What’s the Best Netflix Player?

February 2, 2011
By

Read Finding the Best Netflix player  for the most up-to-date recommendations and news about Netflix devices.

A good friend of mine said he thought I owned every set-top box on the market. Well, maybe there’s one or two that the Hub doesn’t own. Given that most of these boxes have a Netflix client on them, the Hub wondered which offered the best Netflix experience? Web searching revealed the last extensive Netflix player shootout/review was in mid-2009. Then, the Hub spent many hours watching movies and TV shows to find the best Netflix player. So, without further adieu, here are the players we looked at and what we learned:

Shootout at Netflix Castle
  • Apple TV Gen 2
  • PlayStation 3 Slim
  • Roku XDS
  • TiVo Series3 (same Netflix client on the TiVo Premier)
  • Wii
Yes, I know the Wii is the only standard-definition box in the group, but, given that over forty million have been sold in the Americas, it’s hard to ignore it.

We compared several aspects of the Netflix clients on these boxes: Navigation, Search, Title Interface, In Show Navigation and Remotes, Video and Sound Quality and Performance.

Navigation

With the exception of TiVo, each platform gives you the ability to browse the Netflix catalog. All of the platforms let you view your Instant Queue, which you can manage from the Netflix website. Both Apple TV and the PS3 start with high-level categories that you let interact with Netflix’s library:

Apple TV's Opening Netflix Screen
Apple TV’s opening Netflix screen
PS3 opening Netflix screen
PS3′s opening Netflix screen


After selecting one of the high-level menus on either Apple TV or the PS3, you are presented with a browsable grid of movie and TV titles. Apple TV does the best job here taking advantage of the available screen real estate by showing a 7 x 2 grid with glimpses of titles to the right and bottom. PS3 opts for a smaller 5 x 2 grid despite its 1080p output.

Browsing Netflix titles on Apple TV
Browsing titles on Apple TV
Browsing Netflix titles on the PS3
Browsing titles on the PS3

The Roku and the Wii take a different approach. They start one level down with a list of categories through which you can scroll up and down through (Instant Queue, Recommendations, etc.). As you move over a selected title, a pop up with a brief description is displayed. While it’s inventive, I personally found it annoying as it took up too much of the screen. Like the PS3, the Roku shows ten titles at a time. The Wii only shows five. Of the bunch, the Roku’s interface is the most puzzling. Despite the fact that it can display in HD, the Netflix app makes poor use of screen real estate. The one thing I do like about the Roku’s interface is that it displays how many titles in the row you are browsing. The Wii lets you see all the high-level categories available by clicking the “browse” button.

Netflix on the Roku
Roku: Use the space better!
Netflix on Wii
Wii: Notice the “search” and “browse” buttons on top

Winner:  Apple TV given its effective menu organization and the way that it displays many titles on the screen at once.

Search
Most of the boxes have similar search functionality. The exception here is TiVo, which has a unified search function that looks across all sources, including its own program guide, Amazon Video on Demand and Netflix. Choosing a show will drop you into TiVo’s Netflix client with that particular show ready to watch. The search function on the series3 can be found under “Music, Photos and Showcases”.

TiVo Search on the Series3
TiVo’s Beta search on the Series3
The other Netflix boxes pop an on-screen keyboard that lets you type the name of a show after which search results are displayed. Apple TV has the most polished looking results, with thumbnails of the shows being displayed next to the names. TiVo would win this category if only it enabled search within the Netflix client.
Winner:  Apple TV  Honorable Mention:  TiVo
Apple TV's Netflix search
Apple TV’s Search
Netflix Search on the Roku
Search on the Roku
Title Interface
Now you’ve found what you want to watch. Selecting a show or movie brings up a screen with its detailed information about your program. Apple TV and PS3 lead the pack with the most robust list of movie stats. With the TiVo, you have to press the “Info” button to see the full list of credits. All of the platforms let you give a star rating to the program, remove it from your instant queue and play it either from the beginning or where you left off last. Apple TV does the best job of utilizing the screen by adding a banner of similar titles at the bottom. In addition, clicking the “more” button on Apple TV brings you to a list of actors and other programs they were in as well as a list of categories.

Winner:Apple TV. Apple has done the best job here of displaying the most information, making the best use of screen real estate and connecting a particular title to others in the Netflix library

Roku has a basic interface
Apple TV makes the best use of an HD screen
Apple TV makes the best use of an HD screen
Wii
PS3 displays a rich set of info on the Netflix title screen
PS3 displays a rich set of info on the title
TiVo only has the basics
TiVo only has the basics
Apple TV's Netflix list of actors and categories
Apple TV’s list of actors and categories
In-Show Navigation and Remotes

Sony, TiVo, Wii, Roku and Apple Remotes
Sony, TiVo, Wii, Roku and Apple Remotes

All of the boxes here offer the ability to pause, fast forward and rewind a show. Fast forwarding is not as important in the commercial-free world of Netflix as it is when viewing recorded programs on the TiVo. However, it’s nice that TiVo uses the same controls both in and out of the Netflix client. While all of the products here have good remotes, TiVo, with its ergonomically pleasing peanut shaped remote, has the best one. The Wii uses its motion controller that lets you quickly jump around a program. All of the other boxes offer a variety of ways to fast forward and rewind at three different speeds.

The remote that comes with the Roku XD and XDS is nicer than the entry level Roku HD since it has a button that skips back three seconds (“instant replay”).
If you have the PS3 and you are going to watch Blu-rays and Netflix, it’s worth it to invest in the Blu-ray remote. Yes, the PS3 game controller will work fine but it won’t be intuitive to most folks. The Blu-ray remote is also much less expensive than the higher end Harmony remotes or extenders.
Apple’s remote is the smallest and most elegant looking of the group but, by definition, it’s the easiest to lose. In addition, Apple’s Netflix client has the ability to fast forward or rewind in two-and-a-half minute increments. Alternatively, you can use the iPhone or iPad based remote app to navigate.
Winner: TiVo because of its awesome remote and consistency of experience  Honorable mention: Apple for the 2.5 minute skip and the remote app

Video and Sound Quality  

Most of the boxes tested here can stream Netflix in HD. However, the PS3′s Netflix client stands out as the only one that currently supports 1080p as opposed to the 720p Netflix output on Apple TV, Roku and TiVo. I used Star Trek VI and Food, Inc. to perform A/B testing between the boxes. It was hard to tell a difference in the picture quality between the boxes when watching Star Trek VI (this may be due to limitations of the source material). The PS3 was able to show off its superior picture quality with Food, Inc., a recent film. Netflix says that 1080p HD streaming will come to other platforms in the future, but no date has been specified.

In the world of Netflix audio, only the PS3 supports Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound (Update: Apple TV also supports Dolby Digital). All of the other platforms support two channel stereo sound, which cannot begin to complete with the richness of Dolby Digital, even when the receivers use simulated surround (Dolby PL II). The only sad thing here is that there even fewer titles are available with Dolby 5.1 than with HD. It took me awhile to find a title with surround sound and unfortunately I only found two: Food Inc. and Lethal Weapon.

Special mention in this category goes to the Wii. While it does not support HD or surround sound, it does support closed captioning. The PS3 also supports it but none of the other platforms tested currently do. While closed captioning may not be at the top of everyone’s list, it’s a shame how accessibility becomes a second thought given the rapid advance of technology.

Winner: PS3 because of 1080p, Dolby Digital 5.1 and closed caption support.

Performance

When you ready to watch Netflix, you don’t want to wait! Of the bunch, Apple seems to have put together the most responsive Netflix client. Their client only takes about six seconds to start after Apple TV boots up and almost instantly when restarting it. The PS3 and Wii clients take the longest to load each taking more than thirty seconds.

If you look at it from a cold boot, the Apple TV is still the fastest overall. After plugging it in, it takes about 30 seconds to start up. Just to start the box itself, the Wii is the fastest, at only 12, while the PS3 takes a little longer. Surprisingly, the Roku takes over 90 seconds to start from a cold boot. However, Roku recommends that you leave the box on all the time. The comprehensive stats are below:

Box and Netflix Client Start Up Times

Roku XDS
Apple TV
PS3
TiVo
Wii
Cold boot
95s
30 – 40s
15s
>2 min
12s
Warm boot or wake from sleep
N/A
5s
15s
N/A
10s
Netflix client start-up
17s
6s
32s
7s
34s
2nd time Netflix client started
5s
2s
32s
6s
30s

For most of the testing, each box was connected to high-speed ethernet to make sure wireless interference was not a factor (the exception being the Wii, which was only run wirelessly).
When we did watch HD streams over wireless, the Apple TV seemed to be the most resilient and had the best wireless performance. The Roku tended to re-buffer a little more than the Apple TV even with some repositioning.

From a footprint point of view, Apple TV takes up the least amount of space, with the Roku only being slightly larger. Even more amazing is that the Apple TV hardly consumes any power at all. It only pulls  about 2 watts!  The Roku consumes 6 watts and runs a little warm compared to Apple TV. The Wii consumes about 18 watts, the TiVo Series3 35 to 40 watts and the PS3 needs a nuclear power plant to keep it going (it uses over 180 watts!)

Winner: Apple TV given its quick start up time, small footprint and low power consumption

Conclusion

We’re going to give out two awards today:  One for overall experience and one for best picture and sound. And the winner for the best overall Netflix experience is….. Apple TV!

Apple TV MC572LL/A (2010)
Apple TV at Amazon

The Netflix client that Apple has put together is a labor of love. What’s impressive is that they have delivered the richest set of Netflix functionality while remaining consistent with the rest of the Apple TV experience. Of all of the solutions, Apple’s offers the best way to browse and search the Netflix catalog. It’s only a matter of time until Dolby Digital for Netflix comes to Apple TV. Furthermore, given the small number of Dolby Digital titles available, it doesn’t matter much today. For most HD movies in the Netflix catalog, there’s not much of a difference between Apple’s 720p picture and the PS3′s 1080p. If you don’t own a Netflix capable device, the Apple is the one to have, given its low price of $100 and all of the other things it can also do (iTunes extender, Airplay, etc…). Note, your TV needs a HDMI or DVI connector to work with Apple TV. The one thing that Apple needs to fix ASAP is the lack of closed captioning on the device. A company with Apple’s resources should be more sensitive to issues of accessibility.

Best Netflix Picture and Sound: PS3! If you are looking for the best picture and sound, the PS3 is your solution. It is the most expensive option here but it is a video game system first. While the interface is not a slick as Apple’s, it’s very functional.
PlayStation 3 160 GB
PS3 at Amazon

The Roku XDS is also a solid solution for watching NetFlix. If you don’t buy into the Apple ecosystem and would rather use alternative services such as Amazon Video On Demand, the Roku is a great choice. Also, the Roku can connect to older TVs via RCA or component cables. Alternatively, you could go for the Roku HD, which gets you into the Netflix world for just $60.

While the Wii isn’t the best solution out there, you probably own one and it is a viable Netflix player. It would be nice if the Wii could do HD. While the TiVo has an innovative approach to search, its Netflix client is dated and desperately in need of a refresh. The ability to browse the Netflix catalog should be a minimum requirement.

What’s Next
The Hub would love to review additional Netflix devices to see if anyone can unseat Apple TV. There will also be a posting in the near future on some Netflix tricks learned along the way. Stay tuned. Please feel free to add any comments on experiences you’ve had with your Netflix players. Happy streaming!

Update: A lot has happened since we did this deep dive. Netflix now offers 1080P and surround sound on a number of devices. See Finding a Netflix Player for a comprehensive list of what devices have which features. Also see Roku 2: The Best Netflix Player? and When is 1080P Netflix Coming to My Device for more information.

Read Our Other Netflix Coverage:
Best 2011 Blu-ray Player for Netflix
Netflix Tips: What’s the Bitrate Kenneth?
Netflix tips on Apple TV
PS3′s New Netflix Interface: A Step Forward or Backward?   
Netflix Tip: How to Get Surround Sound with Netflix Streaming

Tags: Apple TV, Netflix, Playstation3, PS3, Roku, Series3, Sony, TiVo

23 Responses to What’s the Best Netflix Player?

  1. Anonymous on February 4, 2011 at 10:49 am

    No Xbox 360?

  2. The Hub on February 4, 2011 at 1:04 pm

    Wait for round 2! We'll see if we can get our hands on a Xbox. It would be nice to include players from Samsung and LG as well. Any other suggestions? Thanks.

  3. Anonymous on February 4, 2011 at 2:19 pm

    Please also include a GoogleTV box.

  4. Anonymous on February 4, 2011 at 5:29 pm

    It'd be nice to also see a comparison in reliability. I'd hate to try to leave the devil I know for one with a better interface and it be less reliable.

    Rating customer service would also be helpful information.

  5. Richard Gunther on February 4, 2011 at 9:58 pm

    An often-overlooked option, Netflix on Windows Media Center (likely ignored in more homes than the penetration of any of these other devices enjoys) has a fantastic interface. It's true to Media Center's user experience, allowing you to browse or search through titles graphically, by category. And with Xbox, TiVo, and Roku scattered about the house, it's the only Netflix experience that's passed the "spousal approval" test in my home.

  6. The Hub on February 5, 2011 at 9:42 am

    Thanks Richard, I will have to check it out. The good news is that most of the Netflix players on the market work well and functional. It's great that there are so many choices out there.

    Also, I agree it would be great to add Google TV to the line up. While customer service would be a good criteria to add, reliability would be a challenging to evaluate with one unit.

  7. Anonymous on February 7, 2011 at 5:23 pm

    The PS3 app has changed since you wrote your article. PS3 I just bought last week featured a superior interface-seen in the 1st NF picture under the AppleTV, the first time I used it, then without me doing anything, it changed to another one that doesn’t have the flexibility of the first. How can I rest it to get the first UI back? I can’t find anything on the console indicating how to go back to the first. The 2nd UI really is that bad, search is gone, and with a large queue, you must now go one at a time in a straight line with only 4 dvd covers displayed and the 5th is partially obscured by the summary box.

  8. The Hub on February 7, 2011 at 8:17 pm

    Yes, the same thing happened to me the other day! From what I've read in other places, it's apparently happened to a lot of other folks as well. Sony was apparently testing three different interfaces with customers. From your description, it sounds like I received a different one than you did. Perhaps Sony had us all play musical chairs. I will do some more research and see what I find out. From what I've read there have been unconfirmed reports of folks getting the interface to switch by either signing out of netflix or reinstalling the app.

  9. The Hub on February 7, 2011 at 9:13 pm

    Strike that. I have the same interface you described. Only four and a half titles shown.

  10. SikSlayer on February 7, 2011 at 11:00 pm

    Please also try out Netflix on both the Xbox 360,. as well as Windows Media Center.

  11. Anonymous on February 8, 2011 at 11:02 pm

    Thank you for your awesome comparison full of objective info! One additional piece of info I've been looking for and can't find is: What is the minimum Mbps internet download speed one needs to do decent Netflix streaming that is not full of pauses and picture degradation? If you happen to know, please post this info.

  12. Anonymous on February 8, 2011 at 11:34 pm

    Kinda lame the Xbox 360 had streaming before the ps3 and the wii so…….

  13. The Hub on February 9, 2011 at 8:30 pm

    The offical request to Microsoft's PR folks to review a Xbox 360 has been made.

  14. The Hub on February 9, 2011 at 9:30 pm

    Bitrates: In my own experience, you need at least 1.8 MBps connection to get a good standard definition picture from Netflix. In theory you could go as low at 300K but you are going to see a lot of pixelation on a HDTV. Using the bandwidth meter on the Wii, I was able to see what a 500 Kbps picture looed like and it wasn't pretty. If you are looking to do HD (720p) you will need 3 to 4 MBps minimum. If you have the PS3 which can display Netflix at 1080 and Dolby Digital, you will probably need 6 MBps or over. I have a 15 MBps download FIOS connection and it doesn't miss a beat on PS3 and displays the best quality (x-high / HD).

    More details here:
    http://blog.netflix.com/2008/11/encoding-for-streaming.html

  15. Anonymous on February 14, 2011 at 10:48 pm

    Posting reviews that are 2 years old is bogus with the rate technology changes… wasting our time

  16. Hanson38 on March 24, 2011 at 12:51 am

    OK so I’ve discovered I could not use my Sony Blu-Ray player (BDP-S550) for Netflix, so I decided to stream to my HDTV from the PC. I was disappointed to find this only provides audio through the television.

    If I get a new Blu-Ray player, one capable of streaming Netflix, will I be able to hear the audio through my home theater system rather than the TV? Also, someone told me a while back there are converters that can be bought to enable your DVD player to stream Nexflix content?

    • The Hub on March 24, 2011 at 11:02 am

      Hanson38,

      You will be able to output the audio from your blu-ray player to your home stereo. It minimum you will be able to use the RCA 2 channel stereo outputs. To get the best audio possible, you would use HDMI or 5.1 analog outs between the blu-ray player and the receiver. If you receiver does not have HDMI, make sure the blu-ray player you buy has 5.1 or 7.1 audio outputs (like your current player) These are becoming harder and harder to find.. Recommendation to follow.

      I have not heard of any converter to make a DVD player netflix enabled. You would be better off buying a Roku or Apple TV instead.

  17. The Hub on March 24, 2011 at 11:06 am

    Hanson38,You will be able to output the audio from your blu-ray player to your home stereo. At minimum you will be able to use the RCA 2 channel stereo outputs. To get the best audio possible, you would use HDMI or 5.1 analog outs between the blu-ray player and the receiver. If your receiver does not have HDMI, make sure the blu-ray player you buy has 5.1 or 7.1 audio outputs (like your current player) These are becoming harder and harder to find. Recommendation to follow.I have not heard of any converter to make a DVD player netflix enabled. You would be better off buying a Roku or Apple TV instead.

  18. The Hub on June 7, 2011 at 5:57 pm

    Hanson38,

    You will be able to output the audio from your blu-ray player to your home stereo. It minimum you will be able to use the RCA 2 channel stereo outputs. To get the best audio possible, you would use HDMI or 5.1 analog outs between the blu-ray player and the receiver. If you receiver does not have HDMI, make sure the blu-ray player you buy has 5.1 or 7.1 audio outputs (like your current player) These are becoming harder and harder to find.. Recommendation to follow.

    I have not heard of any converter to make a DVD player netflix enabled. You would be better off buying a Roku or Apple TV instead.

  19. The Hub on June 7, 2011 at 5:57 pm

    Hanson38,

    You will be able to output the audio from your blu-ray player to your home stereo. At minimum you will be able to use the RCA 2 channel stereo outputs. To get the best audio possible, you would use HDMI or 5.1 analog outs between the blu-ray player and the receiver. If your receiver does not have HDMI, make sure the blu-ray player you buy has 5.1 or 7.1 audio outputs (like your current player) These are becoming harder and harder to find. Recommendation to follow.

    I have not heard of any converter to make a DVD player netflix enabled. You would be better off buying a Roku or Apple TV instead.

  20. Hanson38 on June 7, 2011 at 5:57 pm

    OK so I've discovered I could not use my Sony Blu-Ray player (BDP-S550) for Netflix, so I decided to stream to my HDTV from the PC. I was disappointed to find this only provides audio through the television.

    If I get a new Blu-Ray player, one capable of streaming Netflix, will I be able to hear the audio through my home theater system rather than the TV? Also, someone told me a while back there are converters that can be bought to enable your DVD player to stream Nexflix content?

  21. Lozkarol on October 5, 2011 at 12:37 pm

    Great work, Thank you.

  22. Lozkarol on October 5, 2011 at 3:02 pm

    Great work, Thank you.

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