The online journal of Vermont filmmaker, Bill Simmon.

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Netflix watch-instantly service needs to cook a little longer

Posted on Dec 16, 2008 by billsimmon in Digital Culture, fail, Video | 11 Comments

[UPDATE: using Safari 3.2.1 seems to have solved my Netflix problem. I just watched Word Wars. It still won't load the whole film and it still stops loading if the tab isn't active, but the browser is better at keeping the pre-loaded movie just ahead of where I am in viewing it.]

Ever since the Netflix watch-instantly service became available for the Mac OS I’ve been browsing the movie and TV selections and watching things here and there. I’m already a Netflix subscriber so it’s sort of like free movies, but even so, I think I’m going to stay away for a while until the service improves.

Here’s the deal: when I select a movie to view, it opens a player (I had to install the Microsoft Silverlight player for my browser first) that says it’s checking my internet connection and loading the movie. Then, if I wait a few seconds before playing the film, I can watch a few minutes of the film before my progress watching the movie catches up to the pre-loaded media and I get a red screen again telling me my internet connection has “slowed.” (I know that this is not actually the case because I can test my connectivity independently.) Then I wait (sometimes a minute or even two) while a progress bar fills to 100% and then I can watch another five or ten minutes of the film before the whole thing happens again.

But unlike other in-browser video players (like YouTube), I can’t just wait for the whole thing to load before I hit “play” because it will only load the next few minutes at a time.

I’m actually typing this post while I’m waiting for Netflix to load the next chunk of Helvetica. This is as far as the loading movie will go…

I can sit here all day and it will not load more than that until I play through it and hit the point it’s loaded to. I’ve tried this at home and at work, where my net connection is very fast.

You know what’s even better? If I switch to a different Firefox tab while it’s preloading the movie, it stops loading. It only works while I have that tab open!

All of this is designed into the player. There is no technical reason why the player has to suck — they designed it that way on purpose. Why? I’m assuming because in some Microsft or Netflix lawyer’s brain, this is helping to prevent piracy somehow. That’s probably also the reason that the video quality is so teh suck — to prevent anyone from wanting to make copies and sell them.

But here’s the thing: I’m already a paid subscriber, and I don’t want to use their lame service anymore. It’s literally easier for me to pirate these movies than it is to watch them on the service I’m paying for. They’ve made it that bad.

I watch The Sarah Connor Chronicles on every week in gorgeous high definition without any hiccups. There is no need for me to resort to piracy because the player works really well right away (without an install), the picture and sound are fantastic, and the commercial breaks are filled with just one 30-second spot each (and only sometimes). The path of least resistance to The Sarah Connor Chronicles is the official, sanctioned-by-the-content-owners path. If I had to pirate the show, it would be more of a headache for me, despite avoiding the 30-second ads.

This is the lesson content providers need to absorb. Most A/V pirates are just trying to see/hear stuff they like. Give them a painless, cheap, free or ad-supported way to see/hear the content and that’s the route the fans will take to get to it. This explains iTunes’ success to a large degree. They made it REALLY EASY and IT WORKS (issues with DRM and pricing notwithstanding).

Epic fail, Netflix.



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  1. On December 16, 2008, Nathan Beaman said:

    I’ve only watched 5 or 6 movies on my laptop with netflix so far, and I haven’t had an issue at all – though I feel like it’s similar to the David lynch iPhone thing. Hard to absorbed with mediocre quality and tin cup speakers- but hey it’s a movie.

    The tab not loading thing is part of the firefox update – I don’t know why they did it but it sucks. It applies to lots of various media.

    The netflix problem could be a settings or web cache limit on your laptop….. Maybe?

  2. On December 16, 2008, billsimmon said:


    The pre-loading problem is not a Firefox issue. I just tested it with YouTube and had no problem loading a long youtube video on a tab that wasn’t active. I’ve upped my cache limit in FF but it was set at 50 MB which should be enough.

  3. On December 16, 2008, Nathan Beaman said:

    ive had the same loading issue with a variety of sites – not you tube though. Wonder what the deal is?

    Have you tried watching the netflix stuff in safari? thats what ive been using and havent had any lag issues, but then again ive only watched a small handful of movies so far. But my connection does suck and its still not lagging.

    i wish i could watch them on my apple tv – but it doesnt support silverlight yet.

    Have you checked out boxee at all yet?

  4. On December 16, 2008, Nate Orshan said:

    And then there’s the issue of the inherent image quality, which, especially for everything in the new Starz catalog, is so eye-squintingly fuzzy you may think you need a new prescription. (Though I’m on the lowest rung of the pricing tiers, so maybe they intentionally jack up the compression ratios at my service level.)

  5. On December 16, 2008, billsimmon said:


    Good points. I’ll try Safari. I also notice that a lot of the Starz movies are in 4:3 pan and scan! Perish the thought!

  6. On December 16, 2008, Katie L. said:

    Funny, I had the same problem with my first instant watch–”Jesus is Magic.” The next film I tried–”Helvetica,” as a matter of fact–worked well, though. I wonder if it really does calibrate, or whatever it is it claims it’s doing.

    BTW, Helvetica is AMAZING. And I see Helvetica EVERYWHERE now.

  7. On December 16, 2008, Neil C said:

    I’ve had remarkably few problems watching movies on Netflix site, apart from the fact that they LOOK LIKE SHIT. Like, badly recorded, blown-up YouTube shit. But y’know, complain, complain — they’re just going to put a USB port in our skulls sooner or later and I’m sure we’ll find something wrong with THAT nonsense too. Sheesh!

  8. I have been watching the Netflix online movies for a quite while. Back when I started, you could only use IE – I didn’t even know that they made it available for Firefox.

    The picture quality varies with the movie. I watched all of seasons 1-3 of Sliders and the quality was crystal clear, but pretty much everything in the Starz play menu is awful.

    We used to get the speed/loading issue a lot, but only at the end of the month. We always thought Comcast was throttling our bandwidth because we were watching movies all of the time.

    Now that we only watch movies once in a while, we never have a problem with it.

    That’s too bad that it is not working well for you because it is a nice feature.

  9. Katie L. said:
    “…BTW, Helvetica is AMAZING. And I see Helvetica EVERYWHERE now.”

    and so you should- and so you shall.

    i know you all will think me a paid shill for NFlx- but only a few times did i have problems. now i am on windows xp and i hear that can be a deal breaker still for their viewer. the only time i had problems was on comcast’s end(bottlenecks or simple asinine issues with too many people using their cable modem in my neighborhood, wtf) making it necessary to wait n cache. mostly, like 90% of time when i used it i was happy. now i gave all that up for direct download warez for my tv and movies. fuck torrents- DDL, babeez!

  10. On December 18, 2008, Nathan Beaman said:

    I definitely plan on checking out helvetica.

    Even the high quality netflix stream blows. I wish they could team up with apple somehow to use the apple tv with similar quality. The apple tv rentals look awesome, just gets expensive fast. Boxxee on Apple tv varies in quality a ton though. Some stuff looks fantastic and other stuff looks like you’re playing a YouTube video on a giant screen.

  11. Just launched: a website to help people find titles for instant watching on Netflix.

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