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Serendipity, nostalgia make Netflix worth the $8

Netflix co-founder and CEO Reed Hastings.

Hand-out/NETFLIX, INC.

A few weeks ago, we mocked Netflix for their hilariously inept Canadian launch event. We did this because, well, they deserved it.

But behind the PR stunt, there's an actual service to review. So over the past few days, armed with a free trial subscription, we went about testing the Netflix video streaming service.

The long-and-short of it is this: if you're looking for TV shows, documentaries or rare gems, Netflix is great. If you're interested in new releases, look elsewhere.

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In the U.S., we're told Netflix also operates as a sort of mail-order Blockbuster, letting users rent movies and return them through the mail, in addition to streaming content over the Web. In Canada, it's just the latter. There's no rental business north of the border. Instead, users pay eight bucks a month for unlimited streaming on their computers, PlayStation 3s, Wiis, and a bunch of other gadgets. Considering you could theoretically do nothing but watch hundreds of TV shows and movies every month, it's actually not a bad deal.

When we logged in for the first time, Netflix subjected us to one of those movie-rating questionnaires that tries to guess what movies you like based on what movies you previously liked. There are countless websites that do this, but Netflix actually seems to be really, really good at it. After rating a few movies, we were surprised when Netflix recommended Zach Galifianakis Live at the Purple Onion and Amores perros - two amazing pieces of entertainment that have virtually nothing in common. In theory, the more movies you rate, the better Netflix can guess your tastes.

As far as the Netflix website goes, the user interface is pretty fool-proof. Granted, we had to install Microsoft Silverlight, but otherwise everything ran pretty smoothly. On a middle-of-the-road Rogers Internet connection (advertised as 10Mbps. Our totally legit Bittorrent download, running simultaneously, was chugging along at about 80Kbps), there was no perceptible lag or buffering issue. Netflix doesn't download the whole movie, so even if you pause the film and leave it for a while, you won't come back to find the entire thing has been pre-downloaded. Instead, it uses a neat viewfinder-type scrolling system that lets you see little snapshots of the scenes as you scroll through the movie. Once you hit play again, Netflix will start buffering from whatever position the scroll bar is in. It's pretty quick, and the user interface is uncluttered - the only buttons we saw are Play, an HD toggle, volume control, Fullscreen and "Back to browsing." If you leave a movie mid-way, the next time you load it up it'll start from wherever you stopped watching. That feature works across platforms, too, so if you start something on PC you can pick up where you left off on another device.

Netflix also lets you stream movies via various gizmos, such as your iPad. We tried loading up the Netflix app on our Playstation 3, and although it downloaded smoothly, we were annoyed to find that the app wouldn't let us do anything until we entered a credit card number, even though we already had an activated trial subscription. There really is only one reason that businesses force users to enter credit card numbers when they have free temporary subscriptions: so they can start charging those users as soon as the trial subscription runs out. Inevitably, a few users will forget to cancel their subscription before the trial period runs out, and Netflix will manage to take at least a month's worth of fees from them before they realize what's going on. This is by no means unique to Netflix, but it's pretty frustrating nonetheless.

As for content, we were pleasantly surprised to find a lot of hidden gems in Netflix's library: movies such as Primer and Talk To Her. The TV show mix is also pretty eclectic, with everything from Mad Men to Intervention to Veggie Tales. There's also Huff, 21 Jump Street and the classic Battlestar Galactica. Eight bucks is a pretty good price for the Netflix back catalogue.

It's in the "New Arrivals" section that things start to go wrong. That category is full of such Oscar contenders as Witless Protection and something called Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus - a movie as unwatchable as its title is awesome.

But hey, to each their own. Maybe people want to watch two badly rendered CGI monsters duke it out while Lorenzo Lamas chews the hell out of a green screen. The problem with Netflix's "New Arrivals" list isn't so much the content (presumably it costs a lot less to buy Witless Protection, than, say, Avatar), as the lack of content. When we arranged the list by date, we only saw ten movies that were released in 2010, and none of them looked remotely watchable. Simply put, this isn't the service you want if you're looking for movies that were in theatres six weeks ago, or even six months ago.

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Still, as a serendipity engine, Netflix quickly turned us on to a whole bunch of films we'd never heard of before. The service started arranging content in categories such as "Visually striking mind-bending movies" and "Critically acclaimed dark movies." We suspect Netflix spends a lot of time on its recommendation algorithms. Indeed, the horrible, horrible mix of "new" movies only showed up under the "New Arrivals" tab.

Ultimately, Netflix is worth the eight bucks a month. But keep in mind that you may end up paying a lot more. This isn't the fault of Netflix, but rather the companies you purchase your Internet connection from. Keep in mind that an average movie, by our estimates, can run you between 1 and 3 gigabytes of bandwidth, maybe more. Since the major Canadian Internet Service Providers have data caps on their various plans, you could end up paying extra bandwidth fees. If you have a high-end plan, you're probably good for a movie a day, depending on what else you do with your Internet connection. Either way, if you're going to become a steady Netflix user, keep a close eye on your usage, lest you end up with an unpleasant surprise on your next bill.

Otherwise, if you've got eight bucks a month to spare and a habit for under-the-radar films, Netflix is a pretty good deal.

Also, spoiler alert: The Mega Shark wins.

(Spoiler spoiler alert: we have no idea who wins).

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