Netflix for iPad review [mw] full review

As usual, there are plenty of technologies and eye-catching gadgets for tech hunters to gorge upon at CES this week. For UK consumers, the debut of the Netflix video on demand service – a proven service of several years standing in the States – is likely to prove the icing on the cake.

Netflix is currently operating a month-long trial of its new-to-the-UK video on demand service. After this, it costs £5.99 a month.

When you first sign up, you need to enter Facebook account login details in order to take advantage of the month-long trial. Terms and conditions state that Netflix will post details of what you view on your Facebook profile, though there are ways to circumvent this. Of perhaps more concern is that when you enter your card details so Netflix can start your subscription once the trial ends, the three-digit security code from the rear of your card stays onscreen for an awfully long time. Do not sign up for this service from somewhere your screen is overlooked. Secure payment screens aren’t much use if you display your full bank details to anyone to crib.

Thankfully, this is where most of our criticism ends. Netflix is an above average video on demand service that does its best to match your personal viewing taste to the titles in its library. Given the aforementioned Facebook tie-in, we were rather worried that this would be done by trawling through your likes on the social network or divining your likely preferences based on gender and age group. In fact, there’s a very quick questionnaire page that asks how likely or unlikely you are to watch horror, wacky, family friendly, suspect and action thrillers. Just choose Often, Never or Sometimes for each category. The sub-division of categories isn’t always clear – and rather mawkishly named. A ‘show examples’ option displays the covers for several titles Netflix deems mind-bending, cerebral, surreal  and so on.

Once you’ve stated your preferences, you download Netflix to your laptop, PC, Mac, iPhone or Android device. Windows users need Microsoft Silverlight, which you’re prompted to acquire.

Once loaded, Netflix is a master of simplicity to use. Three side-scrolling rows of titles are shown onscreen at any one time. In the Popular on Facebook category we counted 40 options, while eight programmes and films that we started watching and then quit were available for us to continue watching. Importantly, there were no annoying ads that insisted on pre-rolling before the feature film or programme we’d chosen started playing. Netflix initially needs to acquire a licence to play titles and spends a couple of seconds buffering, but video played back flawlessly on the 10 or so titles we watched.

Netflix for the iPad

The video playback quality is not the best – on our iPad 2, we certainly saw plenty of artefacts, particularly in the background of scenes. Video quality isn’t stated, but Netflix says the available streaming bandwidth will largely dictate this.

On an iPad Netflix films can be viewed in either letterbox widescreen format or in fullscreen mode, in which case you obviously lose some of the picture. Flipping between the two modes is a matter of pressing a large enough to be finger-friendly radio button at the top right. Playback is not interrupted. It’s also incredibly easy to skip through scenes, again without noticeable buffer or quality loss. In part, this is down to the incredible ease of use of the iPad.

On an iPhone, you need to log in too, but contrary to the Facebook credentials you may naturally expect, you need to go to your desktop Netflix account and request a password as though you’ve forgotten yours. It’s a minor setup kink in an otherwise impressive service.

We aren’t sold on the Facebook tie-in. Presumably it’s to aid the viral spread of the service by piquing FB users’ interest that their friends are watching something they’ve not tried. There’s a ‘don’t share on Facebook ‘option at the top right of the playback screen, but the sharing by default trend is not something we’re that comfortable with. Thankfully, we used a fresh Facebook account for our trial as we didn’t want to have our Netflix trial viewing plastered all over our own Facebook pages.

Of course sharing comes into its own when recommending programmes and films. You’ll find a star rating at the top right with the note ‘best guess for you’. The phraseology implies that the service is making assumptions based on your known likes and, presumably, age. A 1972 animated version of Alice In Wonderland was listed as 3 star, while our male Facebook profile was assured that a US documentary about water and gas pollution was likely to have 4-star appeal. Wuthering Heights was tagged 3.9 out of five. When we set up a second account using my actual Facebook account and having entered my own preferences, I got a far more predictable and palatable selection of suggestions. Some Like It Hot was rated 3.9 and The Usual Suspects 4.5 while kids’ movies were ranked lowly based on my preferences.

The library is far more comprehensive than that of the YouTube video on demand and download service, for example, with several hundred feature films and almost as many TV series and documentaries to choose from. We found it a real benefit that we could dive straight in to a film and start watching it, with no decisions to be made about whether to rent or buy it outright. Most video on demand services cost charge between £1.99 and £5.99 to rent a title and up to £9.99 to buy them.

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