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Netflix: To Stream or Not to Stream—That Is the HD Dilemma

Feb 22, 2011 12:50 PM, by Jason Bovberg

Blu-ray discs are more durable for rental, but that Netflix streaming content is alluring. Is the quality high enough for home theater enthusiasts? Whatever the case, Netflix is a far cry from Blockbuster.


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I’ve never been a big proponent of renting movies—for many reasons. First and foremost, the rental media have always been lacking! When movie rentals began in earnest with VHS tapes, and local rental stores and megachains such as Blockbuster and Hollywood Video began popping up in every shopping center, you could always count on a substandard video experience, whether because of the low-resolution, pan-and-scan presentation of VHS itself or the frustrating “Be Kind Rewind” limitations of tape. And I never really bought DVD as a reliable rental format simply because of its fragility. VHS tapes could generally take a beating from thoughtless renters, but DVDs have suffered a bit more from the careless clutches of the average American.

And then there was the fact of Blockbuster itself—a monopolistic behemoth that charged obscene rental prices and penalties, and which actually began to negatively impact the movie industry itself with its censorial proclivities. In particular, its stance on “protecting” its customers by refusing to carry anything it deemed “objectionable” hobbled the entire market, strong-arming studios into toning down their fare so that it was more “family-friendly.” And all the while, the smaller, independent shops that carried more challenging, mature, obscure fare floundered in the face of Blockbuster’s power.

(Last weekend, Blockbuster Video agreed to put itself up for sale. The company has been flailing around in death throes for a while, filing for bankruptcy last September and closing stores along the way. I would never say that I’ve ever been exactly happy to see a company fail—given the attendant job losses and impact to our economy—but if ever there were a company I wished ill, that company would be Blockbuster.)

For these reasons, over the past 10 years, I’ve become more of a movie buyer than a movie renter. I’m far more likely to hunt for DVD and Blu-ray bargains in brick-and-mortar stores and online than walk into a video-rental place. Even with the steady rise of Netflix and its incessant trial offers, I was still resistant to the whole notion of disc rentals. I heard too many stories of badly scratched discs or mailer problems.

But recently, circumstances have shifted enough for me to give movie renting another look.

The first change, of course, is the rise of the Blu-ray disc, which is simply a more durable medium than DVD, with the new format’s introduction of a scratch-resistant coating as part of the manufacturing process. Not that the disc is now indestructible—far from it—but it makes Blu-ray a much more palatable rental option than DVD. It was only after the introduction of Blu-ray into the market that I even began to reconsider Netflix.

And if I did have a fleeting thought, two years ago, that I might look into Netflix once more, it was quickly stamped out merely because I had been locked into the buy-first mentality for a decade by then. I had been conditioned to the weekly ritual of checking the ads for new releases on Tuesday and finding the best deals. I combed Amazon for deep discounts. I even had favorite comparison websites where people did the work for me, finding the greatest scores.

Then came the streaming capability. I was first introduced to the concept with Comcast On Demand, which piqued my curiosity a few years back. I’ve been a Comcast subscriber for a long time, but I’ve never been very impressed with the HD streaming quality. For that reason, I have been wary of Netflix’s streaming-video capabilities. But after repeated entreaties on the part of my friends and family to give it a shot, I finally gave in and began a trial period.

First impressions? Netflix’s 720p HD streaming quality—as expected—suffers in the home theater, looking compressed and blocky and dark, although I do notice an uptick from my experience with Comcast On Demand. Let’s face it, brilliant 720p and 1080p streams just aren’t yet possible over our broadband infrastructure, particularly if you’re watching your content on anything larger than a 40in. display. The fact is, if you want HD from Netflix in your home theater, you’re going to have to go with Blu-ray through the mail. Heck, a year ago, even Netflix called its HD streaming “underwhelming.”

And the disc-in-the-mail option has turned out—surprisingly—to be a huge hit in my home. Discs have been arriving blemish-free and quickly. Another perceived knock against through-the-mail video rental was the paucity of available discs, leading to situations in which you’re getting only the items far down on your wish list instead of the top-of-mind titles that you’re clamoring for. Apparently, the addition of more distribution centers has helped that situation. So, it was the streaming capability that got me to take the plunge, but it’s the more old-fashioned mail method that will get me to stay.

Netflix’s CEO has predicted that the streaming method will overtake the mail method as the company’s primary business. Its library continues to grow, and the number of devices you can use to watch the content is growing, too. And I’m heartened by Netflix’s efforts to constantly improve its streaming quality. Representatives often post detailed information about its HD efforts to the Netflix Blog. For now, the quality of streaming HD from Netflix isn’t ideal, and certainly not to Blu-ray standards, but it’s getting better all the time. And Netflix seems to be on top of it.

Amusingly, I find myself in an agreeable situation in which most Netflix customers seem to be clamoring for more streaming content—and that’s the way they primarily use Netflix. In my house, I can confirm that streaming content works fabulously in the living room on our smaller display, especially for TV content or children’s programming. Or even older films. But when I want to watch something more visually dynamic, I can kick back downstairs, relying instead on the company’s tried-and-true Blu-ray mail-delivery method. And with more distribution centers and higher-quality discs, that’s just the way I prefer it. At least, until gorgeous HD streaming becomes a widespread reality.

So, go figure, after all these years, I’m no longer a big buyer but rather a renter first. My wife is all in favor of that.



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