Tuesday, 21 January 2020

Using Netflix: A first glance

Login is badly designed but it’s true that I’m often grumpy and quick to make decisions without thinking too deeply about what I’m doing. I’m also typically inept when it comes to technology, especially what is delivered online. Early on Saturday morning it took me a good 30 minutes to subscribe to Netflix (easy enough) and to log in (a nightmare), including a live chat.

Getting a plan was quick and I completed this part of the process in about two minutes. I chose three films, two of which I had already watched and (somewhat) enjoyed, in order (as requested) to give the company an idea of my viewing preferences. These were ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ (2018, dir Jon M Chu), ‘Aquaman’ (2018, dir James Wan), and ‘The Irishman’ (2019, dir Martin Scorsese; I hadn’t seen this but had wanted to see it).

Once set up at my PC I went to the TV and turned it on. I then selected “Netflix” in the top-level menu shown after you press the power button on the TV’s remote control. Once I had done that I was confronted by an interface in Japanese as my daughter had been the person who had viewed Netflix on this device. So I had to scroll through the controls with my poor Japanese (I had never really learned to read the language despite living there for many years) to find the place where you log out.

After a few false starts I got there eventually, but then when I pressed the button to log in I was unable to change the email address used for this procedure. The password field was blank and there was a keyboard on the screen to use to punch mine in, but there was no way to change the login email address from my daughter’s email address to mine.

Frustrated, I went back to the PC and fired up live chat. The person who replied asked me the problem and I explained. He then got me to give him my TV’s model number (later he would ask me for the year of manufacture) but he didn’t seem to understand how to solve the problem, so I went back to the TV and clicked on “Reset my password”.

The TV said I should enter my email address so that a password resent link could be sent to me, so I dutifully plugged this information into the interface. Below this was a button saying “Confirm” but there wasn’t any other instruction so I just went back to my PC and refreshed the email client software using the “Send/Receive” button. I did this several times while telling the staffer what I had done and complaining that no email was forthcoming. When this had gone on for a couple of minutes, I went back to the TV and hit “Confirm”. Dragging my sorry carcass back to the PC, I refreshed the email client software several more times.

Then, after a lag, three emails arrived from the company, one of which had a link to reset the password. Using this I navigated to a web page, put in a new password, and moved back to the TV, where I plugged it into the interface.

I got in but would have to say the process was unnecessarily complex for a service that wants to get and keep subscribers. To prove that the company can do things well if it wants to, the emails they send are complete and attentive. Here’s what the email said that was sent after I added a phone number to my profile:
We've added your phone number ending in [redacted] to your account, as you asked. Your phone number will be used if you forget your password and for important account messages. 
This is very encouraging and as it should be. It’s absolutely what you would expect from a service of this kind as it adequately fulfills a real need. When I changed my password, the email I received said:
We’ve changed your password, as you asked. To view or change your account information, visit your account.  
If you did not ask to change your password, we are here to help secure your account; just contact us. 
Again, this is exactly what I would have expected to see. Why logging in was so difficult was harder to compute. I had had problems with my digital newspaper subscription but only while overseas (logging in via my iPhone required a bit of effort). It felt odd to be stymied at every turn in my own living room.

Once I got the thing working, however, I enjoyed the tailored home page where you can browse by type of program. The interface tells you what kind of program it is you are focused on. It might be a movie; if so, you see the runtime in the first line of the description. It might be a TV series; if so, you see how many seasons it ran for (Netflix seasons seem to have 10 episodes). Most episodes in a TV series seem to last about one hour. Some TV series are limited and others run for several seasons.

This sort of information helps you plan your time. If you have three hours to kill you might want to watch a feature film. If you only have an hour, you can select an episode from a TV series. Such information is available simply by moving focus to a displayed item – each item has an image, in the same way that, in the old days, video cases had a picture on the front – and part of the screen area is reserved for the display of descriptive data relating to the item in focus. Changing focus by pressing an arrow button on the remote control lets you see information for a different item.

Once an episode of a TV series has ended the next one begins to load, so if you want to exit you have to first press the “Stop” button. On your home page, the next time you log in, you can see TV series of which you have watched a few episodes, and if you click on the same item the next ep is set in a prompt, so you can immediately begin watching it. The database remembers what you have seen, therefore, and this is convenient.

Classification (“Action and adventure”, “TV series” etcetera) allows you to browse for new material on the basis of the image and description I’ve described. If you want to see what kind of material is available behind one of these icons, you simply use the remote arrow button to bring it into focus and you can see, at the top of the screen, an item’s description. You press the “Enter” button to select it or scroll with the remote to bring another item into focus. If you select an item, you still have to hit “Enter” at the next screen to start watching it.

You can add movies and TV shows to My List on the home page by clicking on an item when it is in focus, and scrolling to and clicking on “Add to my list”. To remove from the list titled “Continue watching” (also on the home page) movies you have started but didn’t finish (and don’t want to watch more of) you can go to the Netflix page on the web and, after logging in, visit the “Account” page. There, a YouTube video told me, you can see a page full of your viewing history. If you click on the icon to the right of the movie you want to unlist, it will be removed from the list on your TV after 24 hours.

One weakness is how Netflix needs to connect to the internet at the start of a session. You see a rotating circle, incomplete in parts, much as you see something with MS-Windows when it is updating software or logging out at the end of the day. This “busy” symbol is the same as you find on your PC. If the TV cannot find the server it is trying to access you get a dialog that allows you to retry. On one occasion I had to click on the “Retry” button to get access to the database. On another occasion, as a storm passed over the city, Netflix and Amazon Prime (which I signed up for yesterday) wouldn’t let me watch a movie. Then Netflix wouldn’t even show the home screen. Then I watched an episode of a TV series on Prime and went to bed. The next morning both were working fine.

After you have finished a Netflix session, you press the “Exit” button to go back to the TV’s main menu and, from there, you can go to Prime  or to free-to-view TV such as the ABC News channel. Snacking TV is best with free-to-view because you don’t have to commit a large chunk of time. There are some things that are good about the past, so if you have 15 minutes free you might view 15 minutes of a Netflix ep or, more likely in my case, I will just scroll through the channels available on free-to-view until I find a channel that doesn’t have an annoying ad for Ole or Trivago.

Ads are beautiful things and they tell you about community standards, but with excessive repetition they pall. I do, as a general rule, like ads for cars and furniture but ads for other types of products can also be good. Production quality is usually high, although I don’t much like the demonstration segments on the morning shows, and ads often have music which, even with the voiceovers and the sales pitch, can be enjoyable. At 30 seconds they are not unbearable and you can wait out the pain. Occasionally you are shown something useful, like an ad for a retail sale, and car ads are fun because they let me understand how each manufacturer is positioning itself in the market (I just put in an order for a new Toyota).

I get similar information driving. I see a Japanese SUV – we used to call them 4-wheel drives, but that moniker is not always accurate as not all of them, I have learned, have all-wheel powertrains – and I mentally note the brand and model, toting up numbers in my head to gauge which are popular.

So, ads are not always remote from personal experience, although I’m bored to tears by those for a Network Ten reality TV show that is currently on. My free-to-view routine has me watching Channel Nine in the mornings and Network Ten in the evenings. In the middle of the day I channel-surf but, now that I’ve got Netflix, I don’t have to resort to Seinfeld reruns (not that that’s such a bad thing …). At 4.30pm weekdays, though, I’ll still be watching ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’.

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