Although Netflix’s streaming service started as a niche offshoot of the company’s disc-mailing service, it is now the front-runner in the category, thanks to its reliable core catalog and some of the best original programming. Netflix also integrates excellent usability features across interfaces, allows offline downloads on mobile platforms, and features 4K content. However, with other high-profile services now available at cheaper prices, the expensive costs of Netflix’s comparable plans stand out. For now, Netflix remains an Editors’ Choice for on-demand video streaming services, thanks to its varied, top-notch content and capable apps.
What’s in the Catalog?
Netflix has an extremely broad catalog of video content, but it changes all the time. Shows available one day may be gone the next. It’s difficult to state authoritatively what is in Netflix’s catalog at any given moment, but that’s all part of the fun, right? Innumerable third-party websites, including PCMag, offer articles with titles like Everything Coming to Netflix This Month (as well as Everything Leaving Netflix), so that’s one way to stay in the know. Note that Netflix will lose many of its most-watched shows in the near future, including The Office (to NBC’s Peacock), Friends (to HBO Max), and several Marvel movies (to Disney+). This is potentially precarious new ground for Netflix, since it will need to rely more heavily on its original content in the coming years. In fact, the change is already happening. As it increases original content offerings, the total size of Netflix’s library is decreasing.
The TV shows available on Netflix are season-complete, which isn’t always the case for competitors. Hulu sometimes only has the most recent handful of episodes of a show, making it impossible to catch up if you fall too far behind. On the other hand, Netflix only adds shows a season at a time. Hulu offers at least some of its shows within a day or two of broadcast, so you can at least be within striking distance of the cultural zeitgeist if you’re a cable-cutter. Want to know what other people are watching on Netflix? The service now maintains lists of the top shows and movies on the platform.
Netflix is in a good position with its original productions though, with many titles becoming pop culture phenomenons. This impressive list includes shows like Black Mirror, Bojack Horseman, Dead to Me, Locke and Key, Never Have I Ever, Orange Is the New Black, Ozark, Russian Doll, Stranger Things, The Crown, The Stranger, The Umbrella Academy, and The Witcher. Netflix also earns a top spot in our roundup of the best video streaming services for celebrating Black art.
Netflix also produces feature films, comedy specials, and documentaries, for those who are looking for something more self-contained. For example, Netflix’s El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie received good reviews. Martin Scorcese’s The Irishman is another example. For 2021, Netflix promises to add a new film to its streaming library every week.
If you are a fan of watching films, check out our roundup of the top movie streaming services. Many of the services in that category, including The Criterion Channel and Mubi, are notable in that they curate their collections.
However, Netflix can no longer enjoy its once-untouchable status when it comes to original programming. Amazon Prime Video offers many top-tier shows and adaptations in its library including Bosch, Fleabag, Good Omens, Hunters, Jack Ryan, Patriot, The Boys, The Expanse, The Man in the High Castle, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and Undone. Hulu may be better known for its broadcast television lineup, but with original productions such as Castle Rock, Casual, Catch 22, Harlots, The Handmaid’s Tale, and the continuation of Veronica Mars, it too is becoming competitive. Apple TV+ and Disney+ also promise tons of upcoming original content, with respective entries such as For All Mankind and The Mandalorian. Even CBS All Access has original shows including Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Picard, The Good Fight, The Twilight Zone (the rebooted series), and Why Women Kill.
On another front, Netflix has quietly built itself into an excellent source for streaming anime. It does a particularly good job with older series, such as Inu Yasha, Robotech, and Rurouni Kenshin. Little Witch Academia. Netflix has brought its considerable production clout to anime as well, including rebooting the venerable Voltron and She-Ra series and developing originals such as Castlevania. The trouble with Netflix’s anime collection is the same as with the rest of its content: It comes and goes unpredictably. Crunchyroll offers a much larger and industry-leading content library of anime titles. Hulu is another option for anime fans, with a collection of over 400 classic and critically acclaimed anime shows and movies such as Cowboy Bebop and Ghost in the Shell.
How Much Does Netflix Cost?
Netflix has consistently raised the prices for all three of its plans over time. The latest price hike affects the two higher-priced plans. The cheapest option remains at $8.99 per month and gets you access to Netflix’s full content library, but you can only stream in SD quality, download titles to a single device, and watch on one screen at a time. The $13.99-per-month Standard plan (previously $12.99 per month) includes HD streaming, supports two simultaneous streams, and allows you to download titles on up to two devices at a time. For families or groups of friends looking to share accounts, the $17.99-per-month (previously $15.99 per month) plan might be a more feasible option. This highest tier unlocks Ultra HD (4K) streaming, four concurrent streams, and the ability to download titles on up to four devices.
Netflix presents all of its content ad-free, with the exception of its previews of in-house content across its apps. You can thankfully disable those previews now. HBO Max and Amazon Prime Video advertise their original content in a similar manner. Note that even Hulu’s ad-free plan still includes limited commercials in rare instances.
Hulu charges $5.99 for its base plan (with ads) though you can pay $11.99 per month for virtually no ads. Prime Video matches Netflix’s base plan at $8.99 per month. Apple TV+ and discovery+ both start at $4.99 per month. Those services support simultaneous streams and 4K streams; Netflix makes you pay extra for those features. Both British-focused services we’ve reviewed, Acorn TV and BritBox, are also less expensive at $5.99 and $6.99 per month respectively. HBO Max ($14.99 per month) is now cheaper than Netflix’s Premium plan.
If you do not want to pay for your entertainment, try out one of the best free video streaming services. Our top pick for the category is Peacock because of its lineup of mainstream TV shows and movies.
In addition to its web interface, Netflix offers apps for Android and iOS; media streaming devices such as the Amazon Fire Stick, Apple TV, and Roku; and game consoles such as the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. It even has a desktop app in the Microsoft Store for Windows 10 and one for Facebook’s Portal device.
DVDs on Demand
Netflix began as a DVD-by-mail service, and the company still offers physical discs, but this is now a separate subscription from the Netflix streaming service. You can subscribe directly at dvd.netflix.com (a Netflix company) or add it to your existing Netflix account.
The Standard DVD plans start at $7.99 per month for one disc out at a time and an unlimited number of DVDs per month. There are no late fees with this plan; shipping and returns are free as well. The more expensive $11.99-per-month Premier plan gives you all the same features as the Standard one, but lets you take two discs out at a time. If you want HD Blu-ray DVDs, the prices for the Standard and Premier plans respectively increase to $9.99 and $14.99 per month.
The main reason to use Netflix’s DVD-by-mail service is that it expands Netflix’s catalog. When you can’t find a particular TV show or film to stream, you can often find it among the DVDs. That said, it’s always a good idea to check whether you can buy or rent the same content through Amazon, iTunes, or the Microsoft Store on a PC or Xbox instead. That way you won’t have to wait for an envelope in the mail.
DVD diehards on mobile must use the service’s dedicated app, called DVD Netflix (Android and iOS). Here, subscribers can browse for content and stay on top of incoming and outgoing shipments.
Netflix on the Web
Netflix’s web interface uses a dark background, white text, and large media thumbnails. It looks elegant and is easy to navigate via the top menu’s sections: Home, TV Shows, Movies, Recently Added, and My List. In the upper right-hand corner, you can use the search bar, manage your profiles, access account settings, and open Netflix’s help center. Account settings go beyond what most other video streaming services offer, with options for email communications, closed captions, parental controls, and playback settings. You can also view recent viewing (content watched) and streaming activity (devices used and when). I didn’t experience any performance issues with Netflix’s web interface.
The Home tab highlights current noteworthy content at the top and displays a slightly overwhelming number of horizontally scrolling lists of shows and movies across categories, such as New Releases, Popular on Netflix, and Trending Now. Mousing over any content triggers a video preview with sound; I find these annoying and would like the option to turn them off. If you click on an entry, you can view more detailed information and available episodes, as well as a percentage recommendation based on your watching history. You can also give content thumbs up (or down) ratings. Finally, you can add content to My List to save shows and movies you want to watch.
Netflix allows users to broadly sort the Shows and Movies sections by genre and filter the lists of content further based on recommendations, the release year, and alphabetical order. Oddly, there is no dedicated category in the TV Shows’ or Movies’ genre lists for Netflix’s originals. Instead, you need to scroll down to one of the horizontally scrolling sections to find them all in one place. Given Netflix’s constantly changing library, information on when things are available until would be helpful, along with an option to add reminders for those expirations.
Netflix on Mobile
I had no issues installing or logging in to Netflix’s Android app on a Google Pixel 3 running Android 10 or the iOS variant on an iPhone 8 running iOS 11. The app looks and performs fine and closely resembles the web interface.
You navigate the app via a set of five menu icons at the bottom of the screen: Home, Search, Extras, Downloads, and More. Netflix’s iPhone app offers all the same features as its Android counterpart and looks nearly identical, albeit with some insignificant navigational changes. For instance, the iOS app is missing the Extras icon in the bottom menu bar.
Netflix allows you to download select titles for offline viewing, a now common feature among on-demand video streaming services. The Downloads tab shows everything you have designated for offline viewing, but there’s no search function. When I tested download speeds over PCMag’s fast Wi-Fi network, it took less than two minutes to download a 50-minute episode of Planet Earth II in high quality. Note that some titles expire after 48 hours and others can only be downloaded a certain number of times.
The Home tab lets you sort by TV Shows or Movies, as well as access My List entries. The Extras section shows previews of new and notable content based on your viewing history. The More tab hosts all the important app settings, including Netflix’s Smart Downloads feature, which is useful for binge watching. Once you finish watching a downloaded episode, Netflix deletes that episode and automatically downloads the next one. In testing, this feature worked as advertised. You can set network streaming preferences and manage profiles from this section.
Netflix Playback and Streaming
Netflix’s playback screen is among the best we’ve tested. In addition to the standard 10-second rewind and fast forward buttons, you can also browse a list of all episodes of a show by season, adjust the audio and subtitle language, and jump to the next episode. The progress bar also shows content previews as you scrub. Yet another useful feature, which several other video streaming services have since copied, is a Skip Intro button. I hope Netflix eventually implements a tool like Prime Video’s X-Ray feature, which identifies actors, actresses, and music in a scene. I would also like an option to control the playback resolution.
I tested playback performance on the web over my home Ethernet connection (200Mbps download) by streaming an episode of Bojack Horseman. I didn’t come across any stuttering or lag. I previously streamed an episode of Planet Earth II on my Android device and experienced crisp video and clear audio over PCMag’s Wi-Fi network (15 Mbps download). Sadly, Planet Earth II has long since left Netflix.
Accessibility and Extras
Although Netflix lets you change the audio and subtitle language from the playback screen, you need to head to the web app to customize subtitles. Netflix, along with Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV+, and Disney+, all offer Audio Descriptions for some programming. Netflix explains audio descriptions as vocal narration that “describes what is happening on-screen, including physical actions, facial expressions, costumes, settings and scene changes.” You can find the full list of Netflix titles that support Audio Descriptions on The Audio Description Project’s website.
Netflix is one of the only on-demand video streaming services we’ve reviewed that restricts simultaneous streams and streaming resolutions based on your subscription tier; others offer a single tier with all available features. For instance, Disney+’s only plan allows for four simultaneous streams, which matches Netflix’s highest tier. BritBox outclasses them all with support for five concurrent streams. As mentioned, Netflix also requires you to subscribe to its Premium plan in order to stream shows in 4K, whereas Apple+, Disney+, and Prime Video don’t make users pay extra for this capability.
Netflix, along with those same three services, all support the Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos standards for select titles and on supported devices. Apple TV+ has the advantage here, since it can ensure a higher percentage of its content supports these standards going forward. To find 4K content on Netflix, you can search for 4K and UHD directly; detail pages of shows and movies also show this information.
Netflix offers lots of family-friendly content, as well as specific content for young children. In your account settings on the web, you can block content of certain ratings behind a PIN code or do the same for individual shows and movies. Netflix is notable in that it allows you to create profiles for up to four different users. In addition to the content control benefits, profiles enable Netflix to better tune its recommendations for whoever is watching. Disney+ supports up to seven profiles.
Can You Watch Netflix With a VPN?
Netflix’s available catalog varies greatly by your locale, and you may not be able to watch some shows at all, depending on which country you live in. Likewise, if you travel abroad, you may suddenly find that you can’t continue watching certain shows. In some cases, you can rectify this with a virtual private network (VPN) service. Netflix has been working hard to block VPN access though, to maintain location-based content restrictions.
I tried to access Netflix from my phone and a PC both of which were connected to a US-based Mullvad VPN server. I was not able to stream content on either device.
If you are insistent about finding a VPN that works with Netflix, start with the entries in our roundup of VPN services that worked with Netflix as of the time of our last testing. Note that a VPN that works with Netflix today may be blocked tomorrow. We recommend choosing a VPN based on other factors such as its security practices, value, and performance.
What’s Next for Netflix?
Netflix stocks an enormous array of quirky and quality TV shows, cult hits, family favorites, and trendy original programming. It also offers offline downloads for mobile devices, ad-free streams across all tiers, and convenient features such as Smart Downloads. However, its price has crept up over the years and the launch of high-quality streaming alternatives at significantly lower monthly costs means that it is no longer as good a value. We still give it an Editors’ Choice for on-demand video streaming given its excellent original content and vast library. If you are looking for true cable replacements, try Hulu + Live TV or YouTube TV.
|Starting Price||$8.99 per month|
|Concurrent Streams||1, 2, or 4|
|On-Demand Movies and TV Shows||Yes|
|Offline Downloads on Mobile||Yes|