ON Monday, we ran an extensive analysis of video-streaming company Netflix Inc and its prospects in Asia, but ultimately, the market will out.
And that market is you and I, the potential users of the service. Is Netflix really all that it’s geared up to be?
Netflix rolled out its service in 130 countries worldwide on Jan 6, and it is now available in just about every region except Syria, Crimea, and North Korea due to US Government restrictions on American companies. It is also not available in China, for reasons we have not been told.
In Malaysia, users can subscribe to the service via three price plans: The Basic at RM33; Standard at RM42; and Premium at RM51 [RM1 = US$0.24 at current rates]
More information on the various packages can be found here. You also get a free one-month trial.
The sign-up process was relatively easy and straightforward, but you’ll still be required to give your credit card details even though the first month is free. Netflix says it will only start charging subscribers after the one-month period has ended.
This is like the bad old days of the Internet – it means that those who do not wish to continue must opt out of the service, rather than opt in if they’re interested.
Netflix also promises to prompt you three days before your trial month is up for you to decide what to do next.
The one thing good about Netflix subscription is that there are no contracts or lock-ins, and if you want to terminate your account, you can choose to do so anytime without any penalties.
After you’ve logged in, Netflix will ask you a series of questions to determine the kind of shows you would want to watch based on your preferences. After these initial questions, it will continue analysing the kinds of shows you watch and will refine its recommendations over time.
Put simply, the more you watch Netflix, the more ‘it learns’ your tastes and be able to make appropriate recommendations.
Netflix’s recommendation engine is quite intuitive, and it did a fairly good job recommending shows to me based on my preferences.
There are of course the odd few recommendations which sometimes don’t jive with what I would like to watch. On the whole though, it did the job.
After selecting the show you want to watch, connection to Netflix’s servers typically take about 10 to 20 seconds.
When your show first starts, the resolution isn’t that good in the beginning. But within a minute or two, the quality improves and you should be able to watch your chosen according to the video quality of the package you’ve chosen to subscribe to.
This is because Netflix uses video that adapts to the bandwidth of your connection. The minimum requirements for optimal viewing are specified here.
Depending on how stable my connection was, I found that the video stream got blurry again when watching a movie. This again is something you’ll need to test for yourself as the quality is really dependent on your available bandwidth.
With a 10Mbps (megabits per second) fibre connection on hand, my viewing didn’t encounter any problems at all on standard definition (3Mbps required) or high-definition (5Mbps required). I didn’t get a chance to test ultra high-definition (UHD) as I don’t have a 25Mbps connection.
Video controls for the player within your browser are quite straightforward, but very basic. You have a choice to jump ahead or back in 30-second intervals by pressing the right and left arrow keys respectively.
You can also scroll ahead to select parts of the show by clicking any part of the timeline bar situated at the bottom of the screen. Netflix will track where you stopped and will play back from that point the next time you watch the show, or if you do so from another device.
Searching for shows is also pretty straightforward. You can choose to search based on show titles, actors’ names, or even show themes. Searches generally returned the desired results.
If you prefer, you can browse the different categories that are available online instead of searching for something specific. Netflix has categorised its shows according to different genres and even sub-genres, which is pretty helpful.
Perhaps the three most pertinent questions on everyone’s minds about whether one should subscribe to Netflix are: What kind of shows can I get on Netflix? Are these shows available in Malaysia as they are in the United States? And will the content be censored?
Firstly, what’s available on Netflix in Malaysia is quite extensive. New TV series such as Marvel’s Jessica Jones, Narcos, Daredevil, and Blacklist are all available. For movies, classics such as the Indiana Jones series, Saving Private Ryan, The Shawshank Redemption, Pulp Fiction, The Godfather and Gone with the Wind are also available.
It also has a good selection of documentaries and independent films, and a rich array of genres (comedies, thrillers, horror, action, etc.)
There are however some hit shows that are conspicuously missing: House of Cards, Arrested Development, and some South Korean TV dramas and Chinese kungfu movies among them, neither in Malaysia nor Singapore.
The inconsistency of what’s available has to do with how licensing and broadcast rights have been geographically restricted, particularly where exclusive arrangements have traditionally been negotiated with the big production houses.
For now, there is no way around this, but Netflix has promised to make more of its content available worldwide. To find out what shows are available in a particular region, try using the film search engine Filmefy.
That said, many people have been using virtual private networks (VPNs) to circumvent these restrictions.
By using a VPN service, users are able to log in to proxy servers which change their Internet Protocol address (the address of a computer) to make Netflix think they are in the United States rather than the actual country they’re in.
Netflix however said that it would be cracking down on such practices.
Lastly, are the shows censored? Again, there is a lot of controversy around this as even regulators are struggling to deal with it.
As at the time of writing, Netflix’s content is still available in its full, uncensored form in Malaysia and Singapore, according to checks conducted by Digital News Asia (DNA).
It’s hard to say what will happen in the coming months but regulators in Indonesia and Malaysia are already priming to take a hard stance against over-the-top players such as Netflix.
In Singapore, the regulator Media Development Authority has said that it would work with Netflix to classify its shows so that the viewing public can make informed choices.
If you’re planning to subscribe, do note that content might be censored in the coming months. If you’re unhappy about that, you can cancel your subscription anytime.
One of the best things about the Netflix service is that you can download the app (pic) and view your movies on-the-go anytime and anywhere, especially if you have an unlimited broadband data subscription.
I say unlimited because if you were to watch while using your mobile data, you’ll end up eating up your quota pretty fast.
So if you have a WiFi connection via fibre, say in the gym you go to, then watching your favourite shows while working out is a great way to exercise without having to download movies onto your smartphone or tablet.
As a test though, I did burn through my mobile data quota to see how much it took to watch a 42-minute TV episode. In my tests, I used about 400MB to 450MB of data to do so.
While watching via mobile, I found the streaming quality to be pretty good and consistent.
The app, though, could improve. For example, while it had the capability to jump backwards 30 seconds of playback time while watching, it didn’t have a 30-second jump forward. To do so, you’ll have to tap the timeline bar to jump ahead, which is a tedious process to get right.
The Netflix app also didn’t have the capability to download offline movies so that you can carry your content with you, which at least one competitor in the region has.
Overall though, the mobile experience wasn’t too bad.
Netflix vs iflix
Speaking about the competition, Malaysian streaming player iflix launched its service last May and remains unfazed about the worldwide launch of Netflix. The company is aiming to secure a large round of funding and is now operating in Thailand and the Philippines as well.
The Kuala Lumpur-based startup declared that it welcomed the competition from Netflix, believing that the ones that would be hit will be traditional TV broadcasters, and not streaming players.
I compared the two services, and here are the main differences:
In terms of catalogue of content, Netflix’s Malaysian service has a larger pool of US-based TV serials and films (and more if you use a VPN). However, iflix trumps Netflix where vernacular, regional and local content is concerned.
Viewing between the two services is comparable in terms of features and quality of the stream: Bearing in mind both companies use the Amazon Web Services’ cloud platform, I would have expected this anyway.
The one big advantage iflix has over Netflix (for now) is that the former allows for offline downloads (pic) – a feature that allows you to store a copy of a film on your device so that you can watch it without needing to have an Internet connection.
For now, this feature is only available via the iflix mobile app, although iflix may extend this feature to desktop and laptop browsers too later this year.
Do note however that while you can download as many times as you want, the show is only available for seven days after downloading and/ or 48hrs upon viewing, after which it self-destructs. Watch out, Mr Phelps.
Pricing substantially favours iflix as it only costs RM8 (US$1.90) per month or RM96 (US$23) per year.
Also, with iflix, one subscription allows you to access the service via five devices, while being able to support two streams simultaneously at the same time.
With Netflix, you can support up to a maximum of four devices only.
There are also additional deals with iflix which you can shop around for. For instance, Telekom Malaysia and Digi Telecommunications both have special iflix packages.
Streaming entertainment is certainly now on a hot streak as more people today want the convenience of watching shows they like by choosing when and where they watch them, instead of having to adhere to fixed broadcasting times.
The trend is also picking up because of the pervasiveness of smartphones and tablets.
The notion of not having locked-in contracts is also appealing and, whilst there are still issues as to what kind of content will be available due to censorship, I would expect the online streaming entertainment trend to continue growing in South-East Asia in the years to come.
Netflix is the global leader and has the most extensive catalogue of content for now, but that doesn’t mean that smaller regional players won’t stand a chance – especially in Asia, where regional languages, cultures and the desire for variety can help them differentiate themselves from what’s available globally.
If your viewing pleasure is more slanted towards Western content, I would recommend Netflix wholeheartedly. However, because iflix and new players such as PCCW’s Viu are very affordable, do give that them a try too and subscribe according to your own viewing preference.
Best of all, if you’re not happy, just disconnect and try the others – competition is great for the consumer.
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