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How to Watch Netflix on Linux

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Many Linux users reboot into Windows to watch Netflix, but you can watch Netflix on Linux without rebooting. Unfortunately, the solution here is inefficient – while Linux geeks have explored a variety of other clever solutions, none of them work.

A Windows virtual machine is your best bet for Netflix on Linux at the moment. Until Netflix acknowledges Linux users and gives us a solution, we’re stuck dual-booting or making due with a virtual machine.

Note: This is no longer the best method. Use the Netflix Desktop app instead.

The Silverlight Problem

Netflix is frustrating because it seems like something that should work on Linux — it’s just playing videos in a browser. Netflix runs on everything from Android and Chrome OS (both based on Linux) to game consoles, DVD players, and home entertainment systems like the Roku. So why not Linux?

Netflix doesn’t work on Linux because the standard web player uses Silverlight — Microsoft’s ill-fated and seemingly abandoned competitor to Adobe Flash — instead of the Flash plugin. As no official version of Silverlight is available for Linux, Netflix won’t work on Linux. Netflix could create a solution for Linux users, but they have so far declined to do so — their help page doesn’t even acknowledge that Linux exists.

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What Doesn’t Work

Before we get into the gory details, here are some clever ideas that could theoretically allow us to watch Netflix on Linux — none of which actually work:

  • Use Moonlight, an Open-Source Silverlight Implementation for Linux — Moonlight was supposed to bring support for Silverlight web content to Linux, but Microsoft refuses to license Silverlight’s DRM (digital rights/restrictions management) implementation to Moonlight. As Moonlight lacks DRM support, Netflix will not play in Moonlight.
  • Install the Chrome OS Netflix Plugin — Chrome OS is based on Linux and the Netflix app allows video streaming on Chrome OS. As the Chrome browser is available for Linux, you might think it’s possible to install the Chrome OS plugin on Linux somehow. Unfortunately, the Netflix app for Chrome OS requires a special Netflix Video Player plugin that only appears to function on Chrome OS — copying these files to a Linux desktop will result in an error when trying to play Netflix.
  • Run the Netflix Android App — You could try to run the Netflix Android app in the Android SDK emulator, but it would be extremely slow. Even if it worked at a high enough speed, the app fails when attempting to play a video, according to users who’ve tried.
  • Use Wine to Run the Windows Version of Silverlight — Silverlight doesn’t yet function properly in Wine, as the Wine AppDB tells us.

What Does Work

The only method that will work is running Windows itself in a virtual machine — definitely not an ideal solution, as you’re still running Windows, but it’s a method you can use to run Netflix on your Linux desktop without restarting your system.

The Windows virtual machine will function as an extremely inefficient video player. You’ll need powerful enough hardware to run a virtual machine that can play back high-definition videos without stuttering, but there are some tricks you can use to boost performance.

This method will require a legitimate copy of Windows, but the virtual machine software itself is free.

Preparing a Virtual Machine

First, you’ll need to install a virtual machine program. VirtualBox is a good one — it’s available in Ubuntu’s software repositories. You could also try VMware Player if VirtualBox gives you trouble.

After installing the virtual machine program, launch it and create a new virtual machine using its wizard. Ideally, you should create a Windows XP virtual machine if you have an old Windows XP disc lying around — Windows XP takes less hardware power to virtualize, freeing up system resources for the intensive task of streaming HD video in a virtual machine.

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If you don’t have a copy of Windows XP, you can download a free Release Preview copy of Windows 8 and install it in a virtual machine — Microsoft provides free preview versions of Windows 8 until it’s officially released. Bear in mind that Windows 8 will take more power to virtualize than XP.

After installing Windows in your virtual machine, make sure you install Guest Additions (in VirtualBox) or VMware Tools (in VMware Player). These packages include optimized video drivers that will speed up video playback. To install Guest Additions in VirtualBox, click the Devices menu and select Install Guest Additions. Once you have, install Microsoft’s Silverlight plugin and your favorite web browser, and then fire up Netflix.

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You can also run the virtual machine in seamless mode (use the View menu and select Switch to Seamless Mode in VirtualBox). In seamless mode, the Netflix browser will appear to be just another window on your Linux desktop, although it’s still running the virtual machine in the background. The equivalent feature in VMware Player is referred to as “Unity.”

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Virtual Machine Performance Tips

Here are some things you can do to improve performance in the virtual machine:

  • Reduce Netflix’s Video Bitrate – Use the Manage Video Quality page on Netflix’s website to reduce the streaming bitrate. At a lower bitrate, image quality will be worse but performance should improve.

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  • Reduce Virtual Machine Resolution – Try decreasing the Windows virtual machine’s display resolution. At smaller resolutions, the virtual machine should require less hardware power to play back video.
  • Optimize Virtual Machine Software – Ensure no unnecessary software is running in the background inside your virtual machine for optimal performance. You could also try changing browsers inside the virtual machine or using a dedicated browser – for example, using Google Chrome’s “Create Application Shortcuts” menu option to create a Netflix-only browser window.
  • Install VirtualBox Guest Additions or VMware Tools – Install the Guest Additions in VirtualBox or VMware Tools in VMware if you haven’t already. The optimized video drivers will speed up playback.

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  • Choose a Less-Demanding Operating System - Use Windows XP in the virtual machine instead of Windows Vista or Windows 7. Windows XP takes less power to virtualize.
  • Try Another Virtual Machine Program – VMware Player may perform better than VirtualBox on your system, or vice versa
  • Adjust Virtual Machine Settings – You may also want to go into your virtual machine’s configuration and try tweaking its settings — for example, allocating additional video memory or system memory to the virtual machine may improve performance.

Demanding Linux Support

Is this a silly, inefficient solution that shouldn’t be necessary? Absolutely — but it’s the best one available at the moment.

Want an official way to watch Netflix on Linux? You can always call Netflix’s customer service number and ask for Linux support — hopefully customer demand will one day force their hand.

There’s also a Netflix on Linux petition you can sign to express your support.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 07/17/12

Comments (25)

  1. ABC

    Why Windows? Why not… ANDROID?!

    I mean, if Android will allow Netflix to run (as stated in the article) then why bother with Windows? Seems a little idiotic to not at least consider running Android virtually. And I know it can be done too. Just Google “Virtual Android OS” and I’m sure you will find plenty of other articles/help. I also hope I don’t have to point out how much better it all might run since Android is nowhere near as bloated and resource hogging as Windows is.

    Then again, why use Netflix?! With such ridiculous terms, I’m surprised Netflix actually has as many users as they do. Maybe it’s because they can’t quit! I can’t say. But you won’t see me signing up any time soon.

    Sorry if they’re a sponsor, but Netflix really does suck when it comes to payment options. You pretty much have to commit to an ongoing bill that you really don’t need and which has no easy way to quit. They don’t offer a month by month option like you might find in other similar businesses. And you’d think that if a fly-by- night cell phone carrier can sell reloadable gift cards at places like Walmart that Netflix might have something like that too – or at least something that didn’t require a credit card. (FYI, children can get credit cards or just use their parents. So don’t hand me that load of bull when it comes to age checking or something.) It’s stupid!

  2. Michele

    @ABC
    I pay month to month for Netflix via my paypal account. If I forget to put money in it then I don’t have Netflix. The couple of times I forgot I was able to transfer money and call Netflix, placed on hold for less then a minute and then get my account reactivated, no big deal. Having paypal as a payment option is great.

    However, I think it’s lousy that you can’t play any videos in Linux. Sorry but having to use a VM doesn’t really count as playing netflix natively in Linux.

    All of us who use Linux should starting emailing and calling Netflix and demanding Linux support either via Moonlight of the Chrome OS Netflix plugin.

  3. Dano

    I know! Eight dollars a month for a huge array of streaming HD content that you can easily quit at anytime? Seems stupid to me too. I don’t know why millions of people find that attractive.

  4. Gian-Luigi Valle

    What about the Netflix plugin for xbmc. I haven’t tried it but it looks promising.

  5. James

    Once again a potentially good solution is scuppered by DRM! I refuse to use any service that has digital rights restrictions, unless I can easily bypass it to watch/use what I paid for on any device I want, where that would otherwise be possible.

  6. Sean Vincent

    I have to use a browser spoof to show I’m using an Android browser to log in to my school network because Bluesocket won’t let me connect otherwise. Can we use the same trick and have Chrome or Firefox spoof which browser it is to actually using to trick Netflix into thinking it’s an Android device?

  7. fubeca6

    @ Michele “Sorry but having to use a VM doesn’t really count as playing netflix natively in Linux. ” – Agreed. This has always been a huge frustration of mine. People don’t WANT to use Windows. They’re compelled to because of Microsoft’s confining and restrictive business policies and practices.

  8. Andrew

    I have a dock for my Android tablet on my desk and a Roku box for my TV. Solved.

    I think the support is not offered because not many people demand it. My media PC runs Ubuntu/MythTV so won’t play Netflix, but I also have an Xbox, Wii, and Roku box also connected, any one of them will play Netflix.

  9. keltari

    @ABC – cant quit Netlfix? All you have to do is click cancel membership under the accounts menu. Its as easy as it gets.

    @Sean Vinvcent – spoofing the browser wont help, as the browser still needs to support Silverlight.

    The real question is why anyone would want Netflix streaming. It offers a vast selection of titles no one wants to watch. It lacks new releases and popular movies.

  10. kurt

    For me, paypal doesn’t solve the month by month problem; the paypal wants your ACCOUNT number,
    not just the card number. I will not expose my checking account to some hacker in the cloud somewhere. When I pay the electric and cable bills, I use the pay-a-bill option from my bank, which amounts to a proxy; I have heard horror stories of “reputable” companies “accidentally” withdrawing
    multiple payments, and taking months to reimburse while you are on fixed income. It is a no-interest loan for them.-kurt.

  11. kurt

    Oh, and by the way, anyone who doesn’t support linux can got to hell anyway.

  12. Bob-El

    I have to agree, a VM solution in Linux is not really playing Netflix on Linux. When I saw the subject line in my email I thought ‘ Wahoo!”. Shoot, I’d though of using VM 2 seconds after the Netflix support tech told me they didn’t support Linux. But I’m wondering if Silverlight will run on Windows NT 4… hmmm????

  13. kurt

    Tell ya the truth, I slap pc’s together for a hundred bucks, so I didn’t really mind dedicating a pc to windows plus internet(normally a virus-magnat!) It was the billing problem(their “business-model”)
    that crisped my bacon.

  14. TheFu

    Netflix corporate knows all about Linux.

    They use it extensively for their servers, load balancers, reverse proxies, content network. They and their programmers know too. I doubt that Netflix is the real issue, it is more likely that the content providers don’t like desktop Linux with all those hackers, so they don’t allow it. Nobody on the Linux side is kissing any content provider butts like M and A, at least not yet, without specific hardware required.

    The XBMC/Linux machine here is a dual-core Atom, so putting a VM on it for video simply won’t work. I haven’t tried it, perhaps it will work with a stripped down XP install?

    Netflix will get my money AFTER they support Linux desktops, everyone else settling for other solutions isn’t helping get it on Netflix.

  15. Wayne Lloyd

    Myself and a few friends had problems signing the petition, I logged a support request with petition online 2 months ago which is still open. I tested again today and it worked, hopefully this has not affected the amount of signatures it has stayed at the 22000 mark for quite some time now.

  16. John

    I’ve never have had a problem watching Netflix on Linux. Install flash and watch. I used Open Suse, Ubuntu, and several others and never have had a problem.

  17. Sudo Bash

    How about ReactOS. Could Netflix be made to work on that? I don’t watch it but that is just a suggestion.

    Chris Hoffman: Thanks for all the great Linux articles :D

  18. MH

    @ John
    I don’t know what kind of a dumb joke your trying to play here but believe me, it’s freakin idiotic!! We all know that Netflix uses Silverlight and not Flash. We all know that your an attention getter. Did you get the attention you always seek?

  19. RandyNose

    I’ve the the XP in the VM for the Nexflix thing, and it works ok for me.

    What about using Vanilla the Chromebook image? I’ve not tried that yet, as the Chromebook is supposed to play Netflix.
    OR
    Another way to try to get around this, might be to use WINE to run a Window’s version of Firefox, or Chrome with the Silverlight plugin.

  20. a80zdave

    Netflicks needs to get off its ass and add another flash-plugin so anyone with a Web Browsers can use their service. Thats just common-sense! or someone from the Linux community needs to hack silverlight and produce a plugin for linux. What do you think? ;)

  21. Mahkoe

    Just run a browser in wine for goodness’ sake

  22. Cop out

    Meanwhile… Amazon Instant Video uses FLASH for their video and supports Linux.

  23. Chris

    I found a solution. I cancelled my netflix sub over a year ago and I use Amazon video on demand and Hulu if I want to watch stuff in linux. Works wonderfully!

  24. bobbintb

    @Mahkoe

    Apparently, you’re one of those people who comments without reading the article.

  25. bobbintb

    @Chris

    That’s not a solution, that’s an alternative.

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