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Netflix: Movies, 12,000 titles, excellent customer service, user-friendly Web site

QuikFliks: Movies (both wide-screen and full-screen formats), sports and mature/erotic listings, 11,500 titles

DVD Rental
: Limited selection but least expensive rates

CoreFlix: Only 2 DVDs allowed out at a time, excellent action sports selection

: Blockbuster online, terrible program information, 8,000 titles.

: Movies, good family selection, 12,000 titles.

RoadTrip and a Movie: Netflix and Other DVD Rental Services

On the road entertainment. A roadtripping purist might insist that a glorious fire-red sunset is as good as it ever gets, but we've always enjoyed movies as an occasional escape. Going to a theatre is not always possible for dashboarders on the move, and although chains like Blockbuster have offered nationwide movie rentals for several years, a trip back to the same store to make returns is not always convenient.

Fortunately, a new service has arrived that serves the needs of nomads well by offering DVD selection through the Internet and delivery (and returns) via the U.S. postal service. Firms like Netflix, QuikFliks, Wal-Mart, and CoreFlix all offer similar services that include two attractive features: online ordering and a flat monthly fee (paid by credit card). Another big plus is that there are no due dates and hence no late charges. In addition, the DVDs arrive in pre-addressed return mailers with return postage provided.

Currently there are about twenty firms offering nationwide DVD rentals by mail. The larger ones are based in the southwest, in Los Angeles or Phoenix, and there are a few in the northeast. All of the companies allow a specified maximum number of DVDs to be "checked out" at one time. This can range from 1 DVD ($8.95/month) at DVD Barn to 12 DVD's ($57.99/month) at QwikFliks. Most basic plans offer 3-4 DVDs at a time for a monthly rate of about $20. A subscriber selects movie titles on the provider's Web site by adding choices to a personal "rental queue." As soon as a DVD is returned, the next item in the queue is mailed.

Last month, I conducted a trial of the Netflix service and found it to be consistently excellent. At first, I thought that I would miss walking down Blockbuster's aisles and browsing through all the choices, but the Netflix Web site has managed to capture and enrich that experience. With a couple of keystrokes, I found I could view a far wider selection of movie titles than I would ever see in a brick-and-mortar store, and the descriptive information and user ratings made choosing easy and fun. As a result, it's been a few weeks since I've visited Blockbuster, and I can't imagine a scenario that would make me go back.

I opted for the most popular Netflix service plan, which allows for 3 DVDs to be checked out at one time and costs $19.95 per month. (Netflix also offers other rate plans including $13.95 per month for 2 titles and $39.95 for 8.) I selected both obscure and current-release movie titles and found that the movies were shipped to us within about 3 days of requesting them. Netflix sends e-mail confirming both dispatch of a title (including the expected delivery date) and receipt of returned movies.

The only caveat I have about Netflix applies to Netscape users. I routinely use both Netscape 7.0 and Internet Explorer 6.0 Web browsers. On both browsers, I limit the number of cookies that external sites can place on my computer. For some reason, whenever I attempted to view the Netflix Web site with Netscape, the site failed to load, and the browser was redirected to an advertisement page. No such problem arose with Internet Explorer and likewise there was no problem viewing the offerings of any of the other 19 rental companies I checked for this article when using Netscape.

One feature that makes Netflix the clear choice for dashboarders is the ease with which a subscriber can change the "ship-to" address. A few keystrokes on the Web site, and travelers can receive movies wherever they expect to be. Netflix spokesperson Peter Mullen suggests that customers change their "ship-to" address with enough advance notice to ensure that the title goes to the right location, but there is no restriction on the number of times this address can be changed. Wal-Mart's DVD rental program also allows frequent changes to the "ship-to" address, but some companies require that the "ship-to" address match the credit card billing address.

Mark Sedenquist
February 17, 2003