At long last, though, Lovefilm finally has some serious, subscription-based competition. The US Netflix platform has arrived in the UK with an aggressive advertising campaign that’s forced Lovefilm to respond with pretty much equal ‘airwave saturation’.
All of which means it’s high time for us to put both services through their paces, to see which comes out on top.
Comparing the prices of Lovefilm with Netflix is a bit complicated. At least, it is where Lovefilm is concerned. Though Lovefilm’s pricing starts at just £4.99 a month if you’re signing up for only its streaming service, this price isn’t actually an ‘all-in’ price. Some of the most recent and popular movies are contained within the Lovefilm Box Office service – where you’ll have to pay extra per-view fees.
Although Lovefilm advertises its entry-level £4.99 deal as a ‘special launch price’, it has told MSN Tech & Gadgets that tariff will remain in place “indefinitely”.
Netflix is dearer up front, costing £5.99 a month for its streaming platform. However, its pricing structure is much simpler, since it turns out that this is a flat fee that (currently, anyway) gets you everything the platform has to offer.
If you’re a film lover, this one is no contest. Lovefilm has tens of thousands of titles available on DVD and Blu-ray (though the number available for streaming is around 7,000). Netflix doesn’t list how many films it has available for streaming, but it’s currently nowhere near as many as Lovefilm has.
This might seem odd, given that Netflix in the US has a vast catalogue of titles. But the annoying fact is that rights to movies are negotiated on a territory-by-territory basis.
There are a couple of issues that muddy Lovefilm’s victory here a little. First, of those 7,000 or so streaming films on Lovefilm, not all are free with your subscription. Just over 1,000 of them are part of the Lovefilm Box Office service, where you’ll need to spend up to £3.50 more to watch them.
You can access all of the Netflix movies without spending any more than the basic subscription.
Perhaps the most annoying thing is that each service has exclusive deals with some film studios. So neither platform will likely ever be able to provide a truly comprehensive film selection. But such is the way of the commercial world in such matters, we guess.
While Lovefilm currently boasts the biggest film selection, Netflix is ahead on TV shows.
That’s pretty impressive considering how new Netflix is to the UK and that Lovefilm has around 2000 TV episodes to its name.
But Netflix appears to have seen where it could grasp an early advantage over its much more established rival and gone for it.
Particularly notable is the way Netflix has secured access to a huge catalogue of BBC archive shows. But there’s also a decent selection of new US series, including such juggernauts as Prison Break and cult favourites like South Park and Dexter.
As with its films, it’s hard not to make a negative comparison with the number of TV shows on the UK Netflix platform and the far higher number available in the US. But let’s not get too miserable about this when Netflix is still ahead of Lovefilm in this increasingly important area of on-demand viewing.
It should be noted that Lovefilm is in the process of adding more content from the BBC, but all we can talk about here is what’s actually available.
When it comes to navigating movie content, both platforms do a respectable job on all their compatible devices, with sensible genre groupings and effective search/browse interfaces.
But Netflix enjoys a distinct advantage where TV shows are concerned. While Lovefilm treats episodes of a series as an individual entity, with no real ‘cataloguing’ information, Netflix organises them into series and into episodes within each series, making it much easier to track down a particular episode.
The fact that Netflix’s charging approach is more straightforward than Lovefilm’s also makes its user environment feel more seamless and ‘complete’.
Still, Lovefilm has an advantage of its own here. While both platforms are much of a muchness when it comes to PC and console use, Lovefilm’s tablet/smartphone app is slicker and better optimised for touchscreen devices.
So long as you have a decent broadband connection (at least 5Mbps by our reckoning), Netflix wins this crucial part of the ‘battle’ hands down.
For starters, Netflix supports HD streaming while Lovefilm does not. This alone could be enough to persuade many film and TV enthusiasts to pick Netflix over Lovefilm.
Netflix also supports 5.1-channel surround sound audio tracks while Lovefilm only delivers stereo – another huge benefit of the Netflix system so far as technically aware movie fans are concerned.
It should be said that Netflix’s HD images aren’t as crisp or detailed as those you would get from a Blu-ray player. But they’re certainly much cleaner and sharper than those of a typical standard definition broadcast.
With Lovefilm, on the other hand, we experienced quality levels that actually sometimes dipped below what we’d expect to see from a merely average standard definition digital broadcast.
Overall, there’s a yawning gulf between the two in video and audio terms and it’s surely something Lovefilm needs to work on right away (it currently limits its streaming to just 2Mbps).
Not everything on Netflix is available in HD. But there’s enough to ensure that you could probably get by watching only HD if you so desire.
Both Lovefilm and Netflix are available on home games consoles: Netflix on the Xbox 360, PS3 and Nintendo Wii, Lovefilm on X360 and PS3. They’re also available on PCs and Macs, plus most portable smart devices, be they tablets or phones.
There is one area, though, where Lovefilm currently enjoys a significant distribution advantage: smart TVs. Samsung, LG, Sony and Cello TVs now sport Lovefilm apps, so that you can sync your Lovefilm account with your smart TV and stream video from its servers directly onto your main living room screen. Netflix apps for TVs, on the other hand, are still relatively rare.
However, this Lovefilm advantage will be short-lived. It seems likely that most, if not all, of the main TV brands will be bagging Netflix apps for their Smart TVs at some point in the next few months.
Both Lovefilm and Netflix have their own distinct advantages and disadvantages. Lovefilm’s main strengths are the size of its movie library and the fact that one account can give you so many different ways of getting hold of stuff to watch (DVDs, Blu-rays, internet streaming and smart TV streaming).
Netflix, while restricting you to streaming only, has a larger and better-organised TV library and, crucially, is capable of streaming HD pictures and 5.1-channel audio whereas Lovefilm is currently stuck with standard definition and stereo sound.