Despite the ubiquity of film streaming services available across the Atlantic, that specific market has, up until now, failed to transition successfully over into the UK. For recent years, Amazon.com owned LoveFilm has virtually held a monopoly on the UK rental scene. Despite also maintaining a considerable movie streaming presence in the US with their Prime service, Amazon has, understandably, been reluctant to move into a space wholly owned by one of their own subsidiaries. However, the arrival of California-based Netflix may finally provide some incentive to improve upon the rather lacklustre options currently available to UK consumers. Out of the two main providers, both provide streaming services not without issue and, despite theoretically catering to the same market, each has strengths and weaknesses that make it up to the buyer’s own personal preferences as to which would be the ideal choice.
In terms of overall breadth of content, LoveFilm can lay claim to a vast catalogue of films that vastly outstrips the offering currently available on Netflix. That being said, there seems to be little overlap with regard to which films are on both services so, in order to have access to everything at any time, neither provides the ideal experience. Although, if you’re willing to pay extra for film rental via post, LoveFilm offers up the best choice of the two with almost every film imaginable available in physical form. Neither service offers films released within the past year or so and, rather irritatingly, the more recent offerings on LoveFilm incur an extra surcharge on top of the monthly fee. I even ran across several older films (Reservoir Dogs, Fargo and Fistful of Dollars amongst others) which, inexplicably, also demanded a onetime charge of £2.49 for 48 hour access.
When it comes to TV content however, Netflix offers up the far superior alternative with content ranging from classic UK shows, stretching across all the major terrestrial channels, to huge US critical successes such as Arrested Development, 24, and Breaking Bad. Whilst the content is limited to the first few seasons of each series, it’s still a far better option than LoveFilm’s almost negligible TV section which is poorly organised and thoroughly outdated.
In terms of visual quality, there is no competition. Netflix (top picture – click to enlarge) offers most of its movies in 720p and, if you have access to a PS3, the Netflix app will allow full 1080p streaming at no extra cost. LoveFilm (bottom picture – click to enlarge) streams at almost DVD resolution (480p) but, due to their player, the image has poor contrast levels and is prone to heavy artifacting during scenes featuring fast motion. Each service loads quickly from the web browser, both employing Microsoft’s Silverlight technology. Lovefilm appears to buffer slightly faster although, due to the low quality, this is hardly surprising. Netflix will actually dynamically change quality the more it buffers to speed things up so don’t expect full HD quality straight away, but it doesn’t take long to get there. On the other hand, even on a stable connection, LoveFilm often goes in the opposite direction, suffering from occasional drops in the already mediocre resolution. For the sake of full disclosure, I should say that I tested this on a scorchingly fast university connection so can’t comment on what it would be like on less than ideal speeds. LoveFilm specifies a minimum connection speed of 2Mbps for smooth streaming whilst Netflix provides 720p and surround sound if you have access to 5Mbps and full 1080p at 8Mbps.
Subtitle support is also another area in which LoveFilm fails spectacularly. Only foreign language movies are subtitled. On the other hand, Netflix offers full subtitle support for every movie, in both the PS3 app or via their website. There are some issues with the latter as I experienced quite a few films with slightly out of sync subtitles (we’re talking less than a second though) and, in the case of John Woo’s Hard Boiled, no subtitles at all, regardless of chosen settings. As a result, I would easily recommend Netflix’s offering for those hard of hearing or whose native language is not English.
As a final aside, I’d like to briefly talk about the PS3 app for both services as, if available to you, this can be the ideal viewing experience. Although, admittedly setting them up proved to be a bit of a hassle (Lovefilm’s offering crashed my PS3 after install and, in order to find the Netflix app on the PSN Store, I had to reset my unit to default factory settings which, thankfully didn’t wipe any save files or profiles but was still somewhat annoying). Once you get them running though, the experience is on par with what’s offered on the web, although, in the case of Netflix, with a large qualitative difference visually due to the PS3’s support for full 1080p. The Netflix app is easy to navigate whilst LoveFilm’s offering is prone to hanging on page turns and after every letter entry when inputting film titles which can be maddening. Neither app features any way to add movies to a queue or favourites list which seems like a bit of an oversight. Netflix also allows you to stream across a wide variety of devices, ranging from iOS to Android as well as all 3 major consoles whilst LoveFilm is limited to the Xbox, PS3 and PC/Mac, with no option to stream on either iOS or Android as their apps only allow curation of your personal library.
Overall, neither company can claim to offer the definitive movie streaming service. That being said, I’d have to side with Netflix for pure streaming use in terms of both user experience and image quality. While the movie selection may not be as expansive, the TV selection is surprisingly hefty and I have more faith in their ability to strike new content deals than in LoveFilm’s willingness to rebuild their player and streaming technology from the ground up in order to provide a comparable experience. At the end of the day, don’t expect to be able to sit down and watch a specific film on either service. However, for the monthly fee of around £5, if you’re willing to just browse their respective catalogues until you find something interesting, it’s well worth the time and money to do so, especially as both are currently offering a one month free trial.
ed – The problem the author had with subtitles not appearing on Hard Boiled has since sorted itself out.