First Look Review - Netflix Movie Streaming for Macs (Beta Program)
by , 2:50 PM EST, November 7th, 2008
Netflix has released their Silverlight plug-in for beta testing that allows its customers with Intel-based Macs to instantly view a movie from an available library of 12,000 titles. Testing on a MacBook Pro revealed that the plug-in works well, and no problems were encountered.
Testing was conducted on a unibody, 2.4 GHz MacBook Pro with 4 GB RAM and Mac OS X 10.5.5 during the week of Nov 3-7. Movies viewed in real time streaming consisted of: Groundhog Day, The Madness of King George, and Next (with Nicolas Cage).The first task is to download the Microsoft Silverlight plug-in. On the Netflix "Watch Instantly" page, the user is invited to download the installer, and nothing alarming or unusual along the way happens. The Silverlight plug-in is simply installed into the main system library, in the Internet Plug-ins folder. A empty working directory is also placed in the Additional Tools Directory of your Microsoft Office 2008 folder.
Because the plug-in goes into the System's Library, it is available to any browser by any user. After installation, and for the last week, there were no noticeable side effects on the system, and the plug-in is only called, like Flip4Mac, when needed.
After installation, the user logs on the Netflix account and movies that are available for instant streaming are marked with a small badge. The quality of the user's Internet connection is also monitored in order to best deliver the content. Because the movies are delivered in standard definition, only a modest speed broadband connection is required.
All that's necessary to view a movie is click on its badge.
Within a few seconds after starting one of the movies, there was a notice that my Internet connection had slowed. I wondered if Comcast was doing some kind of metering when it saw this movie stream.
I paused the movie and went to www.speedtest.net to check the connection. Everything seemed okay, so attributed the notice to the Netflix algorithm and not anything Comcast was doing.
Once the movie continued, I had no further problems. In terms of video quality, the movie was very watchable in a window. Even when I blew up the picture to cover the full screen, while the quality was clearly SD, it was still very watchable, even by a person spoiled by Blu-ray movies.
Full screen mode makes it very clear how to get out: just hit the ESC key. When the user activates full screen mode, a notice comes up as a reminder. Even if one forgets how to get out, the choice of ESC makes it likely a new user will likely hit the "right" key and won't be frustrated trying to get out of full screen mode.
Here's a full screen shot, reduced from 1920 x 1200 down to 400 x 250. (Next with Nicolas Cage and Julianne Moore.)
During the week-long testing, a variety of movies and connections conditions were tested. It was fairly clear that the quickness with which the movie comes up and starts to play is better in the day time, when the load is light, and gets considerably slower in the evening, when most people are home from work. However, when I did test in the evening, despite a delay in the start of the movie, it played without annoying pauses or stutters.
I would recommend what Apple recommends for Apple TV, about 5 Mbps broadband for a good viewing experience.
Some potential users might be concerned about the installation of Microsoft's Silverlight on their Macs, but I found the plug-in and installation process designed to be reassuring and benign.
Despite the fact that this program is still in beta testing, I had no problems whatsoever. However, I suspect that those users with a slow MacBook, Mac mini or Intel iMac and a marginal broadband connection of, say, only 1 Mbps might experience problems that I did not.
This is a good start for Netflix on the Mac, and Netflix customers with modern equipment shouldn't hesitate to jump in and enjoy the expanded service for their computer, even if it's still in beta. Customers can watch as many movies as they wish, if they have at least the $8.95/month unlimited level subscription.
Finally, Netflix has made no announcement about when this Mac service might be upgraded to high definition, but Netflix has announced HD for Xbox and the Roku box. So it may just be a matter of time before Mac users can enjoy HD movies and TV shows via Netflix.