Hands On: Netflix Wii

Another reason to never leave the couch

It may be late to the party, but Netflix's movie streaming service has arrived on Wii consoles in the U.S. via a free disc for subscribers. Despite being stuck in standard definition, those lamenting the lack of a Wii no Ma or BBC iPlayer equivalent in the US will appreciate the increased functionality. Compared to its console cousins, the service performs quite well with the only noticeable difference being content limited to 480p.

Before we get too deep, we'd just like to apologize for the terrible quality of the images and video below. The camera isn't very good to begin with and taking photos of a screen is trickier than it sounds. So yeah!

Anyone that has fired up the Nintendo Channel and watched a video will have a rough approximation of what level the image quality on offer is here. All videos are presented in SD, of course, and the quality can fluctuate quite a bit depending on the source's digital transfer quality and your bandwidth. In our tests, Blade Runner, a 1982 film, looked noticeably more compressed and grainy than, say, NewsRadio, a 1995 television show, during back-to-back viewings. On an SD set it's not as noticeable and the quality is about par with what you'd expect from regular networks, but on an HD screen the quality hit is more drastic but still watchable for all but the hardest core of videophiles. Original aspect ratios are also supported, so movies and shows do well on 16x9 sets. Switching queues and browsing is nice and speedy, and load times for starting a stream tend to be around the 10-second mark. Should you stop watching something before it ends, Netflix will remember where you left off so you can resume at the same spot on any Instant-enabled device.

Navigating your queue and browsing content is very simple with the Wii Remote: the IR pointer makes selecting movies and jumping to categories and recommendations a breeze, and if you'd rather use buttons to get around then there's that too. Compared to the Xbox 360's setup, the Wii seems to have slightly more information accessible up-front; for example, you don't need to click through several times to rate something you've watched on Wii because the stars are right below the queue. There's also something to be said for browsing movies with the controller closest to an actual television remote; it's ultimately not something that tips the scales either way, but in our opinion it just feels better than using a "classic" control pad.

Sorely missing is a search function. While the app allows you to browse listings based on genres or recommendations, you can't access anything not in your queue or on these lists within the app even if Netflix has it on their Instant service. It's a needless exclusion and would have made the Wii viewing experience completely independent of a computer. You could always use the Internet Channel, we suppose, but that still involves needlessly circumventing the app.

Closed captioning is another big missing feature, and this is something absent from all of Netflix's Instant offerings (not just a Wii shortcoming). Films without spoken English come with subtitles burned in to the transfer, so to say, so if you want to watch Pan's Labyrinth and don't speak a lick of Spanish then you're golden. On the flip side, you can't disable captions on foreign films if you do understand the language and don't want text cluttering the screen. For English-language movies there's no way to toggle captions, which is a significant issue for the deaf and hearing impaired at the moment. When asked, a Netflix representative promised this functionality would be "coming soon," but considering the static nature of DVDs as opposed to a downloadable channel it seems uncertain whether this will be extended to Wii in its current setup.

Those who already have access to Netflix Instant via a PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 or other set-top box might not feel compelled to make the switch and downgrade the visual quality, but those who have yet to dive in might find the well-rounded extra functionality enough to warrant the $8.99 monthly subscription. The catalog is large and ever-expanding, and the parental controls available through the Netflix Web site make the whole affair as family friendly as you'd like.

The clip below will give you an idea of how the interface is constructed and general load and navigation speed. The camera used might not allow proper demonstration of image quality, but, as mentioned before, that varies from movie to movie. The image quality of the Super Mario Bros. Super Show! was pretty good, although the actual content delves into dark places we're glad Nintendo has since abandoned:

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