If movies are my heroin (they are), then Netflix is my dealer. As mentioned above, Netflix is a way to rent DVDs over the Web. Without late fees. Without standing in line. And you can rent as many as you'd like in a given month. If you watch a lot of movies and your tastes run perhaps a bit more obscure than what's stocked at the local chain store, then Netflix provides a service which you may be very interested in.

Note: Despite my great love for the company, I am not a shill for Netflix. I've used the service for more than three years, but I am not employed by the company nor do I own any stock or stand to gain financially in any way from its success. I just really like it.

How does it work?

First, you head over to the company's Web site at www.netflix.com. You can sign up for a trial plan if you'd like to test things out. But, basically you'll give Netflix your credit card number. Then you'll choose a plan. As of February 2003, the company has four plans:

  • Economy: $13.95/month -- but you only get two at a time, and you're limited to a maximum of four movies a month, total. Probably best for the casual movie watcher who only goes to the video store a few times in a month.
  • Standard: $19.95/month -- you can have three movies out at once, and you get as many rentals per month as you'd like. The plan most people (that I know, anyway) use.
  • Plus: $29.95/month -- five movies out at a time, unlimited rentals per month. Seems a bit excessive to me, but if you've got a lot of time on your hands, might be tempting.
  • Ultimate: $39.95/month -- eight movies out, unlimited rentals per month. I don't really think it's possible to watch movies quickly enough to make use of this plan. The only thing I can think of is you've got a large family or a bunch of roommates or something.

Once you're signed up, you go ahead and browse or search through Netflix's list of available DVDs. If you see one you're interested in, you click a little "Rent" button. That movie then gets added into your rental queue.

The queue is one of the coolest inventions Netflix has, in that it makes the entire experience feasible. You've got a limit of how many DVDs you can have out at once, determined by the price of your plan. The standard plan, for instance, gives you three movies at once. This means that Netflix will go ahead and mail the top three in-stock choices in your queue to you. If there's a movie in your top three choices that's out-of-stock, Netflix skips it and goes down the list. When you send a movie back, Netflix releases the next available movie on the queue. The idea is that, so long as you have a sufficiently long queue, you'll always have movies checked out.

It seems that most people enjoy making really long queues, and indeed it's easy to do so once you see how many movies there are that you're dying to see. Browsing and searching through Netflix's extensive catalogue makes it easy to build a very large queue quickly. In fact, I've noticed that it has become a badge of honor among my Netflix-using friends to have the longest queue possible. No, I don't get it either.

What about shipping?

Shipping is free. Netflix pays shipping costs to get the movie to your house and each DVD comes in a resealable, postage prepaid envelope. When you're done watching the movie, you just put the DVD back in its mailer, seal it, and put it in the mail. All shipping is done via first-class mail.

The length of time it takes to get movies is actually quite short. Netflix has 13 different distribution centers scattered throughout the United States, so it should only take a day or two for the DVDs to get from Netflix to a renter, and vice-versa.

I'm a few hours away from Netflix's distribution center in Los Angeles (specifically in Santa Anna), and Netflix gets my movies the day after I put them in the mailbox. So if I put a DVD in the mail on a Monday, Netflix has it on Tuesday. The company's turn-around time has always been fantastic, in my experience, and they usually get a new movie in the mail within hours of their reception of an old one. So when I mail a movie on Monday, I have a replacement by Wednesday. Obviously, times may vary depending upon your proximity to a distribution center, but here's the complete list:

The company says it plans to have 70 percent of its subscriber base to have overnight delivery by the end of 2003. Netflix had more than 850,000 subscribers as of January, 2003 so it seems like continued expansion is part of the company's goals.

Other Benefits

Beyond a doubt, my favorite feature of Netflix is its vast library of movies to choose from. The company claims it offers 13,500 titles, and in my experience it has had almost every Region 1 DVD available (it doesn't carry some out-of-print titles and it doesn't rent porn anymore). There are a lot of really great, obscure movies that I'm never going to be able to rent at Blockbuster or Hollywood Video, and I use Netflix for getting my hands on these.

I really like the queue system, as it's a handy way of keeping track of movies I want to see (being a huge geek, I have an Excel spreadsheet with a list of 175+ movies I want to see, but Netflix was nice before I built that).

Also, like many other Web sites (such as Amazon.com), Netflix encourages users to rate movies. Once you've rated a few movies, it begins building a profile of your tastes and then recommends movies it thinks you'll like. Surprisingly, this system works pretty damn well and I've selected some movies based upon its recommendations that I ended up really liking. Of course, as of this writing I've rated around 650 movies on Netflix, so it may be that it just has a lot of data to work with. Nonetheless, the rating system is easy to use and is elegantly incorporated into the site. Wherever a movie title is listed, there are stars next to it. You just select how many stars you think the movie deserves out of five and it logs your response.

I've also found Netflix's customer service to have always been helpful, though I can't say I've had much need of it. But when I've received a scratched disc or something, they've been quick in replacing it. One time a movie I sent back got lost in the mail, and the company treats its customers with respect (what a novel concept today!) and believed me. It's the company's policy to not charge customers for movies that are lost in the mail unless the customer starts losing a disproportionate number of DVDs. Try telling Blockbuster that you returned a movie when they claim you didn't!

The company also seems to be loyal to their older customers. I've been using the service since February 2000, and back then the prices were lower. The company has always allowed me to keep my original plan of paying $20 per month and getting four movies at once instead of the now-standard three. I find that nice.

What's bad?

Honestly, I don't have many complaints. Discs seem to be dirty a lot, but since I very rarely rent DVDs from anywhere else I'm not sure how common this is. Only once has a movie been so badly damaged that a scene wouldn't play. Normally, dirty discs just skip a bit, and some need to be cleaned. I suspect the mailers may not be incredibly easy on the DVDs, but it's a minor annoyance and not a major problem.

The other problem with the service is inherent in the business model. You can't just go and rent a movie on the spur of the moment. You have to do a little bit of planning, and it kind of sucks when you're in the mood for a comedy and all the movies you have out are weighty dramas. Given the fast turn-around time, though, this is becoming less of a problem. With a little bit of foresight, it's pretty easy to ensure a nice variety of movies for the weekend.

Otherwise, as should be obvious from the tone of this write-up, I'm a very satisfied customer. I strongly recommend the service to most film buffs or people who just watch a lot of movies. If you only rent a few DVDs per month and most of those are mainstream new releases, a standard video store is probably more cost-efficient. Given that the chain stores seem to charge around $4-5 for a DVD rental, it makes sense to me to consider Netflix if you rent four or movies per month. If nothing else, what you save in not paying late fees should make it worth the subscription.

Note: Edame has informed me about a similar service, called Webflix which is based out of the U.K. The Web site is at http://www.webflix.co.uk. The two companies don't appear to be related in any sort of official capacity, but the services seem similar. I encourage anyone with more information on Webflix to node it and/or contact me.

Update: March 3, 2003 -- Sometimes there are some weird coincidences. dannye had signed up for the service shortly before this writeup was posted Feb. 25. Netflix has since announced that it signed up its millionth customer that same week. I also know that riverrun signed up right after this writeup was posted. Did E2 put Netflix over a million? It's quite possible...


Most information for this writeup came from my own experience. Statistics on pricing/factual information about the company came from the Netflix Web site located at http://www.netflix.com.