Watching LoveFilm on the Xbox 360 through our national average 6MB broadband pipe - the same pipe we’ve used for all of our video streaming tests - HD run-throughs of Kill Bill and Robin Hood both appeared in picture quality that sometimes looked more like soft and cloudy standard definition than HD. At no point - predictably, to be fair - do you get pictures that look anything like as good as Blu-rays. More tellingly, though, nor do Lovefilm’s HD pictures look as consistently crisp as Netflix’s HD films.
LoveFilm states that you only need a 4Mbps pipe to enjoy 720p HD on the Xbox, so there should be no technical reason why our connection should cause the level of softness we frequently experienced, especially if there’s a lot of motion in the picture.
It doesn’t help matters, either, that motion regularly looks a little jerky, while compression blocking artefacts crop up quite commonly and are hard to ignore. These sort of problems can only be down to LoveFilm’s delivery infrastructure not currently being as effective as Netflix’s.
HD pictures do, thankfully, look quite a better on our Macs, with a much sharper finish, lots more detail and fewer compression artefacts (using exactly the same broadband pipe used for the Xbox 360 tests, incidentally). However, even here the picture softens up and starts to artefact quite severely when there’s a lot of motion in the picture. Camera pans, in particular, can end up looking quite a mess.
Obviously any streamed HD service will need to compress its pictures to some extent. But from what we’ve seen, LoveFilm’s compression engine isn’t as clever as it could be. And the sort of inconsistency this causes quite often - more often than with Netflix - leads to you being distracted from what you’re watching, especially if you’re using a quite large TV or projection screen.
We should stress at this point that LoveFilm states that you need a broadband feed of 12Mbps to enjoy full 1080p on a PC or Mac, so clearly our ‘national average’ feed wasn’t delivering us that during our tests. If you are lucky enough to have a 12Mbps-plus feed, then your experience could/should be better.
Going back to our own Xbox 360 LoveFilm experience, it’s slightly sullied by a rather grey look to dark areas of the picture. There’s some evidence of this with Netflix as well, but it’s nowhere near as strong. Fortunately this black level issue does not seem to affect other LoveFilm platforms.
Another issue we still have with LoveFilm is that it isn’t as consistently respectful of aspect ratios as most film enthusiasts would like. For instance, it showed Kill Bill in a 16:9 ratio, even though it was shot in 2.35:1. Such issues were rare during our tests, but they shouldn’t really be there at all.
And still we’re not done with the niggles. For it transpires that LoveFilm continues to only stream stereo audio with its films on most devices. Only selected LG and Samsung Blu-rays players and TVs benefit from Dolby 5.1 audio at present.
Having to listen to films like The Dark Knight in mere stereo when many of Netflix’s films are available with either surround sound or, in a few cases, Dolby Digital 5.1 will come as a crushing disappointment to any serious film fan with a surround sound system.
We guess if you don’t have a surround sound system and just tend to watch films using the speakers in your TV or computer then LoveFilm’s stereo sound might not bother you too much. But if Netflix can support surround sound without its streams falling apart, why can’t LoveFilm?
The world of video streaming still feels all too often like a frustrating place to be, plagued by either content shortages or poor AV quality. LoveFilm thankfully gets the content side of things more right than any other streaming service out there right now (though it’s by no means comprehensive), and technically it has managed to advance some way from the really quite shoddy state it was in prior to its May HD launch.
However, its HD video standards still tend to fall short of Netflix’s, and delivering only stereo soundtracks continues to feel like a bizarre and unnecessary blast from the past.
In other words, while it’s good to see LoveFilm finally at least trying to make things better, there’s still a ways to go before the service totally wins us over.