Netflix

Tech Radar

It's 2017 and Netflix is still the king of online streaming, using more global bandwidth than cat videos and piracy combined.

According to Sandvine, at peak times it's using 37% of America's peak-time internet bandwidth, compared to just 4% for Bittorrent. It's becoming a big deal elsewhere too, accounting for a huge amount of Europe's downstream traffic.

That means it's bigger than everything: bigger than YouTube, bigger than The Pirate Bay, and much bigger than any other streaming video service, including Amazon Prime Instant Video , Hulu or Google Play Movies & TV.

And the competition…

So, roughly how big is Netflix in terms of subscribers? According to the most recent numbers given out in a letter to investors, 100 million. 

“We expect to cross the 100 million member mark this weekend,” Netflix wrote in its letter to shareholders back in April. “It's a good start.” 

No one could possibly forget the streaming service's CES 2016 keynote where it unveiled to the world that it was taking its service to nearly every country on the planet, and that it would invest heavily in each of the new markets. 

But does biggest mean best? Let's find out.

How much does Netflix cost?

Netflix is one of the simplest streaming services around, you pay a monthly fee – which you can cancel at any time – and then get unlimited access to its full range of movies and TV shows. You don't get charged per film or TV show, and whether you watch it every hour of every day or only once in a few weeks, you'll pay exactly the same amount. It's effective and simple, just the way we like it.

The only real complexity comes with the three different subscription options available, though the same volume of content is available across all of them.

Plans

The Basic package is $7.99 / £5.99 / AU$8.99 / CAN$8.99 per month, which makes it a little cheaper over a full year than the Amazon Prime subscription which nets you its Instant Video service.

That gives you access to the standard definition streams – so no HD for you – but if your bandwidth is limited that's no biggy. It also limits watching to only a single device at any one time.

The next step up is the Standard package which will deliver the Full HD, 1080p streams. At $9.99 / £7.49 / AU$11.99 / CAN $10.99 per month that also allows you to watch on two discrete devices at any one time. That's a great option for sharing within a small family.

If you've got a bigger family the Premium subscription might be for you. At $11.99 / £8.99 / AU$14.99 / CAN$13.99 per month you can watch on up to four different devices concurrently, but this higher tier is also the one which will allow you to watch Netflix's burgeoning 4K Ultra HD content library.

So long as you have a compatible TV anyways.

How can I access Netflix?

There are a huge range of devices on which you can access your Netflix account and, impressively, they will all synchronise too. Watch a show on your desktop browser and you can pause it and pick up in the exact same place when logging back in on your big screen TV.

As well as your computer and built-in TV applications there are also Android and iOS apps as well as a whole suite of set-top boxes that will give you access to Netflix's video library.

Android app

Chances are that if your device has a screen on it then you’ll be able to get Netflix running.

When you log in to your Netflix account you will have to choose your profile, which can be password locked to avoid people stealing your account or your kids getting in and watching things which might not be appropriate.

There’s even a dedicated Kids profile which gives an alternative layout and discards inappropriate content.

Netflix Kids

What are Netflix’s key features?

There is another reason for having discrete profiles and that's because Netflix's recommendation algorithm will learn your preferences in terms of what you watch. It will then be able to tailor what it places highest on the home screen more towards the sort of content it thinks you prefer.

Netflix was also the pioneer of binge-watching, partly thanks to its habit of putting its own shows live in their entirety as soon as they arrive on the service, but also because as soon as an episode of a show finishes the next one is ready to play in a matter of seconds.

You don't have to do anything but sit back and let the entertainment flood in.

Netflix, like Amazon, is going to a huge amount of effort to create its own TV shows and has also recently started making the move into movies too, with Beasts of No Nation.

It has also struck a major deal with Marvel to create its TV version of the Marvel Universe – making discrete shows like Daredevil and Jessica Jones, as well as the upcoming Iron Fist and Luke Cage, before they combine in The Defenders ensemble.

Disney has also been courted by Netflix, striking a deal which means all the new Star Wars films (bar The Force Awakens) will stream globally on Netflix first. Though, this is supposedly coming to an end in 2019.

Ultra HD

On the technological side Netflix's dynamically-scaling streams mean you don't need to choose the quality level you want to watch. If your bandwidth is low it will deliver just the standard definition versions, but if you've got the hardware and the capacity it will go all the way up to 4K Ultra HD resolutions if available.

Beyond higher resolutions, Netflix also now allows you to download select shows and movies for offline viewing as well. Downloads will stay in your library for 30 days at a time, and will automatically expire at that time – even if it's on a device that isn't connected to the internet.

While it has its limitations, offline viewing is supremely helpful for longer flights or car rides where Wi-Fi and online connectivity may be spotty. 

Although it is a little wearing that there are so many subscription streaming services vying for your hard-earned cash, with more on the way , Netflix is undoubtedly still the best.

The ease of use – and consistent deployment – of its mobile and browser apps makes it the most friendly of all the services out there. It’s also got a huge range of both TV shows and films to plough through.

Amazon’s own service probably has the edge in the quality and quantity of its movie content, but on both the TV side and the kids’ content Netflix is the king.

There’s also the fact it’s there when you need or want it and you can easily ditch it for a month if you want to give it a rest for a while. Without a lengthy contract holding you hostage you’re free to come and go at will – though you’ll probably stay a while, there’s a wealth of ever-changing content on offer here.

TV content

We liked

The huge amount of TV content is the primary factor for Netflix’s dominance, but the ease of access absolutely goes hand in hand with that. Netflix couldn’t have given birth to the cult of binge-watching if it hadn’t been easier to just keep watching than to press stop on the remote control.

The quality is also impressive. It may cost extra for the Premium sub with its Ultra HD streaming, but even the Full HD streams are of good quality. You also get 5.1 surround sound support too, for that home cinema experience.

We’re also very much taken with its learning algorithms too. And if it’s not using those to help commission its burgeoning library of original programming we’d be very surprised.

It’s also very reasonably-priced, especially in a world where every new streaming service is stamping a £9.99 sticker on everything. At least.

We’re looking at you, Tidal…

We disliked

The movie side of things is a little more sparse than the Amazon-shaped competition. If it were just down to that side of the content stream then Netflix wouldn’t be the huge video behemoth that it is right now.

You’ll quickly grow out of the film choice on offer.

And you will also find that some key shows you might be searching for aren’t available on the service, possibly having been picked up by the Amazon or Sky-based competition instead.

Verdict

Netflix is still the king of the video streaming game. It’s content is excellent and it’s original shows – and now movies – are of impressive, network TV beating, quality.

Sure, it’s not perfect and you might find yourself finishing a big TV show and leaving the service for a month or so. But you’ll likely find your way back again, and Netflix makes it as easy as possible to reconnect.

The combination of great content, ease of use and new technologies, makes Netflix the best streaming service around and still able to resist the might of Amazon. For now.

Tech Radar
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