Netflix is an odd digital product. While the general idea of streaming full-screen movies is a simple enough premise, somehow, the service manages to look different on every single platform. On the iPad, Netflix is an extension of the web experience, a bloated browser UI that feels less tangible than it should. On the PS3, it’s a clickable library of icons. On the Xbox 360 (which is Netflix’s best manifestation to date), it’s always changing, having been redesigned at least three times in a few years.
In all this, the Netflix desktop experience has been largely devoid of design innovation, which is particularly strange since its framework is the basis of their iOS app. But a new redesign has Netflix looking a lot better on desktops, building the innovation right into the player itself.
So say you’re watching a TV show but you want to check out another episode. A handy popup menu now allows you to quickly hop to any episode in the entire series, all without leaving a full-screen video. Click any episode number, and the UI extends to offer a thumbnail preview and quick synopsis. It’s great, really, really great. I hope that Netflix builds on this UI element so that, during movies, this same button leads me to other Ryan Gosling films.
Other controls are similarly wonderful. You can skip to the next episode with the touch of a button, add captions, change the language, or toggle HD without sorting through a mess of buttons. And in a turn to the beautiful, large typography labels the movie or TV episode you’re viewing whenever it’s paused for a while. (Remember when Zune started doing this big type trick? I’m glad to see that, even though Zune flopped, the big fonts for exploring media have stuck around.)
Netflix’s general site UI remains slow and thick to explore, but once you’re actually playing media, the service shifts into something smarter and svelter. It’s exactly the same UI trend we’re seeing on the Xbox 360’s version of Netflix and HBO Go. Once you actually start watching media, the UI keeps you inside the movie screens themselves as much as possible, rather than perpetually kicking you back to the larger library to select the next episode of a show you’d like to watch.
(Xbox Netflix does this so much so, in fact, that it will begin auto-streaming your next episode right within the show’s general information screen as soon as you finish the last one, assuming that you’re looking to binge on Battlestar Galactica or Breaking Bad–which you should be.)
With video services packing more and more options into the players themselves, it will be interesting to see how our viewing habits change. I, for one, tend to get overwhelmed by all of the dusty choices in my own Netflix queue–so much so that I often just shut it down before I watch anything.
But when I make the plunge to stream some Archer, and Netflix teases me with the next episode without ever pulling me from the playback experience? I can only think two things: I really like Archer. And sure, I’ll watch another.
[Hat tip: GigaOM]