MovieBuddy for the iPad: a new way to look at Netflix

MovieBuddy for Netflix [US $0.99] is a new native iPad app that serves as a graphically beautiful front-end for Netflix subscribers. Billy Crystal, as Fernando on Saturday Night Live, had a catch-phrase that went: "It's better to look good than to feel good," and that's what kept going through my mind as I looked at this app.

It looks great. You are presented with a beautiful velvet movie curtain that raises to show movies in your queue, or lets you browse for films by category by displaying lines of posters with a nicely rendered spotlight over each one. You swipe left to see more movies, or select See All to get a grid or CoverFlow view of all the movies in the category. When a movie is selected a box pops up allowing you to Add to Instant, Add to DVD, or Add to Blu-ray to put the movie in your queue. If the movie is available to stream, tapping on Watch Now plays the movie. Tapping on View Details brings up a lovely looking screen showing a large poster and the same information you saw before, but in a much nicer presentation. Not much new information is added outside of a slightly larger cast list. It all looks great. But how does it feel?

I didn't think it felt that great at all, since for a nice display you are giving up a ton of functionality found in the free Netflix iPad app, which must be installed on your iPad anyway before MovieBuddy will work. What you don't get is the artificial intelligence engine found on the Netflix site and on its app. I was told by the developers that the categories you get IS personalized in the same way it appears on the XBox, PS3 and WII, but I don't have one of these to see. The results didn't seem personalized to me and what was displayed in the Netlix app appeared much more aligned to my individual tastes. But something is going on since every movie in every category were films I had already seen and rated. Since MovieBuddy is competing with the Netflix app, here's a list of things that the Netflix app lets you do that MovieBuddy doesn't.

  • Rate films

  • Get details on films when in your queue

  • See what's on short or long, or very long wait in your queue

  • See release dates on movies in your queue that haven't yet been released

  • Change movies from Blu-ray to DVD or vice-versa in the queue

  • See the Netflix Best Guess rating of the film based on your previous history

  • Get recommendations based on previous viewing

  • Get a list of similar films

  • Read user reviews

To me, one of the nicest parts of the Netflix app and site is that after you've rated a lot of movies, it seems prescient in suggesting films that you might like and tells you what films this decision was based upon. I've used that to find many hidden gems, and really wouldn't want to give it up for a pretty face.

MovieBuddy, admittedly the better looking app, has some other limitations and inconsistencies. The way the screen is displayed shows big posters on a rich looking background, but that doesn't allow for enough on the screen at one time. In landscape mode you get three lines (categories) of movies and in portrait mode, only four. Since there are a lot of categories, this means that you need to do a lot of up and down swiping and when doing so, the screen can take a few seconds to refresh and display the new posters at first. Scrolling is a bit choppy until everything that needs to be displayed gets cached, after that, scrolling is quite smooth.

This is also the case when you choose See All , bringing up a grid view that shows average ratings along with your rating if you've seen the film and rated it via the Netflix app or site. Tap on a film and a box giving you viewing and save-to-queue options is displayed with the plot summary in a scrollable box, but I found an infrequent inconsistency with the reported information. For example, the Netflix site and app show availability of Sherlock Holmes in Blu-ray or DVD, but MovieBuddy only displayed DVD availability. In most cases MovieBuddy got it right, but this app could rent me the wrong version. Another problem is crashing. After coming back to the app a day later, it crashed and a reboot didn't help. My solution was to download a fresh copy which solved the problem.

CoverFlow browsing is the nicest part of the app. It looks terrific, but only in landscape mode. Some of the information box is cut off at the right in portrait mode, and the bottom third of the screen is wasted space. In landscape mode, CoverFlow browsing looks perfect. As with the poster view described above, there is a delay in displaying CoverFlow posters until they are cached. When you want to watch a streamed movie, MovieBuddy invokes the Netflix app, plays the film, and then reverts back to MovieBuddy. That is quite nice.

According to the developers, most of the missing features are possible with the Netflix API, but they decided to release the first version with a reduced feature set and add to it as time goes on. As it stands, what MovieBuddy does isn't enough to pull me away from the Netflix app, but I'll be really interested to take another look as it matures.

Take a look at this short video to see the richness of the graphics.

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