- Huge collection of films and TV shows
- Good value
- Wide platform availability
- Picture quality very variable, even with HD
- Only stereo audio
- Aspect ratios not always correct
- Review Price: £4.99
- More than 7,000 titles
- Wide availability
- Box Office section for latest titles
- HD versions of some titles
- Stereo sound
Although we’ve had a look at the LoveFilm ‘Instant’ movie streaming service before, a lot has happened to the platform since then. Most of it good.
For starters, in May it finally and crucially introduced HD streaming. Also in recent times it finalised a raft of pretty major (and in some cases exclusive) content deals with the likes of Miramax, Universal and Twentieth Century Fox, Warner Bros., Sony Pictures, Disney, eOne and Studio Canal, underlining what was already a pretty clear content advantage over its biggest rival, Netflix.
See our Netflix Vs Lovefilm head to head
Then in July the latest subscription figures suggested that LoveFilm was winning the war with Netflix, with Lovefilm hitting a two million-plus user base (up 56 per cent in a year) by March versus 1.2 million users on Netflix.
What this all means, of course, is that the time is right to have another look at the new, improved LoveFilm Instant. And the Amazon-owned service gets off to a good start courtesy of its extremely wide availability.
Basically you can get it pretty much anywhere, be it a Mac or PC; iPad; the Xbox 360; the PS3; Smart TVs from Samsung, Sony and LG and many ‘Smart’ Blu-ray players. The Nintendo Wii is out in the cold at present, but its non-HD output doesn’t make it the best movie partner anyway.
There are some inconsistencies across these platforms, though, such as that while full 1080 HD is available through PCs and Macs, you only get 720p through the Xbox, Blu-ray players and Samsung/LG Smart TVs. The most notable problem, though, is the curious lack of HD support on the PS3. This is a potentially serious shortcoming for people who mostly use the PS3 as their online portal.
LoveFilm has stated that the lack of HD on the PS3 is only a temporary glitch, but hasn’t yet put a date on when the issue will be fixed.
You also don’t get HD on the iPad, due to LoveFilm not currently having the rights to stream HD via Apple’s device. But this is as we would expect, and isn’t a major problem in our opinion given the relatively small size of the iPad’s screen.
Turning next to LoveFilm’s pricing, it initially looks very attractive indeed at just £4.99 a month. This is a quid a month less than Netflix’s service. However, while Netflix’s price lets you access all the content at its disposal, you do need to be aware that this £4.99 sum does not give you access to everything in LoveFilm’s lockers. For Lovefilm also features a (offline for “maintenance” at the time of writing) Box Office section into which it puts the newest releases.
Before anyone gets too annoyed by this, though, it’s only by carrying such a Box Office section that LoveFilm Instant can get hold of the latest releases, thanks to the separate release windows that exist for such content. Netflix doesn’t offer any of these latest ‘early window’ releases, hence it doesn’t have anything you need to pay extra for.
Strong content package
If you don’t like the idea of paying extra for anything, though, then you should be able to take serious comfort from the fact that the main Lovefilm package included for £4.99 now carries a massive 7,575 TV and film titles (3,948 TV episodes, and 3627 films). As you would expect from this, you can always find something interesting, good or both to watch without having to splash the cash on Box Office stuff.
We opted to test LoveFilm on an Xbox 360, an Apple Mac, and an iPad, in the hope that the new HD available on the first two of these platforms would truly transform the previously depressingly old-fashioned experience associated with watching LoveFilm Instant.
Let’s look first at the LoveFilm interface, which is actually pretty good for the most part. On Mac we were very impressed by the effort LoveFilm puts into keeping you up to date with the biggest new titles it’s added, and the huge amount of options at your disposal for searching out stuff you want to watch.
Also impressive is the trouble LoveFilm has gone to to make plenty of its vast catalogue of stuff sound interesting, via themed compilations, and connections with new films just launched at the cinema. The success of this sort of thing is greatly bolstered, of course, by the large amounts of content LoveFilm has to draw from.
Plenty to catch the eye
The reasonably small size and presentation of the cover art for titles on all of the internet server pages is good too, in that it allows LoveFilm to draw attention to an awful lot of titles at once, making it more likely that you’ll quickly find something you want to watch.
LoveFilm on a desktop/laptop
It’s good to see as well that LoveFilm understands the importance of HD to many streamers, separating HD out into its own area, and making sure anything that’s available in HD has a clear ‘HD’ logo superimposed on its cover art.
More kudos is due to LoveFilm for the sense of community it’s managed to build up on its site, especially through the huge amount of user scores and reviews available for even the most obscure titles.
Finally in the plus column on the Mac LoveFilm home page is the amount of information on each film that pops up when you hold your cursor over a title you’re interested in. Ultimately the whole interface is busy, friendly and useful – pretty much everything you could possibly ask for, in fact.
The iPad interface is very slick too. In fact, it’s one of the best we’ve seen, making full use of all the iPad’s navigational tricks, as well as delivering a logical layout and achieving what feels like a good balance between using manageably large icons yet also populating the screen with plenty of content.
As for the Xbox, again it’s clear right away that LoveFilm has put considerable effort into optimising the interface for the device, following the general layout favoured (not to everyone’s tastes, it must be said!) by the Xbox’s main interface. This makes it intuitive to use, and again we felt impressed by the ease with which we were able to find content we were interested in watching. The way the system filters movies down with each letter you add into the search field works well too.
We were initially troubled not to easily find any way of filtering films so that only HD titles were shown. But actually the option is there; it’s just unhelpfully hidden away inside the ‘Collections’ menu sub-section.
While we’re on the subject of HD, our explorations reveal that the number of titles available in the high def format isn’t as high as we would have hoped. Of the 50 most recently added titles at the time of our tests, only 10 were available in HD. Or out of 50 films starting with ‘B’, 19 were available in HD. Figures which suggest that somewhere between 20 and 40 per cent of titles are currently available in HD.
Finally we get to the quality of LoveFilm’s latest streaming service. Will the addition of HD and, presumably, some cleverer adaptive streaming technology than LoveFilm has delivered before improve things from the service’s previously below-par AV experience?
The short answer is yes. But not quite as much as we’d hoped.
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.
Score in detail
Image Quality 7
Sound Quality 5