The Nintendo 3DS has been desperate for new ways to dangle extra features that differentiate it from the long-standing and more affordable Nintendo DS. Netflix, which launched today as a downloadable app on the Nintendo 3DS eShop, is one of the biggest. Despite any gripes we may or may not have about Netflix as a service, it's still one of the best libraries of streaming content around, especially for kid entertainment.
While Nintendo often has a reputation for being a bit behind the curve on cutting-edge tech, Netflix on the 3DS marks the first time that a gaming handheld has gotten outfitted with Netflix streaming.
The app is free, but requires a Netflix streaming subscription to connect to. There's no log-in page when the application is launched; instead, you're given a code to activate on Netflix's Web site. For a kid-driven device like the 3DS, that type of clean connection method makes sense.
Even though Netflix doesn't support 3D content, the interface has a little gloss of 3D added to it: movie titles and text windows seem to float at slightly different depth layers on the top screen. Otherwise, the interface mirrors what you'd find the PS3/Wii versions of Netflix, but spread across two screens. Your instant queue and other recommendation lists show up in browsable rows of movie thumbnails on the 3DS' lower screen. Considering the screen resolution, the whole affair looks surprisingly crisp.
The menus can be browsed by directional pad, circle pad or touch--a larger pic and summary details pop up on the top screen. Pressing the Y button starts the same title-based search system that you'll find on a smartphone, tablet, or game console version of Netflix. As always, Netflix's mobile offering lacks deeper search by director/actor/writer.
Movie playback looks surprisingly good--the top 16x9 screen handles the movie, while the bottom screen offers some media controls when tapped. The 3DS screen resolution is lower than that on an iPhone 4, obviously, but the quality looks as good as any basic smartphone playback. Really, the top screen on the 3DS is about the same size for letterboxed movies as an iPhone's screen. As such, it offers the same slightly cramped feel when watching large-scale movies, but it's all more than watchable, and easy for a kid to view.
The D-pad controls skipping forward and back during a video stream--smartly, though, skipping won't initiate unless the scene thumbnail is tapped, or you press the A button. The L and R rear bumper buttons handle chapter skipping, but only activate once the lower screen is touched to turn on its controls, preventing accidental presses. The lower screen also has its own skip/shuttle jog touch inputs.
Yes, Netflix works on the 3DS, and smartly, too. It's just not any more or less compelling than what you'd find on any smartphone or iPod Touch. Moreover, it might lead to greater battery drain, considering the 3DS' already-poor battery life (we haven't tested how long the 3DS battery lasts while streaming Netflix, but we're curious). It's a great add for current owners of the 3DS or kids who might not otherwise have an iPod Touch/phone of their own, particularly for family vacations. It doesn't play any 3D content, because no 3D content exists on Netflix at this point. In the future, it could be an extra bonus for 3DS users, but I already doubt how attractive 3D movies will be on a small screen. I already have a hard time wanting to see them on large screens.