Monday, December 6, 2010

Review: Netflix Canada

For a movie fanatic like me, choice is a good thing. I have spent the last few years building a sizeable movie collection and only recently have I stepped into the Blu-Ray arena, and I am always looking for new outlets through which I can enjoy a variety of movies. Having watched from afar the benefit that Netflix has had for US consumers, it was great news to hear that the service is now available in Canada and I quickly jumped at the 30 day free trial that was being offered to first-time subscribers. After using Netflix for a few weeks and delving deeply into their catalogue, I have formed an opinion that can best be described as tentatively mixed. For a service that is still embryonic in the Canadian market, it’s introduction is more of drop in the puddle as opposed to the big splash that many had hoped.

Let’s be clear on one thing, the service is $7.99 per month and your expectations should be adjusted accordingly. This is less a competitor to your local video store or cable TV service and more of an alternative for second (or even third) run movies that you can have conveniently streamed through your PC, Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and Nintendo Wii. I opted to use my PS3 and my opinions are based solely on my experience on this platform. The main draw of any service like this is the selection of movies, and this is where the first wrinkles in the service become evident; the selection is just not impressive. Canadian subscribers can expect to be 8 to 12 months behind on DVD releases and at least a full season behind on TV shows. For example, the first three seasons of “Mad Men” are available while the fourth is not, and movies like “Horton Hears a Who” and “Imagine That” (both from 2008) are considered to be new releases. Popular shows like Lost and Dexter, long available to US subscribers, are listed in the catalogue but are unavailable in Canada.

Perhaps to compensate for this, there is a good selection of older movies and I have found plenty of movies that have been sitting in my “have to see” pile for ages that I have finally been able to sit down and watch. Most notably, their selection of documentaries, foreign and horror films is rather good and they have a good mix of popular and independent releases. The selection of TV shows is also a mixed bag, but thankfully they have most seasons of shows like “Intervention” and “Heroes” that are available. I have read that the limited selection in Canada, at least at the time of the launch, is due to licensing restrictions but I find it rather poor planning to introduce a service without having covered those bases first. Business sense would dictate that a strong launch is what ensures lasting success, and Netflix has unfortunately experienced an average launch at best.

On the technical front, Netflix functions exactly as you would expect. I have experienced absolutely no problems with lag or buffering while streaming content and the load times are excellent for a streaming service. I stream from a Playstation 3 and utilize an HDMI connection and there has been no conversion problems or picture/sound quality problems that I have often experienced with streaming online videos on my PC.

As well as the Netflix system works on a functional level, the same cannot be said for the menu system. On one hand, the movies are conveniently organized by gene and from the newest to the oldest additions, which makes browsing movies and finding hidden gems rather easy. On the other hand, the menu navigation clearly has problems. For some reason, the cursor seems to be move to the left whenever you move down the list of movies, so you will often go back to a previous menu or load another area when you didn’t intend to do so. This is especially problematic when scrolling through a list of TV episodes, since I often got kicked back to the main page for the show and I had to go back into the episode list.

Another problem is the movie catalogue incorporating titles from both the US and Canadian services. Due to the aforementioned licensing restrictions, the bulk of the US catalogue is unavailable to Canadian subscribes and it makes little sense to list them on the Canadian site, however using the “search” function will bring up several movies and TV shows that are not available. For example, I wanted to see a documentary on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina called “Trouble the Water” and I quickly found it by utilizing the search function. Imagine my disappointment when I loaded the movie page and it said “Not Available”, and the same thing happened when I wanted to watch back episodes of “Breaking Bad”. Listed but not available – what a tease!

As previously noted, the Netflix service is $7.99 a month for unlimited movies, so this should be weighed against the weaknesses in the selection that I have noted above. The benefit of Netflix is really in the older and more independent movies they have on offer, and for that I would tentatively say the price is worth it. If anything is stopping me from recommending it outright, it’s the fact that it’s still new in Canada and we have yet to gauge the quality and quantity of the movies that are going to be added. Netflix is not something that can compete with DVD sales, which is arguably the sweetest plumb for movie studios, so Netflix is less profitable and will consequently be last to the party when it comes to movie releases. However, I have found several movies that I have been meaning to watch and also some great movies that I never knew existed. The streaming quality is good and the service is reliable, so I recommend taking advantage of the free trial and see if Netflix is for you.

Rating: 6.5/10 (based on the launch; rating could improve over time)

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