Maybe you're already well aware of the Netflix movie and TV streaming service, but did you know that Netflix is available for Android OS smartphones and iPhones in addition to PCs? How does the Android OS app stack up?
In exploring this downloadable app, I disovered that it does deliver excellent streaming video to phones. On the other hand, its user interface (UI) can be cranky, and the list of officially supported devices is lame.
The Netflix app itself is free. The only thing you’ll pay for is the Netflix account. (By the way, after some highly controversial rate hikes in July, montly subscription-based pricing for Netflix accounts has jumped to $15.98 from its previous level of $9.99 for unlimited strreaming, plus one physical DVD out at a time.)
Netflix for Android OS is basically a dual-purpose app. It allows you to manage your DVDs-by-mail queue as well as to access Netflix's instant streaming. The latter, however, is the main value of this app. You can always handle your DVDs-by-mail from your PC, but you can’t get the video to your smartphone without the app.
After downloading and installing the free app, and then logging in, you're ready to go. Yet during my initial setup and exploration phase, I was annoyed to find out that the UI tends to be unusually sluggish -- and not just in loading listings.
The app doesn’t perform very well at scrolling, either. Often, the screen will skip as you slide down a list.
Netflix released the Android OS app in May of this year, after issuing its first iPhone app the previous summer. Clearly, the Android OS version is still less than entirely optimized for this operating system, something I wish the developers would take care of.
Excellent video streaming
Fortunately, though, these performance issues don't extend to the video streaming itself. Once you actually select a movie and fire it up, the result is really excellent. Netflix has variable rate streaming, meaning that you get the best video quality that your Internet connection can smoothly deliver. Even when you’re watching over 3G, the video is plenty viewable.
Over Wi-Fi, however, viewing is superb -- as though you were looking at a DVD, not video streamed off the internet. A few times at the beginning of a movie,, the video paused for buffering. Yet once that was done, the playback was very reliable. Also, if you need to temporarily stop the video, you can quickly resume to the same place without much of a problem.
More than once while trying out the Netflix app, I found myself reflecting back to my last streaming media experience with HBO Go, and thinking that HBO could learn a lot from Netflix.
The highly viewable streaming isn't the only reason. Unlike HBO Go, Netflix also allows you to stream multiple movies, to multiple devices, on one account, even if they're at completely different IP addresses. For instance, you might have one person at home streaming a cheesy horror flick over Wi-Fi, while someone else is on a long bus ride watching his or her favorite TV show over 3G. That’s no problem for Netflix. It’ll serve both at the same time without even blinking.
The app also offers features like basic search and the ability to build a watch queue. Even if you only have streaming on your account, without the traditional DVDs-by-mail queue, you can still put together a list of movies you plan to see.
Some Restrictions apply
Unfortunately, however, the UI isn’t the only thing that isn’t happy and magical in mobile Netflix land. That's hardly a surprise, because just about any piece of software will have some drawbacks.
The Netflix app is only officially available for a very select list of devices, mostly high-end smartphones from Motorola, HTC, and Samsung. While this list covers 21 of the more popular Android OS phones, it leaves many of them out, too. The new Motorola Droid 3 is supported, as is the Droid X2, but not the Droid Pro or its sibling, the Motorola XPRT. The Samsung Epic can use it, but not Samsung’s brand new flagship phone, the Infuse 4G. Only one tablet – the Lenovo IdeaPad – is supported.
And if you don't have a supported device... well, sorry, you won't even be allowed to download the app, even if your device could otherwise run it perfectly.
Wait, what's that? This limited “compatibility” isn't actually a compatibility issue at all. Unofficially, the Netflix app works on many other "unsupported" devices without even making you fuss with it. I "side-loaded" the file onto the Samsung Infuse 4G, and it ran like a champion, every bit as well as on the officially supported Droid 3. Reports I’ve seen elsewhere online say that it works just as well with the Motorola Xoom and lots of other Android gadgets.
So why does Netflix hobble its potential market? I really have no idea, beyond the fact that they've expressed concerns in the past that Android devices could be hacked. Well folks, if that's your worry, the best way to prevent this is NOT to make it so that people have to monkey around with your app and do unauthorized things to the phone to make the software run. That’s just my two cents, though.
Beware the Carrier
Lastly, there's one more caution I will add. Like any high quality streaming video app, Netflix is going to eat a lot of bandwidth, to the tune of about 250 megabytes (MB) per hour, or 500 MB for a two-hour movie. That might not sound like a lot, but many carriers are now squeezing data users, Someone using a carrier such as Verizon would only be able to stream three movies per month if he wanted to stay under the 2 GB cap and leave enough room for things like web browsing and email
Considering its UI and limited official support issues, the Netflix app for Android is an example of video streaming done almost right. Streaming is fast and efficient. It even works over 3G just fine. Given that the app is free, it's hard to see why any Netflix user with a smartphone wouldn't want to at least try it. Just be careful with your data usage.