How well does Netflix offline work for inflight entertainment?

Alex Kidman 7 January 2017 NEWS


Netflix's offline ability mostly delivers, but there are quirks.

It was only a couple of weeks ago that Netflix announced the general availability of offline downloads for its video subscription service. As long as you’re using an iOS or Android device and your subscription is current, you can download programs from Netflix for viewing when you don’t have an available Wi-Fi connection.

The flight to Los Angeles en route to CES 2017 seemed like the ideal time to give the whole Netflix offline experience a fling. So I used my existing Netflix account and an iPad Pro 9.7-inch tablet with a selection of preloaded entertainment content.

The most obvious issue here is that you’ve got to be prepared. There’s no point in suddenly thinking that it might be nice to catch up on all those Netflix originals that you keep hearing about when you’re in line to board your plane.

Netflix does score some big plaudits here for keeping its file sizes very low. Most of the TV programs I downloaded barely tipped the scales over 100MB each, and most movies don’t typically push beyond around 500MB. That being said, you’re not warned of file sizes before commencing downloads, which could be problematic if you opt to download them over a mobile broadband connection.

Given that Netflix only works in offline mode for iOS and Android devices, and not Windows or Mac computers, the smaller download size is also something of a boon, especially if you’re working off an older smaller capacity iPad or Google Nexus tablet with no expandable storage.

In terms of content availability, it’s something of a mixed blessing. I can’t fairly say that there’s a massive lack of overall content, and I was able to throw together a viewing list somewhat longer than my actual flights with ease. That being said, there’s a lot of content that isn’t available for download, including all of Netflix’s Marvel Cinematic Universe content, which means no Daredevil, Jessica Jones or Luke Cage to keep you company on long flights.

Netflix does break out the available downloadable content into its own area, but it’s presented based on your existing profile and likes. It would be much better to also allow you to sort by genre or TV/Movies. Maybe that’s a feature that Netflix will implement at a later date.

If you’re travelling overseas, and especially if you’re heading to the USA as I was, it’s also worth bearing in mind that Netflix content libraries differ depending on the country you’re in. As such, that could mean that a program you want to download for the flight back might not be available, although in the case of the USA, I couldn’t find one. I could however find plenty of shows not in Netflix Australia’s library, and the iOS app had no issues downloading them for the flight home.

The other obvious catch there is that you can’t get something, in this case resolution, for nothing. That’s not as big a problem as you might think, however, as you’re watching a small screen not that far away from your face in any case.

One downside to watching via tablet this way if you’re seated in economy is the classic laptop space issue. While the passenger in front of me was eating and awake all was fine, but as soon as they reclined their seat, my iPad Pro moved a lot closer to my nose than I’d typically find comfortable. That also affected the viewing angle more than a little. Depending on how your tablet case works, you may find that you don’t have enough space to watch anything, although that’s obviously a physical problem beyond the scope of Netflix to fix.

Once you've watched a show Netflix will suggest you delete it, but you're also hit with a mandatory expiry date that varies by program once you've commenced watching. This appears to vary by program, presumably depending on Netflix's own rights to that content. This could be problematic if you want to rewatch content more than once. That's especially likely for children who love to watch the same content over and over again.

The reality is that inflight entertainment has improved in leaps and bounds over the past decade or so, even if you’re only flying economy out of Australia, and that means that outside of absolute budget airlines, you should expect in-seat entertainment options.

However, if you’re already subscribed to Netflix I’d strongly argue it makes sense to preload some content from your home Wi-Fi anyway. It’s not unheard of for inflight entertainment systems to stop functioning, or have certain files that won’t play for reasons that are well beyond the technical nous of the cabin staff. One added bonus here is that if you’re watching your own content, you can more easily ignore the entertainment pauses to sell you on inflight duty free content you probably don’t want anyway.

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