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Hands-on with Netflix on the PS3: Disc-free and better than ever

The PS3 received an update this morning that allows Netflix streaming without a disc, and CNET takes a hands-on look at the new user interface.

New Netflix interface on PS3
As of this morning, the PS3 can stream Netflix without requiring a disc, and it sports an excellent new interface. Matthew Moskovciak/CNET

As of this morning, PS3 owners should notice a new icon under the video section of the menu: Netflix. The PS3 gained the ability to stream Netflix back in November of 2009, but doing so required using a special Netflix disc and the user interface now looks outdated compared with newer offerings from Apple TV and Xbox 360. (The Nintendo Wii now can also stream Netflix without a disc as well.)

We took the new interface for a spin, and our first impression: It's the fastest and possibly best way to stream Netflix that we've tested so far. Even better, Netflix has new 1080p HD streams and a few movies also include 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks. Subtitle options are now available on some videos as well--a long overdue first for Netflix.

Setup is painless. Select the Netflix icon from the video icon of the XMB interface and the PS3 will start a quick download of the new Netflix program. Enter your Netflix subscription and the new interface pops up.

While the PS3's old interface got the job done, the new interface is a joy to use. There's a left-hand menu that includes sorting categories, such as "genre" and "new arrivals." When you jump into each section, you see additional rows of movies, and if you hover the cursor over a movie, you get additional information like run time and Netflix's guess as to how much you'll like the movie.

You can still browse your Instant Queue like before, but now you can even search straight from the interface. The search results update as you type, which mitigates most of the frustration of using an onscreen keyboard, since we generally only had to type a few letters to find what we were looking for. Our only nitpick is there currently isn't a way to filter movies by video quality; a simple "HD" filter would be appreciated.

The "genre" menu of the new Netflix interface.
The "genre" menu of the new Netflix interface. Matthew Moskovciak/CNET

The main thing we loved was the speed. General navigation on the PS3 has always been lightning fast and Netflix is the same, with minor delays only occurring to load cover art. We were able to scroll through dozens of movies in seconds, and if you're familiar with standard PS3 controls (like "Circle" for back), you can really cruise through the menus.

The new Netflix interface includes search.
The new Netflix interface includes search. Matthew Moskovciak/CNET

While Netflix streaming has always had passable video quality, videophiles could find plenty to complain about. Even HD streams had plenty of visible compression artifacts, especially in scenes with lots of camera motion.

We looked at a few of Netflix's HD programs, including "The Office," "Archer," and "Space Cowboys," and overall, we were impressed, as the new HD content looks significantly better than what was previously considered "HD." We could still see some noise and compression artifacts in backgrounds--we noticed plenty of false contouring in the sky at the beginning of "Space Cowboys"--but it only shows up during a handful of scenes. On the whole, it's on par with what you'd expect from most cable HD channels, which also feature compression.

Press "Select" on the PS3 remote to view the image quality of the title you're streaming.
Press "Select" on the PS3 remote to view the image quality of the title you're streaming. "X-High" indicates Netflix's new 1080i HD streaming video quality. Matthew Moskovciak/CNET

The major issue with HD content now is that there isn't much of it. Of course, that's not the PS3's fault, but the difference between HD programs and non-HD programs is large and it makes the shortcomings of non-HD material more obvious. The same goes for Dolby Digital 5.1 programs; we could only find a handful of movies/shows that features 5.1 soundtracks.

The main takeaway is that if you're already a PS3 owner, the new Netflix update should deliver a significantly better experience than you're used to and you can throw away the pesky disc you've been dealing with. If you're looking to buy a game console or Blu-ray player, the PS3's new Netflix certainly makes the decision harder. The PS3 no longer lags behind the Xbox 360 and the new interface is better than what's available on any standalone Blu-ray player.