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Netflix
Netflix offers an unlimited streaming only plan for $7.99 a month, or 1 DVD out at a time for $9.99 a month.
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updated 4/26/2011 1:54:20 PM ET 2011-04-26T17:54:20

Netflix started out as a mail-order DVD rental service, adding instant streaming as a side benefit for some of its subscription plans. As streaming became more popular, the company introduced a streaming-only subscription option to its lineup. With this option, you can stream an unlimited amount of video from Netflix's vast array of offerings. Interested? Keep reading to find out how to get started.

What is instant streaming video?
Instant streaming video is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. There's no file download involved; the data is constantly transferred while you are watching the video. This usually means no wait time, unless your system needs to buffer a bit before playing your selection.

So you're probably wondering what the big deal is, right? After all, we just described YouTube. But the real value lies in the types of videos available.

Netflix offers a wide variety of television shows and movies for instant streaming. These aren't viral videos of cats flushing the toilet or other such Internet phenomena — which can be fun, but probably isn't something you're looking to pay for. On Netflix you can expect to find anything you might see in a physical video rental store: the latest movies and television shows on DVD and Blu-ray, as well as plenty of old favorites.

The other thing you won't find on Netflix instant streaming — but will find on sites like YouTube and Hulu — is commercials. This has been a major point of contention with the free streaming site Hulu, which offers a pay-for Plus option that's similar to Netflix. Even though you pay just as much for Hulu Plus as Netflix Instant, Hulu interrupts your shows with commercials.

Components you need
In order to make streaming video work well enough that you're willing to pay a subscription fee every month, you're going to need some special equipment. The first thing you'll need is a broadband Internet connection. The faster the speed, the better off you will be. Slower connections may be able to connect to the service, but you will find yourself watching lower quality video or spending extra time waiting for the video to load.

Though Netflix Instant started as a service to stream video to your computer, it has expanded to many other devices that connect to your TV for a prime time viewing experience, including the Nintendo Wii, Sony PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and many brands of Blu-ray players. Some Internet-ready TVs will also connect to Netflix without any other equipment needed. Not sure if your device is ready for Netflix? Check Netflix's interactive device list.

Whichever device you are going to use to connect to your TV, you will need a way to connect it to your Internet service. The gaming systems mentioned have built-in Wi-Fi, so if you already have a wireless router installed, connecting is a breeze. If wireless isn't an option for you, these devices can all be connected via a wired connection using standard networking cable; just make sure you get a cable long enough to meet your needs.

Older model televisions will work just fine with these devices, but if you've got an HDTV, you'll want to be sure and get the best connection possible. Netflix allows for HD streaming, so to get the quality you're paying for, be sure your device is hooked to your television with a HDMI cable.

Signing up and signing in
Signing up with Netflix is as simple as going to the website and filling out your information. The first month is free and after that, streaming-only service costs $7.99 a month. If you're really a movie buff, you might even opt for a more expensive subscription packages that will give you access to Blu-ray discs as well as standard DVDs. With plans ranging from just one DVD at a time and two rentals per month (with no streaming) up to eight at a time and unlimited streaming time, there's something for everyone.

After you get your account set up on a computer, you'll be able to log in from your Netflix-ready device. You may have to look through a few menus to find it, but there should be a Netflix application: launch it, enter your account information, and it will give you an activation code. You'll need to return to the Netflix website and enter this code to activate streaming to the device. (Just follow the instructions on the screen and you can't lose!)

Once the code is entered, you're ready to start watching movies! But be aware that there is a limit on how many devices you can activate to use with your account. Only six devices may be registered at a time, including personal computers, so keep this in mind when you go to add your PC, iPad, iPhone, etc. If you decide that a device isn't really being used and needs to be deactivated in order to add a new device, this can be done manually from within your account settings.

Find your favorites
Finding something to watch on Netflix instant streaming can be done in many different ways. You can search for something in particular, or you can browse by categories. As you rate movies that you've already watched, Netflix will suggest new items that you might enjoy. You can even look and see what's popular in your geographic area and pick from that list as well. With thousands of selections to choose from and more distribution deals being struck all the time, Netflix's library of available videos is constantly growing. While some videos are only available for a limited time, new material is added monthly.

As you find items to watch, you can also designate items to be added to your instant queue. The instant queue provides quick access to things that you already know you want to watch, so you don't have to go searching for them again. If something isn't available for streaming, Netflix will offer other similarly themed selections for you to choose from.

Be sure to rate as many movies and TV shows as you can, because this will help Netflix build a recommendation list based on your viewing preferences and ratings. The more you rate, the better its suggestions will be. You can find some real gems just browsing Netflix's recommendations.

With more and more devices supporting Netflix instant streaming, there's no reason not to make the move to this technology. Who knows? Maybe one day this will replace your cable service completely!

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