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Since the launch of Netflix in the UK earlier this week, there’s been a fair amount of chatter on Twitter about the relative merits of this and the major DVD rental services. Having used it for a couple of days, I think the selection on Netflix is awful: If you’re hoping to watch the latest series of blockbuster TV shows like Mad Men or 24, you’re out of luck with Netflix, and it doesn’t fare much better with films. That said, it does integrate well with devices including Apple TV, and has a decent free trial, so give it a go.
I’m a fan on online DVD rental services. I’ve used Blockbuster and Lovefilm regularly recently, and so thought that it would be fun to do a quick comparison of the two for anyone considering signing up.
In the best tradition of blog posts like this, I’ve divided the comparison into sections. These are, of course, fairly arbitrary, but the overall conclusion reflects my true opinion. If you’re of a different opinion, feel free to use the comments to make the points I’ve missed. Both also offer game rentals, but as I don’t rent these, I can’t really comment on that part of their service.
Lovefilm and Blockbuster have much the same selection of items. It’s impossible to compare the size of the overall catalogue because they count them differently: somewhat oddly, Lovefilm counts all the DVD “extra” discs in its catalogue as separate titles, whereas Blockbuster doesn’t. Both Lovefilm and Blockbuster appear to have a similar blu-ray selection.
However, if you want to rent anything put out by Universal since September 2009 – titles like Inglorious Bastards or The Invention of Lying – you’re out of luck with Lovefilm, as a dispute with the studio means they aren’t available to rent. They are all available with Blockbuster.
Availability and turnaround times
I’ve never experience any major problems with availability of titles from either Lovefilm or Blockbuster, except for Lovefilm’s inability to stock Universal titles as discussed above. Blockbuster fairly often has exclusive titles available for rent before they are available elsewhere, but I’m rarely on the edge of my seat waiting for a title to come out, so this isn’t a big thing for me.
Blockbuster’s Top Ticket system does enhance the perception of availability to a degree: I can choose the title which I will receive next, guaranteed. There are some limits to this system: Some titles aren’t available on Top Ticket, but the number of these is so small as to be almost insignificant.
Turnaround times are crucial for a DVD rental service, particularly if you have an “unlimited” package, as it’s one of the main rate-limiting (and therefore quantity-limiting) steps in the process. My experience has revealed no difference between the two – both are equally quick.
However, Blockbuster have, on occasion, voluntarily sent discs early. An email has pinged into my inbox saying “We think you’re probably really keen to receive x, so we’re going to send it to you immediately as an extra disc. We’ll send your next one when you’ve returned two discs.” This is great service, and really improve the perception of the speed of turnaround times.
Since there’s nowhere else to mention this, it’s also worth saying that Blockbuster’s mailing packs are much neater: blue plastic envelopes rather than paper ones used by Lovefilm. The Blockbuster ones look much neater when sat next to my Blu-ray player, which is a relatively small and insignificant advantage.
Sometimes, you don’t want to wait for discs to be posted out to you. Sometimes, you think of a film and you want to watch it now.
Lovefilm offers online streaming of a very limited selection of movies. If you have a method of hooking this up to your TV, through connecting your computer to your TV or through and XBox 360 or PS3, then this is great for seeing films immediately.
Blockbuster has the major advantage of a store network. Most Blockbuster packages include access to inshore rentals, and the stores have, of course, a huge selection. It’s even possible to reserve titles in-store for collection the same day. Not only that, but Blockbuster generally lavishes extras on its online customers: Currently, if I take an in-store rental for free as part of my package, they will throw in either popcorn, mints, or cola to munch on while I watch. That’s true movie-night instant.
However, Blockbuster’s offering does mean trekking down to a Blockbuster store, so is hardly instant, especially if you don’t live near to a store. And you have to return the disc to the store as well, making it two trips.
Overall, I think the Blockbuster offering is the most generous and the most genuinely useful, but it’s not really instant gratification. Lovefilm clearly outstrips Netflix in this department and the Movie Box App brings a much more mature collection. Overall, I declare this section tied.
Website design and functionality
Lovefilm’s website is legendary, and stuffed full of trailers and customer reviews. It’s brilliant for making sure you never rent something you won’t enjoy, as the wealth of content about each film provides a real sense of what it’s like. By comparison, Blockbuster’s site is confused, mainly as it’s trying to serve so many different functions: Purchase of films, store reservation, online pay-per-rental, online rental subscription, etc. It has far fewer reviews and far fewer trailers. The same goes for their relevant mobile apps.
On actual functionality, the two are a closer match. Blockbuster insists upon or allows, depending on your point of view, the ranking of all titles in your queue, whereas Lovefilm permits or restricts to a three-tier priority level system. Blockbuster allows has a genre-mix function, whereby you can, for example, request that you always have at least on TV title on rent. Lovefilm has a multiple lists function, which allows you to state that you always want a title from each of several lists on rent.
Functionally, it’s a bit of a toss-up, but Lovefilm’s system is probably a bit more flexible. Content-wise, Lovefilm wins hands-down.
There’s really little to choose between the two services on price. Their packages differ slightly, and, on the whole, Blockbuster tends to be cheaper, but the price differential is marginal. Also, Lovefilm has branded services like Tesco DVD rental, which often work out as more competitively priced than going direct, reducing the differential further.
Lovefilm tends to offer free trials, whereas Blockbuster tends to offer £1 trials. In terms of lifetime cost, that’s not likely to make a huge difference to anyone’s finances, but it might swing newcomers in the direction of Loevfilm. Blockbuster has the in-store freebies, like popcorn and cola, discussed above.
Both services allow “holidays” of up to three months, during which no payments will be taken nor discs sent. Cancellation is a pain with both services: both require you to phone their call centres. However, Lovefilm will allow you to cancel online if their call centre is closed (i.e. between 8pm and 8am), which is a bonus. Also, a Lovefilm subscription can be given as a gift voucher, whereas a Blockbuster subscription cannot.
Overall winner: Blockbuster
Overall, I prefer Blockbuster‘s service. The Top Ticket functionality and in-store rentals swing it for me, as does the hard-to-define “keenness” factor. Despite providing the same basic functionality, it feels as though Blockbuster go the extra mile for customer satisfaction. They’ll occasionally send extra discs; if I haven’t rented anything for a while they’ll email to ask if everything’s alright; they email in advance to tell me what they’re sending me; and they send their discs out in neat little plastic envelopes, not tatty rip-open paper ones. And, something’s a two-disc set, they send both discs at once, as a single rental.
Lovefilm, whilst providing a comprehensive service, are constantly trying to up-sell. They’re always pushing pay-per-view online streaming at me, and trying to get me to take out a package with more discs. They pester me to have more discs on my “TV List”, whereas Blockbuster are quite happy to sequentially send me the discs of a single box set. Adding a two-disc set without sufficient care frequently results in being sent a solo “extras” disc, separate from the main feature disc, which is just irritating. And the lack of a fine-grain priority setting system or a “top ticket” system, they always seem to send the relative “dud” on your list.
So, my recommendation is Blockbuster.
Links to services in this post are affiliate links. I’ll receive about £2 if you sign up to Blockbuster via these links, or £20 if you sign up to Lovefilm. Those values demonstrate that my opinion was not unduly influenced by these payments!