Comparing the Netflix® capabilities of different components
Why streaming video?
It wasn't long ago when "video on demand" described the act of plunking down your money at the theater box office, or just turning your TV on at the appointed hour. Technology, particularly the Internet, now makes it possible to watch a film or TV program whenever, and almost wherever you like. We tested some gear in the Crutchfield Labs — an HDTV, a Blu-ray player, Apple TV®, and a tablet — to find out more about their capabilities and ease of use for Netflix streaming.
There are many different services that offer a tremendous amount of content, some free, others à la carte and some by subscription. Netflix offers unlimited streaming for $7.99 a month and is one of the most popular services available. They offer movies, concerts, entire seasons of TV programs, and are also moving towards delivering original content as well (Arrested Development in association with Fox). Having said this, it is entirely worthwhile to explore their many competitors including but not limited to: huluPlus™, iTunes®, Blockbuster®, Vudu™, YouTube™ and Sony Entertainment Network®. In addition to these, many television networks offer streaming of their shows online free of charge, though they sometimes come with limited commercial interruptions.
The gear and what we were looking for
A lot of consumer electronics sold today have the capability to stream video. Our Crutchfield Lab review cut across four product categories. What we were looking for specifically was the quality of the image and audio for Netflix streaming. We were also concerned about the ease of use of the interface, which can vary from one product to another.
It should be noted that Crutchfield Labs used an 802.11n wireless router for Internet connections in these tests. We recommend that you use an "n"-type router with your home broadband network for any wireless video streaming. Anything slower and it's likely that you'll experience delays that will make your viewing experience less pleasant. Of course, you can also use a wired Ethernet connection with most of the gear below.
|Samsung UN46D7000 HDTV||
|Apple TV® set-top box||
|Sony BDP-S580 Blu-ray player||
|Samsung Galaxy Tab™ 10.1 tablet computer||
This 46" TV is LED backlit and 3D-ready (remember, you'll need special glasses for that). Best of all, the UN46D7000 is one of Samsung's Smart TVs. This model comes loaded with a full Internet browser, in addition to a ton of apps, including Netflix. (Note: We used the Samsung UN46D7000 in our test, but this TV is no longer available. We recommend the UN46ES6100 as a replacement.)
Getting to Netflix is fairly simple. One click of the "Smart" button on the remote control and all of your apps appear on the screen. Navigate with the arrows on the remote to get to Netflix and select. Like all of these Netflix devices, your initial setup will require that you enter your Netflix account information. Then you will need to go to the Netflix website to enter the code provided on the TV screen. Once you've activated the Netflix app, you can begin adding to your instant queue. You'll see movies and programs listed by category, in addition to recently added content. As your queue grows, you'll also see more and more titles recommended for you, based on your preferences.
Searching for new movies on the Samsung TV was fairly simple. Once in the Netflix app, you'll go to the "Search" feature and you'll see an alpha-numeric on-screen pad that lets you navigate using arrows on the remote to move the cursor and select characters. As you start entering you'll see titles that match what you've entered so far. Samsung includes a voucher for a free, handheld, QWERTY keyboard remote. We had to search the old fashioned way, but it's easy to see how the keyboard could make life even simpler, especially if you intend to use the TV's full web browser.
Image quality on the UN46D7000 is also excellent and we experienced smooth streaming throughout our test. This television comes with a built-in Wi-Fi® receiver, so no additional eqipment was required to connect it to our network. For those lucky enough to have an Ethernet port close to their TV, you can plug right into the back of the set.
To-date, no television we've tested delivers Netflix streaming audio in Dolby® Digital 5.1, including this Samsung. You can use your home theater receiver to take advantage of the optical audio output for better sound quality, but it won't provide multi-channel audio. It should also be noted that Netflix does not offer Dolby Digital surround for all of its streaming movies. You need to look for the "multi-channel '5.1' logo" when considering adding the film to your queue. We used Black Hawk Down, which Netflix streams in Dolby Digital.
The Apple TV box is an immediate stand-out as the only device in this test that passed multi-channel Dolby Digital from Netflix to a home theater receiver. This requires that you connect an HDMI cable from your Apple TV to a your receiver.
The Netflix app is one of many on Apple TV. Once on the main menu, you will need to scroll on over to the "Internet" drop-down column to find it listed. Once you've selected Netflix, you will see your queue and search options. As with all equipment reviewed here, you will need to activate Netflix online initially. Your queue and all of the other lists will appear as a flowing line of virtual movie posters with title and artwork showing. You can select any title to play. The search function also shows a grey, alpha-numeric box, just like the preceding TV. Again, you'll begin to see lists of titles that match your initial entry of characters. With a free downloadable app, you can use your iPod touch® or iPhone® as a convenient remote control for Apple TV and much more.
If you have iTunes® on a networked computer you can get to your music and video library easily. You can also use Apple's AirPlay® to stream music wirelessly from your iPod® , iPhone, iPod touch or iPad®. AirPlay gives you full access to your iTunes music library via Apple TV (and a growing number of devices).
Video streaming quality from Apple TV is excellent and fast. We experienced HD picture quality with no streaming or buffer delays, or any apparent degredation of picture quality. As we mentioned earlier, this is one of the few devices on the market at this time that can provide multi-channel Dolby Digital when attached to a compatible home theater receiver.
On the network side of things, Apple TV has built-in Wi-Fi as well as wired Ethernet capability. This offers the user great flexibility for connecting to broadband. The Apple TV box comes with a simple, slim remote control that feels light and easy on the hand. Big buttons allow for easy operation, especially for the most nearsighted and ham-fisted among us. So if your iPod isn't handy, the remote that comes with your Apple TV certainly is.
This Sony Blu-ray player delivers an awesome picture, whether you're watching a 3D Blu-ray, DVD or streaming video from Netflix. (You can read a full review of this player by Stacey Batten, who is part of our Product Research crew.)
The Netflix app is just one of many that's offered by this Sony. You can use the included remote control to access Netflix, and again, initial use requires registration and account information. A simple click of the "Home" button gets the ball rolling. The BDP-S580 will show you a list of movies in your queue, similar to what we've seen previously. The "Search" function, however, is a bit of a trick to find. You will actually have to click on the "Options" button on the remote. Instead of the grey alpha-numeric pad, the Sony graphic user interface resembles a cell phone keypad. There is good news, however, if you have a smartphone or any iPod with Wi-Fi capability. You can download a free app to your phone that will have you setting the remote aside for the friendlier function and visual appeal.
The BDP-S580 sends a clean, smooth-flowing video signal to your television, including HD (when available via Netflix). We experienced no delays or signal degredation throughout the test. This Sony Blu-ray player also has both built-in Wi-Fi as well as an Ethernet port for flexible connections to your broadband network. Crutchfield Labs has yet to test a Blu-ray player yet that will pass multi-channel Dolby Digital, even with videos that Netflix identifies as available in 5.1 surround. The best sound available for Netflix streaming will be through two-channel PCM.
Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1
Unlike the preceding equipment, the Galaxy Tab will not show movies, Netlix or otherwise, on your TV. But then again, nothing else reviewed here will let you watch a movie while waiting on a late plane or a plain latte. The Galaxy Tab has built-in Wi-Fi so you can access any friendly network while you're out and about. Nowadays, there's a lot of that going on, and its portability and outstanding image quality are what make the Galaxy Tab shine.
Netflix is not just one of a couple of hundred apps available on the Galaxy Tab — it's one of a couple of hundred thousand apps available. But it is the one that got our attention for this review. To use these apps, you will need to visit the Android™ app store. You will need to create a free Google account if you don't already have one, even if you want to get free apps. As a first-time Android user, I learned that in order to have your Google account recognize that you have an Android device, you need to actually use that device to download the app while logged in to the Google account. So, don't just use the web browser on the Galaxy Tab to go to Netflix. Use the icon for "Market" on the home screen. If you do otherwise, you may get frustrated.
Once Netflix is loaded onto the Galaxy Tab, you will see your queue and have an opportunity to search using the QWERTY touch-screen keyboard. This is a great interface, and much simpler than having to use a remote to enter search text in a way that could wear your thumbs to nubbins. The Galaxy tab has a high-def screen that can be turned vertically or horizontally. You can use the built-in speakers or your favorite headphones.
Streaming quality was smooth and flawless with the Galaxy Tab on both the audio and video side. Since there is no output for either audio or video, Dolby Digital is a no-go. On the big-plus side, the Galaxy Tab will fit in your purse, backpack or attaché. It will also go for about 10 hours between charges.
The gear we reviewed did a great job displaying a high-definition picture and delivering excellent sound quality. Like all streaming services, what's available on Netflix continues to change. Netflix is just one of many video streaming services available and the gear reviewed for this article is a small portion of what's available. To find out more, check out our chart about streaming video services.