The Best Way to Stream Netflix

Are you a Netflix subscriber? Do you find that, even with the three out at-a-time DVD option, you still have free time? Are you tempted to drive over to Blockbuster and rent yet another DVD? Wait! Netflix has you covered.

With Netflix’s Watch Instantly option, you can select from well over 10,000 movies, available for instant streaming. It’s all free with your Netflix subcription. Although you won’t be able to view the latest releases, Netflix streaming offers a surprisingly well-stocked movie and television library. You will have no trouble finding dozens of movies you’d like to see.

However, before you sit down with your bucket of popcorn, you’ll likely have to choose which hardware to use to watch your Netflix movie. The question arises because, these days, it seems that every device that comes with a power cord includes Netflix streaming. I half expect that my next microwave oven will sport a Netflix button.


Officially, Netflix lists 31 different devices that offer Netflix streaming (and that doesn’t include any computer with an Internet connection). As it turns out, I own eight (8) Netflix streaming devices. They represent a good cross-section of the options available. Recently, I compared how Netflix worked on each of these devices. There were significant differences — both aesthetically and functionally. For starters, each device’s user interface is distinctly different. Some worked better than others. Understanding these differences can help you select the best Netflix streaming device for your situation.

Mac OS X and iOS devices

Any Mac, iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch offers access to Netflix’s Watch Instantly. With Macs, you do it via the website in your Web browser. With iOS devices, you launch a separate Netflix app. While iOS devices are able to load via Safari (and access most of Netflix’s options), you cannot stream movies from Netflix in Safari. You need the app.

Desktop Macs. Overall, I don’t find a Web browser — on any desktop Mac — to be an attractive option for watching movies:

• You’re limited to watching the movie where your Mac is sitting, probably in some office-like environment. This doesn’t make for a comfortable setting, especially if you’ll be watching the movie with company. 

• A computer typically has too many things going on in the background — from checking email, updating Twitter, and so forth — for me to want to use it to watch a movie.

• Unless you have added external speakers, the sound quality will not be great.

If none of this bothers you, Netflix on a desktop Mac works well enough. As it’s hardware you already own, it’s also an economical choice. Another plus, if you have a newer Mac with a 24” or 27” display, the screen size is decent, especially considering that you will likely be sitting close to the display. And, unless you had your entire house wired for Ethernet, your desktop Mac may be your only device with an Ethernet connection (assuming you have Ethernet at all). This could be relevant if your Wi-Fi connected devices frequently stutter or stall when trying to play a Netflix movie.

MacBooks. Compared to a desktop Mac, MacBooks have the advantage of being portable. Want to watch in your living room or bedroom? No problem. You can even watch a movie on the road — assuming you have Wi-Fi access at your location. This can be especially attractive when staying at a hotel — as an alternative to the outrageously expensive pay-TV options. 

On the downside, assuming you don’t connect the MacBook to external hardware, you’ll be watching on a small screen with inferior sound. You can improve the sound via good headphones — but that eliminates any possibility of group watching. If you’re running the laptop on battery power, you’ll also need to make sure you have sufficient charge to get to the end of the movie. 

iPad. Tap the Netflix app on the iPad and you’re ready to select your movie. It’s that simple. Add a decent set of headphones and you have a near ideal “personal viewing” environment. Yes, the screen is small — but when its positioned on your lap, it will likely seem big enough. It’s the ultimate in light weight and portability — with excellent battery life.

Further, for navigating Netflix, I prefer the iPad’s touchscreen to a MacBook’s physical keyboard and trackpad. The keyboard just gets in the way, especially when watching a movie.

If you have an iPad 3G, you can watch a Netflix movie even where there is no Wi-Fi available (such as when your flight is delayed and you’re stuck at a Wi-Fi-less airport). Just be careful that you don’t exceed your monthly 3G data allotment.

iPhone (or iPod touch). The iPhone is almost identical to the iPad as a Netflix device, except for its smaller screen. Personally, I find the iPhone’s display too small to be desirable for movie viewing. But the iPhone does fit in your pocket. And if you’re stuck somewhere and have no other options, an iPhone or iPod touch will do the trick.

TV peripherals

The remaining devices all work by connecting to a television. Assuming you have a home theater setup, this probably means a larger HD display and better audio than with computing devices. It also means a better environment for group viewing.

Blu-ray players. Many brands of Blu-ray players include Netflix streaming. I have an LG Blu-ray player that includes Netflix (among several other online services). The player also comes with built-in Wi-Fi support. Not all Blu-ray players have Wi-Fi built-in. Without it, you’ll need a separate peripheral (such as an AirPort Express) to connect the player to your Wi-Fi network.

Using a Blu-ray player for Netflix can take a bit more effort to get going than with an iPad. You’ll have to turn on several home theater devices — and probably switch the input settings from live TV to the Blu-ray player. Then you’ll have to navigate to the Netflix option on your player and wait for it to load. It’s not a big hassle and it’s not much different than what’s involved in playing a disc. But it’s something to consider.

I also have more trouble maintaining a decent connection to the Internet with my Blu-ray player than with my other devices. The result is that Netflix movies on the player often stall because the buffering cannot keep up. However, this may be more a function of the location of my player than a general problem with Blu-ray devices.

A potentially big plus for Netflix on a Blu-ray player is the price. Assuming, you intend to buy a Blu-ray player anyway (or already own one), you’re essentially getting Netflix for free.

TiVo. Overall, the pros and cons of accessing Netflix via TiVo are the same as for a Blu-ray player. There are two differences of note:

• You don’t have to switch television inputs to get to Netflix. Your television remains on whatever input you use for the TiVo device. This is a minor convenience.

• TiVo can be considerably more expensive — because you have to pay either a monthly or lifetime fee to maintain TiVo access.

Nintendo Wii. You can access Netflix streaming from a Nintendo Wii — a pleasant break after a vigorous round of Sports Resort’s table tennis. Even better, you no longer need to load a Netflix disc. Instead, after downloading the Netflix channel to the Wii’s storage, Netflix is instantly available as soon as you turn on the Wii. Of course, this assumes you’ve connected the Wii to your Wi-Fi network.

The Nintendo controller is not the ideal method for working with Netflix, but it’s adequate — especially once you realize that most options can be selected via the physical buttons on the controller, as opposed to having to wave the controller around and navigating to the onscreen buttons.

The biggest drawback of the Wii — and a potential dealbreaker for many users — is that it does not support high definition. There is no HDMI output. In my experience, the resulting standard video quality is acceptable — but it would not be my preferred choice.

Apple TV 2. As you would expect from Apple, the new Apple TV offers speedy access to Netflix. Just select the Netflix item from the Internet menu. The response time to load the Netflix software also seems shorter than with other television peripherals. The Apple TV’s user interface is attractive and easy to navigate, the best of the bunch in my view. Still, as with all the cited peripherals except TiVo, you have to switch television inputs to get to the Apple TV.

Wi-Fi access is built-in to the Apple TV. As a bonus, Apple TV can connect to Mac OS X and iOS devices via AirPlay — for playing video beyond Netflix. And an Apple TV can be controlled via the Remote app on your iPhone.

At $99, the Apple TV’s price is reasonable, although it may be hard to justify if you already have another Netflix device, such as a Blu-ray player.

Odds and ends

A few other minor features may influence your choice of a Netflix device:

Edit your queue. You can delete movies from your queue with all of the devices listed here (except from the Netflix app on an iPhone). You can also browse Netflix’s movie library and add new selections to your queue from all but two of the devices: the LG Blu-ray player and the TiVo. With these latter devices, you’ll typically return to your Mac to add new movies.

Use name links. From the Netflix website, when you display a movie description, you have the option of clicking the name of an actor or director or whomever — and generating a list of all other available movies that include that person. You can do the same thing via the iPad’s Netflix app.

This feature is similarly available on an Apple TV — although with a less complete list of names. Still, probably because of my affection for its interface, I found myself using these links much more often on the Apple TV.

Resume play. Suppose you stop watching a movie in the middle. When you later return to it, Netflix remembers where you left off. Just click Resume. What’s especially cool about this feature is that Netflix remembers your place across all your devices. So you could start watching a movie on your iPad and finish via TiVo. Fantastic!

While this seemed to work across all of my devices, there were occasional hiccups. For example, at least once, when accessing Netflix via 3G on my iPad, Resume did not recall where I had left off watching on my Apple TV.

Final recommendations

In the end, there isn’t just one best Netflix device. To a large extent, the best device will vary depending on your constraints at the moment: where you are, who you’re watching with, and what devices are currently available.

Overall, to watch a Netflix movie by myself at home, my first choice is the iPad (with a set of headphones). The video and audio quality are great, I don’t worry about disturbing anyone else in the house, and I can move to another room if need be. It’s also my clear preferred choice when traveling.

If I want the large-screen home theater experience, my top choice is the new Apple TV. Still, especially if you don’t care about being able to edit your queue from the device, any of the television peripherals will work well enough. If you already own one of these devices, it doesn’t pay to buy a different one just for Netflix. However, each device has unique beyond-Netflix features — which is why you may well wind up (as I have) owning more than one.