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Netflix on Wii impressions

1:00 PM on 04.24.2010 // Tony Ponce

Because the Wii lacks in many areas compared to its HD brethren, it's easy to forget that it can be a capable machine when properly exploited. So when Netflix announced back in January that it was going to enable instant streaming on Wii consoles, many were wary of the service's potential.

Who can claim to have had a perfect online experience on the Wii? The shop is a chore to navigate, Friend Codes are convoluted, communication is limited, and in-game lag is a persistent headache. Whenever there is a game with good online implementation, it's overshadowed by the aforementioned concerns. What's there to assure us that this won't play host to a similar crop of issues?

Well, I just spent the last week taking the service for a test drive and can confidently say that not only does it work but also it's a viable alternative to any other Netflix-enabled device. Find out more when after the break.

Up until now, I hadn't been too pleased with my Netflix streaming experience. Over in the living room, I've got a 52" LCD hooked up to a Samsung BD-P1600 Blu-ray player with Netflix support. Unfortunately, I've had to deal with frequent Wi-Fi signal drops and severe picture degradation because my router is over in my bedroom. Since my Wii is in the same room as my router, I figured it wouldn't hurt to give the new service a try.

Here comes the full disclosure -- my bedroom TV is a 26" Samsung LCD, my connection speed is 6Mbps, and my Wii is tethered to my modem via a third-party LAN adaptor. The TV is small enough so that 480p video look fine, but I understand that larger sets may not scale DVD-quality video well enough. I tested the service using both wired and wireless Wii configurations and saw no significant performance changes, but individual results may vary.

As with Netflix on the PS3, streaming on the Wii requires a special disc that must be inserted every time. Just as there is no charge for instant streaming beyond what you pay for an unlimited plan (starting at $8.99 a month), there is no extra charge for ordering the disc. After you insert the disc, you launch Netflix from the Disc Channel as if it were any ol' Wii game.

Before you can start watching movies, there is a one-time activation code you must enter on the Netflix site from a home computer. From then on, your Instant Queue will load when launch the program. It loads fairly quickly, too! From hitting "start" on the Disc Channel, I was sorting through my stored movies in less than 20 seconds.

Navigation is expedited thanks to the Wii Remote. Just point at the screen and make a selection with the 'A' button. Advance the list by grabbing the scroll bar at the bottom or clicking the arrows. Return to previous menus by clicking the 'B' trigger. If you aren't in the mood to life your arm, you can use the intelligently assigned shortcut buttons -- left and right cycle through the queue, '+' and '-' cycle quickly, and up and down select film categories.

Speaking of categories, the biggest bonus for me going from my Blu-ray player to the Wii was the ability to add new movies to my Instant Queue on the fly. With the Blu-ray player, the only way to add new films was to do so from a computer. Here, you can browse by genre, new releases, TV shows, and so on, then watch them on the spot or save them to your queue for later viewing. I went nuts bookmarking everything that looked remotely interesting! It's like candy!

The system is not perfect by any means. It would have been nice to be able to search available titles by typing them using an on-screen keyboard as you would when browsing the Wii Shop Channel. Also, the fact that the Wii cannot output in high definition means that the film icons can often be blurry to the point of illegibility. For some films, I had to hover over the icons and read the title tag posted on the bottom of the screen because I couldn't identify them by sight. Still, these are minor inconveniences in an otherwise streamlined service.

But what really matters is the quality of the video stream. Naturally, you aren't going to get anything better than a DVD-quality feed, but I was impressed by just how clear the picture is. I sampled a few programs -- a few episodes of Arrested Development, some SNL, and the entirety of the unbelievably campy Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus. Everything looked crisp as DVDs should, which is ironic in that most 480p Wii games I've played have this smeared-in-Vaseline look about them.

I didn't notice any lag, but sometimes there were periods when the picture quality dipped momentarily. This shouldn't be alarming for anyone who has ever watched a streaming feed, but I was pleased that the change in quality wasn't punctuated by cutting the video entirely. I don't know how it works on other Netflix devices, but my Blu-ray player would stop the film without warning and take up to a minute to reload at a lower resolution.

Manipulating playback is as easy as navigating the queue. Pointing the remote on the screen will bring up a HUD where you can pause, rewind, or fast-forward -- again, all these functions are available via button shortcuts. Whenever you seek to a new spot during playback, the feed has to reload. In my case, first loading a movie took less than 15 seconds while loading after jumping to a different scene took roughly 10 seconds.

Netflix on the Wii has become my preferred streaming video center thanks to its speed and ease of use. Of course, it wasn't that hard of a sell for me considering my alternative. Is it good enough for your needs? That depends. The only thing I can truly fault the Wii service for is lack of HD, but when you consider how flaky high definition video streaming can be under anything but the most ideal conditions, it really shouldn't be a deal breaker.

The Wii already stacks up against the 360 and PS3 in other ways. The 360 service requires an Xbox LIVE Gold subscription in addition to a Netflix membership, while the PS3 service seems to be slower and of lower quality than that of the Wii. There may be other features to take into consideration, but I really can only speak for the Wii.

If you were of the mind that Netflix on Wii would be bare-bones and shoddy, consider yourself schooled.

Tony Ponce, Contributor
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