The Most Elegant Netflix Ever

By Sam Machkovech April 13, 2010

Until someone releases a toaster that streams movies, I can't really say Netflix works on every gizmo on the planet. But it sure feels that way.

Yesterday, the long list of TiVos, Blu-ray players, and other Netflix-compatible stuff got one longer with the addition of the Nintendo Wii. And even though it's far from the first Netflix-streaming device out there, it's probably the most interesting. The Wii isn't an HD device, maxing out at the old 480p screen standard. It's the only TV device whose remote can point at the screen and flip through thousands of movie selections. And the Wii, with millions sold, seems more likely to tap into Netflix's huge, casual audience than any other gizmo—perhaps even rivaling TiVo's numbers.

Sounds like something worth testing, but I don't have a Netflix account, so I stole Erica's info to test it. (Sorry about all the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes in your instant queue.) If you're a member, you can start using your Wii to watch movies almost immediately at no extra charge. Go to your Netflix account page, tell 'em you own a Wii, and they'll ship you a "streaming disc" that loads your account on your TV.

Unlike the Xbox 360 or even the Roku player, which require a lot of button taps to find what you're looking for, Netflix On Wii is as simple as pointing at the screen. Flip through dozens of movies with a wrist flick. Hop from episode to episode within a full-season list of TV shows by aiming. When you want to skip chapters or scenes, use the Wii remote to pick from a series of chapter snapshot photos. This is the most elegant Netflix I've ever used.

What about performance? If your HDTV measures 37" or less, you'll probably be fine. Last night, I streamed 30 Rock on my 32" screen from 8-10 pm, when I assume Netflix usage is at its peak. After a six-second loading period, I didn't see (or hear) any stutters, pauses, or visual glitches. Everything looked as crisp as a DVD—even when I walked up to the screen to examine closely.

However, a movie with a colorful beach scene didn't fare as well. I saw more "artifacts" (visible pixelation and noise), because Netflix On Wii doesn't handle high-contrast scenes as well as the muted tones of a typical TV show. It wasn't enough to ruin the film, but bigger HDTVs won't take kindly to Netflix on Wii.

To be fair, even on Xbox 360, Netflix doesn't have a lot of HD support in its selection of streaming movies (though that may change in the next year or two), and it's fair to assume that Wii owners likely lack either super-fast Internet or super-huge TVs, if not both. This will likely be most users' first taste of streaming Netflix on anything other than their computer, and judging from my first impression, they're going to be blown away.

One small downside: Netflix On Wii—as with all their other streaming services—doesn't let you type in searches on your TV. You can scroll through popular listings, but for niche searches, you'll have to load an "instant queue" on your web browser instead. Ugh. The Wii has an on-screen keyboard feature; why not let people use it?
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