“We offer a much better user experience than Lovefilm,” said Reed Hastings, chief executive of Netflix, upon the launch of the typically-US rental streaming service in the UK earlier this month. “[We have] HD video streams, we are on more platforms, such as Nintendo Wii, and we have a broader content offering.” With just a couple of publicity-sodden sentences, Hastings’ intentions were blindingly obvious: he had kick-started the bid to become the UK’s biggest film and TV on-demand service, looking to overthrow the Amazon-owned Lovefilm on its own turf. Having enjoyed the delights of Netflix for nearly a month now, we felt it the perfect time to reflect on our own streaming habits and highlight the advantages, or indeed disadvantages, of the service. But rather than merely perform a clear-cut review, we’re putting it up against current UK favourite Lovefilm and its own on-demand package (ignoring its by-post service) to crown what we believe to be the best streaming deal out there at the moment.
Starting off with the oh-so-simplest of comparisons, it is in fact Amazon’s Lovefilm that has undercut Netflix’s generous flat £5.99/month with its ‘introductory’ price of £4.99. Notably, Lovefilm announced its new pricing strategy just hours after Netflix had announced its intention (and consequent pricing structure) in entering the UK market. Lovefilm also offers a good selection of even newer releases to rent outside of your £4.99 package, with some of the hottest new flicks costing £3.49 each to stream separately. Although we can't really take that into account for review purposes, the option is there nevertheless.
With Lovefilm’s by-post prices steadily climbing over the past few years, it’ll be interesting to see whether the company will do the same with its streaming service, possibly inflating that initial cost of £4.99 in the near future. Notably, the company has sweetened customers somewhat in the past few months – customers now enjoy one extra disc at home at a time for no extra cost – which could indicate it’s looking to reassure its subscribers of the ‘value’ the service already provides in light of other companies, Netflix for example, encroaching on its ground.
Lovefilm has been steadily rolling out its service to a variety of platforms and devices over the past year or so with mixed results. Although customers can now stream TV shows and movies from some Smart TVs, Blu Ray players, the PS3, iPad and PC/Mac, restrictions imposed by content holders mean that pay-per-view films can only be rented and subsequently watched on PC or Mac.
Unlike Netflix which supports both iOS and Android devices, all three main consoles (Wii, 360 and PS3), some Smart TVs, Blu Ray players, PC and Mac. The integration on console is superb, especially in the Xbox 360’s case, with the HD streaming capabilities of the service (more on that later) becoming especially useful when outputting content on large-screen high-def TVs. We’ve also had the chance to test out Netflix on-the-go through iPhone and 3G and have to say the results were astounding – the quality was acceptable even in poor signal and the stream was smooth throughout. Top marks.
With both services struggling in the new release department, it's worth noting just how many titles are available off the bat from each. It's here where Lovefilm comes into its own; trumping Netflix not just in terms of sheer quantity of new and older titles, but also the quality of such titles. Just casting a glance over Lovefilm's 'New Release' category, there's a fair share of them that have seen release, at least on Blu Ray, within the past year and are wholly worthy of your time (Submarine, Source Code, Four Lions, Blue Valentine, Biutiful). In addition, Lovefilm has more recently signed with US network ABC in order to bring popular TV shows, including the excellent Lost and Grey's Anatomy, to on-demand subscribers as part of the standard package. In total, Lovefilm now has a total of 6,583 titles ready to stream, with just over a 1000 of those being TV programs. The provider still has work to do on user interface however - TV shows and series have no order to them and rather, there are simply single episodes you'll have to search for yourself. Like we said before, Lovefilm also offers new release movies in the form of pay-per-view rentals for £3.49, though to take this into account for the £4.99 package would be unfair.
What you see is what you get with Netflix, in which every TV show and movie right there on the home screen is available to you at the click of a button. And what you will see is a fairly poor selection of never-good-in-the-first-place action movies (The Rock, Starship Troopers), dumb comedies (Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Sky High, Delhi Belly) and lame horror (The Eye, Killer Klowns From Outer Space). That's not to say there aren't some excellent films in there - notably the likes of Secretary, Being John Malkovich and O Brother, Where Art Thou? - but too often they remain hidden amidst the hideous rolling DVD user interface.
Where Netflix comes into its own is its TV shows and documentaries, with the likes of The Office US, Arrested Development, Heroes and South Park joining the beeb's-own Doctor Who and the entire back-catalogue of Top Gear. Though Netflix's crossing of the Atlantic has resulted in some notable absentees (Bones, The Good Guys) most likely due to licensing issues, you wouldn't bet against Netflix bringing them here soon. As for solid numbers on the amount of content available, Netflix fails to list exactly how many titles/TV shows are available to stream, though we wouldn't expect the number to be significantly less than its competitor. After all, Lovefilm has had a terrific head start.
There's no use in having access to 10,000+ movies if your experience watching them is like someone's rubbed Vaseline all over your TV screen. Which is why when it comes down to which service provides the biggest bang for your buck, quality of the stream is paramount. No wonder Netflix representatives are barking on about the services HD video stream capabilities: it make's a good streaming service, great. In fact, have a fast enough connection (say over 8Mbps) and not only will your TV shows and movies be equipped with 1080p playback, they will also feature Dolby Digital Plus surround sound too.
Amazon's biggest mistake with Lovefilm was not having HD feeds right from the get-go, something the company could have learned from the success of Netflix while it was still in its domestic US. We struggle to get any enjoyment from Lovefilm's streaming precisely for the reason that watching films and TV shows is sub-standard at worst and mediocre at best. Where Blu Ray's and HD TV has become the norm, going back to such quality of content feels like a slap in the face, and it's something Lovefilm needs to rectify as soon as possible.
No wonder Lovefilm has felt the need to spark into life with a number of high-profile content deals recently, Netflix's understanding of the market puts it in perfect stead to take on the UK and overthrow Lovefilm as the once-dominant streaming service. What it loses out on in terms of content and pricing (only a quid cheaper a month though, what's that really!?), it more than makes up for in the range of devices it can be delivered to and the quality of the stream once it forces its way down your pipes. In the end, there's only one winner.
And The Winner Is… Netflix