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Mini Rant: Disappointed in Netflix Video Streaming

I've been subscribing to Netflix's video-streaming service for a month or so. For $9 bucks a month it's a great deal and I recommend it, but that being said, it's also a big disappointment over what I expected.

YouTube has defined what's expected in video streaming, and the Netflix experience is so much worse. One problem is that the video quality is usually pretty bad — blocky and pixelated — even though I have a very fast connection (even via the VPN that I require to access Netflix from Japan). I can watch super-HD 1080p videos on YouTube without problem, but Netflix remains fairly blocky on average. (Only once that I recall in all this time has it ever kicked into basic-HD mode.)

While watching YouTube, if you want to jump back a few seconds, or skip forward a few seconds, you just grab the little location cursor and move it where you want, and usually playback starts from there immediately, because these locations not far from your previous playback spot are in the playback buffer. Not so on Netflix... any movement of the playback cursor — even just back a few seconds — requires a full restart of the stream, taking 10+ seconds and reverting to the lowest-quality video. It's maddening.

Other problems include...

  • Movie selection: I never knew that there were so many crappy movies made over the years, but Netflix has conveniently assembled them all in one location. To keep things consistent, good movies are kept to a minimum.

    Every time I've searched for a specific movie by name, it's not been available. Every. Single. One. Examples include Avatar, 300, Harry Potter, Inception, Major League, Game of Thrones, The Spanish Prisoner, Frozen. Not available.

  • With an inability to find good movies by name, you're left to browse the cesspool of crappy movies to find the occasional good movie that somehow snuck in, but Netflix makes this very difficult because the rating system is almost useless.

    First off, they're always shoving rate this movie interstitials into your face, encouraging you to give a haphazard answer just to shut the thing up. An ignorant or unconsidered rating is much worse than no rating, but they aggressively encourage the former, strongly diluting the meaning and purpose of ratings.

    While browsing you can mark a move as Not Interested, but there's no description of what this actually means. Does it mean:

    • Already seen this movie (it was great!) but don't want to see while searching for something new.

    • Already seen this movie (it was horrible!) and never want to be reminded of it again.

    • Not interested in this specific movie that I've heard bad things about.

    • Not interested in this genre/director/actor/subject.

    or something else entirely? Does it impact the rating system? Who knows.

    When they show a rating for a movie, sometimes they show the average customer rating, and sometime they show the rating Netflix thinks I'd give. While browsing, you'll see one or the other, but they're presented with the same appearance so you actually have to read the fine print to know which they're showing.

    And if you do want to spend the time to rate a movie, there's nothing between Didn't like it and Liked it. There's no meh, it was okay. I'm sure that a thousand years of consumer research shows that a movie rating system must have exactly five stars, but Netflix picks a lopsided five levels that artificially encourages more positive reviews:

    Netflix's Rating SystemWhat I think it Should Be
    ····Hated itHated it
    ···Didn't like itDidn't care for it
    ··Liked itSo-so
    ·Really liked itLiked it
    Loved it!Really liked it

    Actually, I think a 10-star system like IMDB would be much better. IMDB gives ratings that actually mean something.

  • When you're watching at TV show and the episode reaches the end credits, they show the blurb for the next episode, making it easy to skip directly to it. Easy is wonderful, but the blurb about the next episode can give away important plot points, destroying much of the fun of watching. As far as I can tell, you can't turn this off.

The Netflix original production House of Cards illustrates how little they get the concept of on-demand video. With broadcast TV, especially before recorders and timeshifting, the title sequence of a TV show — those 60 seconds or so of theme music with actor and production credits over generic video not related to the specific episode — served the important function of being a time buffer during which the viewing audience could tune in and confirm that they've gotten to the right channel at the right time, and if they join in early enough in the sequence, allow them the comfort to use the bathroom or grab something from the fridge without worrying that they'll miss something.

This time-buffer purpose has no meaning in an on-demand world of video streaming and DVD rentals where you press play when you're ready to watch. The title sequence can of course be useful to set a mood and to give credit to the actors and producers, so it makes sense to have it at the start of the first episode, but House of Cards has almost two minutes of generic title sequence stuff tacked on to the start of each of its 26 episodes. It's exactly the same every time, so after the first episode it's just maddening to have to suffer the 101 seconds of title sequence just to watch the video you wanted to see back when you pressed play. I'd rather have commercials.

All told, the wasted time over the course of the 26 episodes adds up to almost 44 minutes, almost as long as a full episode! Clearly, someone doesn't get the concept of on demand. And as I mentioned above, Netflix makes it difficult to jump ahead, so you're pretty much stuck watching over and over who designed the costumes, and who the half dozen executive producers were.

(That all being said, House of Cards is an amazing, riveting, fantastic show. It's painful to sit through the title sequence each time, but House of Cards by itself makes the Netflix subscription more than worth it.)

YYMV.


Comments so far....
— comment by Zak on May 8th, 2014 at 2:11pm JST (5 months, 24 days ago) comment permalink

You actually made my jaw drop when you said you’d prefer adverts. Wow.

In any case, this is surely not a Netflix thing. It seems highly unlikely that Netflix or any other broadcaster is allowed to cut TV shows and films in that way — I’m sure you’ll find that they are contractually prohibited from doing so, with the possible exception of censoring.

Besides, believe it or not there are people out there who actually enjoy the credits sequences — myself included. I especially like those which change each season, showing a montage of the characters and playing the theme tune.

In any case, I haven’t tried Netflix. I abhor adverts, and try to expose my kids to them as little as possible. My family tends to watch everything through the Apple TV these days.

The show that I was speaking of is a Netflix production, so I’m sure they could do what they want. I wasn’t suggesting that they should cut stuff out of shows they didn’t themselves produce. (It’s interesting to note that the title sequence for made-for-broadcast-television Breaking Bad is a completely tolerable 15 seconds.). The “I’d rather have advertisements” comment was hyperbole. Netflix doesn’t have advertisements. —Jeffrey

— comment by Thorf on May 8th, 2014 at 6:40pm JST (5 months, 23 days ago) comment permalink

hahahahahah …… ” to keep things consistent, good movies are kept to a minimum ” excellent writing.

It can get worse. You could suffer Netflix via Tivo from Virgin media(UK). Supposed 100Mb fiber. Launching it at least allows enough time to cook a meal and make deserts , before settling down to wade through the dreadful front end. Not to worry, the video adverts they carry on the top screen load up first, so no missing those.
Don’t get me started on advertising carried on already paid for subscription services .

At least the UK service is about 10 times faster than what I had to suffer in my previous (recent)home in western Australia, where broadband was both slow and priced to suit the shareholder ( this is where I first visited your site)

— comment by Paul on May 9th, 2014 at 12:12am JST (5 months, 23 days ago) comment permalink

Re: the title stuff; perhaps Netflix is keeping open the option of syndicating House of Cards to television someday.

No doubt, but they can certainly add that later if they wanted. At 1:41, their intro is long even by 1970s standards (Bionic Man was 60 seconds, for example). Breaking Bad gets by perfectly well with 15 seconds. No, Netflix just doesn’t get on-demand video. —Jeffrey

— comment by Steve Friedl on May 9th, 2014 at 1:47am JST (5 months, 23 days ago) comment permalink

Jeffrey, what interface are you using to access Netflix? In the browser and many Netflix branded apps the title sequence for most shows is how only shown during the initial episode of that viewing period. For example, if you watch an episode of Sherlock and allow Netflix to begin the next episode, that episode’s title sequence is skipped.

Also I’m quite surprised by your poor streaming performance. We are in the northeast US using a big cable provider and almost always stream in HD, even during peak hours. You may have read that certain network providers are essentially requiring Netflix to pony up extra cash for more adequate bandwidth to reach the end user. Perhaps the network at the other end of your VPN is in a similar dispute with Netflix.

The rest of your observations are bang on. After Netflix lost its contract with Starz, movie selection went downhill in a serious way. There is chatter that Netflix will raise its rates by a few bucks to improve its streaming selection.

Watching via browser at Netflix.com. It’s a much better experience to watch rentals via iTunes, so I wish Netflix had a dedicated app, one that could cache a video for at least a short while. (I don’t know why they can’t do it in the browser like YouTube, but I suppose the need to protect the stream from unauthorized access complicates things). I’ve tried multiple VPNs with multiple endpoints around the US, and never had great results, but maybe I’m just unlucky. And maybe the higher latency is part of the problem. I dunno. YouTube is fine. —Jeffrey

— comment by Mark on May 9th, 2014 at 3:29am JST (5 months, 23 days ago) comment permalink

We alternate between Netflix and Hulu and they both have their strengths and weaknesses. Neither has the greatest movie selection. Like you, I was expecting to be able to watch almost anything on Netflix and was severely disappointed. I’ve read articles about how Netflix will probably shutter their DVD-by-mail program eventually due to the availability of everything online and my question has been, availability? Cause I don’t see it.

Hulu has a nice little back-arrow-loopy button on the playbar that makes it easy to rewind a video in 10-second increments. And you rarely have to wait while it rebuffers forever and ever. And it’s a bit easier to skip ahead through the credits of shows, too. But, of course, Hulu has commercials, even for paid accounts.

As for the video quality, I’m not positive but I’m pretty sure there’s a setting somewhere (on Hulu at least) where you can tell it you want higher quality videos. But, of course, your buffering time will probably increase, too.

— comment by Sparksofember on May 9th, 2014 at 5:19am JST (5 months, 23 days ago) comment permalink

While playing (on Mac):
Ctrl+Shift+Option+D – Display A/V Stats on-screen
Ctrl+Shift+Option+S – current Streaming bit-rate and manual bit-rate selection

Check your playback settings in your account page (it’s should be on high by default, but we never know…). And not all the devices offer the same quality (Apple TV and some TV apps offer better streams sometimes).

Luc

— comment by luc on May 9th, 2014 at 9:10am JST (5 months, 23 days ago) comment permalink

Bandwidth isn’t the only thing that matters, also important is *latency*, which is the round-trip time from Japan to the US and back (and it’s made worse by the intermediating VPN). I believe that Netflix delivers over HTTP, which is a TCP-based protocol, and long round-trip times really hurt.

Long round-trip times also impact the bandwidth-delay product (limiting how much can be “on the wire” at any given time), but my spidey sense tells me that BxD doesn’t matter much for Netflix because of how they do streaming. But latency certainly does.

I watch Netflix fairly often on an HD televison (over far slower internet than yours) and haven’t ever seen anything other than broadcast quality, and that’s including a trip over *Wi-Fi* from the router to the television (via Chromecast). I don’t think I’ve ever seen it pixellate even once.

— comment by Steve Friedl on May 9th, 2014 at 10:44am JST (5 months, 23 days ago) comment permalink

Have you watched the original BBC House of Cards series (also on Netflix)? I was shocked at how much more jarring it was and actually even more relevant to current times than the Netflix “original” show even though it is decades old and the new Netflix HoC is almost scene for scene based on it. The new HoC seems to, for some strange reason, want to avoid being political.

— comment by Jao on May 9th, 2014 at 11:25am JST (5 months, 23 days ago) comment permalink

Just commenting on the “streaming” experience. I have a 30 meg connection and it is wireless to my ROKU. Get Hi Def no problem. Also can go back and forward without any problems.

— comment by Den on May 11th, 2014 at 10:15am JST (5 months, 21 days ago) comment permalink

I too am surprised by the poor streaming performance you report.

I have 6Mbps DSL in the SF Bay Area. YouTube at 1080P is completely unusable — constant pauses for buffering all day, every single day. It is NEVER watchable. Fortunately, 720P is pretty reliable.

But Netflix streams in HD nearly all of the time and buffering pauses are extremely rare.

Netflix content is, of course, limited. But cable (or satellite) service is also extremely limited and costs 10x the price!

It just goes to show that there are many complexities behind reasonable performance (most of which I guess I don’t understand). Judging by Netflix’s stock price it’s clear that they’re not without value, and indeed I do recommend them at the start of the article. Perhaps my expectations were too high. —Jeffrey

— comment by Malcolm on May 13th, 2014 at 10:45pm JST (5 months, 18 days ago) comment permalink

I have netflix streaming. I will say that every time I searched for a movie it is only available on DVD. I mean every single time. I just searched for the 1993 The Age of Innocence, no streaming only DVD. It happens every time. I have learned you cant search if you want streaming.

— comment by PK Smart on June 3rd, 2014 at 9:46am JST (4 months, 28 days ago) comment permalink

In Netflix’s defense, they DO have good movies – but they’re on DVD only! If you want them, you have to get a DVD plan.

The reason almost certainly is that studios put restrictions on their movies.

— comment by Guest on October 3rd, 2014 at 9:14am JST (4 weeks, 1 day ago) comment permalink
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