Tuesday, 29 October 2013

An Aussie in Netflix

From laserdiscs through DVDs and Blu-rays, I used to be a big fan of the plastic disc’s ability to deliver superior picture and sound over their competition. Now, however, I am fed up; quality matters to me much less than it did in the good old days where I had time to myself. In contrast, being able to use my precious time to watch exactly what I want, when I want it is far more important. As is my growing lack of patience with the fallacies of physical media, from getting stuck in traffic acquiring it to being at the mercy of the previous Blu-ray renter’s whims when it comes to scratches and other physical deformities ruining the viewing experience.
This is why I thought I would venture out of Australia to explore the promised land. A land where, I was told, I can subscribe to one service where a measly $8 USD a month would allow me to pick from a catalog north of 10,000 titles of movies to stream at will at the time I want to sit and watch. In other words, I went looking for the Spotify equivalent in the realm of videos. As rumour has it, this service is called Netflix.
The comparison with Spotify is interesting, because ever since Spotify came into my life some three years ago it dominated my music listening while making me listen to music much more than before. Just like Netflix today, Spotify back then was unavailable at Australia and I had to jump through some hoops to get it; it paid off, the jumping, because having joined Spotify earlier on meant I was not forced to use it via Facebook (the way newer users are).
Spotify became so dominant that, as far as I am concerned, if your music is not on Spotify you do not exist. Can the same be said of Netflix? And more importantly, is Netflix really the answer to my video wet dreams the I made it out to be? Last week I set out to get my answer. Finally, I joined Netflix!
Following are my impressions of the Aussie Netflix experience thus far.

As I briefly above, Netflix is currently unavailable in Australia; it is not expected to be available any time soon. Given this reality, certain hoops have to be jumped through in order to access this geo-blocked service. Whereas Americans (and, for that matter, residents of other countries where the service is formally available) can utilise their smartphones, tablets, video streamers (ala Apple TVs), game consoles and computers to access Netflix material at will, we are severely limited.
Various workarounds allow the Aussie viewer to access Netflix through each of the above options, but getting there is not that easy and sacrifices have to be made. Since at this stage I wanted to see if jumping on the Netflix bandwagon is worthwhile in the first place, I chose the easy way out and focused on accessing Netflix through my computer’s browser.
There are many methods to circumvent Netflix’ geo-blocking. I went with the Rolls-Royce solution and used an American VPN, but this workaround comes at a price: my ADSL2+ service, normally capable of 9Mb/s speeds, is reduced to 5Mb/s or less.
I used my Mac to access the Netflix website, with its screen mirrored on my TV using an Apple TV. My browser of choice, Firefox, proved too prohibitive to use Netflix with due to all the protection measures I loaded it up with (Disconnet, NoScript etc). I could get around it but I did not see much reason to bother, so I went with my second choice of a slightly less protected Chrome browser. Upon playback, Netflix informed me it prefers Firefox or Safari, so I went ahead and used Safari. To be frank, I was unable to detect any difference in Netflix performance on either browser; I can tell you, though, that Netflix deploys plenty of web trackers on its users (sadly, this is the way of most websites nowadays), which suggests there is value in setting your browser up to protect your privacy.
In order to work and display video, Netflix insists on using Silverlight technology. Silverlight, in case you do not know, is/was meant to be Microsoft’s answer to Adobe Flash. In any case, it is a compromised piece of software that definitely offers a backdoor into one’s computer to any party wishing to make a bit of an effort there. It is very sad to see Netflix forcing Silverlight on its users, but it is also clear why they have to do it: DRM, or copy protection. Personally, I do not see why paying users have to be punished with such DRM given that it is not exactly hard to make your own pirate versions of anything Netflix has to offer anyway, either through Netflix or elsewhere. Silverlight, therefore, is a reflection of the way the copyright monopoly regards the average consumer. Indeed, I consider Silverlight a critical issue with my acceptance of Netflix.
In contrast to playing local videos using VLC, fan noise and other forms of huffing and puffing coming from my Mac make it very clear my computer was out for a workout with Netflix, to the point of making me think twice about watching Netflix on hot summer days. Macs are just too expensive for me to sacrifice this way! I went ahead and tried Netflix on my similarly specced Windows 7 laptop, a PC I’d have less reservations sacrificing on the altar of video entertainment. That solution did not work out well at all: on both Chrome and Firefox, Silverlight crashed seconds after I tweaked video quality to acceptable levels, rendering the whole viewing experience null. I do not know whether the fault is with Silverlight, Windows 7 or the PC being too incapable (again, it is of similar specs to my Mac), but the final outcome was less than impressive.
Which brings me to discuss picture quality, or quality of presentation in general, at length.

First for the easy part. Thus far, Netflix seems to have only supplied me with stereo soundtracks throughout (as opposed to 5.1). Fidelity was obviously far from the highest standards set by Blu-rays; it was more like good quality YouTube stuff.
Now for the picture. My first instinct, once all the initial buffering had gone through, was along the lines of “WTF”. Picture quality was abysmal, so on par with VHS as to to make it hard to read titles. I guess it would suffice for smartphone viewing, but definitely not on the home theatre big screen. There could be no way out of this one: picture quality was simply unacceptable. Surely, being as successful as it is, Netflix could offer more?
Some Internet searching later and I found my answer. First, there are Netflix account settings controlling maximum quality, probably there to protect your Internet plans; the default was the minimum. I switched to the maximum, which promises up to 3GB per movie.
That, however, does not affect much. I still needed to update the Silverlight settings in order to tell it to buffer at a higher rate. That did solve the picture quality issue, which now was more along the lines of sub DVD levels (but generally acceptable), albeit with a price tag. First, these manual settings have to be made again each time a new video is played, which implies every Netflix session has to start with a bit of a session of messing around with buffer settings. Second, raising the picture quality bar exposes the limitations of one’s Internet connection: set it up too high and you’d get your movie to pause occasionally for a round of buffering. One cannot blame Netflix with this, but one can look at other ways of dealing with them. Apple, for example, solves the same problem on its Apple TV by buffering for a significant amount of time before letting you start watching its iTunes movie.
The comparison with Apple is interesting for other aspects, too. There can be no doubt Apple offers far superior presentation to Netflix’, both in sound and picture. With iTunes you get 5.1 and you can choose between standard and high definition, both of which beat Netflix’ presentation and both working over the same Internet connection as Netflix.
iTunes also offers the latest and greatest movies in its catalog; can Netflix compete there?

The vastness of Netflix’ catalog is at the core of its promise to give its viewer any video it can name. Does Netflix take one to this promised land? In one word, no.
It would be a bit too evil on my behalf to dismiss things with a “no”. There are vast amounts of videos on Netflix, and it seems as if great care is taken to avoid overwhelming the user and offer them only material relevant to them. There is enough stuff in there to keep any viewer watching videos for the rest of their lives.
However, I could not avoid noting the quantity vs. quality difference. Yes, Netflix is full of stuff I wouldn’t mind watching. It is not, however, brimming with stuff I want to watch; I was able to find some here and there, but that’s it. If it’s recent releases you’re after, you will still have to make your way to your nearest Video Ezy or open your wallet wide for iTunes. The same applies if you’re after big name titles; I’m not even talking Star Wars big, but rather way below. For example, a search for Steven Spielberg will retrieve Tintin as the only proper movie on offer; similar results apply when searching for Arnold Schwarzenegger or even Simon Pegg. Netflix is simply not there.
To say I was gravely disappointed would be an understatement. Netflix’ catalog is a clear slap on the face for everyone who thought the copyright monopoly dared stepping up to modern times and abandon their ideas of forcing us to buy pieces of plastic. Clearly, they haven’t; Netflix’ inventory is the manifestation of their ongoing fallacies.
There are different ways to look at things, though. If, say, you are a parent looking for ways to entertain your children, then you will find endless hours of fun to be had with Netflix. If you are a regular cable viewer who likes to turn the TV on, find an acceptable channel and veg out, Netflix will deliver at a fraction of Foxtel's cost. The only reason why I regard Netflix negatively is to do with me being a discretionary viewer who knows what he wants to watch but does not have much time to watch it all; for viewers such as yours truly, the Netflix crippled by the copyright monopoly simply won’t do.

Overall Experience:
After covering the technicalities, I will attempt to answer the question of what is it like for an Aussie to use Netflix. In my case, what was it like for me to use Netflix on my Mac?
The answer is that it is a bit of a ritual that requires more technical expertise than the average user would accept. Of course, there are many ways to skin a cat, and many of the things I performed manually can be automated while other things I consider important will probably be overlooked by others.
Proceedings start with starting the VPN connection up, then the browser, then accessing Netflix. There I could choose to watch new stuff or to continue watching stuff I left off before (Netflix will keep track of progress for you). Once you picked your program of choice, the browser will load Netflix’ online viewer and buffer enough content to let you start watching. When the program starts, I usually react with disgust at the poor quality and quickly rush to my Mac to adjust the buffering rate to a better setting that would allow me to watch the rest of the program continuously without buffering breaks. I mentioned my computer huffing and puffing on Netflix’ behalf; if you intend to use a laptop for your Netflix adventures I suggest carrying its charger along for the ride, because battery power vanishes into thin air (as it does with most Flash content, for that matter).
The whole ritual comes down to us Aussies not being allowed on the Netflix bandwagon yet. Again, it is clear this is not because of any wrongdoing by Netflix, but rather because of restrictions imposed by the gods of the copyright monopolies. Which side you would like to find yourself on in this particular conflict is up to you.

Personal Verdict:
On paper, Netflix is great – the Spotify of video. But that only indicates at the quality of paper promises.
Netflix is a reasonably priced service delivering viewing solutions to virtually all possible platforms of choice. There can be no doubt the future of video programming lies with services such as Netflix'. However, for us Aussies the usability of Netflix' services suffers greatly.
It is not only the usability that suffers, though. On both catalog depth and quality of presentation, Netflix is knocked down by both iTunes and that other great content library I shall refer to as The Pirate Bay. iTunes is generally unacceptable for many a reason, starting with price; one iTunes rental will cost you as much as an entire month of Netflix. Where does that leave the Aussie viewer? I will leave you to draw your own conclusions, but state it is no wonder 37% of Aussies openly admit piracy.
Piracy is deeply related to Netflix. The major compromises in introducing vulnerabilities to one’s computer, the extra workout your computer will get (potentially raising Netflix’ cost due to shortening the intervals between hardware failures), and the general absence of A title quality offerings are all valid explanations to the public seeking alternatives the only way it could find. The music industry learned its lesson, more or less: where Spotify has been introduced, music piracy rates came tumbling down. There is no reason to pirate music when one can comfortably acquire 95% of what they’re after at the click of a button and for a reasonable price. The video industry is yet to reach that level of maturity.
Despite its pricing and its good intentions, I do not see myself continuing with Netflix past the one free month they gave me. Its product is simply not good enough.

Image copyrights: Netflix

17/1/2014 update: Since publishing this post I have changed my mind about Netflix. Read all about it here.

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