Streaming media has become the way of the future for many consumers, and as a result there’s no shortage of services to pick from. But this is sure to leave some people wondering – is one clearly superior? Also, is there a point to subscribing to more than one at a time.
Let’s compare five of the best streaming media services to see exactly what they have to offer and which is the king of this crowd.
We’re going to judge each service on the basis of its price, content availability and hardware compatibility. The best service is one that’s affordable, offers a good selection and is easy to use on a wide variety of devices.
This article is approached from the viewpoint of consumers living in the United States. Availability and pricing is too varied to do an international comparison, though content and hardware compatibility will be similar in many markets.
Amazon Instant Video
Amazon Instant Video is the company’s pay-per-content store. Customers buy and/or rent digital episodes and movies, then watch them on a computer or a compatible device.
Pricing is varied, but most popular TV shows go for $1.99 an episode in standard definition or $2.99 an episode in HD. This is roughly on par with iTunes.
You can watch Amazon Instant Video on a computer or on a handful of other devices including the Roku and some TV/Blu-Ray players with built-in Internet connectivity.
Verdict: Amazon Instant Video is great if you want to watch a specific show that’s not available through other streaming services, but the per-content pricing adds up quickly and hardware support is poor.
Amazon Prime Instant Video
Amazon Prime Instant Video is the company’s subscription service. It’s bundled in with the Amazon Prime subscription and offers unlimited access to over 13,000 movies and shows.
Pricing is $79/year, which works out to about $6.58 a month. That’s for the entire Amazon Prime subscription, so you’re receiving not only streaming video but also free two-day shipping on all Amazon orders. This is clearly the value leader of the group.
Hardware compatibility is no better than Amazon Instant Video, however. There are only a few dedicated media centers that provide access. A mobile app is missing, as well.
Verdict: Amazon Prime is an amazing value, but you may not be able to enjoy it on the hardware you own. This could be a Netflix killer if only it was more widely available.
Hulu is the first service most people think of when asked about Netflix’s competitors. Pricing is $7.99 per month, but there’s a catch – there are ads and you have no choice but to watch them. This will come as a bit of a shock to Netflix veterans and arguably makes Hulu Plus a worse value.
Content selection is good. While Hulu works much the same as Netflix it tends to focus on shows that are currently airing on TV. New episodes are usually available within a week of the show airing, and some shows are available on the same day or the day after.
Hulu Plus is supported on all major game consoles, Android, iOS, Roku and your PC. You can even watch on your Nintendo 3DS, though I’m not sure why you’d want to.
Verdict: Hulu Plus is well priced and available on most devices. It’s a cheaper alternative to pay-per-content for people who want to watch recent shows, though the ads may be unacceptably annoying for some.
Despite the flak received by the service, Netflix remains the gold standard for streaming media. The $7.99 per month subscription allows unlimited ad-free access to content. Only Amazon Prime offers a better value.
There’s a strong library of content on Netflix. The company’s roots in the movie business show in the selection, which veers towards full-length films rather than shows. Many of the shows and movies available are two or three decades old. I like this, but some users will undoubtedly wish for a better selection of current content.
Netflix has excellent hardware support. It’s available on all major consoles, most streaming media boxes and most mobile devices running Android or iOS.
Verdict: Netflix is still the best subscription service overall. It offers ad-free, unlimited content at a low price. A lack of recent movies and shows is the service’s only weakness.
Apple’s pay-per-content store works like Amazon’s. You pay for each individual movie or show that you’d like to watch. Individual TV episodes are usually $1.99 for standard definition or $2.99 for HD. Movies can be quite expensive. New releases in high-definition are usually priced at $19.99.
Content selection is excellent. Almost every recently released television show and movie is available. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the selection is better than any other store, digital or physical. If you can’t find it on iTunes it probably isn’t available.
Hardware compatibility is a stumbling point. The iTunes store works great on PC, Mac and iOS, but there’s no support among the major consoles. If you want to access iTunes on your TV you will need to buy an Apple TV, which will set you back $99.
Verdict: If money isn’t a concern and you want access to the latest content there is no better option than iTunes. The high prices of movies will be difficult for many users to accept and hardware compatibility is poor.
Now acquired by Walmart, Vudu is a pay-per-content store. The pricing is basically the same as the competition. That means you’re going to be paying $19.99 to digitally purchase most high-definition content.
Vudu started life with a focus on movies, but now offers a wide selection of television shows as well. The selection is similar to iTunes – and so is the pricing.
Hardware compatibility is good. The PC, Mac, and iOS are supported, as are all major consoles and many Internet-enabled HDTVs. There’s just one problem – HD content is not supported on PC/Mac or iOS.
Verdict: Vudu is a lot like iTunes. It has an excellent selection but quickly becomes expensive. It’s available in some places where iTunes isn’t, but the lack of HD on the PC and Mac will be a deal-killer for many.
You ability to get by with any single service will depend on your viewing habits. I personally have no need to watch the latest and movies and films, so Netflix serves me well, and it’s the only streaming media service I have consistently used since its debut.
A combination of Netflix+Hulu Plus or Amazon Prime+Hulu Plus is a great replacement for traditional cable and or satellite services. I don’t recommend subscribing to both Netflix and Prime because there seems to be a lot of overlap in the content.
The pay-per-content services have the best selection of all, but they are also far too expensive to use as your only source of entertainment. Using them to catch up on hottest movies and shows is fine, but anyone who tries to use them alone is likely to end up with a monthly bill in the triple digits.