Netflix execs have been teasing us for months about an instant streaming app for the iPhone and iPod Touch. Indeed, they've been promising it for so long that I'd pretty much forgotten about it. Until now.Netflix took the wraps off its new app -- or, to be more precise, its newly updated iPad app, which is now "universal" for use with the iPhone and iPod Touch -- early Thursday, a couple of months after officially announcing the app and just a week before the expected arrival of a spiffy new iPod Touch.
Free for use if you're a Netflix subscriber (memberships start at $8.99 a month), the app lets you stream more than 20,000 movies and TV shows from Netflix's "Watch Instantly" library. As with other versions of the Netflix app (available on all three of the big gaming consoles, several HDTVs and Blu-ray players, various set-top boxes, and -- of course -- the iPad), you can pick up a video from where you left off on another device; browse various movie genres and customized categories; or search for a specific title.
You can also add movies to your "instant" queue, delete them, or give individual titles a star rating. I'd also been hoping for the ability to manage your DVD queue from the Netflix app, but nope -- can't do it. (There are several third-party iPhone apps that will let you tweak your Netflix DVD queue, though, including the free PhoneFlicks and Flixster apps.)
Movies and TV shows are streamable over the Netflix app via both Wi-Fi and 3G, and for the most part, videos looked smooth and sharp -- if pretty small -- on my iPhone 4's Retina display, at least over Wi-Fi. When I switched over to 3G (with four out of five bars of AT&T reception), though, the trouble began, with videos pausing every few seconds for buffering.
Then again, AT&T reception is terrible in my neighborhood, so you may have a better experience depending on your location (and indeed, some early user reviews say they've been streaming over 3G with few hiccups). But if you're signed up for one of AT&T's capped data plans, keep in mind that streaming video is a quick way to blow through your monthly allotment of 3G data.
Another note: The new Netflix app doesn't appear to be optimized for fast-app switching under iOS 4, meaning that if you switch to another app midmovie, the Netflix app will restart once you come back to it. At least you'll pick up your video right where you left off, but expect to wait several seconds for your movie to rebuffer.
Otherwise, pretty nice -- and as I mentioned earlier, the newly updated Netflix app arrives just in time for Apple's "special event" next week, where we'll probably ("probably" being the key word here) get a new iPod Touch with an improved display -- perfect for watching videos -- dual cameras, and more.
Meanwhile, what's the deal with the expected Netflix app for Android? Good question. Something seems to be brewing, based on the help-wanted ads that Netflix has posted for Android developers in the past few months, but for now, the wait continues.
-- Ben Patterson is a technology writer for Yahoo! News.