Hands On: Netflix for 3DS

We go one-on-one with popcorn in one hand and a stylus in the other

In many cities across North America you can still find them: all-but-deserted video rental stores trying every special deal and coupon in their cap to reclaim business from the rampantly successful postal-based Netflix service. But for many, getting movies in the mail isn't its best feature – that goes instead to Netflix Instant, which through a variety of media allows you to stream a selection of films, videos and TV shows as fast as your Internet can load them. The newest capable device is the 3DS, but does the handheld platform have what it takes to make a download worthwhile?

Two main points of concern are audiovisual presentation and battery life. Does it have the horsepower to impress and the juice to maintain? We put it to the test with Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, which features impressive special effects, immersive sound quality and a running time of 2 hours and 58 minutes. It looks fantastic running on the small screen, with only occasional and minor signs of compression that could very well disappear with a faster link-up. It runs with the same calibre picture as does Netflix on a PlayStation 3 or Wii hooked up to the same connection, however, and the flaws are barely noticeable. It's highly impressive aurally as well, though you might want to use a pair of headphones or external speakers if you're planning on watching something with quiet dialogue as the 3DS's top volume setting is just a bit too low for that, though everything else comes through just fine. Overall, Netflix looks and sounds great on the potent portable.

But can a 3DS, with its notorious low battery life, stream something without draining the power supply? We're pleased to say that even after playing ten minutes of another film beforehand and exploring the menu system, Fellowship's end credits were rolling by the time that the red light began to blink, and the system was still kicking by the time they finished. That's just downright impressive.

The interface has never been easier to navigate than with the stylus, allowing you to scroll through menus as well as fast-forward and rewind by dragging and flicking the pen. The film or description displays on the top screen while the bottom features menus when browsing and goes completely black when viewing, play controls popping up with a tap as well as a view of periodic freeze-frames on the top screen to for travelling forward and backward with ease. You can also skip through frames with L and R, move through menus with the arrow buttons and perform other functions, like bringing up the search bar and so forth, with A, B, X and Y. You can also stop playing and resume again at the same spot for as many titles as you wish. Instant has evolved quite a bit since its early days and now features synopses of each title, a multitude of genres and recommendations as well as your instant queue, recent arrivals in movies and TV and recently played titles all readily available and easily accessible. You can also rate each item between one and five stars, and many selections feature English subtitles as well, which show up clearly on the 3DS screen. There's also ostensibly this option in other languages as well as multiple audio tracks, but you'll have a tougher time finding these, so hopefully as the service continues to expand we'll see more titles utilise these features.

We didn't have much of a problem with connection speed, either – while initial titles on the main menu and search results lagged just a bit, loading feature presentations only took about ten seconds and never paused or buffered the entire time we were trying the service out. That will vary with connections of higher or lower quality, but we had no trouble in this department.

Netflix has promised to add support for 3D titles, and when it does, the service could very well sell consoles. If streaming is anywhere near the quality of the 2D selection on offer, it will prove an incredible asset for the device. What we have currently is quite a large catalogue in itself, with everything from Toy Story 3 to Interview with the Vampire, South Park to That Mitchell & Webb Look, Dexter to Doctor Who and Twin Peaks to Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares as well as quite a few documentaries. There's something for everyone with new titles frequently added (and some old ones taken away), and you can search the Netflix website to see if there's anything you'd like to watch. Currently you can do all this for just $7.99 a month and a free download, quite a bargain for what's on offer.

Of course, until Netflix adds 3D titles, for many this will have little advantage over streaming via a different platform. Heads of households, owners of multiple sets and those who live alone will probably prefer to use their computer or another console if they own one. You can't play unless hooked up to a wireless connection, and we doubt we'll ever see an option to download the titles straight to the system memory or your SD card. But many others will get lots of use out of this – those who have none or limited access to other Netflix-capable devices, spend a lot of time around hotspots in coffee shops and such, want to watch a movie before bedtime but have no accessible TV and so on. You're already set, though, if you own an iPhone or iPad along with the added benefit of not relying on local wireless, but it remains to be seen if a competitor that's 3D-capable, portable and Netflix-ready will emerge.

In the end, Netflix for the 3DS impresses with quality picture and sound, smooth connection speed, a large and easily navigable catalogue and battery life that can sustain a three hour film and then some. If the service does as well with 3D titles once they're added, it will bring the value of the portable system up to a previously unseen degree. Until then, if it makes sense for you to stream films on local wireless on this platform rather than utilising another option, you won't be disappointed with the system's performance.

Update: It appears that the reference in Netflix's press release to the future inclusion of 3D movies actually refers to Nintendo's own already-planned service featuring music videos, trailers and comedy clips, not full 3D movies. We must temper our ringing endorsement then as this is a hugely missed opportunity. While the application is still top-notch for what it does, giving it this extra element would make it unique enough to, as stated above, sell systems. The option to watch a 3D movie on your 3DS, allowing people an alternative to shelling out their cash on expensive 3D TVs and cinema showings, would have been an incredible asset to the device. It's certainly unfortunate that there are no current plans to go this route, and while it's still a solid program, it's no longer nearly as exciting. This is, in our opinion, an extremely unfortunate missed opportunity.

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