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Already a Netflix member? Stream movies to your PC for free with Watch it Now

April 15th, 2007 · 19 Comments

Netflix LogoIf you’re already a subscriber to Netflix, the DVD rental website, you also have access to a new feature they’re rolling out called “Watch it Now” which allows you to stream content from the Netflix site to your PC. And you can’t beat the price: free. Let’s take a look at what Watch it Now is, what it does, and how you can activate it on your account.

Netflix has been rolling out the Watch it Now service to users for a few months and plans to complete the rollout by this summer. Fortunately, if you’re a Netflix subscriber but don’t see a “Watch it Now” tab when you log into your Netflix account there’s a way to have the feature activated. Actually, there are at least two known ways to turn the service on. If the first method listed below doesn’t work for you just try to second method.

Method #1

Method #2

  • Log into your Netflix account
  • Click on the “Your Account” link in the top menu
  • Click on a link that says “How can I watch movies on my PC?”
  • Click “Start Now”
  • You’ll see a new tab named “Watch Now” show up along side of your other main tabs

Netflix menu bar

When you click on the Watch it Now tab you’ll be taken to the “home” page for that service. This page shows much of the same information that the main Netflix home page shows, including a list of suggestions, a list of the moviews you’ve watched, and list of all of the content available for streaming.

One of the first thing you’ll probably notice is that the library of movies and shows available for streaming is a very small subset of the complete Netflix library. The streaming library is constantly growing but I doubt that you’ll ever be able to stream the complete Netflix library.

Video Quality GraphicAnother thing you may notice on the Watch it Now home page is the section that says “Your Video Quality” which rates your internet connection speed. The Watch it Now service uses the results of this speed test to determine the quality of the stream your internet connection can handle. There are three possible results of the test, each of those results with its own data transfer rate. The possible streaming speeds are:

  • Basic: 500 kbps
  • Good: 1.0 Mbps
  • High: 1.6 – 2.2+ Mbps

Once you choose the content to be streamed the site will check to see if you have the special Netflix Movie Viewer software installed on your system. If you haven’t already installed the software you’ll be prompted to run its installer. The installation isn’t very big (about 830KB) and installs itself as an ActiveX control in your Internet Explorer browser.

Under the covers the Netflix Movie Viewer software is really nothing more than a skin which it used to run Windows Media Player. Because the Netflix Movie Viewer software is installed as an ActiveX control and uses the underlying Windows Media Player for playback the service has some system requirements which excludes all non-Microsoft OS’s (and even some older Microsoft OS’s). The Netflix website lists these as the minimum requirements for using the Watch it Now service:

  • Computer running Windows XP with Service Pack 2 or higher, or Windows Vista
  • Internet Explorer version 6 or higher
  • Windows Media Player version 9 or higher
  • An active broadband connection to the Internet
  • 1.0 GHz processor
  • 512 MB RAM
  • 3 GB free hard disk drive space

If you’re a FireFox or Flock user you can use the fantastic “IE tab” extension to use the Internet Explorer rendering engine to display your Watch it Now tab without having to use the Internet Explorer browser itself.

Dragonheart DVD coverWhen you decide which movie or show you’d like to watch you simply press the “Play” button. A new browser window containing the Netflix Movie Watcher opens up and begins streaming the content from the Netflix servers. You should only have to wait a few seconds for the feature to begin (remember, the service already tested your connection speed and decided which of the three versions of the feature to send to you based on the performance of your internet connection). The player waits until a minute or two of content is downloaded before it begins playing in order to compensate for any slowdowns in the internet connection (either on your end or their end).

One of the more interesting features of the software is that you can skip ahead into the content you’re watching, even well beyond what the Movie Viewer has already downloaded. In that case you’ll have to wait again for the player to buffer a bit of content but, just like at the beginning of the feature, it only takes a few seconds before your selection is playing again.

Netflix says that the Watch it Now service approaches “near-DVD” quality. I’m not sure it’s quite that good, but, at least on my “High”-rated connection, the video is very smooth, although maybe a bit soft. There are the occasional pixelation problems but, unlike most video streaming sites, the video is very watchable, even for a full-length movie. I’m cautiously optimistic that this will only improve as Netflix tweaks their system.

The amount of content you’re allowed to stream using the Watch it Now service is directly proportional to the amount of money you pay Netflix each month. If you have a $10/month plan with Netflix you’re allowed to stream 10 hours of content each month. If you have a $30/month plan you’re allowed to stream 30 hours per month. Netflix only charges you for the time that a feature is actually playing in the Netflix Movie Viewer. If you watch the first 5 minutes of a movie and hit the pause button or close the browser you’re only “charged” for the 5 minutes that you actually watched. To find out how much of your streaming quota you’ve used go to “Your Account” and then click on “Instant Watching Activity”.

The Netflix Watch it Now service is a nice adjunct to their DVD rental business. It’s easy to use, it works well, and the audio and video quality are quite good. So, if you’re a Netflix subscriber, get out there are stream what you’ve been missing.

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