Hands-on: Netflix streaming on the Wii

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My Netflix Streaming disk for the Wii arrived last Friday and I've finally had time to check out the experience so I could report my findings.

The first thing I had to do was update my Wii's software from the Netflix disk. Now to be fair, it's been months since my Wii has been turned on, so most users might not have to do this step; in any event it only took a moment.

Next I ran the disk, got the familar red Netflix screen and was then sent to http://netflix.com/wii to enter a code displayed on the Wii. So far, business as usual for Netflix Streaming to a device. A moment or two later the screen refreshed and there was my queue, ready for viewing.

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Navigating the queue is a breeze, better than on any of the other platforms I've streamed with (Roku, PS3, Xbox 360). There's a nav bar below the queue itself. You can click on the arrows on each end of the nav bar, use the + & - buttons on the Wii remote, or drag a 'handle' left and right. Clicking on an item brings you to a details page with 3 big buttons for series content (Play current episode, Remove from Queue and Select another episode) and two for single content (Play, Remove from Queue).

When you actually start playing a selection, the news isn't quite as good. There's no indication of the quality of your connection to Netflix. On the Roku (admittedly my preferred Netflix device) just before you start streaming you'll get a stream quality rating between 1 (worst) and 4 (best) as well as an HD indicator. I've found that the rare times I get a poor stream rating, stopping and starting the content usually fixes the problem. With the Wii, you'll just have to eyeball the content and decide if it's as good as it can get, and of course the Wii doesn't support HD content so that, at least, isn't an issue. My Wii is hooked up to the tv via component cables, so can do 480P and the image quality of SD content was fine. With the Wii being such a family friendly platform, it's worth noting that animated content looked great.

Any time you move the Wii remote, a nav bar pops up over the content, which can be a slight annoyance. On the other hand, the fastforward and rewind controls are the same here as on the queue, so again you have several options to control your location in the content. The 'handle' appears here too, allowing fast, accurate scrolling back and forth through your show (though as is always the case, it'll take a few seconds for the Netflix stream to catch up with your new location).

If nothing in your Queue is tickling your fancy you can browse for more content via a widget on the home screen. This is done via categories such as New Arrivals: Movies, New Arrivals: TV, Comedy, Drama, Sci-Fi & Fantasy, etc. (these are identical to the categories you'd find on the PS3 & Xbox implementation of Netflix). There are also a few dynamic categories based on content you've viewed recently (these are also found on the PS3 implementation, but not the Xbox). I had been watching The IT Crowd (if you're reading IT World, you'll probably love The IT Crowd) and the "Like" category for it listed Fawlty Towers, Coupling, 30 Rock, As Time Goes By and All Creatures Great & Small, among others. So it's really hit or miss. That last one, in particular, is only "like" The IT Crowd in that it was made in Britain.

Once you've found something you like in these categories (and there's no search function), you can start to watch the content, or add it to your Instant Queue for later viewing.

Overall, the Wii Netflix Experience is pretty similar to the other consoles. Navigation is arguably the best of all the devices, but the lack of HD is a big issue.

Here's a brief recap of the various devices I've used:

Roku - Stand alone device, always on. Dedicated remote. Also streams Amazon Video-on-Demand and Roku Channels. Stream quality indicator. There's no way to browse beyond your queue; you're tied to a PC with this one.
Xbox 360 - Support baked into firmware, there's a "Party feature" that lets you watch content with friends. Browsing functionality not as good as on PS3 & Wii (the "Like" categories are missing).
PS3 - Best browsing (tied with the Wii). Free disk required. Navigating through your queue feels sluggish.
Wii - Best nav, thanks to the Wii Remote. Best browsing (tied with the PS3). Free disk required. No HD support

In practice, I almost always watch Netflix via the Roku. While it's true I can't browse content on it, I generally prefer the Netflix web interface and search box to flipping through categories on the consoles anyway. There's no overhead with the Roku; I just switch the input on my TV to it and my queue is waiting. The dedicated remote is nice, too.

If the Wii supported HD it'd be a close rival to the Roku. The Wii is quiet and navigating with the Wii Remote is fast and easy. In spite of the Xbox 360 having Netflix support in the firmware, it's my least favorite platform just because my Xbox (an original 20 GB model) is so noisy. Your mileage may vary there, and I know some people who love the party feature. As things stand now, the PS3 is my backup device after the Roku. My PS3 is quiet (again, your mileage may vary) and I have the Bluetooth Remote for it. The truth is, once I have a show running I quickly forget what device I'm using (except for the Wii's HD deficiency): the quality of service seems about the same no matter which device I'm using.

It'll be interesting to see if Playstation Move and Xbox Natal support will be added to Netflix on the respective consoles.

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