Getting a movie (or an entire season of Lost) delivered in the mail used be the height of convenience, but discs are so last decade. Consumers are increasingly seeking instant satisfaction, in the form of streaming video on demand. Netflix says that 48 percent of its 12.3 million subscribers used its streaming feature in December 2009, versus just 28 percent the previous year.
(See our companion slideshow, "Netflix Inside: A Comprehensive List of Netflix Streaming Devices.")
And the trend won't stop there. Steve Swasey, Netflix's vice president for corporate communications, says that the company hopes to double the number of devices with Netflix Instant Watch Streaming to more than 100 by the end of 2010. The products we know about include the Sony Dash tablet, the D-Link Boxee Box, the Nintendo Wii, Philips Blu-ray players, and Syabas Technology's Popbox (successor to the Popcorn Hour media streamer).
Swasey also told us that Netflix plans to add more titles to its streaming library this year, focusing on "meaningful and relevant" material that people want to watch.
To that end, the company just signed a deal with Warner Bros. that allows it to offer a wider range of Warner Bros. content through its streaming service. But where there's give, there's also take, and the trade-off in this case is rather unfortunate: Consumers now have to wait 28 days after a Warner Bros. DVD's initial release before the title is available on Netflix. (Warner has also pressured Redbox into a similar deal.)
Another consideration: Right now, only about 6 percent of Netflix's streaming catalog is in high definition (roughly 1000 out of 17,000 titles, Swasey said in a recent interview). And by HD, we mean 720p--regrettably, 1080p support is not planned for this year, though improvements such as 5.1 surround sound and closed captioning are on the way.
If you're ready to stream Netflix into your living room, the following hardware list includes the key specs you need to know. Remember, though, that not all Netflix-ready devices are created equal. Some players will let you choose new movies right on your TV, while others will allow you only to play movies you've already placed in your Instant Queue via the Netflix Website.
In addition, don't forget that you'll also need a Netflix streaming subscription. Unlimited access to watch as much as you want starts at $9 a month.
Video Game Consoles: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii
Netflix selection: Full streaming library, Instant Queue
Web content: Online gaming, BD-Live (PS3 only), video rentals (PS3 and Xbox 360), YouTube
Connection: Ethernet, Wi-Fi (Xbox 360 requires Wi-Fi adapter, sold separately)
Video outputs: Component, composite, HDMI, S-Video (PS3 and Xbox 360); the Wii uses a proprietary video output
Since you may already have a game console connected to your TV, this is one of the best ways to access Netflix. Sony's PlayStation 3 and Microsoft's Xbox 360 can already stream Netflix, and the feature is coming to the Nintendo Wii this spring. But each console has its quirks.
Microsoft currently has an exclusive deal that conveniently (and stylishly) integrates Netflix into the Xbox 360's dashboard interface. The 360 version also lets you host a virtual party-voice chat and stream a Netflix movie with up to seven friends. You will, however, need an Xbox Live Gold membership--which costs about $50 a year--on top of your existing Netflix membership. Xbox Live Gold also gives you multiplayer online gaming and advanced matchmaking features, and we've heard rumors of possible streaming access to ESPN and other premium content from Disney.
In contrast, the PlayStation 3 offers online gaming "extras" for free. To access Netflix, however, you'll have to pop in a disc that loads a basic version of the streaming interface. Thankfully, Netflix will send you the disc for free, and the company says it hopes to have an embedded solution available for PS3s via a system software update later this year.
Netflix for the Wii looks like it will also need a disc, and it has an extra drawback: no HD (the Wii is limited to 480p).