My Instant Streaming Disc for the PlayStation 3 arrived in the mail today from Netflix. It allows Netflix subscribers to watch movies streamed over the Internet on their PS3 consoles, similar to what is available on the PC but from the comfort of your sofa. The XBOX 360 has had this capability for about a year now, and finally PS3 owners can get in on the fun. (Sorry, Wii gamers...no word yet on when Netflix will be available on your consoles, but I am optimistic that it is coming.)
Though the streaming feature is built into the XBOX 360's NXE interface, the PlayStation 3 does not yet have it on its XMB, but it should become available in a future PS3 firmware update. In the meantime, Netflix has gotten around that limitation by making clever use of the BD Live functionality that the PS3 has as Blu-ray player. The disc contains nothing but the code necessary for connecting to Netflix's servers. In order to run the program and establish the connection, the user simply has to insert the disc and "play" it from the Video Xross Bar as if it were any standard Blu-ray disc. It's simplicity itself.
The first time it is played, it will prompt you with a code to activate your console with your account. You'll need to use a computer to log on to Netflix and enter the code. Within a few minutes (seconds, actually, on my system) the console will be authorized and connected to your account. From there you will see the movies available in your Instant Watching queue along with several other categories. Your instant watching queue can be managed on your PC as you select from the movies available for streaming. Compared to the disc-based Netflix library, this is a limited pool of movies, but with 17,000+ titles and growing, there will certainly be something for everyone to enjoy. Additionally, there are several general categories like Comedy, Action & Adventure, Drama, and New Releases that allow you to find a choice that suits a particular taste without having to involve a PC. The PS3 had a few categories, like Dark Sci-Fi and Underdog Movies, that were not present on the XBOX, but the set of viewable movies remains the same.
Given that Netflix's current implementation of streaming using BD Live, it doesn't make full use of the PS3's hardware capability. As such, the interface isn't as attractive or as snappy as it is on the XBOX 360, but it still beats the same interface on the Series 3 TiVo. (I haven't seen a Roku, so I can't comment on it.) Once the selection is made, the streaming begins, and after a few seconds have been buffered, playback will start. You can skip forward and backwards through the video, but don't expect the response time to be the same as it is with a physical disc. Each need to reconnect to the server will be accompanied by the same buffering delay. It will undoubtedly cut down on the number of times you try to rewind your movie. Despite the TiVo's unattractive interface, using the TiVo's remote control is better and more intuitive than using a game controller. The PlayStation 3 does not have an equivalent to the XBOX 360 "Party" feature that allows users to invite friends from their XBOX Live buddy list to watch a movie with them (I'm not sure if they need Netflix or not to use that), but the PS3 does not require any additional fees, unlike the XBOX 360 which requires Gold XBOX Live membership.
Video quality varies greatly with the bandwidth of your connection, but in general, I've seen results not quite as good as a DVD, but much better than VHS or ripped downloads. In this regard, the PS3 is no worse or better than the 360 or a TiVo since all are limited by the strength of your connection. Interestingly, while the 360 and the TiVo seem to use the correct widescreen aspect ratio for playback, the PS3 showed video in a standard 4:3 ratio, which required me to set the aspect ratio manually on the TV for correct playback. I don't know if this is also a limitation of BD Live or just a difference in the implementation on the PlayStation. Maybe it will be corrected when the Streaming code is part of the PS3 firmware.
Granted, the need to use a disc to watch movies online is a bit of a nuisance, but it's a small price to pay for impulse access to thousands of movies at no additional cost. Hopefully the usability will improve a bit once Netflix Streaming is built into the XMB, but for now the core streaming is as solid as on other systems. So if you are a Netflix subscriber and own an Internet-connected PlayStation 3, this one is a no-brainer. You want to contact Netflix and order your free Streaming disc.