Unlike many new types of home
electronics, you're not faced with any large costs to add Netflix
video streaming to your current home entertainment system.
Maybe you even already have internet capable Blu-ray disc
players or game consoles or televisions.
If you don't, you've a wide
variety of choices from about $60 and up. In addition to
the connection box, well, you've already got an internet
connection, right? And joining Netflix takes all of a
couple of minutes to do; best of all, they give you a free month
of service to trial the system, and - in case needed - provide
helpful responsive support, 24/7.
So what are you waiting for?
Stop buying and renting movies, and switch to the new way of
How to Get Netflix Video
You need three things to get
Netflix videos playing on your home television or computer or
whatever other device. One of these you almost certainly
already have - an internet connection. We discuss, below,
whether it is fast enough for high quality video streaming.
The second is some sort of a
device to connect from Netflix, via your internet connection,
and to the television. If you're connecting via a smart
phone, a tablet, or a computer, you don't need this intermediary
device, it is all built in to the hardware you are using.
There are a wide range of devices, costing as little as $60.
The types of devices
available to connect a tv to the internet are also discussed,
The third thing is as easy
and obvious as the other two. You need
an account with Netflix - this link takes you to their
rather bland home page. Choose the 'Not a Member' option,
then from the next page, you'll be told about a lovely one month
free trial you can instantly sign up for, and off you go.
How Fast an Internet Connection
Do You Need
The faster your internet
connection, the better the video quality you'll get when
watching a Netflix video stream.
Currently it seems the best
quality streaming rate offered by Netflix is at a rate of about
4800 kbits/sec (a recent increase from their former maximum
speed of 3600 kbits/sec). And so, at a simplistic level,
it would seem that to get the best possible quality experience,
you should have a connection that promises a similar or higher
speed internet connection.
You'll still get reasonably
good viewing experiences even down to about 1500 kbits/sec,
although visibly inferior to the faster connection speeds.
Once you start to drop below about 2000 kbits/sec, you'll start
to have noticeable quality degradation and pauses while the
video rebuffers up and starts playing again.
There are several additional
issues to keep in mind.
The first is that most
internet connections do not guarantee the 'headline' speed they
claim. If you read the fine print of your contract, you
might find that your 10 Mbit/sec internet connection actually
only guarantees you a for-sure connection rate of possibly as
low as 128 kbits/sec. The headline numbers are more a
claim for the maximum speed you can expect, not a guarantee of
the minimum speed you are assured.
This is particularly the
case with cable connections. DSL and fiber are better, but
cable connections have a lot of 'last mile' sharing - the
bandwidth available to you is probably being shared with the
family next door, and the family two houses over, and several
other houses too. If you're the only person watching a
streaming video, that is fine, but if all of you want to watch
streaming video simultaneously, you may have problems.
It is a good idea to get a
fast maximum speed internet connection in the hope it translates
to a better overall speed and the ability to 'catch up' faster
after times when the data is streaming slower than it needs to
(see the discussion on buffering).
The rest of the internet
impacts on your experience too
Maybe you've a really really
fast maximum speed on your internet connection (I've seen some
promising as much as 50 Mbits/sec). But that is a bit like
a freeway with an 80 mph speed limit when you get on the
on-ramp, but during your journey you encounter patches of severe
congestion along the route you want to travel, and have
occasional detours onto surface streets at 25 mph.
The whole concept of the
internet 'cloud' is that there's a fuzzy and vague,
ever-changing pathway from you to Netflix. Your high speed
connection only applies to the 'last mile' of the internet, from
some nearby connection point to your house. Beyond that
point, you're equally sharing the bandwidth of the 'internet
cloud' along with everyone else.
The rest of the internet
cloud will seldom or never support the speeds that you might
have on your 'last mile' connection to your house. Here's
interesting chart prepared by Netflix that shows the typical
ongoing average connection speeds provided by various different
ISPs in the US and Canada. You'll see that typical rates
are in the 2500 kbits/sec - 3000 kbits/sec range, meaning that
the maximum quality 4800 kbits/sec stream from Netflix will not
be able to consistently play.
The good news is that you
will almost never notice the shifts in video quality, and just
because the average speed of an ISP is comparatively slow, that
doesn't mean you'll occasionally get higher speeds, which
together with some decent buffering (see below) will give you as
much of the movie as possible at as high a quality as possible.
The main point here is that
if you already have, eg, about a 10 Mbit/sec connection speed,
you'll get no extra improvement by increasing this. The
only exception would be if you want to have multiple people in
your house all watching different movies on different devices at
the same time.
Netflix automatically varies
its data rate
The Netflix streaming
service intelligently monitors the speed of the data stream
between it and you. If it detects extra bandwidth
capacity, it increases the quality of the video to make best use
of the bandwidth available. And if things slow down, it
will reduce the video quality so as to keep the video playing,
albeit at slightly poorer quality.
Note that if Netflix slows
down the data rate, it will increase it again as soon as the
bandwidth goes up again - maybe a second or two later, maybe a
minute or two later, or whatever the situation ends up as being.
In reality, your
instantaneous internet connection speed between you and Netflix
is very variable. Rather like a busy freeway, it has
occasional sudden mysterious slowdowns, then it opens wide up,
then it slows down, and so on.
To allow for this, the video
stream first loads a 'buffer' into your computer/player's
memory. This buffer has several seconds of movie in it.
And then, when playing the movie, if the internet connection
briefly slows down below the rate at which the player is taking
movie data out of the buffer, the movie will keep playing while
the buffer is depleted. Hopefully the internet connection
speed gets back up fast enough before the buffer is fully used
up. And then, when the connection speed exceeds the rate
at which data is being taken out of the buffer, it starts to
refill the buffer back up to its maximum capacity, ready for the
next temporary slowdown.
Even a five second buffer is
actually quite a lot, because typically the internet connection
will not stop completely, but merely slow down. So the
five seconds of video would represent an ability to play for 10
seconds without interruption if the internet dropped down to
half speed, or an ability to play for 20 seconds if the internet
dropped down to 75% of the needed speed, and so on.
But from time to time, you
might deplete your buffer completely. In such a case, the
movie will pause and a message will appear that it is waiting
for the buffer to be refilled. Usually in five or ten
seconds, you'll be up and playing again.
How often does this happen?
There's no universal standard. It depends on your internet
connection. Some people report that they only have an
empty buffer pause once every five or more movies. Other
people experience it a couple of times on every movie.
Watching away from home
Maybe you're in a hotel or
somewhere else, and have an iPad or other Netflix capable tablet
device or laptop/netbook computer.
Netflix allows you to have
six different devices registered to your account, any/all of
which can accept their video streams.
But you'll be dependent on
the bandwidth and reliability of whatever network you are using
to access the internet. Hotel networks in particular are
problematic in terms of having sufficient and reliable bandwidth
to support movie streaming. If you're the only person
wanting to watch a Netflix movie, it should be okay, but if
you're in a 250 room hotel and if 50 of those people all want to
watch movies, that requires something like 150 Mbits/sec of
bandwidth just for the movie watchers, and some extra for
everyone else who may be surfing the internet, downloading
email, remotely accessing their work network, or doing who knows
what else. In other words, the hotel needs to provide
about a T1 of capacity for every two or three guests, and for
sure there are no hotels that provide that sort of internet
While Netflix has the
potential to be a massive comfort for travelers, the network
capabilities are lagging behind the demands Netflix makes on
What Equipment to Watch Netflix Streaming
One of the great things
about Netflix is that you have a wide variety of different
devices that can manage the connection between Netflix and the
internet at one end, and your television screen at the other
end. Maybe you even already have a device that is 'Netflix
If you don't, the best
solution for most people will be to buy a new Blu-ray player
that is internet aware (about $150 or less).
Alternatively, you can simply buy a dedicated internet video
connection box such as the Roku, for as little as $60.
In general terms, you can
choose from a growing number of 'internet capable' televisions,
a growing number of Blu-ray players, dedicated devices such as
the Roku player, Tivo and Google TV, and even some gaming
systems (Xbox 360, Wii and PS3).
In addition, you can
directly watch Netflix on Mac and PC computers, on iPads and
other Apple iOS devices, and also on Windows Phone 7 phones as
Strangely, there is not yet an Android app, although
Netflix say one is currently under development. It is
understood this is due to the lack of tightly locked down
'digital rights management' features on Android and the relative
ease that hackers have in avoiding the current copy protection
schemes in Android, and this is scaring the movie studios into
refusing to allow their content to be streamed to Android
devices until better copy protection schemes are in place.
If you don't already have a
device that will support video streaming from the internet, you
have several choices and issues to consider.
First, not all devices will
play Netflix video at the same quality level. Play Station
3 units are currently the will support the highest 1080 line
resolutions, other devices won't go over 720 line resolutions.
Second, not all devices
support the recently added Dolby Digital Plus surround sound
capabilities. Again, the Play Station 3 can do this, and
additionally Google TV units may support this as well (according
to Ryan at Netflix) and also Roku players (per Venkat at Roku).
The Play Station 3 is
therefore - at present - probably the best choice of device.
But it is also the most expensive (about $300).
For those who don't want a
gaming platform, don't want to spend $300, and don't want to buy
a new television, you have two primary choices. The first
would be to buy a Blu-ray player that offers internet
connectivity, and the second is to buy a dedicated device such
as a Roku player.
Blu-ray players and Roku
You can get Blu-ray players
for as little as $155 that come with both the internet
connectivity and also a built in Wi-Fi unit. I have a Sony BDP-BX57 that is available on Amazon
for $155; it seems to be about the best buy at the time of
writing (May 2011).
You can get lower priced
Blu-ray players that don't have built in Wi-Fi but which will
connect via a regular wired internet connection, such as this $85
Panasonic (May 2011) but unless you have an ethernet
connection by your Blu-ray player, choosing one with a built in
Wi-fi transceiver is probably more convenient.
Maybe you already have a Blu-ray
player, but if it is not connected to the internet, you're
potentially missing out on additional bonus content and features
on many of the Blu-ray discs you already watch, so it makes
sense to upgrade your present Blu-ray player anyway.
And if you don't already
have a Blu-ray player, well, gosh, you should. They'll
play all your DVDs too, and now that Blu-ray discs have come
down in price (sometimes even less than $10) there's no great
cost penalty for getting the visibly higher quality Blu-ray
versions of movies when you want to own a movie rather than just
watch via Netflix.
So generally we'd recommend
buying an internet and Wi-fi equipped Blu-ray player as your
best way of getting Netflix on your system.
But if you want a less
expensive option, the Roku players are also
interesting devices and cost less than $100, and give you full
access to Netflix and various other internet/video streaming
services too. The entry level Roku device is only $59, the
mid-level is $79 and the top of the line model is $99. If
you're seeking a low cost way of trialling Netflix (other than
simply on your computer) then the $59 device is excellent; and
in general, the $79 unit (available on Amazon
and elsewhere) is
a great performer.
Google TV is another
product, but we feel its time has yet to come and you might be
best advised to hold off on investing in Google TV until it has
become more stable in form and format.
Wi-Fi on your Player/Streaming
The best way to connect your
internet streaming box to the internet is through a 100 Mbit Cat
5e ethernet cable.
But the chances are you
don't have your house conveniently wired for ethernet, and so
you'll probably choose to use the great convenience of Wi-Fi.
Wi-Fi is an acceptable alternative in most cases, but you may
find yourself with some bandwidth problems if you have a weak
Wi-Fi signal and/or if you are connecting via an 802.11b type
connection (which has a maximum bandwidth of 11 Mbits/sec - a
speed which seemed unimaginably fast when it was first released
in 1999, but these days is slower than many of our broadband
If you are going to connect
by Wi-Fi, you should ideally get a device that supports 802.11g
or 802.11n protocol - and of course, please make sure that your
Wi-Fi router also supports these newer and faster protocols.
Be warned - many Blu-ray
players refer to themselves as being Wi-Fi 'ready' - what this
means is you have to buy an extra device to connect to the
player to make it work with Wi-Fi. Make sure you get one
that has the Wi-Fi already installed, otherwise you could be up
for another $40 - $80 and an extra piece of equipment and
Competitors to Netflix
There are a number of
companies scrambling to play catch-up to the lead Netflix has
created for itself in this new distribution system, but all
competitors suffer from the same challenges Netflix has itself
experienced and struggled to resolve - getting content rights
from movie and television studios to stream their titles.
Present services offered by
other companies include Hulu Plus and Vudu, but neither has
anything like the diversity of content offered by Netflix.
competitor is Redbox, currently offering rental movie service
through vending machines often seen outside convenience stores.
Amazon has a different type
of service where you can get digital viewing/streaming rights to
a wide range of different movies and television shows.
Some programs require you to pay a fee per movie you watch, and
some of them are available for free if you belong to their
'Prime' shipping program (a $79 a year cost applies).
This looks to be a great new
product, but the range of movies that are included in their Prime
program is very small. I use it as a supplement to, rather
than replacement for, my Netflix service.
Yes, in addition to being a
repository of an extraordinary miscellany of video clips, Youtube
now offers video streaming. But unlike Netflix and Amazon,
it does not have an unlimited streaming for a fixed monthly price
option - instead you pay per movie - usually $3 per movie viewed,
and $4 for new release hits.
At this price point it is a
worthy competitor to renting a video from a video rental store,
but it is not in the same marketplace sector as the Amazon and
Netflix 'all you can watch' services. At least, not yet,
Should you wait before joining
Netflix or a competitor?
Happily, if you
choose to join the Netflix streaming service now, you'll not
be locking yourself into anything - quite the opposite.
You'll get a one month free trial.
Netflix don't require you to
sign any annual or longer contract, you just pay on a month by
month basis and can cancel at any time if something better comes
along in the future. Indeed, they will even allow you to
pause the service if you will be traveling out of town for a
while and not able to use it.
So our recommendation is to
give it a go now. If something better comes along in the
future (and how much better than $8/month for unlimited viewing
of 20,000+ shows can it get?) then you're free to change
services (or to add extra services) if you wish.
This follows on from
our two part article, 'Warning
- The End of the Internet as We Know It'.
Part 2 of a two part article about Netflix - see also
part one 'Netflix - a Wonderful New
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18 Feb 2011, last update
28 May 2011
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.