I’ve used the free Netflix iPad software daily since Saturday’s iPad launch, and I can honestly say I’ve watched more content in the past three days than I did in the prior three weeks. My Netflix account ($8.99/month) gives me access to the more than 12,000 titles in its Instant Streaming library — and essentially turns my iPad into my own private movie house.
Set-up is simple and straightforward in the Netflix for iPad software. You simply install the app, open it and sign in with a Netflix account. In under a minute, I was able to log in and view the content library. With one tap of the play button, I was enjoying a movie 10 seconds later. Bear in mind — Netflix only allows six devices for playback authorization. If the iPad is a seventh device for you, you can de-authorize another device on the Netflix web site.
Playback is silky smooth over Wi-Fi as long as you have a fast Internet connection to your wireless router. My 20 Mbps FiOS pipe is probably overkill, so I also tested Netflix over 3G. No, I don’t have a 3G model of the iPad — those aren’t due out until later this month — but I do have a MiFi device with Verizon Wireless. It connects to Verizon’s EVDO mobile broadband network and shares the connection with my iPad over Wi-Fi, so it’s not a bad simulation. Video quality was still good, but not quite the same caliber. Just as it does with other devices, Netflix adapts the video quality to match your bandwidth throughput. The experience reminds me of the variable bitrate demonstrations I viewed after reading Liz’s GigaOM Pro report (sub req’d) on adaptive bitrate technology. A lower video bitrate shows occasional artifacts or other quality degradation, but I found it to be minimal.
Occasionally while on 3G the Netflix video simply stopped — but that’s likely more of a connectivity issue than anything else, so iPad 3G owners, take note. Each time this happened, I simply hit the Play button again. I had planned to warn iPad 3G owners about their bandwidth consumption since video streaming can gobble up bits and bytes quite quickly. However, subscribers to AT&T’s $29.99 3G service for iPad aren’t capped at 5 GB as I originally thought. GearLog confirmed with the carrier that the plan is unlimited, so no worries unless you opt for the $14.99/250 MB plan. I wouldn’t recommend the lesser plan if you expect to watch Netflix — enjoying one video leads to another, which leads to another, and so on until your 250 MB tank is empty.
Like other media, Netflix video content is viewable in either portrait or landscape on the iPad; simply rotate the device to change the view. Like most other video, you’ll see black bars above and below the content because the iPad display isn’t a 16:9 widescreen ratio. Just as with iTunes content, you can zoom the picture with one tap. Zooming removes the bars as content fills the display, but the left and right edges of the picture are cut off.
There aren’t many playback controls to get in the way of the viewing experience. A simple panel allows for a 30-second instant rewind, playing or pausing, skipping to the end of a movie and adjusting the volume. For fast video scrubbing or movement, simply drag a finger along the progress bar atop the screen. Easy and effective. One minor complaint: Tapping the right-most button brings up the Netflix library while video continues to play. I see no easy way to return to the video without re-selecting it in the library.
The simplicity and overall quality of the Netflix application combined with the iPad’s connectivity and display make for an outstanding team. Some are mulling the use cases for Apple’s latest creation, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s excellent for content consumption. Netflix streaming with the device only emphasizes that point. The experience is at least as good as that of streaming video on a notebook computer, perhaps more so because there are no distractions on the device. Holding the iPad while watching video can be a drag, though. That’s not reflective of the software, but you may want a dock or stand-up case for your device.
For those with a Netflix subscription, I’d say this just might be the “killer app” for you and your iPad. And if you don’t use Netflix now, the iPad app could change your mind.