Netflix on PS3 & Wii, disk-free and hands-on

Landfills across the US are about to be filled with red Netflix Instant Streaming disks, since as of yesterday both Playstation 3 and Nintendo Wii owners are able to stream without the disk. I put both systems through their paces. On the Wii you download the app from the Wii Channels section of the Wii Shop Channel. It takes 49 blocks of memory and can be stored on an SD card or the Wii's internal memory. Once installed it'll show up on your Wii's dashboard as a new Channel. You navigate with the Wii Remote (and only the Wii Remote; the Nunchuk or Classic Controller won't work). Once you fire it up you'll see your Instant Queue along the top row, then Recently Watched, then it gets into recommendations. There's a live search (titles pop up as you type in letters) and an extensive Browse feature. Resolution tops out at 480P (a limitation of the hardware). It's perfectly functional and fine for playing old TV shows and things of that nature, and the Netflix disk will not be missed!

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What I was really excited about was the experience on the PS3. I was surprised to find a 'stub' application already on the Video column of the PS3's XMB when I turned the system on. Apparently Sony 'pushed' this out without any kind of firmware update. To actually use the app you'll have to install it; a process that took well under a minute for me. Unfortunately starting the app wasn't as quick. I suspect a lot of PS3 and Wii owners were hammering Netflix's servers last night since the closer to 'prime time' it got, the slower things went. It took a couple minutes for the Netflix app to fire up on the PS3; long enough to cause impatient foot tapping. Hopefully Netflix and Sony can improve load times. Once it does load you'll find a menu on the left with the entries "Suggestions For You," "New Arrivals," "Genres," "Recently Watched," "Instant Queue," and "Search." Most of these open into sub-menus. For instance "Suggestions For You" opens into the oddly named selections that Netflix throws at us. For me it was "Witty Workplace TV Shows" and "Cerebral Sci-Fi & Fantasy," among others. "New Arrivals" opens into "New Arrivals: Movies" and "New Arrivals: TV." Before you even 'drill down' into these options a few titles will display on the right side of the screen. Presumably these are best guesses at shows you'll like and which are categorized under the selected menu item. It's a nice layout but once again, it was pretty slow to draw in last night, and at least once I actually had to exit the app and restart it in order to get any covers to show. Search is the same great search that the PS3 has had since July. You can control the app via a PS3 Sixaxis controller or the PS3's Bluetooth Remote. Sadly the Sony Move didn't work as a controller; after using the Wii Remote I was really hoping the Move would be supported. Maybe in an update. Of course the big news with this update was the 1080P streaming, Dolby 5.1 sound and sub-title options. I checked out a bit of The Matrix Revolutions and Season 2 of Eureka and both looked and sounded great. The off-color animated series Archer is also offered in HD (but not Dolby 5.1) and was a good test. The show uses thick ink lines in its character drawings so I could really tell when the stream degraded a bit, which it did once during a half-hour episode. When it did the lines matrixed a tiny bit, but really it didn't diminish the overall experience and the stream never stuttered or skipped. I had to look a bit harder to find some content with sub-titles, but Angels & Demons had them (but it wasn't in HD). They worked; I must confess I'm not an expert on what to look for with sub-titles. You turn sub-titles (as well as Dolby 5.1) on or off from the 'details' screen of a show or movie. For all the problems I had with browsing content, when it came time to actually launch a show it spun up very quickly, taking just a couple of seconds to start playing. And as mentioned, once it was playing the HD stream kept steady even if the picture had to degrade a tiny bit now and then. The bottom line is that, for now anyway, the PS3 is the only set-top box that supports 1080P and Dolby 5.1 on Netflix. The flipside is that there isn't a ton of material available that supports these high-end standards, but I'm sure that will change over time. Netflix continues to improve the quantity of its offerings, and it continues to improve the client-side experience on all platforms; there's no reason to think they won't continue to add high definition, surround sound content to its library. A basic Netflix account costs $9/month. That gets you 1 disk out at a time and unlimited streaming of its huge and growing library of content. It's a great deal, no matter what device you're watching on.

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