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Initial hands-on with Netflix Watch Now

We take an initial hands-on look at Netflix's new Watch Now online movie streaming service.

Netflix's Watch Now home page
Netflix's Watch Now home page
CNET Networks

Back in January, we reported on Netflix's new movie streaming service, dubbed Watch Now, but we weren't able to try it out because the "Watch Now" tab never showed up on our account page. Well, thanks to a quick tip from Uneasy Silence (via Gizmodo), we were able to get the Watch Now tab added to our account and take it for a test spin. Well, it wasn't quite that easy. We got the Watch Now tab added to our account without a problem, but were quickly rebuked when it detected we weren't using Internet Explorer. We loaded up IE7, tried to play a movie and then were told we didn't have the most updated version of Windows Media Player. So we downloaded and installed Windows Media Player 11, restarted and tried to watch again. We still got an error message and had to download some additional patches related to Windows DRM. Finally, after that, we got rolling.

Initial set up difficulties aside, once we got the Watch Now service up and running, it worked like a charm. Even on our somewhat sluggish office Internet connection, we had A Clockwork Orange streaming to our PC in less than 15 seconds--very impressive. With such a quick load time we figured the video quality would be less than stellar, but we were pleasantly surprised. It's not quite DVD quality, but it's close. It's definitely a tad bit softer and we could see some video artifacts, so we probably wouldn't want to use it as our main method of watching movies. On the other hand, it's completely acceptable for watching a movie at your computer, where you're probably not expecting home theater perfection. That being said, we definitely noticed some significant variation from movie to movie, which could be a factor either of our download speeds changing or the way Netflix encoded the movies. So while we had no problem getting into Chinatown, we were a little bothered by how soft The World's Fastest Indian looked. We did notice a couple of very small jerks in the video playback, but it was infrequent enough that we didn't mind. Audio quality on all the movies was very good on our headphones, and we didn't detect nearly any compression artifacts.

Some early reports have mentioned that not every movie is presented in its proper wide-screen mode, which is true--both Amadeus and Being There showed up in the standard 4:3 aspect ratio. On the other hand, A Clockwork Orange, Chinatown, and The World's Fastest Indian were all presented in anamorphic wide-screen and filled our monitor when we hit the full-screen button. Seems like it's pretty much a crap shoot now as to which movies you get in wide-screen and we hope in the future there's an option so they you can watch movies in the aspect ratio of your choice.

The selection of movies right now isn't comprehensive, but we found enough that we'd have no problem using up our monthly allotment--at least for the first few months. There are classics like Casablanca, All Quiet on the Western Front, and A Streetcar Named Desire, as well as newer movies like Super Size Me, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and Sherrybaby. There are also some television series available, but the selection seems a little more meager--while Doctor Who fans will be satisfied, Curb Your Enthusiasm fans are out of luck. In all, it's a decent selection for an initial roll-out, but we're hoping they keep adding more movies and TV shows.

After using the service for a few hours, we thought it worked pretty well and is definitely a great free perk for Netflix subscribers. For now, Netflix seems to have a pretty big head start over Blockbuster in terms of online movie rentals--although we've seen recent rumors that Blockbuster is looking to buy the online movie-downloading company Movielink. Things are certainly heating up in terms of online movie rentals, and it looks like that competition is going to be good news for consumers.