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28Dec/080

Xbox 360 Adventures #1: Netflix

A few months ago I wrote a prediction that the Xbox 360 would soon die an untimely death. Since then the machine has systematically proved me wrong. It has outsold the PS3, and has done very well against the Wii. Microsoft has cut the price and added features that have made their magic box look more an more attractive. However, a few weeks back they announced one feature that made the Xbox a necessary product for me: Netflix streaming. I've been waiting for an easy way to chuck my DVD collection and access movies and TV programs from an online collection for years now. The on-demand portion of FIOS is just OK, but does not include enough content to really be interesting. iTunes charges far too much for old TV programs and movies, and even though you "own" them, you really don't. You can't transfer them, if you lose them you can't re-download them. It's all very user-unfriendly. However, Netflix streaming is quite different. You have a library of 12,000 or so movies and DVDs at your fingertips, all you have to do is select them and start viewing on your PC. However, viewing on a PC/Mac sucks. The holy grail is to be able to select from a huge library and watch them on my HD plasma TV and Bose speaker set-up.

The Xbox 360 now has this feature, and it is awesome.

Setting it up requires a very simple, manual code exchange between your Netflix account and your Xbox. Once that is complete, you select movies on your PC to put into your "On Demand Queue". Once something is in your queue, you can find the movies and TV programs by going to "Video Market Place" on your Xbox 360 and selecting the Netflix "tab". At that point, it's pure magic. Every movie and TV program you have placed in your queue is available for instant viewing. You flip through the box images with the XBox controller, and select the one you would like to view. If it is a TV program, you can also select the episode you would like to see. After that, depending on the speed of your internet connection, the movie/TV program will start in a couple seconds. Since I have a 20 mbps down/ 5 mbps up FIOS connection, it works amazingly well. The picture quality is near-perfect, as is the frame-rate. In fact, I can detect no difference in quality between Netflix/Xbox 360 and my FIOS On Demand...or a DVD for that matter.

OK, so the quality is good, but what are the drawbacks? Well, there are a couple. First, you cannot browse Netflix from the Xbox 360 and add movies/TV programs. You have to do that from a computer. Second, there are not many "new" movies or TV shows available. Most of the content is from prior to 1990, indie, or of dubious quality (read: those DVDs you find at the 99 cent store). Netflix had much more content, but when the studios is found out about the agreement with Microsoft, they pull some of it out. Also, some of the TV shows do not include all the episodes. Some just say something like "this episode only available on DVD". The good news it that Microsoft is planning to use the Netflix agreement to sell Xbox 360s, so you can be damned sure they will use some of their clout ($$$) to loosen up the archives of major studios.

So why do I like it? Well, it all comes down to cheesy classic TV from the 70's and 80's. As a kid I was a huge fan of shows like Emergency, Adam 12 and Battlestar Galactica. The entirety of those series are readily available. Also, available are "kids" (geared to 13 year old boys at the time) adventure series' from the 80's like Knight Rider, the A-Team, Magnum P.I., Miami Vice, Airwolf and a couple season of McGyver. In fact, the only shows I would like to have but are not currently streaming are CHiPs and the Dukes Of Hazzard.

The other type of content in great supply on Netflix streaming are documentaries. You can find most indie and well known docs from the past few years. My current favorites are Supersize Me and King Of Kong, both of which are currently available. As well, some of the content is available in HD. From my tests, the HS streaming worked fairly well. At one point the stream of The Office stopped to "re-adjust", but afterward I saw no loss in quality.

Before i make it sound like this is treasure trove of old movies and TV only, there are a few new things. The Office is there (both US and British), some newer Disney movies and TV shows (for how long who knows?) and many others. Interestingly, many of the new movies available are the same ones that exist on On Demand versions of Showtime and Starz. (It looks like Netflix has agreements with both services).

My suggestion to Microsoft, Netflix, and all the studios who are holding out on this : run a simple commercial tag at the beginning of each movie/TV show that can ne monetized and rev shared between Netflix and the studios. We already have to sit through those on DVDs and at the movie theater anyway. If it means more content will become available, I'm willing to sit through it. Anyway, (except for a couple Wii games) the TV has not been on anything but the 360 since Christmas day. Netflix streaming is all we have been watching and there have been no complaints from anyone in the family. Now I hear that Microsoft might make a deal with Hulu.com to provide more recent TV episodes to the Xbox 360. If that happens, I will have to seriously reconsider my FIOS TV.

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