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Netflix overhauls Android tablet UI: hands-on video and impressions

Android tablet owners no longer have to endure using the smartphone version of Netflix on their device. Today, Netflix launched a tablet-specific version of Netflix for Android. The streaming service is now available on all Android tablets including the newly released Amazon Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet. According to the Netflix blog, the new design shows twice as many movies and TV shows as it did before. A new version will come to the iPad soon as well. 

We downloaded the new version and can confirm that it is available for the Motorola Xoom. The new design is a visual leap forward from the previous version of the app, which was not available on all Android tablets and was mostly a stretched out, bad looking version of the mobile app. Those who have used the Nintendo Wii and PlayStation 3 versions of Netflix will immediately recognize the style here, which also matches a recent update to the Netflix.com site. 

The app is pretty simple, You can swipe down to look through different categories or swipe to the side of any category to side-scroll through some titles. Clicking on a movie poster opens up a dialogue box that gives a description of the movie and allows you to add it to your queue or watch it immediately. A Browse button in the upper left of the screen lets you dive deeper into a specific genre and the search box in the upper right lets you look for specific films or TV shows. We found the navigation to be pleasant, in theory, but really jittery and laggy in practice. We ran it on a Motorola Xoom, which has pretty much the same exact specs–a 1GHz dual-core Nvidia Tegra 2 processor, 1GB of RAM–that all tablets have had this year, and it just doesn’t work well, from a navigation perspective.

Watching a video is more pleasant. We tried out a few HD shows like Mad Men and The Walking Dead and each of them came out much clearer than we’ve ever seen them display on a smartphone or tablet version of Netflix before. They looked quite crisp. A chat bubble on the right side of the screen is available while playing videos, and lets you toggle languages and subtitles. Yes, Netflix now has a few shows with subtitles, which is nice. However, there are some features missing as well. There is no way to change the aspect ratio of shows. For instance, if you are watching Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, it has black bars on the left and right because it was filmed for TV. On the Xbox 360 version of Netflix, you can adjust the aspect ratio, but the option is absent here. There is also no good way to back out of a video and return to the home page–you have to hit the Android Back button. While we’ve all been trained to use the Back button, it’s not good design for applications to rely so heavily on it. There should be navigation within an app to get to where you need to go. 

Overall, our impressions are mixed. The new version looks a lot nicer and scales video much better than the older version, but there are still some features missing and navigating the app can be a painfully slow and frustrating experience. We’re not sure what tablet Netflix was testing this on, but we don’t think it’s going to run particularly well on any tablet for sale today. Maybe Asus’s quad-core tablet can handle it better. I suppose we’ll have to find out sometime in the future.

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