Netflix on Xbox: An HD Junky's Perspective

I had been waiting for weeks for Microsoft to roll out the New Xbox Experience. I’m not an avid gamer, but I just had to get my hands on the Netflix titles added to the console’s Video Marketplace—that’s because Netflix promised to make high-definition streaming video available that day, too.

So, yesterday found me glued to the couch, eagerly downloading the new update from Microsoft. Getting it set-up was a snap, if not a bore: Create an avatar? Please, that’s why my Wii is for. Get me to that HD goodness, already.

The Netflix application was easy to find, and upon opening it, I was prompted to activate my account by going to Netflix.com/activate on a computer and entering a code that Xbox had generated. I love controlling household appliances from my laptop, and sure enough, once I did this, 15 titles from my Netflix queue popped up on 50-inch plasma.

But I had no idea if any of them were designated HD by Netflix’s definition, and the Netflix app on the TV did nothing to help me find HD content. I’d have to control my queue from the computer. That’s not a problem for me, but I can imagine that some people would prefer to browse HD content via their televisions rather than with a laptop constantly at their side.

Microsoft had advertised 300 HD titles at launch, but as I browsed through the listings via an HD selection on a Netflix dropdown menu, I counted only 145 HD titles. Unfortunately, none of them were movies already in my queue. Sony hadn’t helped my cause, either, by removing all of their titles from Netflix’s HD listings so that traitorous Xbox360 users wouldn’t get any pleasure from Sony-made videos.

Well, 145 titles wasn’t much to go on, but it was something. I added Season 2 of The Office to my queue online, and—ding—The Office showed up on my TV three instantly. That’s speedy service.

But now for the part that I had been simultaneously excited and nervous about—where Microsoft tests my internet connection to make sure I’m deemed worthy enough to watch HD streaming videos.

“Please, please, please…” I whispered, as a screen came up to measure my connection. “Determining your video quality,” it said, and displayed what looked like cell-phone signal bars. My setup flickered between two and three bars. Damnit, Time Warner Cable! I want the full four bars! Don’t judge me, Netflix. I deserve true HD, I swear.

Discouraged by my ISP, I continued onward and played the first episode of The Office. It looked….schizophrenic. At times, the video quality looked positively terrible: banding, artifacts, softness, blurriness—like expanding a Youtube video into full-screen mode on a laptop. Seconds later, the image would turn crisp and stunning.

I played other videos—this time, an episode of Battlefield Britain, a show that uses a mixture of live acting and computer-generated models. The live-actor scenes tended to look too sharp, with dark edges around objects and pixilation in the distance. But when the show cut to an animated scene, the quality was nearly as good as the Cell Processor-computed images my PS3 spits out when my husband plays MGS4. In other words, nearly perfect.

It seems that when Xbox Live and Netflix team up to decide the level of HD video you’re allowed to see, you never know what you’re going to get. On average, I estimate that the quality of HD video via Netflix looks better than a standard-def TV broadcast stretched across an HDTV (at least all the Netflix HD content is at the proper aspect ratio and resolution), and worse than a decently uncompressed HD broadcast from a major network. It looks a bit like an old DVD. Which, I suppose, is what I typically get from Netflix in the mail.

When nothing good is on the DVR, and I’ve watched all my by-mail Netflix videos, maybe I’ll turn to my Xbox 360, and Netflix.com, to see if any juicy HD streaming content has been added. In the meantime, I’ll see if I can put the squeeze on Time Warner Cable to sell me another bar of bandwidth, because an HD junky can never get enough.

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  • Wolfshadw
    I'm just wondering how much of your bandwidth limit did you use viewing this HD content.
  • Anonymous
    You must have made a mistake. Gears of War 2 is exclusive to the Xbox 360 and can't be played on the PS3. Perhaps you meant Resistance 2?
  • Tomsguiderachel
    WolfshadwI'm just wondering how much of your bandwidth limit did you use viewing this HD content.

    WolfshadwI'm just wondering how much of your bandwidth limit did you use viewing this HD content.

    I'd like to find this out as well...working on it.
  • Anonymous
    Firstly, Sony had nothing to do with it's titles being removed from Netflix 360's offering. That was MS, forgetting to renew licenses. If it were a move by Sony, more than just Columbia Pictures movies would've been removed, as Sony owns more than just 1 studio.

    Secondly, it confirms what I've thought all along. Netflix HD < Blu-Ray. Nearly, isn't exactly. And if it looks better than a Standard Def broadcast, but like an Old DvD, then nearly, doesn't even remotely come close to Blu-Ray.

    Glad it works for you though, enjoy!

    Morne
  • harlequin6791
    Good article..

    I like you have been anticipating the release primarily for the Netflix streaming. However I would have to say to all the readers of this article to remember the author didn't achieve over half of the bars and wasn't viewing any HD content. Not only that but that she mentioned that her connection speed flickered between 2-3 bars. That would most likely explain the quality spikes going from "youtube" quality to dvd quality. My experience with the streaming of HD movies thus far has been flawless. I get roughly 7mb/s downstream and had a solid 4 bars on the netflix screen. It came through as nice and crisp.. roughly 1080i as they announced. So I would have to say its a user by user experience. Everyone will have different qualities depending on their isp connections.

    MornelitheFirstly, Sony had nothing to do with it's titles being removed from Netflix 360's offering. That was MS, forgetting to renew licenses. If it were a move by Sony, more than just Columbia Pictures movies would've been removed, as Sony owns more than just 1 studio.Secondly, it confirms what I've thought all along. Netflix HD < Blu-Ray. Nearly, isn't exactly. And if it looks better than a Standard Def broadcast, but like an Old DvD, then nearly, doesn't even remotely come close to Blu-Ray.Glad it works for you though, enjoy!Morne


    Morne you comment about it not being as good as bluray. No one ever stated it would be. They announced 1080i quality and 1080p in the future. As broadband speeds increase and technology develops they'll push 1080p through the pipelines. What it does have is low cost and on demand functionality. I have a PS3 as well as my 360, however paying $30 for a bluray movie is insane. However paying $8 for a netflix account and getting unlimited downloads now that's a steal. You could even cancel some cable and download seasons worth of shows you enjoy.

    Don't take the review as a solid truth. The experience will vary as I stated before.
  • Tomsguiderachel
    MornelitheFirstly, Sony had nothing to do with it's titles being removed from Netflix 360's offering. That was MS, forgetting to renew licenses. If it were a move by Sony, more than just Columbia Pictures movies would've been removed, as Sony owns more than just 1 studio.Secondly, it confirms what I've thought all along. Netflix HD < Blu-Ray. Nearly, isn't exactly. And if it looks better than a Standard Def broadcast, but like an Old DvD, then nearly, doesn't even remotely come close to Blu-Ray.Glad it works for you though, enjoy!Morne

    Wait, who said Netflix HD was supposed to look like Blu-ray? My expectations weren't that high.
  • Tomsguiderachel
    harlequin6791Good article.. I like you have been anticipating the release primarily for the Netflix streaming. However I would have to say to all the readers of this article to remember the author didn't achieve over half of the bars and wasn't viewing any HD content. Not only that but that she mentioned that her connection speed flickered between 2-3 bars. That would most likely explain the quality spikes going from "youtube" quality to dvd quality. My experience with the streaming of HD movies thus far has been flawless. I get roughly 7mb/s downstream and had a solid 4 bars on the netflix screen. It came through as nice and crisp.. roughly 1080i as they announced. So I would have to say its a user by user experience. Everyone will have different qualities depending on their isp connections.Morne you comment about it not being as good as bluray. No one ever stated it would be. They announced 1080i quality and 1080p in the future. As broadband speeds increase and technology develops they'll push 1080p through the pipelines. What it does have is low cost and on demand functionality. I have a PS3 as well as my 360, however paying $30 for a bluray movie is insane. However paying $8 for a netflix account and getting unlimited downloads now that's a steal. You could even cancel some cable and download seasons worth of shows you enjoy.Don't take the review as a solid truth. The experience will vary as I stated before.

    I'm jealous of your ISP connection! I was viewing HD content, it just wasn't coming through as crisp as true 1080i,
  • d_kuhn
    I watched part of a movie yesterday and I was overall fairly pleased with the quality of the video streaming to my 360 from netflix.

    BUT Blu-Ray quality? Not bloody likely. Folks should keep in mind that not all "HD" is created equal. 7mbps is actually a lower bit rate than play vanilla DVD quality requires... much less Blu-Ray (40mbps).

    Streaming video is good for media that's low quality to start with (SD broadcast and old movies), but totally a joke next to true HD quality media.
  • Tomsguiderachel
    D_KuhnI watched part of a movie yesterday and I was overall fairly pleased with the quality of the video streaming to my 360 from netflix. BUT Blu-Ray quality? Not bloody likely. Folks should keep in mind that not all "HD" is created equal. 7mbps is actually a lower bit rate than play vanilla DVD quality requires... much less Blu-Ray (40mbps). Streaming video is good for media that's low quality to start with (SD broadcast and old movies), but totally a joke next to true HD quality media.

    You make a good point, but who wants to watch SD broadcast streams on an HDTV? Can you say: Stretch-O-Vision? I'd rather watch "pretend HD" than standard-def so at least it fits my screen...
  • nukemaster
    I would have said "but who wants to watch SD 4:3 broadcast streams on an HDTV? Can you say: Stretch-O-Vision?"

    To be honest there are TONS of standard definition widescreen(16:9 aspect) movies/tv shows available. Widescreen and HD are 2 fully different things. I watch widescreen SD video on my computer screen all the time. and its not stretched in any way. In the worst case I would get black bars on the sides(same as you get black bars with any widescreen video on a 4:3 TV) if I watched a 4:3 video and even small bars with 16:9 since my screen is 16:10. I have a 4:3 screen for those videos anyway and most TV's can just allow the bars if the video is 4:3.

    All in all a good review, too bad the signal was 2-3 bars, but I bet it still beats my 5.2 megabit/sec connection.
  • Anonymous
    This is all good info, for the experienced streaming consumer. I'm surfing without results to find title lists of these supposed 12k cool movies offered through the 360 w/ netflix. I'm picking up dissapointing hits, stating availability is low, with new releases not even available. Any news?

    My friend says he's downloading unlimited torrents on the computer, and playing it through his 360 media center, bypassing the middle men. Any opinions on this use of the service? It seems like all of this does not even compare to the new free on tv service, or whatever this new satellite signal lifting receiver is called. You know, the one where it's all free all day? Nobody is reporting on actual selections of programming with these things, and it's driving me crazy.

    "They sold it, you bought it."
  • d_kuhn
    @Hampster Farm:

    If you go the illegal route then of course there's a ton of content available, for me personally it's not worth the hassle - if it's something I want to see I can wait a couple days for it to arrive via netflix - or watch it (at lower quality) via streaming netflix if it's available.

    It does look to me like streaming netflix is better quality than other streaming options, but I have a rock solid 4 bars too which probably helped.

    @Rachel: My wife and I got rid of our "TV" over 6 years ago, we were sick of paying so much for the handful of shows we actually wanted to watch, and the quality of the rest was so absolutely terrible that we didn't want our kids watching them. Now that more and more SD TV shows are being streamed, it's allowed us to find a few shows that are up our alley without paying for the dross. Sure they (relatively) look grainy on our little 37" 1080p lcd... and I would be scared to throw them up on the 120" screen (generally reserved for Blu-Ray and games these days), but for TV quality shows I don't see that as a big problem.

    I don't set my systems up to stretch SD, I just leave the bars on the sides.
  • Tomsguiderachel
    D_Kuhn@Hampster Farm:If you go the illegal route then of course there's a ton of content available, for me personally it's not worth the hassle - if it's something I want to see I can wait a couple days for it to arrive via netflix - or watch it (at lower quality) via streaming netflix if it's available. It does look to me like streaming netflix is better quality than other streaming options, but I have a rock solid 4 bars too which probably helped.@Rachel: My wife and I got rid of our "TV" over 6 years ago, we were sick of paying so much for the handful of shows we actually wanted to watch, and the quality of the rest was so absolutely terrible that we didn't want our kids watching them. Now that more and more SD TV shows are being streamed, it's allowed us to find a few shows that are up our alley without paying for the dross. Sure they (relatively) look grainy on our little 37" 1080p lcd... and I would be scared to throw them up on the 120" screen (generally reserved for Blu-Ray and games these days), but for TV quality shows I don't see that as a big problem. I don't set my systems up to stretch SD, I just leave the bars on the sides.

    You and a lot of other consumers have opted to ditch ISPs/Satellite Cos. in favor of your own a la carte programming--I think this is fantastic. One reason this may not work for some people, is that the Black Bars have a high risk of causing "burn-in" in Plasma sets (this is what I happen to own). Works fine for LCDs. But for people who favor plasma it may not be an option. Hopefully some day in the future we will see real a la carte options from the telcos that don't make us hunt and forage for our own favorite shows!
  • Anonymous
    ah yes... Welcome to the world of feaux-HD. The guy who mentioned, "Not all HD is created equal." You're absolutely right. I'm a post-production engineer and own a Home Theatre design company and I have to say streaming HD is a joke here in the states. I have fiber optic service tried the 360 service for kicks, it isn't horrible but definitely NOT superb but from a convenience perspective it hits the spot. I would call this service most like it McHD hit the spot for a quick eat but is no 5 star.

    And for the guy complaining about 30 bucks for BD... Have you heard of ..... AMAZON. But at the end of the day... You get what you pay for. Can't expect a Benz for the price of a Kia. ;)
  • harlequin6791
    Hehe yes Amazon and I are well acquainted. But ever since HD DVD died and Bluray was left alone they've been gouging the consumer's on the media. Also the fact that there is no real set standard for Bluray quality besides it being 1080p. However how many of them are truly in high def. If you watch enough you notice that some live action movies are much more detailed than others on bluray. Why is that? I'm guessing because not all camera's or conversion to put on to Bluray discs is equal. For instance if you have a recording master that is less than 1080p standards, sure you can add pixels into the images but you can't add detail. Just like when scaling a raster image in photoshop. So the end effect that not even all Bluray HD is equal. Some of it is just plain old shotty.

    As for pushing 1080i quality through broadband.. ya I figured my 7mbs was on the lower end for the HD needs. Reason being when I had problems with my isp in the past my streaming on my pc suffered on netflix. It was down to around 4-5mb/s is where I saw a drastic change. However when talking about pushing 1080i or p through the internet as a streamline I'm not talking raw data. I don't think anyone is to be honest. Streaming is a compression technology removing redundant data such as pixels that never change. Now you may never get true raw 1080p appearance but as the compression tech gets better you'll get damn close. Just look how mpeg/dvix compression has advanced in the HD scene.
  • harlequin6791
    but of course this is all just hypothetical.. But very possible
  • Anonymous
    the change in picture quality is probably due to the realtime bandwidth monitor that netflix introduced with the new silverlight based streaming program. Unlike the old system if your available band changes mid-movie so will your picture quality. I've requested a way to force bitrate settings, I'd rather wait 15 or 20 minutes for a movie to buffer and get the best picture possible, and I'm guessing you might also.
  • Tomsguiderachel
    stefan whateverthe change in picture quality is probably due to the realtime bandwidth monitor that netflix introduced with the new silverlight based streaming program. Unlike the old system if your available band changes mid-movie so will your picture quality. I've requested a way to force bitrate settings, I'd rather wait 15 or 20 minutes for a movie to buffer and get the best picture possible, and I'm guessing you might also.

    Good idea, let us buffer first!
  • Anonymous
    Firstly, The Office and Battlefield Brittain are available for HD streaming.

    Secondly, if the Netflix application on the 360(or Roku) determines your bandwidth has changed speeds and a change of quality is needed, then the movie stops, and rebuffers at the new bitrate. It is not something that happens on the fly. I should know, I watched King of Kong in HD at 4 bars, it stopped, went to three bars and rebuffered.

    The HD streams on Netflix stream at highest quality at around 5mbps, so a decent broadband collection is a must. The content you viewed for the Office was obviously SD.
  • Anonymous
    Imeant to say that the content you watched is NOT available in HD.