Plastic Podcast

The venerable and exceedingly intermittent Plastic Podcast, which has outlived the two blogs with which it was intertwined, and whose audio archives were difficult to ...

The Plastic Podcast

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Plastic Podcast

The venerable and exceedingly intermittent Plastic Podcast, which has outlived the two blogs with which it was intertwined, and whose audio archives were difficult to ...

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About

Daily Plastic is a Chicago-based movie blog, a collaboration between Robert Davis and J. Robert Parks, the same pair who brought you the wearable movie tote, the razor-thin pencil pocket, and that joke about aardvarks. If you know the whereabouts of the blue Pontiac Tempest that was towed from the Plastic Parking Lot on the evening of August 7th, 2008, or more importantly if you've recovered the red shoebox that was in its trunk, please contact us at your earliest convenience.

Davis was the chief film critic for the late, great Paste Magazine (which lives on now as a website) from 2005 through 2009, and he counts this interview with Claire Denis among his favorite moments. Every once in a while he pops up on Twitter. He's presently sipping puerh in Chicago, even at this hour. Meanwhile, Parks, whose work has appeared in TimeOut Chicago, The Hyde Park Herald, and Paste, is molding unsuspecting, college-aged minds in the aforementioned windy city. Media types are warned to stay clear of his semester-sized field of influence because of the distorting effects that are likely to develop.

The © copyright of all content on Daily Plastic belongs to the respective authors.

People used to tell me when to watch TV. They'd print up complicated charts for me to study so that I could always be in the favor of their dictates. Thursday night at 8:00pm. Be there. We're not waiting for you, so finish dinner quickly or eat it on the couch.

I don't travel with that kind any more. For the last year I've been testing a couple of solutions that break the schedule's stranglehold and give me control over what I watch and when I watch it. And they've given me a taste of what I assume will one day be the norm: I think of a movie or TV show I want to watch, I press a button, and a few seconds later I'm watching it on a plasma TV. And I watch it without commercials.

That's the future, but it's closer than you may think. The biggest shortfall at the moment is that not everything I think of is available — not by a long shot — but so much of it is that I'm not sure I could ever consume all that's available to me through this pipe. We've passed some kind of threshold.

The Universe at Your Thumb

Anyone who has ever used a TiVo or similar digital video recorder (DVR) knows how useful and addicting it is to pause your television. Visit the kitchen for a refill, answer the phone, or just make the tube wait for you instead of the other way around. And it's also satisfying to know your DVR is filling up when you're away, gathering your favorite shows from the airwaves (or, more likely, from your cable or satellite dish).

But anyone who's used an Apple TV or a Netflix Player — two newer devices that attach to your TV — knows that a DVR was just an approximation of the kind of instant access and vast selection that we're headed toward and that these devices mostly provide today.

Internet video is here, as evidenced by the popularity of YouTube and a thousand other sites that stream moving images to your computer. But as with so many digital revolutions, the first incarnation of the technology feels like a step backward. Sure you can stream a movie to your laptop, but remember the good ol' days when you could watch a movie on your couch, on a great big screen, with a remote in your hand? And it didn't look splotchy, didn't stop every few seconds for "buffering," didn't have somebody's asinine music slapped over the top of it? Ahh, those were the days.

This is where Apple and Netflix come in.

Apple TV user interface
Devices from Apple and Netflix

Both Apple and Netflix, today, sell slick little boxes that bridge the gap between your TV and your broadband router. Neither device is a DVR. These boxes don't record; they bypass the old broadcast signal and get the video straight from the Internet.

Each box connects to your TV the same way a DVD player or VCR would. Apple requires a widescreen TV, but both boxes have a row of outputs on the back. You just need the right cables. And each box also connects to your local network in whatever way is most convenient for you. I have a wireless network at my house so that I can roam around with my laptop, and each of these boxes is able to climb aboard my wireless network easily. But they can also plug directly into a broadband router if it's sitting nearby and has a spare ethernet jack. Either way, setup takes just a minute or two.

While the basic idea of each device is to get video from the Internet and play it on your TV, they go about it in different ways.

Netflix Player

Netflix, of course, pioneered a popular DVD rental service that works through the mail. Subscribers make lists of movies they'd like to see, and Netflix mails out DVD's one by one, sending a new disk whenever you send one back. If you've browsed the Netflix website recently, you may have seen a "play now" button next to some of their listings. Clicking it will let a subscriber watch the movie right then, on the computer, instead of waiting for a DVD to arrive in the mail, at no additional charge. That's neat, but it's not something I'd want to do regularly. (Plus, this feature doesn't easily work on a Mac.)

If you have a Netflix account, you can see what's available for instant viewing by browsing their site. Look for the "Play" button next to an movie listing. — RD

But the Netflix Player makes this feature far more interesting because it lets you watch any of Netflix's "play now" movies on your big TV, instantly, with no additional charge other than the one-time cost of the box. The service is free for any subscriber, and it works in addition to your normal DVD rental service, which is unaffected by your instant viewing.

Why isn't Netflix promoting this thing loudly? I imagine there's one reason: selection. Netflix has thousands of movies and TV shows available for instant viewing over the Internet, but that's a small fraction of what's available on DVD, and the programs that are available tend to be old, foreign, or obscure. That doesn't mean there aren't diamonds in the rough, but someone interested in the latest blockbusters will likely be disappointed.

Apple TV

Apple's service is different. Apple has deals with many major studios and TV networks, so you can watch the blockbusters as soon as they're available on DVD. Apple also has episodes of major TV shows soon after they're broadcast, and they have a library of old TV shows, too. But they're much less likely to have old, foreign, or obscure films. Apple's "classics" section is growing, but they tend to be prestige films like Lawrence of Arabia instead of a cult classic like Vanishing Point. This actually makes the Apple and Netflix boxes complementary. I have and use both.

If you have iTunes on your computer, you can see what's available on the Apple TV by browsing the anachronistically named iTunes Music Store. — RD

Once you've bought the Apple TV box itself, there are no subscription fees, but you pay for each individual item you want, much like Apple's iTunes Music Store for iPods. In fact, it's the same store. If you have an iTunes account, you're ready to use an Apple TV out of the box. Otherwise, it takes a minute to set up an account.

However, the Apple device itself is actually a much more powerful machine than the Netflix Player. It's more like a custom computer: it has a hard drive, runs a sophisticated operating system, and makes substantial use of its connection to the Internet. It can play videos from YouTube, display photo albums from Flickr, and find the computers on your household network that are running iTunes, allowing you to see photos, hear music, and watch movies that are stored there.

For ripping and encoding on a Mac, you can use MacTheRipper + HandBrake. — RD

It's also possible to "rip" DVDs the same way people rip CDs, which will copy a movie onto your computer's hard drive where it can then be accessed by your Apple TV. This is not an officially supported feature, and it requires cumbersome (but free) third-party software that's more complicated than my mom can manage, but once you master the process you can make your Apple TV function like a media center for all of your movies. I've done this to some degree, and I don't use my DVD player very much any more, even though I watch movies at home quite often.

Selection and Cost

To see how these systems complement each other, here's a sampling of the movies and TV shows I've watched recently and which device each one is available for.

Program Apple TV Netflix Player
The Daily Show
The Colbert Report
Superbad
Juno
The Incredibles
Dr. Strangelove
Sex and the City (Extended Cut)
Bella
Psycho
The Poseidon Adventure
The Way We Were
The Searchers
Silent Running
Vanishing Point
Chop Shop
La Question humaine
Beau Travail
Millennium Mambo
Ken Jacobs: Celestial Subway Lines
The Wire: Seasons 1 through 5
Anderson Cooper 360°
NewsRadio: Seasons 1 and 2
30 Rock: Season 1
30 Rock: Season 2

You'll see from my viewing habits that I'm pretty far behind on some serial TV programs, but you can — if you're interested — purchase the latest episodes of, say, Lost on Apple TV just after they're broadcast, well before they're available on DVD. (Season four is available on Apple TV now in its entirety but it's not yet on DVD.)

My episodes of The Daily Show arrive in the wee hours of the morning, six hours or so after broadcast. That's current enough for me.

In cases where something is available for both systems, I almost always choose the Netflix Player, because there's no additional cost to me. But it's hard to draw conclusions from this, because the cases where something that I want to watch is available for both are rare. For my tastes, TV shows are much stronger on Apple while movies and curiosities are stronger on Netflix. Apple is particularly weak with foreign film — they have almost none. And I'm more willing to sample on Netflix. Sydney Pollack's The Way We Were, for example, is something I probably wouldn't have paid to watch on Apple TV but, after Edelstein said nice things about it, felt worth a button press on the Netflix Player.

But if The Wire were available for both, I might have chosen to pay for it from Apple anyway, because it's something I intended to spend time with and would probably revisit, and the higher quality video and playback features made a difference. Plus, the video I get from Apple can be organized in my iTunes library and backed up with my other data.

I threw Anderson Cooper 360° into the table, although it's not actually available for sale on iTunes, as a reminder that video podcasts from major television networks and your next door neighbor are viewable on Apple TV, too, at no charge. Many are awful, but some are good, both at content and production levels.

Some Numbers

The Netflix Player costs $99 — a one-time purchase — and my regular Netflix DVD rental service is $16.99/month (although plans vary) which includes anything I may watch instantly.

"Renting" a movie on Apple TV means you have a limited time to watch it, although during that window you can watch it as many times as you want, and when it expires it vanishes from your system.

Annoyingly, some movies are available for purchase but not rental. — RD

The Apple TV is $229 and the cost of content varies, just like the prices of DVD's vary. A typical movie can be purchased from Apple for $9.99 or rented for $1.99. (If you want to rent a higher-quality HD version, you pay a dollar more.) A TV show can be purchased for $1.99 per episode, although there are special deals for daily shows; for example, I pay $9.99 for a month's worth of The Daily Show (16 episodes), which works out to 62 cents each.

So all five seasons of the HBO series The Wire set me back $119.40, but it was a long steady trickle. In total we're talking about almost sixty hours of programming for that series alone, and this compares favorably to buying the DVD's, which would run you about $200 on Amazon. On the DVD's you'd get whatever bonus features might exist, of course, plus booklets or whatever, all of which would collect dust at my house, so that's not worth anything to me. I could have rented the episodes through Netflix at some inconvenience (shipping disks around) but at no additional cost. However, with Apple I have all of the episodes to watch and rewatch at will, and I experienced instant gratification as I worked my way through the show, which was important because there were times when I simply had to watch one more episode right now.

So much for being in control of the TV.

My sense is that Apple's à la carte model would be an expensive replacement for cable TV to someone who watches four hours of TV a day. Me, I don't have any use for cable TV at all, and even the cheapest package from Comcast is something like $60 a month, and that probably doesn't include HBO. I don't watch enough TV to justify it.

So for someone like me who cherry-picks a few items to watch, the price of getting programming through the Apple TV seems fair for the features I'm looking for: no commercials, high quality, and total control over when and how often I watch. Any TV shows and movies that I purchase from the Apple TV itself are seamlessly copied to my computer and filed away in my iTunes library where I can watch them again or sync them with my laptop or iPod/iPhone for watching on the go. (This doesn't work with rentals.)

At Their Mercy

The Netflix selection sometimes looks like the bargain basement compared to flashy iTunes, but it's been surprisingly fun to rummage through. I doubt that Race with the Devil and Vanishing Point would be selling points in a Netflix marketing campaign, but I get a real kick out of sticking weird, lost items into my Netflix instant queue. And thanks to the Netflix Player, 2008 is the year I finally watched The Searchers. See, I could have rented that movie ages ago, but having it at my fingertips made it viewable.

I know, I should have seen The Searchers long, long ago. — RD

But here's something that took me aback: a small minority of movies are instantly available only until a certain date, after which they're deleted from everbody's instant queues. But you can't see that date in the Netflix Player itself. You have to look at your queue on the Netflix website for the "expected availability" date. Luckily, this doesn't apply to very many movies, only 30 of the 222 items in my queue, currently. And right now, almost all thirty are silent films, like Eisenstein's October and The Battleship Potemkin. I wonder if their silent film provider has placed limits on instant viewing? Or is a contract running out?

The NBC series 30 Rock highlights how much we're at the mercy of these companies and their bickering. NBC and Apple were cozy for a while, and I bought the first season of 30 Rock around that time. But while I was enjoying it, their relationship went sour and NBC pulled their content from iTunes. This didn't affect my purchase — I still had my programs — but it meant I couldn't continue with season two, which also wasn't yet on DVD. Cripes.

Last year, Steve Jobs referred to the difficulty of the video-on-demand business by calling the Apple TV a hobby: "We're in two busineses today, we'll be very shortly in three business and a hobby. One is our Mac business, second is our music business, third business is the phone business, handsets. And the hobby is Apple TV. The reason I call it a hobby is a lot of people have tried and failed to make it a business." — RD

Recently, however, those two lovebirds have made up, and 30 Rock has reappeared on iTunes, this time with optional HD quality videos (for an extra dollar a piece). I made sure to nab the second season before those captains of industry have another falling out.

Curiously, Netflix has only season one of 30 Rock available for instant viewing. I suspect they had a similar falling out with NBC (which has launched its own Hulu, a competitor to all of these video-on-demand services) and haven't yet patched things up.

User Interface

Both of these devices have very attractive user interfaces. First, the physical: the boxes themselves have no buttons or displays. You just plug them in. The remote controls are extremely simple and solid. And each system has an eye-pleasing graphical interface.

But the Netflix box is hemmed in by an outdated queue model. To watch something on the Netflix Player, you first need to use your computer to visit the Netflix website and add the movie to your "watch instantly" queue, a list of items you'd like to see someday. This list lasts for as long as you have your account, so the first thing I did is stock my queue with a couple hundred items that looked interesting. (If you have movies in your DVD queue that are also available instantly, they're automatically added to your "watch instantly" queue, so there's no need to add those.) You can see your queue of items on your TV, and you can pick items from it to watch at will.

Navigating the queue in the Netflix Player

From your TV, you can view items from the queue that you created on the web, and you can also rate and remove items from the queue, but you can't add anything. To do that, you need to go back to the website. That's unfortunate. And it's odd to think of the random universe of available movies in terms of a predefined list. I never watch these movies in order. I always jump around. So my usual procedure is: 1) I wonder if X is available instantly, 2) I visit the website and see that it is, hooray, 3) I add it to my queue, 4) I go to my TV and scan through my 200+ list of items (holding down the right-arrow button on the remote for about two minutes), and 5) I locate the new addition and watch it.

Still, there's something weirdly fun about browsing the Netflix website and adding one thing after another to my queue for future viewing. I forget what I've added, then one day I go to my TV and, wow, look, Super Fly. Play that right now! — RD

Presumably Netflix went this route because the queue idea meshed well with the similar features that already work very effectively for their DVD rental business. But that's a different animal, and I'd be much happier with my Netflix Player if I could browse from the device itself. Or just being able to scan my queue more effectively would be nice. Even alphabetizing the list would help me find things. I could manually alphabetize my queue. But, please. (Netflix may also have some limitations because the Netflix Player is manufactured by another company, Roku.)

As might be expected, Apple's user interface is richer than the Netflix Player's. You can browse and search the universe of available programs — and purchase items — from the box itself, no computer necessary. And you can browse the media that's stored in the Apple TV and on your household computers seamlessly.

Apple TV's Main Menu

The Apple TV's main menu is an oddly plain, unintuitive, two-column thingamajig, but once you drill down into a specific media type — movies, TV shows, music, etc — the interface switches to something more elegant and functional.

The Apple TV can work without a computer, but it does more if you feed it content from one of the iTunes applications in your home. I use mine sort of like a video iPod. I've set it up to sync with one particular computer in my house which is always up and running, grabbing the latest podcasts and TV shows that I've subscribed to and sending them to my Apple TV over the network. This is easy to set up.

Video Quality and Playback

The term "Internet video" immediately conjures an image of ugly video with jerky starts and stops, but you can put that out of your mind. Although the Apple TV has a higher quality picture, both of these boxes are at least on a par with broadcast TV. The Netflix picture is much less consistent — some movies show visible signs of digital compression and at least one foreign film that I tried to watch (Merci Pour Le Chocolat) had some of the subtitles cut off at the bottom. Presumably this is a problem with the way these movies were encoded and not a problem with the box itself. About playback quality, Netflix and Roku say this:

Video and audio quality depends on your Internet connection speed: The faster your connection, the better the quality. Slower connections are comparable to watching a VHS tape, while faster connections can provide DVD-quality playback.

They also say the device is capable of HD and 5.1 Surround Sound and that Netflix is working on making movies available that take advantage of these features.

When you press the play button on the Netflix remote, before the movie starts, the display gives you an indication of the quality. My quality meter has always shown 4 out of 4 dots. My Internet connection is fairly zippy. But the majority of movies I've watched look a tad worse than DVD. — RD

The Netflix Player streams all of its content, so you need a live Internet connection for the duration of the program. This makes playback a little sluggish to start — you have to wait for the box to grab a certain amount of the movie over the Internet, which takes about 10 seconds — and if your Internet goes down in the middle of a movie, you're hosed until it comes back up. I imagine a slow connection could degrade video quality, too, but my cable modem has always been more than fast enough, and I never notice any degradation while I'm watching, even when I'm doing the unthinkable, browsing the web while I'm watching something in the Netflix Player.

TV shows and movies supplied by Apple are all at least as good as those supplied by Netflix, and many of the movies and TV shows are available in HD versions, for which you pay a premium. Since it has a hard drive, the Apple TV is also better insulated from network trouble. The Apple TV will play videos that are sitting on its hard drive or on your computer even if your Internet connection is down. You'll need an Internet connection to grab something new, and if you have a slow connection, your service may be sluggish — meaning you'll have to wait longer between the time you select something to watch and the time it starts playing — but video quality is not affected by the speed of your line.

When your Internet connection is functioning properly, the Apple TV effectively blurs the line between streaming and playing from the hard drive.

Playback on both machines is straightforward — you navigate to the item you want and press the play button in the middle of your remote — but they're both awkward in slightly different ways.

One movie that I watched through Netflix, Quid Pro Quo, didn't have still frames available for some reason, so if I wanted to move forward or back, I had to use the elapsed time display instead. — RD

The Netflix Player, because it streams its movies, doesn't allow quick rewind or forward jumps during playback. But given this limitation, the designers have come up with a novel workaround: during playback, if you press forward or back, the movie will pause and you'll see a series of still frames before and after the current playback location. Use the left and right buttons to choose the frame you want to jump to, then press play again, and the player will buffer for a few seconds and starting playing from the desired location. This still-frame scheme isn't as satisfying as jumping forward or back instantly like you can in a TiVo, but it works pretty well.

Apple has a free application that lets you use your iPhone as a remote for your Apple TV. Unfortunately, it doesn't address the forward/back confusion — and I'd probably prefer to use the Apple TV's tactile remote over the iPhone's glass display for that operation, anyway — but the iPhone app greatly improves searching for movies because you can type on the little keyboard. — RD

Apple TV does have the jump and scan features, but the way they're crammed into a remote with so few buttons is a little confusing. I've found that if I pause first, then I can jump 10 seconds forward or back with a button press, as many times as I want. If I don't pause first, then pressing forward or back will jump by four minutes, or if I hold it down it will scan slowly, press again during scanning to scan more quickly, and press a third time to scan quicker still.

See what I mean? Confusing.

Still, in both cases I feel more in control than I do using a DVD player, and the Apple TV in particular feels very fast. During playback, I've never seen the Apple TV pause for buffering except when playing YouTube videos, and I've only seen the Netflix box do that once when I had a network hiccup, from which it quickly recovered.

Whither the Bonus Features?

Noel Murray and Scott Tobias at the Onion A.V. Club recently published a dialogue in which they lamented the death of the DVD's "golden age" and all the little bells and whistles that came along with them.

When music went digital, all the bits of art outside of the songs themselves, like gatefold album covers and liner notes, dropped off the planet. Similarly, it seems as if director commentaries, deleted scenes, and making-of documentaries may drop off next. None of the video-on-demand services include them, and while devices like the Apple TV are certainly capable of managing groups of videos or multiple audio tracks, I'm not sure the powers that be see enough value in preserving them.

They may have been a short-lived concept of the disk-based age.

I'll miss them, I suppose, but I have to admit that I rarely watch them, myself, and I've always felt a little uneasy about promotions that emphasize the doodads hanging off of a movie's edges more than the movie itself. There's a certain purity to watching just the movie again.

What I Want

I'll admit that I bought both of these items on a hunch and a lark. Having given up on cable TV — and TV in general, except for the News Hour on PBS — I thought I would like TV again if it weren't so demanding of my time and weren't so insistent on using some of that time for advertising.

If these devices had been a failure at addressing these concerns, I'd have sold them and moved on in some other direction. Books, let's say. But they're enjoyable enough that I've reoriented my home viewing around them. So now I want more.

Amazon's video-on-demand offering allows you to download movies to a TiVo or to certain Sony Bravia TV's. I haven't tried it, but it sounds similar to what I'm doing with my two boxes. Ditto for the Netflix-Microsoft partnership aimed at the Xbox 360. I don't think I'll add a third box until someone does it dramatically better than Apple and Netflix already have. — RD

In the short term, I'd love it if Apple made a deal with Netflix to add their content to the Apple TV. That would make the minor improvement of reducing my two small boxes to one. It's technically possible, I imagine, but I'm not sure that it makes business sense for Apple, especially since Apple seems to be increasing the size of their library aggressively on their own.

In the long run, I suppose I just want more high-quality content, and I want it available in one place: the living room. I want more movies of more types — not just Hollywood films but independent and foreign films that often don't even show up on DVD in the States. And I don't care which company wins this battle. I have no doubt that I'll need to buy some other box in the next five years to get what I want, but today, it's hard for me to get excited about something like Hulu.com, NBC's ambitious video-on-demand service, because even their high-quality videos are shackled to my computer and surrounded by advertising.

The bar is set above that. I expect to watch movies on a big screen, and I'll pay a reasonable amount for the commercial-free privilege.

Any questions?

19 Responses to “Apple TV and Netflix Player: Internet Video for Your TV”

  1. gordon says:

    Great Post. I recently bought an Apple TV (and a widescreen to match) and have been "wowed" by the experience. Once I realized I was recording only a few TV series on my DVR, it only made sense to get rid of cable and go with VOD via the internet. I have been considering getting Roku (already have a netflix account) to round out my on demand experience. I'll be getting a digital antenna to get HD broadcast - almost purely to satiate my desire to mindlessly flip channels - a practice that is on its way out in the click-on-demand world.

  2. Robert DAVIS says:

    I have an antenna for receiving HD broadcasts, too. In case a tornado knocks out my Internet or something. Plus, in this flat, densely populated region, I can get a bunch of crystal-clear channels on that thing.

    I've found the Roku to be a good complement to the Apple TV, obviously. Try it.

  3. gordon says:

    My only (slight) hesitation is that Netflix streaming is coming to the Xbox 360. While I'm not a big time gamer, playing HD games on my new 42 inch flatscreen is tempting. Roku is $100 and Xbox is $200 - a tempting offer to get a "Roku" like device PLUS game playing ability for an extra $100. Again, this is all in the name of easing my cable TV withdrawal - I don't use cable all that much, but I know I'm going to freak when I experience certain limitations - I suppose when I feel that sense of lack, I could go on the Xbox and blow S--- up.

  4. Mike Stemle says:

    Great article! My family and I have recently sacrificed DISH Network — a service which we love — in the better interest of family time, reading, and better use of our at-home down-time. We picked up an Apple TV (which is $229, not $249, from every place I've seen) because while we didn't plan to watch as much TV we still wanted to have that programming available to us if we wanted to see it.
    We have found that Apple TV is insanely useful as a family media device. It's got kids programming, adult (not "adult" programming, but programming for adults, e.g. CSI) programming, and it's also got whole family stuff like movies and fun shows that normally air during prime-time... which is nice because then you can let your kids watch shows that normally come on at 8pm if they have a 7:30pm bedtime (though my kid isn't old enough for these battles yet, thank God).
    And when we're talking, working, or just reading, we flip on the music and that just enhances the whole atmosphere in the house. We're totally digging it, it's nice to know we're not the only ones.

  5. Robert DAVIS says:

    Hey, Mike. Thanks for the price correction. I've updated the article.

    My daughter isn't old enough to watch TV, yet — and who knows what will be available in a couple of years when she is — but I'm glad to hear that the Apple TV is flexible enough for your family. Bodes well.

  6. This is utterly useful information, Rob — clearly a huge amount of work for you to write up. From someone who just can't keep up with the latest technological developments but wish I could, my deepest thanks!

  7. Oh, I meant to ask: "Plus, this feature doesn't easily work on a Mac" is a tantalizing phrase. I thought it didn't work at all?

  8. Robert DAVIS says:

    You can use something called Parallels (or a similar product called VMWare) to run Windows on a relatively new (Intel-based) Mac, and it works very well if your Mac is loaded with memory.

    Using Internet Explorer in Parallels, you actually can view the Netflix instant movies on a Mac. I've done it as a test (watched The Puffy Chair and the opening of Aguirre: The Wrath of God) and it works. I think the quality is a little lower than the Mac is capable of because of the extra layers of software required to make this work — at least that's my gut feeling — and in general I don't like to watch things this way, anyway. But in a pinch, it does work.

    This is serious geek territory and fails the mom test pretty quickly, and I certainly wouldn't purchase Parallels + Windows just for this feature.

  9. Robert DAVIS says:

    An addendum: my brother has a 700kbps DSL connection (which is lower than the 1.5 Mbps recommended by Roku) and says that he consistently sees just one dot on the quality rating that appears when you press play, out of four. He says the picture looks like a VHS tape, but the player does work. He's upgrading to 1.5Mbps — I'll let you know what he says about the video quality after the upgrade.

  10. Robert DAVIS says:

    Evidence that the landscape is constantly changing: Netflix this week added 1,000 relatively recent movies from "Starz Play," and added recent television episodes from CBS.

  11. Robert DAVIS says:

    Note that you can now play Netflix's on-demand movies with a Mac, without jumping through the hoops I mentioned above.

  12. Robert DAVIS says:

    Also... while more and more movies are available for instant play on Netflix, more of them are also time-limited, meaning they'll disappear from your queue (and no longer be available for watching) at some point in the near future — as described above.

    Almost a third of the items in my 290-item instant queue will disappear in less than a month. Bullitt, Bringing Up Baby, Mean Girls, Even Dwarves Started Small, Twentieth Century, and a number of Clint Eastwood films. Can't spot any commonality.

  13. Brian says:

    1930s screwball comedies by Howard Hawks, action films set in San Francisco (presuming the Eastwood films are Dirty harry flicks here) and, uh, utter destruction of the social order? (must confess I haven't actually watched Mean Girls)

  14. Robert DAVIS says:

    Actually, the Eastwood films are A Perfect World and Pink Cadillac, but I haven't mustered the enthusiasm to watch them, just yet — even "instantly" — so I can't say where they take place.

    There's probably some business thread that links the films. "Destruction of the social order" fits another one that I watched just before it was yanked from my fingertips: Gone in 60 Seconds (1974). Maybe Netflix recognizes that we can only take so much.

  15. Darren says:

    Rob, have you played with Boxee?

    http://www.boxee.tv/

  16. davis says:

    No, I've been a little wary of installing Apple TV hacks, although it sounds fairly easy to undo. It certainly would make Hulu, etc, more interesting, though, since I'd be able to watch them on my TV. Maybe I'll give it a try.

  17. Robert DAVIS says:

    BTW, here's the hack I was referring to.

  18. James says:

    I'm not sure if anyone is interested, but I found a way to watch Netflix on my AppleTV. I use a third party app as a proxy, but it works pretty well. I blogged how I did it here: http://blog.climers.com/post/2009/01/21/A-Solution-for-Streaming-NetFlix-on-the-AppleTV.aspx

  19. Robert DAVIS says:

    Thanks for the idea, James. That's a clever solution for people who have a PC sitting around.

    Since Darren asked, I've installed Boxee on my Apple TV, and I don't think I'll be using it with any regularity. It's definitely a hack, and I think the user interface is pretty bad, but if I were a Hulu viewer, I'd probably be glad to have a way to get that stuff on my TV. (By the way, it looks exactly like the desktop app, minus the Netflix options, so you can download it to see what it looks like).

    Comparing 30 Rock available through Hulu on Boxee with the episodes I buy through iTunes, the latter is much better. The quality is higher (Apple offers the option of HD episodes), it has no commercials, the video isn't streamed, and iTunes keeps track of what I've seen, shows me what's new, and keeps track of everything in one place. But, of course, you have to pay for it.

    I do wish Apple would add native support for Hulu and Netflix, but for me, right now, there's not enough reason for me to go through the slow step of switching into Boxee mode for those features. Even if it supported Netflix, I could switch to my Roku box much faster. However, Boxee is clearly an interesting option for people looking for free video.

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