Hands-on with Netflix streaming on TiVo

Netflix's Instant Streaming service is now available to TiVo HD owners, and CNET offers its initial hands-on impressions.

Matthew Moskovciak Senior Associate Editor / Reviews - Home theater
Covering home audio and video, Matthew Moskovciak helps CNET readers find the best sights and sounds for their home theaters. E-mail Matthew or follow him on Twitter @cnetmoskovciak.
Matthew Moskovciak
4 min read

At the end of October, TiVo and Netflix announced that Netflix's streaming service would be coming to TiVo DVRs by the end of 2008. The companies have made good on their promise, and the service is rolling out to TiVo HD, HD XL, and Series3 boxes today. TiVo turned on the service for us over the weekend, and we've had the chance to give it a full workout. The short story: this is an awesome added feature for TiVo HD owners.

The interface is significantly different than what we've seen on the Netflix Player by Roku. Rather than offering up large box shots to scroll through, the TiVo's interface instead lists the names in text, with smaller box shots showing up on the right side. We preferred the TiVo's interface, as it allows us to see more titles at once, which is convenient if you have a large queue. On the other hand, we felt the TiVo interface was less responsive, which is a problem that affects almost all of the extra services on TiVo.

While the interface is an improvement over the Netflix Player, we still saw plenty of room for improvement. Now that Netflix has added a lot of content to the Instant Streaming service, our instant queue is getting pretty full. The current interface simply lists titles in the same order as your Instant Queue, which, if you're anything like us, is kind of haphazard. While the queue system makes sense for the traditional Netflix mailing service, we'd rather have more categorization options--such as by genre and star rating--for online streaming. We were also disappointed that there was no way to tell from the TiVo screen which movies were available in "HD" quality.

Like on the Netflix Player, video quality is determined by the speed of your connection. While the Netflix Player uses a "four dot" graphic to indicate video quality, the TiVo HD has a more granular meter, with about 14 bars. We generally got all 14 bars filled up, using a wired Ethernet connection and a standard cable modem.

Although the term "near-DVD" is often abused with video-streaming services, it accurately describes the video quality offered by Netflix streaming on TiVo. We fired up a bunch of movies and we were never disappointed by how they looked. Pan's Labrynth was available in "HD" and in most cases it looked as good as a well-mastered DVD--occasionally we could see some blockiness to the image or the background would be soft, but nothing to take us out of the movie-watching experience. Next up was Ratatouille, which wasn't available in HD. This looked slightly softer than DVD-quality (and much softer than the excellent Blu-ray), but not by much. Only the pickiest videophiles would turn up their noses at the image quality. In short, there's room for improvement, but it's darn good already. (You can read more about the technical details behind Netflix's streaming service here.)

We did notice some artifacts on the audio side, although it was mostly subtle. We really only noticed it on one movie, but we could hear some soft pops, similar to what you might hear on streaming Web video when it's not fully buffered. And, like all Netflix Instant Streaming content, you're limited to stereo audio rather than surround. We're really hoping Netflix adds surround soundtracks in the near future.

The most important takeaway for us is that we watched several movies without any hiccups and each movie started up in a few seconds. While many streaming services "feel" like you're streaming video over the Internet, this feels more like you're expanding the recorded content of your TiVo. And while you lose some of the benefits of watching the actual DVD (special features, surround sound), we couldn't help but notice that in some ways it's better than DVD; movies loaded right away and with no previews.

If you already have TiVo and Netflix, there's no reason not to take advantage of this feature. If you're choosing between a TiVo and a standard cable/satellite box, this is definitely a feature to take into consideration, although also be aware that Netflix streaming is available on many other devices, such as the Xbox 360, Netflix Player, LG BD300, and Samsung BD-P2550--and we expect it to be even more ubiquitous in 2009. While the hardest part about going with a TiVo over the standard options is the monthly fee, added features like Netflix, Rhapsody, and Amazon Video On Demand make it a lot easier to swallow.