You've got (movies in the) mail

The Monitor tested Netflix and Blockbuster Online to see how each Internet DVD rental service stacked up.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Netflix or Blockbuster Online? That's the vexing question for millions of movie watchers across the United States.

With more Americans shunning the sticky floors and ad-filled screens of megaplexes for the comfort of home viewing, online movie renting has taken off: Netflix - the granddaddy of through-the-mail, no-late-fee DVD rentals - recently announced a 61 percent increase in subscriptions, to 3.6 million, from a year ago. It also reported the lowest cancelation rate in the company's six-year history. Blockbuster Online, a more recent entrant to the Internet movie wars, has gained 750,000 subscribers since launching its online rental service in August 2004.

The Monitor decided to put each company to the test.

Recommended: Default

Both services follow the same model: For a flat monthly fee, customers create a queue of their favorite movies, TV shows, or other DVD entertainment by browsing the company's website (netflix.com or blockbuster.com). Titles at the top of the queue are delivered via the postal service. DVDs can be kept as long as subscribers wish, with no late fees.

To return the disc, all the customer has to do is pop it into a preaddressed, postage-paid envelope and wait for the next movie to arrive. Therein lies the beauty of such services: No need to drive to and from the local video store.

Both companies offer a free two-week basic trial, and once enrolled, this reporter immediately began building her movie queue. Queues can contain an unlimited number of titles, and one can add to, subtract from, or rearrange them at any time. Netflix's 50,000 titles contain "everything from Yoda to yoga," says Steve Swasey, Netflix's director of corporate communications. Blockbuster Online offers more than 40,000 titles. On both sites, users can enter keywords (including names of actors) to search for films or click through new releases or various genres listed along the side navigation bars. (Netflix's site was much easier to move through.)

I didn't have to wait long for the first DVDs to arrive. My first rentals came from both services a day after I signed up. At first I religiously watched a movie a day to try to maximize my investment (it only takes four or five movies a month to equal the traditional pay-per-movie rental-store model). But after a couple of weeks of feeling like a couch potato, I settled into a more reasonable routine.

After the two-week trial ends, subscribers are charged the cost of the basic plan they had signed up for ($9.99 per month for one movie in-home at a time, $14.99 for two, $17.99 for three.) Hard-core film fans can have eight DVDs at any one time (for $47.99 a month).

After watching a DVD, I simply put it back into the prepaid envelope it came in and dropped it in the mail. Once it arrived at the nearest distribution center - each service has warehouses around the country, see sidebar at left - the next title at the top of my queue was shipped. For both companies, DVDs usually arrived two days after I sent the previous one back.

I only experienced delays once, when "Fever Pitch" came out on DVD. Blockbuster said it was in stock and shipped it. Netflix told me there would be a slight wait for the film. But in the end, the Netflix film arrived on the same day as the Blockbuster copy.

Impatient for the new release to arrive in time for the weekend, I ended up renting it at a Blockbuster store using one of the two free monthly in-store coupons that the company offers with its subscription. Netflix, a purely online operation, can't compete with a similar offer. It does, however, feature superior customer service, and uses e-mail surveys to gauge speed of delivery. It also allows the creation of separate queues for each family member.

Blockbuster and Netflix aren't the only online movie rental services in the market. CafeDVD (cafedvd.com), launched in 1999, specializes in artistic and independent fare. QwikFliks (qwikfliks.com), a small company, started a year later.

Bottom line: Movies through the mail are here to stay, at least until the next paradigm shift - films streamed over the Internet, perhaps. Until then, Netflix and Blockbuster Online are so similar in price and delivery time that you can't go wrong with either.

Each company offers DVD rentals through the mail at a flat monthly rate with no late fees. Here are some highlights:

Blockbuster vs. Netflix

Year started

Number of subscribers

Titles offered

US distribution centers

Rental plans offered:

Netflix

1999

3.6 million

50,000

35

One to eight movies at a time, with prices from $9.99 to $47.99. (Three for $17.99 most popular.)

Blockbuster

2004

750,000

more than 40,000

30 plus 200 stores fulfilling orders

1, 2, 3, 5, or 8 DVDs at a time, with prices from $9.99 to $47.99 (Three for $17.99 most popular.)

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