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.