Movie rental death match: Blockbuster Online vs. Netflix
February 19, 2008 · Print This Article
I’m a huge fan of online movie rentals. It wasn’t many years ago that finding a good selection of DVD’s at a rental store was difficult. Remember that? When the “DVD section” was just one small rack in the corner? Once DVD’s became commonly available at stores, they were commonly unavailable by demand. Netflix enters the scene with their online rental service. Never go to the video store again, never wait in the weekend lines, get your movies fast. And Netflix dominated. In 2004, they held 90 percent of the online rental business. Of course, I wasn’t ready to give up that local access to movies, so I didn’t venture into a subscription until Blockbuster Online was released, and with it came quite a few exciting features.
I was reasonably happy with Blockbuster for well over a year, but then made the move to Netflix for comparison purposes. Then back to Blockbuster when the Total Access package came out (although it wasn’t branded as that at the time). Recently I decided to give the two a head-to-head comparison in a movie rental death match. I’ve used both services when they were immature and now again when they’ve matured and responded to competition with each other. What follows is my side-by-side comparison of these rental giants.
I’ve been asked why I didn’t include smaller rental houses like DVD Empire, or specialty house like GreenCine, in my comparison. Have you ever used those services? I have. They’re awful. Netflix and Blockbuster are the only two services that offer a consistent and high-quality user experience, it’s as simple as that.
There are obviously many similarities between the two services, and I suspect that the determination of which service is better for you will boil down to a few simple tradeoffs, or you’ll be attracted to one of the few differentiators between the two services. Said another way, you really can’t go wrong with either of these services, but you’ll probably find that one is a better fit for your viewing habits.
Quick Overview of Online Rental Services
If you’re just now looking into online rentals, here’s a birds eye view of how they work:
For one flat monthly fee, you can rent as many movies as you like, but only a limited number of movies at one time. The number of movies you can have out at one time depends on the movie plan you’ve selected; more movies checked out = higher subscription cost.
There are no late fees, so you can keep the movies as long as you like. Postage is paid both ways, so there are no mailing fees. When you’re finished with a movie, just slip it into the postage paid mailer and drop it in your mailbox.
You determine the movies you wan to watch by building a queue. You can browse the online rental site, adding all of the movies you’d like to see to your queue, prioritizing the queue as you go. When it comes time to ship a movie, they grab the next available movie near the top of your queue and send it out.
|Cost||Rentals at a time||Rentals per month|
Blockbuster is a bit more complicated because they offer a mail-only option (similar to Netflix, but slightly cheaper), and the Total Access option. Total Access is further broken down into Total Access and Total Access Premium. Total Access allows you to exchange a defined number of mailed DVD’s in person at a local BlockBuster store instead of returning them via the mail. Great for those days when you really want a new movie to watch.
With the mail only option, they are obviously targeting the price shoppers, but those plans make no sense to me. Blockbuster’s biggest differentiator is the in store exchanges; without them, they’re a poor Netflix knock-off. You can, however, switch from Total Access to mail only and vice versa whenever you like. These options are new to Blockbuster’s plans, and they’re smart. Blockbuster’s competitive advantage has always been physical stores, and now they cater to all types of movie viewers, including those who primarily rent in person but who might want mailed access as well.
|Cost||Rentals at a time||Rentals per month||Exchanges per month|
|$15.99||3 DVD’s||Unlimited||$1.99 each|
|$13.99||2 DVD’s||Unlimited||$1.99 each|
|$8.99||1 DVD||Unlimited||$1.99 each|
|$3.99||1 DVD||2||$1.99 each|
Personally, I’ve always used the 3-movies-at-a-time rental option. I can’t justify the minimal costs savings when I’m trading off the movie selection. Plus, we have wildly differing movies tastes in this house, so at any time we might have documentaries, art house flicks, mainstream movies, romantic comedies, and kids’ selections. But for homes with less eclectic tastes, you might be able to get by with two-at-a-time.
Depth and Breadth of Selection
Blockbuster advertises a selection of 78,000 movies, whereas NetFlix advertises a selection of 100,000 movies. Netflix has a broader selection of independent, art house, exercise, and specialty titles. The depth of selection differs dramatically. One of my chief complaints with Blockbuster is that I only had a rough idea of what movies might be sent to me. After building a queue of 100 movies with each service, Netflix listed all but one of my movies as immediately available. And they shipped them in the order that they were listed in my queue. With Blockbuster, almost all of the new releases in my queue were available only after a “short wait” or “long wait.” Over a third of the total movies in my queue were not available to be shipped, and I often received movies that were down in the 8 to 10 area of my queue.
Update: note though that the “throttling” issue with Netflix has been confirmed by a number of viewers. While Netflix hasn’t confirmed this, in my experience, it seems that they limit the number of latest releases that you have immediate access to if you are a heavy renter. That is, if a movie was released on DVD within the past month and you are a heavy renter, only some of those movies will be listed as available to you. I suspect that these titles are saved for new members or infrequent renters. This is unconfirmed!
Turnaround time for both services was good, but Blockbuster had the edge, turning around movies every two to three days, whereas Netflix almost always required 3 days. I’ve heard that Blockbuster has an agreement with the Post Office where the Post Office scans the bar codes of returned movies to alert Blockbuster to movies that will be delivered to their receiving centers in a day or so, giving them earlier access to inventory updates.
I have heard of people being throttled for renting too many movies too quickly from Netflix. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of this conclusion as it has never been my experience. In my experience, the throttling is as I mentioned above: new releases are not as available, but turnaround time is still consistent. Should you choose Netflix and are a frequent movie watcher, keep an eye on this.
NetFlix offers both user and critic reviews, as compared to Blockbuster’s user reviews only. The quality of reviews seemed to be much higher on Netflix as well. Netflix seems to attract more movies buffs, or more buffs with tastes that are a bit outside the mainstream releases. Update: Blockbuster has made improvements on the amount of reviews available, so the services are now comparable.
Both services offer nice Ajax interfaces to build and maintain your queue. This is huge step forward from the last time I used Blockbuster’s service — the queue management was atrocious at the time. Netflix edges Blockbuster out here, offering up similar movies to the ones in my queue as suggestions for further adds. This saved me quite a bit of time, and allowed me to build my queue in about half the time as it took at Blockbuster. Netflix also has a pretty good learning recommendation engine that begins to predict with reasonable accuracy movies you might like. Blockbuster, on the other hand, makes it faster to find movies thanks to their slightly more organized interface.
Blockbuster offers online rentals and instore rentals, provided you subscribe to the Total Access program. Netflix offers online rentals, and has a catalog of 12,000 movies that can be downloaded on demand. I love this on demand feature! They have recently expanded their caalog with the addition of Starz Play, and the TV series rentals are very appealing. You can watch series from HBO, Showtime, and network television, and you can find quite a few TV classics as well (Simon and Simon, Buck Rogers, etc.)
For most people, I suspect the decision will come down to the differentiators between the services. That is, do your prefer the ability to walk into a local video store to rent a movie, or are there times when you absolutely want a release and are willing to drive for it? If you find this important, it’s tough to beat Blockbuster’s offering.
Or, is the greater availability and the the ability to watch movies and TV shows on demand more important to you? Netflix clearly has the edge in this area.
For me, Netflix’s depth of movies and consistent turnaround allowed me to time which movies I’d be receiving near the weekends, negating the need for in store rentals. The ease of queue management, a better recommendation engine, and a better selection of movies were icing on the cake. I kept Netflix and canceled Blockbuster this time around, but Blockbuster’s game rental options, and the addition of new in-store plans might have me swaying back to Blockbuster soon.
Both services offer free two-week trials, and both are easy (and hassle-free) to cancel, so if you’re on the fence, don’t feel bad about giving them both a test drive to see which one works best for you.