Friday, December 16, 2011

My Netflix App Experience

I said I'd only have one more post for the rest of 2011, but I want to wrap some things up before January. I've written about what it's like to use certain services, like Youtube's free movies and Hulu Plus. Here, I'll cover the Netflix app for a tablet running the latest Android. Overall, it's a nifty system with some flaws that I hope get smoothed out soon.

I almost wrote this as a news entry when the revised app appeared in mid-November. Downloading and installation are easy. The application doesn't require too many permissions, all things considered. It's been updated once in the last 2 months, with noticeable improvements, and has frozen or crashed about a dozen times; since I decided to put the system to heavy use for a spell, that's not so often as to be an issue.

UPDATE 12/17/11 - the app has a new update available as of last night, and the permissions it's asking for are completely insane. "Full Network Access," meaning it can "create network sockets," is a little creepy, but I'm more worried that it asks for permission to "Read sensitive log data." The latter options means it can "read from the system's various log files. This allows it to discover general information about what you are doing with the tablet, potentially including personal or private information." My suggestion is that you DON'T take the update. My other suggestion is that Netflix go screw itself and stop trying to spy on people.

One surprise is that the videos load more quickly than through a web browser, both on start and when skipping forward or back. It's really nice to catch a line that you missed and know that you won't have a 15-second wait ahead of you. There are fewer "loading" screens overall, though you're likely to face one if you pause playback or don't use the app for a while. The video quality is sometimes poor at first, but within 5-10 seconds, I guess more data loads and it becomes picture-perfect.

The audio works well. A little balloon in the lower-right corner indicates that you have added audio tracks and/or subtitles available. If you click it, you get a pop-up allowing you to to select an option. Oddly, some episodes of Terriers showed the subtitles balloon, while others didn't. Still, the audio languages and captions load more quickly than through the browser. I have had video go out of synch with subtitles, but this happens through a browser, too - it once had me laughing hard through 5 minutes of Hart's War.

Out of synch? The speaker's mouth is closed.
The overall interface, on the other hand, is a mixed bag. Netflix broke down their whole website into one section: a "Home" page with 11 rows of categories (like "Instant Queue" and "Newly Added in TV shows"). In the upper-left corner, a "Browse" button lets you choose among genres. At the upper-right is a search box. That's pretty much it, aside from the top-most list, a special display of your 10 most recently-viewed videos, and a "Sign Out" button at the bottom.

Honestly, for an Android app, this stripped-down approach is probably right. It covers the basic needs of an online video rental service. It's a shame that you can't manage your account options, too, but I can't really gripe at Netflix for not making a system that was more complicated and/or versatile.

The real complaints are what the system misses. The recently-viewed list (actually called "Continue Watching") is not updated perfectly, so sometimes you get anything but the last 2-3 videos you saw. I don't know why this feature doesn't work better. What's more, when Netflix introduced this list last month, it only appeared about 20% of the time; on occasion, I'd see it when I logged in, but not when I went back to the "Home" page.

Other aspects need tweaking, too. You can't browse through anything that's in DVD format only, or is otherwise unavailable. As far as the application is concerned, current Instant titles are the only ones that exist. This really doesn't encourage you to upgrade your plan.

And while that choice might make some sense, there are even more limitations on the search options. You have no way to search for particular actors or directors! If you want to see every Instant video with Dennis Hopper, you better log in through your web browser, or use the Netflix app and IMDb together - in which case, you have to try typing every title just to see if Instant is carrying it.

Also, the whole TV lineup has flaws. When you click on the poster for a title, a pop-up shows the title's info, an "Add to Instant Queue" button, the rating option, and a list of recommended videos. But there are no recommendations for any of the TV entries, tho, which is... it just makes no sense.

Similarly, you can't select an episode by pressing on the line it occupies - you must use a tiny "play" button on the far right side of the pop-up; it's easy to press something else by mistake. There's also no way to choose a different ep while you're already watching one, like you can with a browser. It sucks to have only one way to select an episode, especially since you can't find out much about what you're going to watch.

Yes, a professional Internet app has an info problem: it's ridiculously difficult to learn about the TV show you want to watch. I'll describe the problem to you:

If you never watched a show, the app shows the plot outline for its first episode; all eps have a light grey progress bar which becomes dark grey after viewing. If you only saw an episode part-way, you get the story outline for that ep, which will have a red progress bar. When you do watch an episode from the beginning to the end, the system will automatically queue up the next ep, loading the story description for that one.

I don't know why Netflix would strip away the ability to read every individual summary before making a selection, but it's aggravating. Not all episodes are created equally, after all, and you'll have to use another resource to help you. You can't expect any help from other members, either - all the reviews have been stripped out, so you have to go by the "Best guess for you" rating.

This lack of info is a noticeable absence, since the app makes it easy to move between the available seasons of a show, and queues up ep 1 of Season 2 the moment you're done with the end of the first season. Actually, even there, the auto-queue feature jumps the gun, sometimes ending an episodes 10-30 seconds early. This system obviously wants to be user-friendly, but fumbles several key points.

So, those are my thoughts and observations on using Android's Netflix app. It's a decent application with some nifty options, as well as glaring omissions and flaws. If you've wondered what it's like to use, I've given you everything you need to know. Just remember: when you press outside of the pop-up box for a title, it disappears - and those tiny "play" buttons are way too close to the border, so expect to miss.


  1. I wonder if this app has had an update since then. Netflix has always been a great idea but never properly executed. I had their services for a while but found their streaming library extremely lacking. Thankfully I found out about Blockbuster @Home around the same time that I cancelled services and added it right away. I knew quite a bit about it since I work for DISH but had no idea I’d love it so much. Now I get movie streaming, discs by mail, and over 20 movie channels for only $10, talk about a deal.

  2. That actually sounds like a great deal! I struggled with what to drop and what to keep, but I landed on the side of going Internet-only, at least for now.

    As for Netflix, I find that they execute most of their services well, but "how" they execute their services is problematic. The appstill leaves options for saying you're "not interested" in a video, much less managing your rental queue. Do you know Echo? I spent one New Year's partying with one of their VPs...


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