The future of video is, without question, streaming. In fact, it’s here already, with millions of us film and TV-loving Brits already happily ignoring traditional broadcast schedules to stream what we want to watch when we want to watch it. And with devices able to deliver streamed video into your home multiplying exponentially, video streaming’s sphere of influence is only set to grow.
Not surprisingly, the birth of such a potentially massive new AV marketplace has led to a wealth of competing video streaming platforms - some based on a subscription model, some based on a ‘pay per view’ model. But two services have quickly risen to the top of the streaming video pond: Netflix and Lovefilm. These two services have by far the largest subscription base, by far the largest ‘awareness’ among UK consumers, the most content, and, if all the TV ads are anything to go by, by far the biggest marketing budgets.
They also seem to hate each other’s guts, which tends to be pretty solid proof that they consider each other to be the main competition.
With this in mind, we’ve been signed up to both services for a few months in a bid to try and find out which offers its subscribers the greatest bang for their buck in terms of both the quantity and quality of their TV and movie offering.
Lovefilm gets off to an early advantage, with its ‘Instant’ streaming service costing just £4.99 a month versus £5.99 for Netflix. Both services are also at the time of writing offering a free month before your subscription kicks in.
While its price might give Lovefilm a handy bit of marketing leverage over its rival, in reality a £1 a month difference isn’t enough of a gap to be an instant deal-maker - especially if Netflix wins out in other areas.
Netflix and Lovefilm both support use through Macs and PCs, and both also have apps for Android and iOS devices. Only Netflix, though, has an app for Windows 8.
When it comes to games consoles, both Lovefilm and Netflix again have equally strong presences, turning up on the Xbox 360, PS3, Nintendo Wii, and Nintendo Wii U.
With TVs, though, while both platforms are available on Samsung, Sony and LG TVs, Panasonic’s TVs only currently support Netflix, while Toshiba and Philips are going to be adding Netflix apps in the very near future with no Lovefilm date confirmed.
We’ve pressed the TV brands that don’t currently offer a Lovefilm app as to why this is the case, but definitive answers are hard to come by. We’ve had hints to suggest that Lovefilm is over-demanding, suggestions that technically LoveFilm is more difficult to integrate into a Smart TV environment than Netflix, and implications that Netflix is just more efficient and fast reacting in its dealings with TV brands. In other words, we still don’t really have a clue what’s going on!
Whatever the truth, though, there’s no doubt that Netflix’s greater availability on Smart TVs is currently a significant advantage given how many Smart TVs are now flooding the AV market. That said, we’d be surprised if Lovefilm didn’t turn up on all Smart TV platforms too, eventually.
At first glance, you might think there’s not much to choose between the interfaces of the two big video streaming services - at least on some of their many compatible devices. Netflix maybe manages to get a few more options on screen at once, which is generally a good thing, but both feature beautifully rendered DVD cover art for each title and support per-letter searching (where the list of film options reduces with every letter you input to a search field).
Lovefilm, though, generally does a bit better where organisation is concerned, breaking its movies down into more logical categories, and also doing quite a good job of highlighting different films via regularly changed ‘theme’ sections.
Delve a little deeper, though, and Netflix clearly has the advantage where interfaces are concerned. The biggest reason for this is that Netflix tracks what you watch. So if you go to the Netflix homepage on any of your devices, it will show you what you’ve watched most recently no matter what device you watched it on, and it will also produce menus of other content you might like based on an analysis of what you’ve previously enjoyed watching.
Even better, if you go to a TV series you’ve been watching, the Netflix interface automatically starts to play the episode after the one you last watched, whereas with Lovefilm you manually have track down both the series and then the episode you want every time. Netflix even remembers exactly where you were in a particular episode or film if you had to quit part way through, and starts immediately from that point.
Netflix has also pulled conspicuously ahead of Lovefilm with its Xbox 360 interface, having recently introduced both a dedicated and self-explanatory Netflix Kids area you can choose to enter during the app’s boot-up and streamed trailers for whatever title you’ve got selected in the main app window.
Finally, while neither interface is particularly fond of forwarding or rewinding streamed content, the Netflix interface does so rather more capably and usefully than Lovefilm’s, especially if you’re using the PS3.
The combination of Lovefilm’s relative longevity in the UK and the fact that it’s now owned by retail giant Amazon has helped it leverage more local territory deals with film studios than relative newcomer Netflix. In fact, Lovefilm has almost twice as many films as Netflix - well over 3000 versus under 2000 - though oddly Netflix seems to have a slight advantage when it comes to delivering relatively new (under 12 months old) titles.
It’s crucial to add here that the amount of ‘crossover’ with film titles - as in, titles that are available on both platforms - is extremely limited. Both streaming brands work hard to bag themselves exclusive deals with the various film studios.
The content situation with TV shows is the opposite to that with films. A rough count suggests that Netflix has around 400 TV shows to its name, and seemingly not far shy of 1,000 total TV series. Lovefilm, on the other hand, has nearer 300 TV show titles, with between 500 and 600 series.
It’s not clear why the TV situation should be different to the movie one with Lovefilm and Netflix; maybe it’s just a matter of focus, with Netflix believing that TV shows are the main streaming driver while Lovefilm believes its movies. Or maybe it’s that the ‘connections’ Lovefilm has with the film industry on account of its original Blu-ray/DVD mailing business model have served it well in securing film deals for its streaming service too.
As with films, crossover between TV series over the two platforms is practically non-existent, due to the drive for exclusive deals.
Having now watched dozens and dozens of TV episodes and films via both platforms across a mixture of portal devices, our experience strongly suggests that Netflix is substantially ahead of its rival when it comes to the stability of both its infrastructure and its video streaming.
For instance, we found the Lovefilm interface considerably more prone to ‘falling over’ - especially on the PS3 - and requiring a reboot than the Netflix one. This is a big deal, in our opinion, as nothing annoys mainstream consumers more than technical problems. Especially when they’re paying a monthly subscription.
The same situation applies with bells on when it comes to the stability of the video streams. Using a UK average 6mbps broadband stream, we can count on the fingers of one hand the amount of substantial problems we’ve had with either varying video quality or stuttering and freezing with Netflix. Yet with Lovefilm over the same connection through the same devices and at the same times of day we’ve suffered far more glitches.
In fact, while using the PS3 app (the Xbox one isn’t as bad), we’ve never once been able to get all the way through a ‘High Quality’ version of a Lovefilm TV show or film without it stuttering horribly for at least some of its running time. This is despite an onscreen message clearly suggesting that High Quality feeds should be fine for anyone with more than 3mbps of broadband speed.
Netflix, on the other hand, routinely delivers HD picture quality from start to finish without so much as a dropped frame.
Occasionally Netflix images look a bit soft and blocky for the first few seconds before clearing up to their customary sharpness, but otherwise Netflix delivers HD quality seemingly effortlessly on every device that supports it.
If you read the previous section, you’ll be able to guess which service comes out on top here. For while we often found ourselves essentially left watching standard definition via Lovefilm due to its streaming woes, Netflix delivers really quite decent HD pretty much all the way. Especially since it introduced a new Super HD format to its service in February that delivers a true 1080p HD signal (versus the 720p signal used by LoveFilm on all its HD-capable portals bar the 1080p-supporting PC and Mac apps) to modern TVs.
Just occasionally since the arrival of SuperHD we’ve experienced a strange juddering artefact with motion that has required a pause and restart of the show/film to fix, or even a complete restart of the app. But overall the results are definitely positive.
Please note that SuperHD isn’t available to all. It only works on the PS3, Apple TV 1080p boxes, Roku 1080p boxes, the Nintendo Wii U, the Windows 8 app, TiVo Premiere DVRs, and Blu-ray players, Smart TVs, Home Theaters and Streaming players with existing Netflix 1080p support. You also need a broadband speed of at least 5mbps – if in doubt, get your connection checked.
Netflix’s SuperHD even works on the PS3 - a console upon which, for no reason we can fathom, Lovefilm still can’t deliver HD at all.
Lovefilm has been saying HD on the PS3 is ‘coming very soon’ since launching HD on other platforms in May 2012, but it’s not there yet. And given the difficulties experienced while watching even High Quality (supposedly slightly better than standard def) images on the PS3, we’re not convinced Lovefilm HD on the PS3 is going to turn up all that soon.
Interestingly our test connection passed the Netflix SuperHD speed test (with its 5mbps requirement) with flying colours, underlining our mystification over why the Lovefilm app can’t deliver a stable HD stream on a PS3 despite apparently only needing 3mbps.
Lovefilm’s HD pictures on platforms that support them - which finally include Sony Smart TVs and Blu-ray players as of February - are OK, but nothing more. Yes, there’s more detail and sharpness than you’ll get with the PS3, but images still look softer than we’d normally expect with HD, there’s some obvious judder with camera pans, and there’s a tendency for blocking artefacts to appear over parts of the picture that combine small detailing with fast motion.
Lovefilm’s standard definition pictures are quite respectable, at least. They don’t generally suffer any overt blocking, and suffer only marginally with softness or motion judder. If you’re using a PS3 as your main streaming device, though, when your rival is delivering HD and all you can manage is standard def, then really you’re not delivering a comparable video service at all.
One final issue to mention here is that while Netflix is very consistent about honouring the original aspect ratios of the films it shows, Lovefilm sometimes recrops 2.35/2.4x:1-ratio films to 16:9 – something that will have movie enthusiasts spitting feathers.
To sum all this up, on all platforms except Macs and PCs (where it’s more or less a score draw), Netflix beats Lovefilm hands down where picture quality is concerned. The difference is especially egregious if your main streaming device of choice is a PS3.
Here again Lovefilm lags far behind its rival. For while a number - and a rapidly growing number, at that - of Netflix titles stream with full Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mixes (without damaging the stability of HD video streams), unbelievably you’re stuck with mere stereo on Lovefilm. You don’t even get Dolby Pro-Logic surround sound. If you’ve got a surround sound speaker system this limitation of Lovefilm will drive you nuts.
Both Netflix and Lovefilm deliver their audio tracks cleanly and without jitter unless the stream breaks down. But otherwise the odds are severely stacked against Lovefilm.
In terms of technical capability, Netflix is miles ahead of Lovefilm. It offers more HD content and better HD picture quality, it delivers this quality over more Smart TV platforms, and it avoids the frankly bizarre PS3 HD limitation experienced by Lovefilm. Netflix also delivers surround sound with pretty much every title and full Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes with some, while Lovefilm incredibly is still stuck with stereo.
Netflix also tends to be more stable with its streaming, and its interface - while certainly not perfect - feels more friendly, more slick, and offers some really useful extra features based on the way it can track your viewing.
Lovefilm has had more than long enough to fix its many technical limitations in our opinion, and the fact that it hasn’t makes us seriously wonder if it’s even bothered about quality; maybe Lovefilm thinks content is everything. If so, we strongly disagree!
Lovefilm’s saving grace is that it has a substantially larger movie database than Netflix. But even here we’re not sure Lovefilm is backing the right pony. For over our extended test period we’ve increasingly found ourselves using our streaming services for watching TV shows rather than films; basically on-demand TV viewing has more or less completely taken over our viewing lives. And when it comes to TV shows, Netflix has the greater variety and support. Including, crucially, Breaking Bad!
If you can only afford to get one subscription video service, especially if you take AV quality seriously, then we’d argue you should go for Netflix. However...
The longer we lived with both services, the less appealing an ‘either or’ approach became. In other words, we realised that we actually wanted both platforms rather than just one. Trying to stick with just one service for a while made us feel frustrated every time we learned that a particular TV show or movie we were interested in was only available on the other platform.
With this in mind, the more we though about it, the less daunting the £11 a month needed to subscribe to both services seemed to be in return for having our own, more or less full-time built-to-order TV channel.