Netflix ditches Webkit to roll out slick new UI for smart TVs, Roku boxes and game consoles

Netflix Screenshot

Netflix rolled out a big revamp of its user interface for smart TVs and connected devices Tuesday night, moving away from a grid of box shot covers towards a much more visual interface that features large still images and more details on each show or movie.

The new UI will be available on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4 as well as Roku 3 devices and newer smart TVs and Blu-ray players (2013 and 2014 models) to Netflix members worldwide in the next two weeks. Other devices, including some older Roku players, will receive the update over the coming months. There are no plans to bring the new UI to Apple TV and Xbox One.

Netflix Screenshot

One of the aspects that Netflix has refined is search. The new app auto-suggests titles after users type as little as a single letter, and also allows to search for actors and directors across Netflix’s catalog. Also improved is the initial loading when users start to play a title. Gone is the red splash screen. Instead, the app switches straight from the menu into the stream.

This new UI is Netflix’s biggest revamp of its TV interface thus far, in part because of a lot of the underlying plumbing. Previously, Netflix was building its TV app user interface in HTML5, which allowed the company to quickly iterate on minor changes and A/B-test various features with a subset of its subscribers.

But in order to make HTML5 work, Netflix actually shipped a stripped-down version of the Webkit browser as part of its app, which in turn meant that it had fewer resources left to add features. The result was that it had to tweak its app for each platform, and leave out some features on cheaper and less powerful devices — which is why Roku boxes for example never had access to individual profiles.

With the new UI, all of this changes. Netflix decided to ditch Webkit as a rendering engine and instead build a native platform for the most common connected device chipsets out there, circumventing the various smart TV SDKs in the process. The company even decided to develop its own voice recognition technology to make voice input consistent across platforms, and not have the Xbox implementation differ from implementations on smart TVs that come with support for voice input.

Netflix started working on this new platform 18 months ago, and secretly tested it in people’s living rooms for months: The company started migrating PS3 users away from Webkit and to the new architecture with an update in the spring — but it’s unlikely anyone noticed, because the Netflix team rebuilt the old UI on top of the new platform. In addition, it tested the new user interface with several hundred thousand new subscribers on the PS3.

Netflix has traditionally tested some of its more advanced features on the PS3 first. But with the new platform, it will now bring feature-parity to all devices, and for example allow Roku users to finally use profiles and autoplay to quickly fire up a new TV show episode after ending another.

Here’s a video of the new user interface:

This post was updated at 10:52 to clarify which devices are going to receive the update, and when.

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