Pay-per-title streaming video sites like Vudu and Amazon Instant Video only charge you for the films and TV programs you rent or buy. However, if you are a frequent streamer of movies or TV shows, that can get quite expensive in short order. Netflix takes a different approach -- it charges one flat rate per month for unlimited video streaming.
Netflix came into being as a DVD-by-mail service and still offers DVD/Blu-ray Disc rental subscriptions, but now is primarily a streaming video provider. In 2011, Netflix began charging extra for DVD and Blu-ray Discs, a move that earned it lots of negative press. But when considered on its own, most say that in terms of content and cost, Netflix still offers the most bang for the buck.
Netflix's library of streaming movies and TV shows is estimated at around 13,000, with reports pegging the number of HD titles at around 4,300 (including TV seasons). While Amazon Instant Video and Vudu do a pretty good job of getting movies simultaneously or shortly after their release on DVD and Blu-ray, and TV programs the day after they originally air, Netflix subscribers generally have to wait a while for new releases to reach that streaming service -- and many films never make it at all. As we noted in this blog post, licensing deals with certain cable networks can keep titles off of Netflix for as long as seven years after their release. The availability of recent movie content took a further hit in February 2012 when Starz ended its agreement with Netflix and pulled its lineup from the service. Netflix has cut deals with some independent distributors and studios -- including Miramax, for example -- to bring some higher-quality content to its viewers. However, its lineup of feature-length films includes lots of obscure titles.
That's why TV programming has become an important part of Netflix's strategy. The New York Times reports that more than half of what Netflix subscribers actually watch is TV episodes. The lineup of current-season programs is sparse, but there are lots of past seasons and classic shows. Netflix has also begun commissioning original programming. One series, produced in Norway, has already debuted. More are on the way, including a brand new season of "Arrested Development," previously canceled by Fox.
No streaming video service is as widely available via connected devices as Netflix. That includes Internet-connected Blu-ray players; TVs; TiVo digital video recorders; video-game consoles, including the PlayStation Vita portable video game console; and a host of set-top digital media players. A mobile version of the service is available for Apple, Android and Windows 7 mobile phones and tablets.
Video quality is excellent, most reviewers say, and Netflix is capable of delivering its HD content in 1080p, though that's only supported on some devices. However, Netflix will measure the quality of your Internet connection and dial down the bandwidth by reducing video quality to try to ensure a glitch-free viewing experience. Netflix also offers some content in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 surround sound, but, again, only some consumer electronics gear is compatible.
Netflix is one of the more popular streaming video providers, so it's not surprising to find lots of feedback. Wired looks at Netflix after it split off its disc rentals into a separate subscription and assess the alternatives. ConsumerReports.org offers its take on the revamped service and provides a comparison of how Netflix stacks up to its competition. TechOfTheHub.com also offers a comparison, but provides even more detail. Netflix is also part of TNL.com's detailed analysis of which sites do the best job delivering top recent hits and popular TV programs. PCMag.com weighs in with a report on how Netflix looks and works on the Apple iPad. The New York Times looks at how content on Netflix is moving away from movies and towards TV. News, reviews and user perspectives can be read at the HackingNetflix.com blog.
This article gives capsule reviews and ratings of Netflix, as well as of its top rivals in streaming video and disc rentals. Though Mike Isaac finds some issues -- the price increase for those who want both streaming video and disc rentals for starters -- Netflix is still one of the top-rated services, earning a 7 out of 10 rating -- "very good, but not quite great."
Review: From Apple to Vudu: 8 Netflix Alternatives Compared, Mike Isaac, Sept. 21, 2011
In this blog post -- free to non-subscribers as well as subscribers to ConsumerReports.org -- James K. Willcox complains about Netflix's decision to make streaming video and disc-by-mail rentals two separate subscriptions. He says that the defacto price increase is hard to justify given the lack of improvements to the service. Among the possible alternatives, he notes that Vudu provides better picture quality.
Review: Netflix, James K. Willcox, July 13, 2011
3. The New York Times
In this article, Brian Stelter examines the changing nature of the content available via Netflix. He writes that more than half of the content watched by Netflix subscribers is TV programming rather than movies. Stelter adds that Netflix has become "primarily an Internet streaming service for television shows, not feature films."
Review: Once Film-Focused, Netflix Transitions to TV Shows, Brian Stelter, Feb. 27, 2012
This article looks at the strengths and weaknesses of five video streaming services. Observations are made here, but the most valuable part of the report is a regularly updated table that compares costs, content and features. Netflix is said to be "still the champ when it comes to the number of all-you-can-watch-titles available."
Review: Streaming Services Compared: Amazon, Hulu Plus, iTunes, Netflix and VUDU, Gabe Gagliano, Aug. 29, 2011
Tristan Louis looks at which streaming video services have the best lineups of top hits. Netflix does not score particularly well, having relatively few of the top 100 films of 2011 available for streaming. He adds that things look even worse on that front than last year. However he notes the site's changing strategy, saying "If you think of their recent moves towards creating original content, it appears that Netflix is slowly moving away from its initial strategy of providing online streaming of movies on a subscription basis and moving more to a model more akin to that of a TV network."
Review: Where the Hits Are Streaming in 2011, Tristan Louis, Jan. 14, 2012
This report looks at which video streaming service, including Netflix, does the best job of offering recent and past seasons of top-rated TV shows. Tristan Louis finds that Hulu outdoes Netflix when it comes to top shows from 2010-2011, but that both services are well outclassed by those that require you to pay by episode, namely iTunes and Amazon Instant Video. One area where Netflix holds an edge is that it appears to have more recently cancelled shows than any other service.
Review: Legal streams for 2011 TV hits, Tristan Louis, Jan. 21, 2012
ConsumerReports.org compares Internet streaming providers in this chart. Information includes the number of titles as well as subscription plans or per-title pricing, but little else.
Review: How pricier Netflix stands up to other options, Paul Eng, July 13, 2011
Like others, PCMag.com finds the selection of movies and TV shows offered by Netflix "limited." However, the interface in the latest Netflix iPad app makes using Netflix on that device easy, and streaming performance is called excellent.
Review: Netflix (for iPad), Jill Duffy and Jeffrey L. Wilson, Jan. 6, 2012
This site doesn't review Netflix per se, but it does include brief reviews of how Netflix streaming works with different consumer-electronics equipment. Other topics covered on this blog include new or discontinued features or policies, problems and solutions, and just about anything else related to Netflix. Some discussion about other services can also be found from time to time.
Review: News and Info, Editors of HackingNetflix.com