After rolling out an iPad app back in April and repeatedly signaling its intention to carry its streaming service over to the smaller of Apple’s mobile platforms, Netflix launched the long-awaited Netflix iPhone app on Thursday. But does the iPhone really make a good pocket TV? We spent an agonizing Friday taking in King of the Hill, The Office, and The Kids in the Hall on the couch to find out.
Like the Netflix interface on just about every other device, the iPhone app prompts you to enter your username and password, then bam – you’ve clicked past the turnstile into a dream cinema. Netflix automatically builds a welcome page based on movies similar to the ones in your instant queue, in the same genre, plus recently watched films and new arrivals.
Unfortunately, some of the niche genres ran so long, they end up illegibly truncated. For instance, one read, “Romantic Comedies Featuring a Strong Fe…” Clicking on the category pulls up a header that’s even shorter, so you might not ever find out exactly what category it is you’re reading.
Besides “home,” you’ll find three other icons lining the bottom of the screen: genres, search and instant queue. Genres acts like a “browse” feature – a rarity missing from many other Netflix implementations – but it still has some major crippling that prevented us from using it much to find movies. It offers only the main Netflix categories with none of the useful subdivisions. You can click on dramas, for instance, but then you get one massive, unorganized list, rather than getting to choose among indie dramas, biographies, crime dramas, and so on. Likewise, after you choose a movie of interest, the app lacks to ability to recommend similar films, as you can online. Unless you care to sift through 300 movies to find one that interests you, you’re better off simply adding films to your instant queue from the Web.
Despite a browsing interface that lags a bit behind what you can get on the Web, Netflix managed to nail the player in its mobile app, which approaches perfection.
Even over 3G, movies loaded in a matter of seconds, and picture quality on the iPhone 4’s Retina display looks fantastic – even if it wasn’t quite pushing enough pixels to make use of the whole thing. Netflix wisely includes a button to toggle between letterbox and zoomed views, making it highly adaptable to both television and cinematic content. While the tiny scrub bar up top can make it difficult to pinpoint exact points in a two-hour film, we were extremely impressed with how quickly it picks up after lifting a finger – near instantly, as if the movie were playing off a hard drive.
While we experienced a few skips over 3G, the iPhone player seemed to cope remarkably well with cramming entire movies over the wireless airwaves. That said, it does suffer from the same problem as Netflix on many other platforms, including the Xbox: It doesn’t always pause as it buffers. We missed about 10 seconds of dialogue from one blip, then had to rewatch about a minute of an episode after rewinding, since it’s so hard to be precise with the scrub bar.
Fortunately, Wi-Fi seemed far more reliable, and while we’re not sure they’re streaming in true 720p, high-def titles like The Office looked phenomenal on the iPhone 4 screen. Given the choice between an iPhone 4 and a 32-inch CRT TV, give us the iPhone.
Few would dispute the appeal of Netflix built into a set-top box like the Roku player, or an Internet-enabled Blu-ray player, but does Netflix really belong on the small screen?
Absolutely. Because without it, playing video on the iPhone is just too damn time consuming for most people.
Sure, every generation of the iPhone has always been capable of video playback, but the process of tapping into it has always been notably un-Apple in its difficulty. Unless you choose to suckle at the Teat of Jobs by buying overpriced video directly from the iTunes Store, cramming an episode of The Office from your DVD collection into your phone previously entailed ripping, transcoding into a specific Apple-approved format, then loading it onto your phone manually via USB cable, only to delete it later when you ran out of room.
On a device with always-on connectivity, streaming makes a lot more sense. Just as Pandora, Slacker and Last.fm captured the heart of lazy music listeners on the iPhone, Netflix has tapped into a built-in audience of roving couch potatoes who just didn’t have it in them to jump through the hoops to watch video on the go. For $8.99 a month (which can buy you about two movies on iTunes), consider us besmirched with our new pocket TVs.
Free app, service only $8.99 a month
Excellent quality playback, even over 3G
Web interface still wins for picking movies
Could handle playback stutters better
Also check out our picks for the Best iPhone Apps.