Not only does it offer better performance, but at least it won’t hit you in the wallet. (Plus, if everyone used Netflix over 3G often, it could make AT&T network weep.)
UPDATE: Great news, if you’re from up north. Today Netflix announced that streaming is available to Canadian residents! Click here for more.