Review: Netflix Streaming for the PlayStation 3 (A Two-Star Must-Have)

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It may seem odd to rate a product with two out of four stars yet still call it a must-have, but that is exactly the impression Netflix Streaming for the PlayStation 3 (PS3) has left upon me.

Pros:

  • Extremely convenient
  • Free to Netflix members
  • A wide variety of movies and TV shows are available, though it doesn’t match Netflix’s incredible DVD and Blu-ray Disc selection

Cons:

  • Operational glitches
  • Slow-loading
  • Image quality is incredibly inconsistent
  • Sound is only two-channel
  • HD Movie title selection lacks desirable titles (in a BIG way)

Instant Streaming for Netflix has been available for devices such as LG’s Blu-ray players for quite some time and now makes its way to Sony’s PS3 via the BD-Live feature.  If you have a PS3 and a Netflix membership simply sign in to your account and request your free disc.  It will arrive a few days later in the special envelope shown above.  I was anxious to give it a try and report on my findings, which are that this is a poor quality option for home theater fans and serious movie lovers, yet at the same time if you have  a Netflix membership and a PS3 you definitely should have it.  As to why it is such a mixed bag, read on!

Getting Started

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First, you put the disc in your PS3 and a code will be provided.

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Next, sign into your account and enter the code to activate your streaming disc.

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Now go to Netflix’s Watch Instantly section and add the titles you want to see, then go back to your TV.

 

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When you insert the disc it will show up like a Blu-ray movie.  Select it to get started.

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All of the titles you have selected for instant viewing will show up on your TV screen.

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All functions are controlled with the PS3’s Blu-ray Disc Remote.

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Selecting a film from the main menu will provide a synopsis and a button to start playback.

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After selection a status bar shows progress until the movie starts to play.

Image Quality

I made all image quality evaluations using the HDTV I have connected to my PS3, my 70-inch Sony Qualia 006 along with my Anthem AVM 50 which confirmed the PS3’s output resolutions.  I realize it’s a bit more of a TV setup than most readers are likely to have in their own homes but its extreme sharpness would clearly reveal any image quality defects.

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Screenshot of the 70-inch Qualia 006

Here is a screenshot example of broadcast TV on the Qualia 006, an interview of gymnast Shawn Johnson after she won her gold medal on balance beam.  This is a frozen frame from my DVR, which was tuned with an antenna to receive locally broadcast HDTV at the time. No color correction has been added to this picture, it is just a resized frame from my camera, an Olympus E-510 with an extremely sharp Olympus macro lens attached.

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Taking the above image, I cropped it in Photoshop.  Above is a close crop of her smile… as you can see, detail in her mouth is clearly rendered…her dentist is doing a GREAT job…

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…and here is a tiny crop of the edge her ear taken from the same frame.  Look at how little I cropped out of the full frame above.  The fuzzy lines from the edge are hairs, which the Qualia was able to resolve from this HD broadcast.  I used the same camera setup to grab screenshots of Netflix to compare to this HD broadcast.

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Netflix HD is 720p resolution, as long as you have sufficient download speed

I selected several standard-definition and HD titles from various genres and found my results mixed, to say the least.  Unfortunately this mix lands almost completely on the side of “bad.”

A Smashing Good Start (Courtesy of Godzilla)

I just got back from Tokyo and have found myself missing Japan lately, so the first movie I tried was a Japanese monster flick, Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. which was listed as an HD title. It gave me unrealistic expectations of the image quality that would be dashed moving forward as the film really looked quite good at times.  The picture was slightly soft, but the image was clean and detailed with few artifacts and colors and contrast were nice and natural, especially the skin tones of the actors and the details and color of the Mechagodzilla machine.  The image quality was actually better than some of the first Blu-ray movies that were sold (such as Robocop)  which looked little better (and sometimes worse) than their DVD counterparts played on an upconverting DVD player.  After watching through part of it I was thinking that video streaming could end up as the dominant format for home video watching if all of the titles could look this good and be accessed so conveniently.  The picture wouldn’t thrill home theater buffs, but for most of the public, who sadly think “OK” is good enough, it would suffice.

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My first glitch

Unfortunately when I went to do screenshots I was greeted with the screen above, and when I finally got it to play the image, while it looked ok, did not look nearly as good as the first time around.  Screenshots are below.

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I am going to revisit this and report on my results. It could have been a bottleneck in the bandwidth or lots of Netflix server traffic that caused this, and if that is the case I want to see how often in occurs.

Down in Flames as Dogfight Plays

Next was Dogfight Season 1: MiG Alley.   It was presented in 16:9 widescreen and image quality took an immense drop.

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Paused screenshot from Dogfight

There was little blocking or artifacting, but the image was so soft it looked like VHS tape with a lot of noise reduction applied, removing all the detail.

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Crop of screenshot showing softness

Colors were washed out and had little saturation.  Broadcast standard-def TV would have has a lot more crispness and detail to it, though likely a bit more noise.  It was so bad I did not care to watch much of it and quickly went back to the main menu.

Back to Life with The Addams Family

Next I chose a very old black-and-white TV show, The Addams Family: Season 1.   This is a show that always appealed to me (as have Charles Addams’ cartoons from New Yorker magazine) yet I never quite got to experience all that much.  Here, the good things started again as the image looked quite good, not quite as good as Godzilla but still clean and relatively crisp, on par with a DVD played in a good upconverting DVD player.

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Playback interrupted- I saw this several times (picture is in stretch mode)

This also was my first glimpse of an interruption of actual playback, as partway through the image froze and I got a “retrieving” status bar for almost five minutes, despite my high speed FiOS connection.  Not good! This recurred a few times over the other titles, but not for as long, usually 30 seconds at most.  It was still unwelcome.

Once playback resumed I found myself getting into Episode 1 where the Addamses are introduced before I was interrupted by a visitor.  It looked good enough that I planned on going back to finish soon and was left with a positive taste in my mouth again.

Back to Bad with Bedtime Stories

Next was Disney’s Bedtime Stories with Adam Sandler.  Given Disney’s high technical standards (especially for their Blu-ray titles) I had high hopes for this title, hopes that were quickly dashed as it looked a lot like Dogfight, with softness, poor detail and weak colors.  Yuck.  Playback also locked up when I tried to return to the Main Menu and I had to restart the PS3 with the power switch to gain control of it again.

HD or Not HD, that is the Question

Finally, I started the remaining HD title in my selection list, The Big Lebowski.  I have this on the HD DVD format so I know what it should look like in HD.  The picture quality this time was so bad I would never have guessed it was an “HD” title.  It was about a soft as Dogfight and Bedtime stories, and not as good as Godzilla or The Addams Family. There were a lot of blocky artifacts, which I had not seen much of with the other titles.

This is a good time to say that there are few top-shelf titles among the HD selection.  If you are looking for There Will Be Blood, Wall-E, Transformers, The Dark Knight, or Juno, forget it.  (Not that it matters, based on what I saw.)

Summing It Up

Image quality is a total crapshoot and if a great looking picture on your TV is important to you, this service isn’t for you.  Put the Blu-ray or DVD in your Netflix queue and wait a day or two, you will be much happier!  Of course, it is a new feature and over time Netflix will improve picture quality and expand available content.  I did start receiving emails from Netflix asking for ratings of the image quality of the programs I streamed, so they apparently are monitoring feedback and plan on making adjustments accordingly.  That bodes well for the feature and the technology in the future and I hope they take user comments to heart.  Of course, if you have a smaller TV it would probably look better because it is not enlarged as much, but the artifacts will always be there.

Conclusion

There’s a lot of debate these days with some internet streaming proponents claiming streaming will soon replace discs (DVDs and Blu-ray) as the dominant home video format.  Given Sony’s heavy investment in the Blu-ray format, I wondered why they would put Netflix streaming in the PS3.  It would make it more competitive with otherBlu-ray  players that offer Netflix access, but in the process it could cannibalize Blu-ray sales and rentals.  As it turns out Sony may have done more to advance the Blu-ray cause than hurt it because when people compare the image quality from the Netflix streaming to Blu-ray, they are going to be clamoring for Blu-ray in a big way, at least until wider Internet bandwidth and improvements in compression technology and technique improve quality across the board.

Still, given its current state of affairs why would I be so unenthusiastic in this review yet still call it a must have, giving it two stars overall?  Well, for one, it’s free, for two, it’s convenient, and third, it does have its redeeming qualities.  It’s a great way to access old TV shows and other content you may not take a look at otherwise, like The Addams Family or obscure monster movies.  If I had to pay extra for it I wouldn’t, and if it wasn’t offered with the regular Netflix disc access I would not recommend it either.  As a feature you may occasionally use with your PS3 and Netflix membership it has merit and will add to your home entertainment fun.  Just be sure to keep that Blu-ray queue filled!


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