So you’ve decided to get Netflix. Smart move: Even with last year’s notorious price hikes, the company’s Unlimited Streaming service is a ridiculously good deal at $7.99 per month. You get commercial-free movies and TV shows, with no limits on viewing, streamed to just about any device you prefer--smartphone, tablet, game console, set-top box, and so on.
Subscribing is easy; getting the best return on your eight-buck investment takes a little effort. For example, have you tweaked your router so that it gives Netflix sufficient bandwidth? And do you know where to look to find the latest and greatest Watch Instantly releases? Read on to learn these and other tricks of the Netflix trade.
Choose the Best Netflix InterfaceIf you haven’t yet deployed a Netflix-capable device in your home, here’s something you should know: Not all Netflix apps are created equal. In other words, the interface you see on, say, a Roku box will differ greatly from what you see on a Nintendo Wii console. And some interfaces are definitely better than others.
For example, Netflix looks hideous on TiVo. It offers nothing more than an ugly, nonsortable text-based list of what’s in your Instant Queue. You can’t browse or search the Netflix library, or add new titles to the queue; you can only play what’s already there. (Quick fix: If you’re lucky enough to have a tablet or smartphone nearby, you can fire up the device's Netflix app and use that to browse, search, and add items.)
On the flip side, Windows Media Center offers perhaps the single best Netflix viewing environment, with an attractive, easy-to-navigate interface that lets you peruse your queues (both streaming and DVD), browse and search the libraries, add and remove selections, and so on. You don’t even need a particularly powerful PC, just one that runs Windows 7 and has an HDMI output. The icing on the cake? Because PCs have keyboards, you’ll have a much easier time entering search terms than you would with a remote.
Netflix looks pretty sharp on a Microsoft Xbox 360, too, but you need to be an Xbox Live Gold subscriber to access it. That will run you an extra $60 annually on top of what you pay for Netflix. Thankfully, neither Nintendo nor Sony charges a premium for Netflix on the Wii or PlayStation 3, both of which deliver a versatile, pleasing experience. (One note about the Wii, though: Its 480p maximum resolution means you won’t get high-def video, disappointing considering that an increasing amount of Netflix content is streamed in HD.)
Roku boxes make Netflix viewing an enjoyable affair as well, especially if you grab the new Roku app for iOS devices. It not only gives you a spare remote, but also lets you enter search queries much more easily than with the Roku’s on-screen keyboard.
If you’re shopping for a TV, Blu-ray player, or other device with built-in Netflix, try to get an in-store demo so that you can make sure you like the Netflix interface. At the very least, look for screenshots and user reviews online; nothing spoils the Netflix experience like a crummy interface.
Go Wired When Possible
Given the choice between a wired or wireless connection between your router and your Netflix-compatible hardware, always choose wired.
That isn't to say that wireless doesn’t work well, especially if you have an 802.11n router and your hardware is in fairly close proximity. But consider this: Video streaming consumes a lot of bandwidth, especially when it’s HD video, and Wi-Fi is subject to interference, signal fluctuations, and so on. If you want the best possible image quality and the most reliable connection, you’re better off running an ethernet cable from your router to your box. (That’s assuming, of course, that the box in question has an ethernet port. Smartphones and tablets don’t, obviously, and neither do some of the latest Roku models.)
Next page: Optimize your router, adjust quality settings, and find new releases
Optimize Your Router
Netflix relies on “adaptive streaming” technology, which means the service automatically adjusts the bit rate of the video stream based on bandwidth--the speed of the user’s Internet connection. However, Netflix has no control over how your router distributes the bandwidth that’s available. And if you have a lot of Internet-connected devices in your home, the Netflix stream might not be getting as big a pipe as it should.
Many routers offer Quality of Service settings, meaning that they can customize how they handle network traffic. Let’s say you’re streaming Netflix to a Blu-ray player. That device should have a fixed (as opposed to dynamic) IP address on your network, and you should configure that address so that its traffic receives priority over other devices (which can deal with comparatively less bandwidth).
Configuring these settings is different for each router, so consult your manual to determine how to tweak QoS for your Netflix device(s).
Adjust Video Quality Settings to Save Bandwidth
If you routinely watch Netflix on a 3G device--for example, your smartphone or tablet--you run the risk of hitting your carrier’s data cap. In fact, many cable and DSL providers limit users' monthly data consumption, so even heavy Netflix usage at home can burn through your allotted bits and bytes.
If this limitation proves to be a problem (that is, you’re receiving nasty warnings from your service provider), you can dial back the video quality so that you consume less data. Just fire up your browser, head to your Netflix account page, and then click Manage Video Quality. On that page you have three quality choices: Good, Better, and Best, which consume roughly 0.3GB, 0.7GB, and 1GB of data per hour of video, respectively. (Interestingly, HD chews through a hefty 2.3GB per hour!) Drop back to Better, and see if that helps you stay under your data cap. On a small screen, you might not notice much difference in the video quality.
Find the Latest Watch Instantly Releases
Netflix regularly makes new movies and TV shows available for streaming, but the site’s New Arrivals section tells only a fraction of the story. If you want lots of hard data on what’s new and popular, head to InstantWatcher.com.
The site catalogs every single Watch Instantly title in the Netflix library and lets you sort them any number of ways, by top-rated and lowest-rated movies, the New York Times Critics' Picks, the newest additions, the most popular movies, foreign films, and much more--all with an endless variety of filtering options. Another perk: It lists the movies that are coming soon to Watch Instantly.
A great way to use InstantWatcher is to click the visual link in the red toolbar up top. That will show you all the latest movie and TV-show additions, but with thumbnail artwork images instead of just text. Warning: It’s easy to get addicted to checking this site on a daily basis.