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Netflix finally offers offline viewing, video downloads

Ever since Netflix debuted its online streaming service, it’s had one major limitation — you couldn’t download shows for later viewing. This made the service less useful while traveling, since airport and airplane WiFi are often expensive and/or slow and relatively few vehicles are WiFi-enabled. Amazon implemented downloading for at least some TV shows and movies over a year ago, but Netflix has stubbornly maintained that it wouldn’t bring the feature to its on-demand service.

That’s finally changed as of this week. According to a new Netflix blog post, the Details page for movies and TV shows will now include an option to download a show for later viewing, as shown below.

There are currently a few caveats to consider. First, the feature appears to be limited to Android and iOS devices, not PCs. This is presumably to prevent content from leaking, since the PC can’t be locked down the way other devices can. There’s no word on whether or not Netflix will bring the feature to its Windows 10 app — Microsoft has previously boasted about its DRM support in Windows 10 and Edge is the only browser that can stream 4K content if paired with a Kaby Lake processor, but apparently the Windows app hasn’t gotten enough engagement to be updated and launched alongside Android and iOS support. We’d guess that there’s a reasonable chance Netflix brings this feature to W10, but only if the Universal app can be locked down tightly enough to satisfy the movie and television studios.

Not all content is supported yet, but all of Netflix’s self-created television shows are, and most of the back catalog appears to be available as well. You’ll need enough storage space to save the videos — Gizmodo reports that one hour of Black Mirror weighed in at 280MB in standard definition and 440MB in HD. Obviously this will still consume bandwidth off your cellular plan if you’re transferring data that way, so we strongly recommend connecting to a WiFi network before downloading all 11 seasons of Supernatural or whatever TV show you prefer.

Generally speaking, standard video looks very nearly as good as HD on a small phone with a 4-inch screen or less (720×480 has a 216 PPI on a 4-inch display). As screen sizes rise, the difference becomes more apparent, and we’d expect most people to be able to see the difference between HD and SD by the 7-inch mark. Whether or not the difference is big enough to matter will depend on the size of your data plan and personal taste. Encode quality of downloaded episodes appears similar to Netflix’s standard streaming video; you don’t lose anything by downloading the content but you don’t gain any quality back, either.

If you want to download videos, make sure you’ve got the latest version of the app and either iOS 8.0 (or later) or Android 4.4.2 (or later). Video playback is handled exclusively by the Netflix app itself; you won’t be able to view Netflix video files in a file manager app or watch them on a third-party player. Netflix hasn’t released any information on the file format it’s using for the service, but it’s presumably based on H.264 since H.265 support in mobile devices is still fairly new. 4K videos do not appear to be available for download at this time.

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