By August 20, 2005

Netflix: 17-month Review

I joined Netflix last April mostly to see what the squawk was all about, but also to start building up my video collection and play around with DVD archiving. Plus I had missed out on a bunch of movies in the theater when I lived in Oregon; mostly because I didn’t want to go alone.

At any rate, here are some thoughts as a Netflix customer, 16 months later.

Intro to Netflix
Netflix is a mail-based DVD rental service. At the time I joined, Netflix was going through some rate shifting plans. My plan went up in cost, then back down in cost. You can select (as of 8/2005) from 1 movie at a time ($9.99 a month) to 8 at a time ($47.99 a month). I am on the three at a time plan, which for $17.99 a month allows me to have three movies checked out from Netflix’s library at any given time. Billing occurs automagically at the end of the month until you cancel. I can keep them as long as I want — well, I guess within reason, I normally don’t keep them for very long. Netflix provides a pre-paid shipping envelope, you just put the DVD back in the envelope and drop it in the mail.

Netflix has several distribution centers in the United States. When I lived in Maryland, the distribution center was about two blocks away from where I lived and worked. Apparently one of my ex-co-workers tried to go there in person to return his movies and get new ones but they turned him away. Pity, as that would not only be faster, but cut down on the cost of sending and returning the DVDs.

You get movies from Netflix by going to their Web site and adding movies to your Queue. You can find movies by browsing by genre or by searching by the name of the movie, actor, or director. After you have rented a few movies, Netflix begins suggesting movies for you, although I have never rented a movie this way.

Netflix will send you the top x number of movies in your queue. For the sake of my sanity, we’ll just use my account type as the example for the rest of the review. So in my case, Netflix will pluck the top three items in my queue and mail them to me. There is one exception — if the movie is checked out by too many people. In that event, Netflix will choose the next movie down in your queue.

Intro to Reality
OK, so now that we’ve gone over how Netflix works in principle, let’s go over how Netflix has worked in my experience.

I admit, I’ve checked out a lot of movies from Netflix. In seventeen months I’ve checked out 239 movies, for an average of 14 DVDs a month. The way that Netflix works, as hypothesized in Michael S. Muegel’s Netflix rental test conducted in 2003, is that Netflix will throttle your account based on how many movies you check out and return per month. Or in other terms, the less Netflix earns from you per rental, the longer it will take you to get new movies. The benchmark Michael came up with after some other help was $3.63 per rental. Meaning, if you have a $19.99 per month account like I do, you can rent up to 5 movies per month without seeing a return rate slow down. Last month I rented 8, so I was subject to throttling.

My experience: the first month of Netflix, especially during the trial period, was dreamy. I would mail DVDs back and get new ones the next day. That means that I mailed them in the morning, they were processed and returned to me by the next business day. Monday to Tuesday. As soon as I broke the magic $3.63 per rental margin for Netflix, my return rate slowed down. To this day, it still takes three to four business days to process my returns and receive new movies. So instead of Monday to Tuesday, I’m looking at Monday to Wednesday or Thursday. Nothing to stroke out about, but it’s a huge difference between the golden-child period during the first month.

Broken discs, broken dreams
Besides the throttling, which I can understand even if I am affected by it, the biggest beef I have with Netflix is that they don’t screen their discs well enough. I’ve gotten a LOT of broken/unplayable discs, including a disc that was nearly snapped in half. Most of them, especially movies that are very popular, are scratched and/or have gouges in them. I’ve returned 4 out of 30 movies within the last 90 days, or 13% of my rentals. I’ve seen some silly shit, and at one point I started writing nasty messages on the return sleeve. As best as I can tell, Netflix doesn’t check their discs at all — they rely on customers to complain about their discs and then junk the bad ones. According to my lifetime rental stats with Netflix, I’ve only returned 13 bad discs, but that seems a bit low in my mind. Even then 5% of my total rentals have been bad.

To Netflix’s credit, they do a decent job of making the return process easy and efficient. You go to your “checked out” queue and fill out a very short Web form about your problem. Netflix immediately sends out a replacement. Interestingly enough, these replacement discs make it to my house in … you guessed it … one business day. I wonder how long you could accelerate your queue by claiming that all/most of your discs were damaged.

Plenty of movies — if you like the mainstream
While there haven’t been many (how many, I can’t recall, less than three or four) movies that I’ve wanted from Netflix, a lot of my movie choices are pretty mainstream. Like I said earlier, a lot of my rentals come from missing films on the big screen. The first year or so of my sub was filled with movies like “Road to Perdition” and “Black Hawk Down.” As my rentals have matured and I’ve seen the movies I knew I wanted to see, I’ve been moving more over to recommendations from friends, and browsing movies by genre. I got on a Japanese action/horror kick after renting “Ichi the Killer,” stuffing in a dozen or so movies like “Versus. Netflix seems to have plenty of the movies I’m interested in, but I don’t really rent a lot of international or anime films, so I can’t comment on smaller-run films.

A nifty Web site, when it’s healthy
The netflix.com Web site has some really cool features, like the “quick summary” that appears when you mouse over a movie thumbnail. Like this:

The Web site also has a really neat, and relatively new, drag and drop interface for the queue when you add new movies. The queue page, where you might spend a fair amount of time, is easy to navigate and understand. The queue automatically renumbers itself, which sounds like a small issue but is a really big deal when you have 50+ movies in your queue. The queue page has a few shortcomings, however, not the least of which being that you can’t sort the columns at all. They are hardsorted by location in your queue. It would be nice to be able to sort by rating, availability, title, etc. Even mo’ bettah would be to sort by metadata, such as by director name or actor name, although I understand this would be difficult.

The big problem with Netflix is that the site’s image server(s) bogs down heavily on a regular basis. The site is “slow,” to use an annoying anecdotal term, but the site consistently underperforms to the point where images time out in my Web browser and style sheets don’t render.

Is Netflix right for you?
I think that if you like movies, have a DVD player (:cough: :cough:), and don’t mind having a monthly bill, you should give Netflix a shot. You probably won’t be a power-renter like me, so the problems I have with the service may not apply to you.

Thumbs Up:

  • Very convenient for lazy fuckers like myself who hate driving to Ballbuster.
  • Big library of mainstream films.
  • Easy way to catch up on movies or TV shows that you’ve missed, like Firefly (sniffles).
  • Web site is fairly easy to use; queue allows you to fire and forget. If you don’t look at your queue opening up the movies is sorta like Christmas.
  • Descent distribution center system — but this also means that there are no real good alternatives to Netflix unless you live on the west coast.

Thumbs Down:

  • Throttling system may give you headaches and raise your per-rental rate per month.
  • Discs are not screened by Netflix as far as I can tell for defects.
  • Web site can be slow, even to the point of images timing out.

Netflix, I give thee:

Three and a half out of five STFU mugs!

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3 Comments on "Netflix: 17-month Review"

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  1. configuratrix says:

    If my sis moves in with me I’ll probably upgrade several bits of tech: may get crockpot, may get cable, may get high-speed Internet connection, may get use of their DVD player, unless it’s going with him.

  2. drfaulken says:

    Don’t make me bust out a review on my el cheap-o DVD player!!!

    Okay, fine, stop twisting my arm, I’ll write one 🙂

  3. drfaulken says:

    Whee, I can’t edit my own comments!

    Cyberhome DVD player review. Try this player if you wind up needing one.