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Netflix seems to know when they have a good thing going. Their streaming video service, which began as just a few rather lousy movies available for viewing on a PC, has since exploded both in terms of content and viewing options. Netflix movies can now be streamed to the Xbox 360, PS3, the PC, and a variety of other platforms. The question is - which platform provides the best viewing experience?
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Xbox 360 and PS3
On a fundamental level the Xbox 360 and the PS3 have similar interfaces. Rather then allowing for full search functionality through a series of menus or trees, these devices use an interface which offers viewing options relative to what the viewer seems to prefer. The full Netflix catalog is never available using these interfaces, and browsing can quickly become tedious.
This said, the player functionality on the 360 and PS3 is arguably better than what is available on the PC. The out-of-the-box media center focus of both devices is obvious. The fact that each device can easily be connected to an HDTV is also handy and gives it a leg up on PCs which are not dedicated HTPCs. For many, the 360 and the PS3 will be easier to use. Then there is the price. The 360 Pro can be had for $249 and the base PS3 for $299.
While Netflix streaming on the 360 and PS3 is largely the same, there are a few differences. One is that Netflix streaming on the 360 requires a monthly subscription to Xbox Live Gold (costing between $7 and $12 dollars a month depending on how your subscribe), while the PS3 has no such requirement. On the other hand, the PS3 currently requires that users insert a special Netflix disc (which Netflix provides at no cost) to access the Netflix functionality. The 360 has no such requirement.
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The PC was the first place where Netflix subscribers could view online video, and anyone who uses Netflix needs access to a computer to order DVDs, so the PC (be it a office PC or a dedicated HTPC) is a natural platform for viewing Netflix streaming video.
It is the fact that the PC is the interface through which users order their Netflix DVDs which gives it an edge over other methods of viewing Netflix streaming video. This gives the PC a large degree of flexibility when choosing what to watch because the search options on the Netflix website are far superior to the functions available through the Netflix interfaces on other devices. If you're in the mood to watch a good Sci-Fi movie, and want to see the ten most highly rated movies currently available, it is no problem.
Of course, you can add any movie to your instant queue and thus make it available for viewing on any Netflix streaming device, but the ease of being able to choose and then instantly play a movie is an advantage. The disadvantage, on the other hand, is that PCs are not cheap. Streaming a Netflix movie on your existing computer won't cost you anything, but run-of-the-mill home and office computers don't provide the same viewing experience as a home theater, and an HTPC will be the most costly option.
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While the PC, 360, and PS3 are among the most popular methods for viewing Netflix, there are many other devices capable of Netflix streaming. This includes cheap HD players like the Roku HD Player, Blu-Ray Players, and even some HDTVs.
The quality of these devices can vary quite a bit and is largely dependent on the power of the video hardware inside the unit. The Roku HD player, although cheap at only $100 dollars, is often criticized because it provides video quality which is less than spectacular. On the other hand, high end Blu-Ray players are often praised for their great video quality which comes courtesy of hardware already tuned for handling the demands of Blu-Ray playback.
Ultimately, the usefulness of Netflix streaming in these devices is often more dependent on the usefulness of the device's other main features. It wouldn't be a good idea to buy a Blu-Ray player just to gain access to Netflix streaming. This is why the PC, 360, and PS3 are often the better choice - all three can be considered as platforms capable of doing a wide variety of things rather than a purpose built device.