First Experience: Netflix on Tivo HD

Yesterday my HD Tivo received the fall update which includes support for Netflix video on demand. I have to say that it is really well done from the user experience to the quality of the video itself. For a detailed description of how it works, what I thought of the quality, and a few of my suggestions please read on.

Tivo has been adding internet based capabilities to their products recently. They’ve got the swivel search, pictures from picassa, video rentals, and even ordering domino’s pizza. Tieing your accounts together between the Tivo and the other service is the first hurdle. Some of the services, such as picassa, require you to repeatedly type your login and password using the Tivo remote control to get in to the service. Doing that once is down right aggravating, doing it multiple times makes the service almost unusable. Netflix/Tivo solved this in a nice manner. When you activate the service is gives you a short code and tells you to connect to Netflix.com/activate. Then you use your normal login to the website and enter the code, and the service is activated. Once that’s done there’s no need to do it again. That was very nicely done.

Netflix has an interesting collection of videos available for instant viewing. The Starz collection has a lot of somewhat older movies. There were a number of old favorites that I’m looking forward to sharing with my significant other. They also have a good collection of recent and older TV shows. Once you find programs you’re interested in you can add them to view instantly queue.  The movies/TV in that queue then become available on to watch instantly on your Tivo.

The Tivo displays the watch instantly queue in order. So you’re top movie in the queue shows up first on the Tivo. The Tivo displays the same summary information and picture that Netflix shows on their website and has menu choices to start playing. If you stop a movie and come back to it later menu choices to resume playing and start from the beginning are available, which is a nice feature. You also have an option to remove the movie from your watch instantly queue. For content which is actually multiple shows (like a TV show disc) the Tivo displays a folder with the shows in it.

Once you decide to start a movie it spends a brief period downloading. This is only a few seconds. During this time it also shows you the quality of the program being downloaded. The quality is changed to match the download speed of your internet connection. Since I have fibre networking to the house, I expect I should always be getting the best quality available. It appears that Netflix has HD and non HD content. That’s indicated by an HD logo when the show first starts downloading. There is also a bar graph that shows 1 to 10 bars for quality.

Fast forward and rewind work similar to the Tivo. There are three different speeds you get by repeatedly pressing the buttons. Playing the image during fast forward and rewind is rather tricky in a streaming application. Netflix/Tivo have decided to show you a smaller inset image that updates about once a second during fast forward or rewind. It gives you a rough idea where you are in the movie. You also have a time bar similar that shows you how long the movie is and where you are in the content.

On a more technical level, there was a clear difference between the quality of the HD and non-HD content. I added Pirates of the Caribbean: At Worlds End to my watch instantly queue. When I started it, that showed up as an SD program and 9 out of 10 quality bars. I also wanted to compare that with some HD content, so I found the HD section on the Netflix website and added Heroes: Season 3. That shows as HD content with all 10 quality bars. From looking at a collection of movies and TV I added to my queue, it appears that 10 bars means HD, and that many of the movies aren’t encoded at that quality so I get 9 out of 10 bars instead. I examined the quality of several other movies as well. There is a blog post by Neil Hunt of Netflix describing their encoding.

The quality difference between 9 and 10 bars is substantial. 9 bars seems below modern DVD quality, and the compression artefacts are fairly obvious if you look for them. With that said, opinions vary, so a little perspective might help. I work in the film business in Hollywood and my company makes a product that is used to do quality control on uncompressed digital studio masters. I’m used to looking at the highest quality content available. Therefore I think I’m among the more picky viewers. The HD content looked very good. Although I could pick out the compression artefacts, the general viewer would be hard pressed to find them. According to Neil’s post the HD content is 720p. It’s encoded in SMPTE VC1 Advanced Profile at up to 3.7Mb/s. The SD content is the same encoding at up to 1.5Mb/s.

Overall I think this is a great implementation of video on demand. I’ve already added a number of programs to my instant watch queue. It’s great to be able to watch something right away without sending back a disc, and waiting a couple days. Of course, I’ve got a few suggestions for improvement. My first request is, of course, to get more content encoded for HD. The quality difference is dramatic. My second, is that it would be great to have a browsing capability for the entire library of instantly available content. The instant watch queue is great and I wouldn’t do away with it, but it would be nice to not have to go to a web browser to add shows to the queue. Finally, a much smaller nit, but I’d like to see the fast forward and rewind images update more than once a second. If you fast forward at any speed, that’s not often enough to get a decent sense of where you are in the content.

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