16th Dec 2013 | 15:35
Netflix is the king of online streaming. Should you subscribe?
Netflix is the king of online streaming, using more global bandwidth than cat videos and piracy combined.
According to Sandvine, at peak times it's using 31% of America's internet bandwidth, compared to just 4% for Bittorrent.
It's becoming a big deal elsewhere too, accounting for more than 20% of Europe's downstream traffic.
That means it's bigger than everything: bigger than YouTube, bigger than The Pirate Bay, and much bigger than any other streaming video service. But does biggest mean best? Let's find out.
How much does Netflix cost?
Netflix UK costs £5.99 per month, and that's it: your cash gives you access to the entire catalogue, and there's no premium section. Once you subscribe (or try the 30-day free trial) you can watch whatever you want without extra charges.
If you plan to stream video to an Xbox 360 or Xbox One, you'll also need a Gold Xbox Live account. That isn't a Netflix thing; it's a Microsoft thing, and it applies to Netflix's rivals too.
What devices does Netflix work on?
Netflix works on pretty much everything. It streams to the PS3, PS4, Wii, Wii U, Xbox 360 and Xbox One, compatible LG, Panasonic, Philips, Samsung and Sony Blu-ray players and Smart TVs, Apple TV and set-top boxes from Philips, Roku, WD and Virgin Media, LG home theatre kit, Android (including Kindle Fires and Chromecasts), iPhone, iPad and Windows Phone. Phew.
As we've already mentioned, not all devices get the same streams: while an Xbox 360, an iPad and a PC can all expect Super HD streaming, the last-generation Apple TV and current generation of Windows Phones get 720p.
There's a full list of supported devices and the streaming they can receive on Wikipedia.
What quality does Netflix UK deliver?
The short answer is 1080p HD, which Netflix calls Super HD. The longer answer is: it depends on what you want to watch and what you want to watch it on. For example if you're using an iPad with iOS 7, you can stream at up to 1080p; if you're on a Kindle Fire, you'll get 480p.
Computers, recent consoles and recent devices get up to 1080p (if the source material was in HD to start with; don't expect ancient cartoons or TV programmes to look fantastic) provided your internet connection is up to the job. Netflix recommends 7Mbps for Super HD.
Netflix currently streams some titles in 3D in the US and is preparing to launch a 4K Ultra HD service in 2014, but at the moment it hasn't announced plans to bring either service to the UK.
What personalisation does Netflix UK offer?
You can personalise Netflix in three ways. First of all, you can create multiple accounts - handy if you want to keep the kids away from Walter White, although the profiles lack the detail of LoveFilm's parental controls.
Secondly, you can customise your Taste Profile by rating different moods - "absurd", "dark", "family-friendly" and so on - to fine-tune Netflix's recommendations.
And thirdly, you can rate things you've already watched to fine-tune the recommendations further. If you wish you can also connect to Facebook to share your viewing with your friends and see what they've been watching too.
What can I watch on Netflix UK?
Netflix made lots of people happy when it aired the final series of Breaking Bad just hours after it was broadcast in the US, and it's also commissioned series of its own including House of Cards, featuring Kevin Spacey, and the critically acclaimed Orange is the New Black. It also saved Arrested Development from oblivion.
TV is where Netflix really shines. It has Modern Family, Dexter, Sons of Anarchy, The Office (US and UK), Heroes, the BBC's various nature documentaries, The Thick Of It, The Killing (both versions), The Bridge, Battlestar Galactica… you get the idea.
It'll save you a fortune on box sets but it's worth noting that there are some key omissions, such as programmes from HBO, and some series don't include the most recent episodes: for example Netflix has series 1 and 2 of Luther but not series 3, which has been out on DVD since the summer.
Netflix is also very good for indie films and documentaries, and while the extensive collection of stand-up comedy is populated mainly by US comics you'll still see familiar faces including Al Murray, Steve Coogan, Dave Gorman, Tim Vine and Lee Nelson.
The really big hitters - Izzard, Connolly, Kay, Evans - are all absent, but you do get two series of, ahem, Michael McIntyre's Comedy Roadshow.
The kids' section is good too, with an extensive selection of Disney and Pixar movies as well as Spongebob Squarepants, Adventure Time, Johnny Bravo, Ren and Stimpy and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (the live-action one, not the more recent CGI reboot), but if you're a cartoon fan you might be better off with rival service LoveFilm, which has a deal to stream Marvel cartoons.
Like LoveFilm, Netflix operates in the post-DVD window for films: generally speaking, studios won't even consider selling their titles to streaming services until months or even years after the DVD release.
That can be frustrating. For example, if you're keen to watch the superb, ultraviolent Dredd from 2011, you can't get it on either service: you'll have to settle for the awful, Stallone-starring Judge Dredd from 1995. To make it more frustrating, this film is available on Netflix in the US.
However, while both services have to wait, it seems that Netflix has to wait longer: films such as Bridesmaids, Looper, Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2 and Rio were all on LoveFilm at the time of writing but were not available on Netflix.
Netflix's movie selection isn't bad. It just isn't quite as impressive as its TV selection.
Netflix is totally worth the money. If it had Breaking Bad and Johnny Bravo and nothing else, it'd still be worth the asking price, but when you consider the massive amount of TV series, the Disney films and the ability to watch programmes on pretty much any conceivable device, then six quid is an absolute steal.
It isn't perfect - if recent movies are your thing then your money might be better spent on LoveFilm or on pay-per-view rentals - but when it comes to streaming video Netflix remains the service to beat.
Netflix vs Lovefilm: which is best for you?