Amazon’s Prime membership has been around for several years now and has, over the years, gained some notable upgrades. Once no more than a free shipping offer, Prime is now a streaming media service on par with Netflix and a digital library, too. That’s a lot to gain from a single subscription.
Prime is $79 a year, however, and there’s no way to reduce that upfront fee (the monthly subscription program, which debuted in 2012, has been axed). Many people will find themselves staring at the fee and wondering – is this really worth it? Or will I be flushing 80 bucks down the drain? Let’s take a closer look.
Prime At A Glance
Amazon Prime basically consists of three major benefits, all of which are only targeted at shoppers in the United States (sorry, everyone else!)
The core benefit is free two-day shipping on items sold by Amazon or by a partner that has its order fulfilled by Amazon. There are no minimum purchases, but this offer does not extend to third-party vendors selling through Amazon’s website (which can lead to some confusion).
Another nice boon is access to Amazon’s streaming video service. The company has worked hard to build this feature out, and it now offers variety that’s nearly on par with Netflix. You can access the service on a PC or through various media devices, like the Roku.
Finally, Prime subscribers can “borrow” one Kindle book a month, for free, but there’s a rather big catch – you can only borrow via Kindle hardware, not via the Kindle app. Which rather feels like a poke in the eye for those who own, well, any other tablet.
A Closer Look At Free Two-Day Shipping
The free shipping offer that’s core to Prime looks awesome. Two-day shipping isn’t just free, it’s fast – you can’t beat that with a stick, right?
A more critical look at the offer reveals that it’s not as impressive as it sounds. Remember, Amazon already offers free Super Saver shipping on orders above $25 that are sold directly through Amazon or a thirty-party vendor that has its orders fulfilled by Amazon. And these are also the only items that qualify for Prime’s free two-day shipping. So what you’re really paying for is not free shipping – which you’d receive anyway – but fast shipping.
The value represented by two-day shipping can vary greatly because Amazon tends to overestimate just how much time Super Saver shipping takes to get to your door. While the page often claims 5 days to 2 weeks, I’ve found that it’s rare to receive an item more than 5 business days after it was ordered. Still, having two-day shipping at the ready is nice whenever you want an item now.
You may actually spend more for that item, however. Why? Because as a Prime member, you have an incentive to only order items directly from Amazon or fulfilled by an Amazon partner, and you’ll even see prices from them instead of (potentially lower) prices from third-party vendors.
Here’s an example; currently the Xbox 360 2012 holiday bundle sells for $292 from an order fulfilled by an Amazon partner, and when I am logged in with my account, that’s the price I see. But if I’m not logged in, I instead see a price of $281, which is provided by a third party merchant.
Of course, the thirteen dollar difference might be made up for by shipping, and isn’t going to break anyone’s budget. But a few bucks here and there can add up, particularly for heavy Amazon users. Once you’re a Prime member, pricing for Prime eligible vendors will be prioritized when you’re logged in, which means you may end up paying more unless you’re meticulous about checking deals offered by third-party vendors.
Prime Instant Video Is The Real Value
Amazon’s Prime Instant Video is basically a Netflix clone, and works the same way. You sign in, you browse movies, you stream them. As long as you have a Prime subscription you can access all the movies Amazon makes available to Prime members at no added charge.
The only major difference is pricing. Amazon’s year-long subscription of $79 breaks down to about $6.50 per month, which is less than Netflix’s $7.99 per month. But unlike Netflix, you can only grab Prime in one-year chunks. If you for some reason you lose access to broadband during the year, or otherwise don’t need the service, too bad. You’ve already paid.
But that’s the only bone to pick. Quantifying which service has the best catalog is almost impossible, as both Prime and Netflix see choices come and go as old contracts expire and new ones are inked. Personally, I’d say they’re on even ground. Both do a decent job of grabbing up recent blockbuster movies and both have a good (but incomplete) selection of older television shows. Neither does a good job of stocking recently-released television – that’s what Hulu is for.
Kindle Lending Probably Isn’t Worth Your Time
Amazon’s Kindle Lending Library is the latest feature to come to Prime. The way it works is simple. Once you’ve signed up for Prime, you’ll find a new “Borrow” button next to “Buy” when viewing eligible books on Amazon with your Kindle device. Tap it and presto, you’re done. You can only borrow one book at a time, but there are no due dates.
Note, however, that I said “your Kindle device.” You cannot under any circumstances use this feature on a PC or on any tablet which is not a Kindle Fire. That is a pretty big restriction. Sure, you can borrow the books for free – but only after you pay for both the Prime membership and a Kindle reader or tablet.
And while Amazon makes hay about its huge selection, millions of titles aren’t available. Finding books to borrow becomes more and more difficult as you move away from mainstream literature and non-fiction and into other genres, like history or science. And, since you can only borrow one book at a time, and there’s no easy way to copy pages, the borrow feature is almost useless for anything besides casual reading.
So, Should You Sign Up For Amazon Prime?
The deal Prime represents to you depends significantly on how you might use the service. If you’re looking for a streaming video provider to help you “cut the cord” on cable, Prime will prove a great deal, and I heartily recommend taking the plunge.
Those who are more interested in the free shipping, however, should be wary. All you receive from Prime is faster free shipping, and in addition to that, you may have to pay more for an item to take advantage of your subscription. Only very frequent users, or customers who buy large items (like televisions), will get the most from their subscription.
Then there’s the Kindle Lending Library which, to all but a small niche of loyalists who already own Kindles and only want to read popular literature, is basically worthless. If you want to borrow a book, go to the library.
Here’s where I end and you pipe up. Are you an Amazon Prime subscriber? Have you taken advantage of all its benefits?