Netflix has been on a roll in 2009, adding its Internet streaming video-on-demand service to an ever expanding list of devices. In just the past few weeks, the big news has been the imminent arrival of Netflix streaming on the PlayStation 3, along with more rumors that it will be coming to the Wii as well. Best Buy's Insignia brand has debuted a Netflix-capable Blu-ray player that lists for $149 (and has already been seen on sale for as little as $99). And Roku has delivered two new versions of its mini set-top box, lowering the entry-level price to just $80 for the non-HD version. That's in addition to Netflix's availability on the Xbox 360, TiVo DVRs, and Blu-ray players from LG and Samsung, and an increasing number of TVs.
With those notable changes in the Netflix landscape, we thought it was a good time to update our overview on Netflix streaming. (A recap follows, for the uninitiated; the Netflix-savvy can jump straight to the list of Netflix-compatible products.)
Netflix offers a library of 12,000-plus streaming titles over the Internet, available on an "all you can eat" basis for any customer on the $9 per month (one DVD movie by mail at a time) or higher plan. So, in addition to getting DVD (or, for an additional premium, Blu-ray) discs by mail, Netflix subscribers also get unlimited access to thousands of hours of on-demand programming. Just add the titles to the "Instant Queue" in your Netflix account, and they'll be available on any compatible device once you pair it. (The setup procedure, as outlined by CNET's Molly Wood, is quick and easy.)
There are a few downsides. Almost none of the available movie content would be classified in the "new release" category--the newest titles are usually at least a few years old. Also, the availability of titles ebbs and flows--many are available for a window of 60 to 90 days, after which they may or may not return a few months later. And many of the videos aren't available in their native wide-screen format. Also, you have to manipulate your queue from a PC browser. Aside from a list of new and notable titles, you can't search the available offerings and pick new selections that aren't already in your queue.
That said, we think the advantages are palpable. Netflix's TV selection offers a wide array of more recent choices than its movie slate, including some CBS shows that appear within a week of their initial broadcast (disclosure: CNET is a property of CBS). Netflix has also begun offering a small but growing slate of streaming content in HD. Video quality is generally good, and selections start playing within 30 seconds. They will also auto-resume wherever you left off, even if you move to another device. (You can have multiple Netflix devices on each account, and you can also stream to Web browsers on Macs and Windows PCs.)
But the bottom line is that Netflix streaming is just a great value proposition. For those who are already Netflix subscribers, the streaming feature is effectively a free upgrade--one that can offer hundreds of hours of programming a month. By contrast, the same monthly fee (as little as $9) would only get you a handful of movies or TV episodes on rival pay-per-view services, such as Apple's iTunes (Apple TV), Vudu, CinemaNow, Blockbuster, and Amazon Video-on-Demand. (That said, note that some or all of the latter four services are available in tandem with Netflix on some of the devices profiled below--so it's not an either/or proposition.)
As 2009 winds down, the list of Netflix-compatible devices continues to expand. We've rounded up all the current product choices, and will keep this list up to date as needed. Prices listed are the current street prices.
Netflix the quick and easy way:
Roku Player ($80-130)
The "Roku box" was the first Netflix streaming device to hit the market, and--in many ways--it's still the best. The original model, the $100 Roku HD, has recently been joined by an $80 step-down model (the Roku SD, which doesn't offer HD output) and a $130 step-up model, the Roku HD XR (which offers faster 802.11n Wi-Fi and a USB port for future expansion). Built-in Wi-Fi means you can connect it with just two cables--power and HDMI--though the little box has all of the AV connections you'll need to connect it even to older (non-HD) TVs. And unlike when it first launched, the Roku does more than Netflix now. Recent firmware upgrades have added access to Amazon Video-on-Demand content (pay-per-view) and Major League Baseball games (subscription required), and by the end of the year, additional online "channels" will be available as well.
Netflix-enabled game consoles:
Microsoft Xbox 360 ($300 plus
Xbox Live Gold subscription)
Since November 2008, the Xbox 360 has been Netflix-enabled. But there are caveats: Netflix only works with 360s that have a storage option (owners of the entry-level 360 will need to add a hard drive or at least a memory card), it only works for 360 owners with Xbox Live Gold memberships (which run around $50 a year), and the 360 doesn't have built-in Wi-Fi (you'll need to go Ethernet or buy an expensive adapter). But if you've already got a 360, there's probably no need to pick up the Roku box.
Sony PlayStation 3 ($300)
Previously, PS3 owners had to use a third-party software package called PlayOn to get Netflix (and Hulu) on their game console, which required leaving a PC powered up elsewhere on your home network. But as of November 2009, the PS3 has officially begun to support Netflix. The one catch: for the time being, you'll need to use a special Blu-ray disc (available for free from Netflix) to enable streaming. On the bright side, though, you don't need to pay an additional Xbox Live-style fee.
Nintendo Wii ($200)
The Wii does not officially support Netflix streaming. But rumors persist that it will soon, thanks to the same sort of disc-based workaround that's coming to the PS3. Only time will tell--but such an arrangement could expand the Netflix user base by millions.
TiVo HD DVR ($250 plus service)
TiVo HD XL DVR ($600 plus service)
Any of the Series3/HD TiVos can be paired to a Netflix account. And TiVo also offers Amazon and YouTube streaming (in addition to a host of other online content choices), making it the closest thing to a digital video Swiss Army Knife to date.
Digeo Moxi DVR ($800)
Like the PS3, Moxi isn't an "official" Netflix partner, but--following an April 2009 software revamp--it works just as well with the PlayOn software as the Sony game console. Currently, Digeo is offering free subscription keys for Moxi owners.
Netflix-enabled Blu-ray players:
Insignia NS-BRDVD3 ($150)
Insignia NS-WBRDVD ($200)
LG BD370 ($250)
LG BD390 ($400)
Samsung BD-P1600 ($250)
Samsung BD-P3600 ($350)
Samsung BD-P4600 ($400)
Sony BDP-N460 ($250)
Every 2009 Blu-ray player from LG and Samsung offers Netflix compatibility, as does Sony's BDP-N460. That gives those companies a big leg up on competitors such as Panasonic (which is currently Netflix-less). If you don't have a wired Ethernet connection near your TV--and you don't want to invest in a pair of powerline Ethernet adapters--you'll probably want to go with one of the higher-end models that include Wi-Fi (either built-in or with a USB dongle). We found the LG BD390 to be the best choice--it also offers access to YouTube videos, Vudu streaming, and other digital files (photos, music, and videos) on your home network.
New to the Netflix party is Best Buy's in-house brand, Insignia. The NS-BRDVD3 has been seen on sale for as little as $99, making it a compelling alternatives to the discless Roku boxes. The more expensive Insignia NS-WBRDVD adds built-in Wi-Fi.
Netflix-enabled home theater systems:
LG LHB953 ($500)
LG LHB977 ($600)
Samsung HT-BD1250 ($550)
Samsung HT-BD7200 ($800)
Samsung HT-BD8200 ($750)
As with their standalone Blu-ray players, LG and Samsung have also built Netfix compatibility into their 2009 Blu-ray home theater systems. We haven't reviewed any of these systems yet, but we expect the Netflix functionality to be identical to what's found in the company's respective Blu-ray players. None of these models have built-in Wi-Fi, however. Samsung offers a Wi-Fi dongle for $80, while the LG models will need a powerline Ethernet adapter or wireless bridge if you don't have a nearby Ethernet jack.
LG LH50 LCD TVs (pictured at top of this post)
LG PS80 plasma TVs
Sony KDL-W5100 LCD TVs
Sony KDL-Z5100 LCD TVs
Sony KDL-XBR9 LCD TVs
Sony KDL-XBR10 LCD TVs
Vizio VF552XVT LCD TV (coming winter 2010)
An increasing number of TVs are coming equipped with a wide variety of online-enabled features, and Netflix is one of the premier offerings. LG's "NetCast" TVs are available now, as are Sony's Bravia Internet Internet Link-enabled models (which got a Netflix-enabled software upgrade in mid-November 2009). On the horizon is Vizio's VF552XVT, which includes built-in Wi-Fi and a Bluetooth remote (with QWERTY keyboard).
Netflix on your PC:
It's worth mentioning that any Mac (Intel-based) or Windows PC (XP/Vista/7) with a decent video capabilities can access Netflix streaming directly through a Web browser. Connect a TV to your PC's video output, and you can enjoy Netflix streaming--and any other Web-based video--without the need to buy additional hardware. It's a choice that some find compelling enough to ditch their cable or satellite TV service altogether.
Editors' note: Since its original publication on May 29, 2009, this story has been updated to reflect the availability of new Netflix-enabled products.