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You've got (movies in the) mail

The Monitor tested Netflix and Blockbuster Online to see how each Internet DVD rental service stacked up.

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Netflix or Blockbuster Online? That's the vexing question for millions of movie watchers across the United States.

With more Americans shunning the sticky floors and ad-filled screens of megaplexes for the comfort of home viewing, online movie renting has taken off: Netflix - the granddaddy of through-the-mail, no-late-fee DVD rentals - recently announced a 61 percent increase in subscriptions, to 3.6 million, from a year ago. It also reported the lowest cancelation rate in the company's six-year history. Blockbuster Online, a more recent entrant to the Internet movie wars, has gained 750,000 subscribers since launching its online rental service in August 2004.

The Monitor decided to put each company to the test.

Both services follow the same model: For a flat monthly fee, customers create a queue of their favorite movies, TV shows, or other DVD entertainment by browsing the company's website ( or Titles at the top of the queue are delivered via the postal service. DVDs can be kept as long as subscribers wish, with no late fees.

To return the disc, all the customer has to do is pop it into a preaddressed, postage-paid envelope and wait for the next movie to arrive. Therein lies the beauty of such services: No need to drive to and from the local video store.

Both companies offer a free two-week basic trial, and once enrolled, this reporter immediately began building her movie queue. Queues can contain an unlimited number of titles, and one can add to, subtract from, or rearrange them at any time. Netflix's 50,000 titles contain "everything from Yoda to yoga," says Steve Swasey, Netflix's director of corporate communications. Blockbuster Online offers more than 40,000 titles. On both sites, users can enter keywords (including names of actors) to search for films or click through new releases or various genres listed along the side navigation bars. (Netflix's site was much easier to move through.)

I didn't have to wait long for the first DVDs to arrive. My first rentals came from both services a day after I signed up. At first I religiously watched a movie a day to try to maximize my investment (it only takes four or five movies a month to equal the traditional pay-per-movie rental-store model). But after a couple of weeks of feeling like a couch potato, I settled into a more reasonable routine.


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