Netflix's new movies-on-demand service, reviewed.

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March 1 2007 3:49 PM

Watching "Watch Now"

Netflix's new movies-on-demand service, reviewed.

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As a kid, I fantasized about having a kitchen sink with dozens of faucets. Not only would it dispense hot and cold water, but also chocolate milk, macaroni and cheese, and boneless fried chicken. It's a testament to the primitiveness of the times (and my imagination) that I never dreamed of owning such a device for movies. At age 10, I watched my worn-out VHS copy of Ghostbusters pretty much exclusively. A decade and a half later, I snap my fingers and a red envelope arrives bearing whatever movie I want. Still, for all its convenience, I can't help but feel that Netflix is an artifact of an earlier, less convenient age.

You might say that Netflix brought this upon itself. By making it radically easier to rent movies, the company raised the bar high and fast. These days it's clear that Netflix is not, in fact, the height of convenience. Rivals like Blockbuster have rolled out similar services. The rise of digital cable, complete with on-demand video, has proved a godsend for the infirm and the criminally lazy. Internet behemoths Amazon.com and iTunes both recently rolled out their own on-demand services.

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For Netflix, the heat is on, and it has responded with something called Watch Now. Like a magical movie faucet, the service streams video straight to your Web browser. Right now, about 1,000 of Netflix's 70,000 titles are available for instant watching.

Though Netflix doesn't offer unlimited streaming, you still get a hefty amount of watching time—roughly one hour for every dollar you pay in monthly subscription fees, at no additional cost. Three-disc subscribers who pay $17.95 a month, for example, can supplement their regular DVD watching with 18 hours of online time. If you need to watch more than 18 hours of streaming video per month, I can assure you that this problem will solve itself when you go blind. (Netflix plans to roll out Watch Now to every subscriber by June. To see a walk-through of how it works, check out this video from the site Hacking Netflix.)

Conceptually, Watch Now is the perfect vessel for instant movie gratification. Ever rent, say, Street Fighter Alpha and discover that it's not the modern classic your "friend" promised? With Watch Now, you can watch two minutes and abandon ship. You'll still have 17 hours and 58 minutes of watching time to go. * So, in between checking sports scores and reading blogs, you'll be able to catch up on old episodes of that new hit TV show everyone's raving about. (Actually, you'll be able to catch up on episodes of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, but we'll get to that in a moment.)

In reality, Watch Now is less than perfect. The first and by far the most vexing snag is that, for the moment, it's available only for Windows. Watch Now also isn't compatible with Firefox—my browser of choice when I'm forced to use Windows. This will change, of course. Netflix is run by savvy people, and I'm sure they don't want to run afoul of the effete iMac intellectuals. Still, I count this as strike one.

Fortunately, a comrade allowed me to commandeer his Sony VAIO. Despite my initial annoyance over the format business, setting up Watch Now took about 10 seconds. I didn't even need to reboot! The viewing format is elegant, clean, and simple. Video streams into a box at the center of a black screen. Underneath, you have simple sliders for volume, rewind, and fast forward, as well as play and pause buttons. I have a decent Internet connection, and it never took more than 30 seconds for a movie to get started. The quality is good. I'm no connoisseur, but to my untrained eye recent titles like The Prince and Me and The Puffy Chair look just barely sub-DVD. Older movies like Living in Oblivion and 2010, however, look about as gnarly as VHS.

Now for another complaint. The video downloads progressively as you watch, which means it's not easy to skip around. This proved particularly frustrating while I was watching The Cars: Unlocked: The Live Performances. I struggled desperately to skip over band high jinks and lesser-known singles, but each time the damn thing had to rebuffer. Instant gratification is never instant enough.

Ideally, Watch Now would import all the functionality of an actual DVD, complete with chapters, subtitles, and maybe even commentary tracks. We're not there yet technologically, and the whole point of streaming is that you don't download the movies to your machine permanently. But for now, instantly watchable streaming video works best for traditional movie watchers—the kind who make popcorn before the show starts and then sit still for an hour and a half. That's not me.

I will note here that my Netflix habits are unconventional. During my early days as a Netflix subscriber, I spent anywhere from 1 to 3 hours a night watching DVDs on fast forward with the subtitles on. Because I read fairly quickly, I was able to follow twists and turns at high speed, thus increasing my cultural literacy in record time. This is impossible with Watch Now. To fast-forward, you grab the slider and drag it to the right, then wait. It's more like teleporting than running at high speed.