Monday, December 1, 2008

Streaming from Netflix

Before I get back to film reviewing, I need to help you decide on that gaming system you’re contemplating for Christmas.

I do this with the disclaimer that I know nothing about gaming. Or the systems. Or the games. Or, uh, gaming.

This is what I do know: if you use Netflix you can instantly stream movies to your PC. But not a Mac. Uh-uh. No Macs. Dumb. (UPDATE: You can now stream to your Mac! However, we've not had the best quality doing this, so try at your own risk. I'll write another post on this later.) Then you can view on your PC, but not your television, unless you're computer savvy and figured out how to transfer the movie to your TV from your computer ... Sounded clunky and confusing to me.

For direct-to-your-television Netflix service, cutting out the computer altogether, you can buy a box that will allow you to stream instantly from Netflix. It’s called the Roku, and gets high marks from Wired Magazine, and runs about $100.

But two things to consider: one, if you’ve got a television, a DVD player, a gaming system, speakers, or any other gear near your tv, it’s getting a bit crowded there in your “entertainment console” area, doncha think? You’re going to add another box? Hmm. And two, well, the Roku runs a hundred bucks. We don’t have that right now, between Christmas and heating oil bills and decent wine (we have priorities). So, we’ve been in limbo for a while on this point.

We’ve had an Xbox 360 for a year (it’s all Greek to me, except for the new addition of "Ms. Pacman" that was offered as part of the cool upgrade I’m about to fill you in on), and a week or two ago we got an email (as registered users) telling us about an upgrade that had just happened -- we didn’t do a thing; it was like magic. Not only were new games available, but some new features arrived with it, and the only one that wasn’t Greek to me was the “Stream movies instantly from Netflix” feature. I just about spit out my Trio Vitners 2006 Zinfandel!

On Thanksgiving night, we found ourselves without a family friendly movie in the house, and our one decent video store (a very good store, actually, though not exactly in our own town) was closed. So we got this thing set up in about five minutes, and we were off to the races. It worked like a charm. (Note: You need only a Netflix account, and an Xbox Live Gold membership. There is no extra charge per movie as long as you have a Netflix account.)

(We watched Forbidden Planet, from 1956, and I can’t say I recommend it. It’s a bit too chatty for most kids, and there was a theme running throughout about a chaste young woman who’d never seen such robust [and female deprived] young men as those who landed on her planet. There was also a drunk crewman who got himself into a bit of a pickle more than once. You can pass, although K and D gave it a thumbs up.)

One caveat: When you keep a list of films in Netflix, you’ll see some titles marked “play” in your queue, meaning they are available for instant play, or streaming. These show up as your “instant queue” on the TV screen when choosing a movie, using your Xbox controller (your eight-year-old will have to show you how to do this). So there is your family queue, “instant play” wise, for all the family to see. Your list is presented with cover art, not titles. Cover art. All of them. So, let’s say you have a penchant, for ... oh, movies of the Saw variety... or perhaps midnight movies like Killer Nuns, or Lady in a Cage ... and those are available for instant viewing. Your kids will get an eyeful. And probably say, “What is that?” To which you can quickly reply, “Oh those aren’t OURS...” until you figure out how to keep track of those separately.

You can thank me later.

Another slight drawback is that there aren't a ton of films offered for Xbox streaming at this point, but that's sure to change. There was also an apparent licensing conflict with Sony films in particular, which resulted in many Netflix "instant watch" films not being available for Xbox streaming (a different licensing issue). According to a recent CNET report, some of those films have returned and the issue is being resolved.

I can't say with any certainty if this feature will be available with the PlayStation. I tried to find something solid on it, but failed. If you know, please let us know! And if "HD" is something that gets you all giddy, this new feature also streams in HD.

So, if you are contemplating a gaming system this year, and leaning towards the Xbox 360 (of course, the Wii is probably the one I SHOULD recommend, as it would get us all off the couch!), we say go for it.

Plus you can impress your kids with your serious "Ms. Pacman" skillz. "Call of Duty" ain't no thang.

UPDATE: Here's a good article from a tech site called All Things Digital regarding your current options for Netflix streaming.

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