Netflix, which pioneered the online disc rental concept, has announced its first streaming-only subscription plan. Long anticipated, especially after the company launched a similar plan in Canada earlier this fall, it's priced at $7.99 per month. That, not coincidentally we are sure, is the same as the recently lowered price of the Hulu Plus streaming service. Those who were clamoring for a less-expensive streaming-only Netflix plan are likely pleased. On the other hand, those who still want physical media (DVDs or Blu-ray Discs), or would like to see an occasional new release or two, are probably wearing a frown after learning that they'll need to dig deeper into their pockets each month as the cost of Netflix's traditional plans are going up.
Streaming goes mainstream
Not very long ago, watching streaming movies and TV shows was something reserved for the techno-savvy or those willing to forego watching on a big HDTV screen in favor of a much smaller laptop display or computer monitor. Now, that capability is built into many LCD and plasma TVs, all but the most basic Blu-ray Disc players, the TiVo digital video recorder, video game consoles, and an assortment of dedicated set-top boxes, making it (relatively) easy for (almost) anyone to get movies and other programming from the net to their TV.
Whether you can or should completely ditch the disc is a whole other question, however. Hulu Plus is great for current episodes and past seasons of TV, but movie fans will be left wanting more. Vudu and Amazon Video on Demand have most (if not all) of the new releases and a vast selection of catalog titles, but the per-viewing rental fees can quickly add up to much, much more than the $7.99 Netflix charges for its monthly unlimited access. We cover those and other streaming video providers in our report on movie downloads.
Of course, Netflix's streaming service has its own fatal flaw. The catalog is broad, but not exactly chock full of titles many want to see. Instead, you'll find plenty of B-grade and worse fare -- stuff so bad that "it's not even fun to make fun of while drunk," as one member says in his review of "Transmorphers: Fall of Man," a low-budget version of the "Transformers" movies, which are not available for streaming on Netflix.
Things aren't always that bleak, of course. Netflix has deals in place with the Starz and, most recently, Epix cable TV movie services to bring fresher content from them to the company's streaming subscribers, though still well after their DVD and Blu-ray releases. Other, higher-quality titles also make it to the service over time; you just need to be patient -- and in some cases, very patient. That's because licensing deals keep movies from three of the six major Hollywood studios from streaming on Netflix until they are no longer being aired on HBO -- some seven years after their DVD release dates according to The Los Angeles Times. That's led critics such as Jeff Bertolucci at PC World and Sam Diaz at ZDNet.com to say don't be too quick to abandon DVDs or Blu-ray Discs as that still remains the best way to get the latest titles via Netflix.
This brings us to the bad news in the Netflix announcement: Plans that include disc rentals are getting pricier. Netflix's two cheapest unlimited plans, one disc or two discs out at a time, are going up by a buck each to $9.99 and $14.99, respectively. Heavy users get hit with an even bigger increase as the company's three-disc-at-a-time plan rises from $16.99 to $19.99 (a $3 jump), while the company's priciest plan (8 discs at a time) jumps $8 to $55.99 a month. You can see the complete pricing details here. And don't forget, Blu-ray access adds an additional $2 to $9 to those subscription fees. Ouch.