Hulu. iTunes. Netflix. Amazon Instant Video.
The lifeblood of online cinema and television. The new wave of home media. The providers of endless entertainment in which pants are not necessarily required. They are the contenders of all that is streaming video.
But alas, which service is the best? Which service can raise its virtual fist high in the air and proudly exclaim, “I am the one!” to be heard across all the land?
This is exactly why we are here today, ladies and gentlemen. We are gathered here to analyze all of these best instant video streaming services and find out which one can hold the title of The Best.
Our criteria will be based on the following:
- The Selection: Generally speaking, what kind of content is offered? Is it highly sought after?
- The Price: Are you getting a good deal?
- The Interface: Is the service easy to use and pretty to look at at?
- The Devices: What kinds of tech toys can you use these services on?
- The Quality: What does the content look like?
Right away, I have to say that Netflix offers a nice mix of both movies and television shows. Better yet, they are also in the market of original content, pumping out top-notch shows like House of Cards and Hemlock Grove. On the other hand, Hulu is definitely more television-focused because of its close ties with all of the major networks. Typically, you can catch shows the day after they appear on television, but their modest selection of films is rather poor. With Netflix, however, you occasionally can only receive some items on DVD. That kind of takes away the convenience of the whole streaming aspect.
Moving right along, Amazon offers a great variety of movies and television series, and it is currently entering the world of original content. Here’s the catch, though: some titles aren’t compatible with Prime Instant Video – lame sauce. I was pretty displeased with the fact that, despite having a Prime account, I was still expected to pay for AMC’s Breaking Bad and Mad Men, both of which required $1.99 per SD episode and $2.99 per HD episode. Alternatively, there’s iTunes, which has a superior library filled to the brim with fresh content, but it does not offer a subscription service that allows you to buy in bulk.
Overall, I have to say that Netflix offers the best selection out of all of these.
Relatively speaking, Amazon and iTunes have great selections as well, but they must be individually purchased. Selection is such a trivial thing to consider, though. With varying taste and opinions, it’s incredibly difficult to provide a solid answer. The only safe option is to base this answer on variety itself.
Even still, I’ve chosen a few in-vogue items and listed which services offer them. As you can tell, Amazon and iTunes do wonderfully in the area of movies, and while Netflix offers the same content, it’s occasionally via DVD only.
- Game of Thrones: Amazon, iTunes, Netflix (DVD only)
- Breaking Bad: Amazon, iTunes, Netflix
- Mad Men: Amazon, iTunes, Netflix
- The Walking Dead: Amazon, iTunes, Netflix
- Django Unchained: Amazon, iTunes, Netflix (DVD Only)
- The Dark Knight Rises: Amazon, iTunes, Netflix (DVD Only)
- The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: Amazon, iTunes, Netflix (DVD Only)
- Cloud Atlas: Amazon, iTunes, Netflix (DVD Only)
Regardless, you get a solid mix of both movies and televisions with Netflix, and on top of that, the company produces new shows that you can’t see anywhere else.
In an effort to make life easier, I have nailed down the subscription-based services’ yearly prices. (Of course, iTunes is excluded from this because of its lack of a subscription membership.)
- Hulu: $96/yr
- Netflix: $96/yr (add’l $96/yr for DVDs, add’l $24 for Blu-ray)
- Amazon Prime Membership: $79/yr
As you can tell, Hulu and Netflix are exactly the same price, while Amazon offers a slightly cheaper Prime membership which allows for unlimited streaming of titles in the Prime Instant Video library. Movies on iTunes generally range from $10 to $20 each to own and around $5 for a “rental” while season passes for television shows can range from nearly $20 to $40 and around $5 per episode.
Obviously, iTunes is not that great of a deal if you are wanting to view a massive amount of content, but if you want to own a movie or series that you can watch at anytime, then it may be worth looking into.
Looking at the service as a whole, Amazon seems to offer the best deal as far as multimedia goes. Their Prime account plan allows for unlimited streaming, the ability to check out books for Kindle, and free shipping for certain items. In the end, if you’re a regular Amazon user, you’re going to get your money’s worth. However, in the context of video entertainment, it’s probably not worth it. Since some television episodes and movies are not even available for Prime users, you will likely end up paying more than $79.
It seems like we have a back-to-back winner for this round: Netflix.
However, as already mentioned, Hulu Basic is more focused on television, and with the inclusion of a Hulu Live subscription, it’s really the best option for cordcutters who can’t live without live TV. We definitely recommend it if you want to stay on top of your favorite shows as they air.
Both Hulu and Netflix offer the ability to browse genres using similar interfaces. You can scroll through covers on the main page, and for more specific categories, you can flip through a grid of various content. Personally, I believe Hulu is the better of the two, for Netflix tends to prioritize recommended titles based on every single item you watch instead of standard genres and categories. Hulu puts the most popular content at the forefront while making use of a much more fluid interface.
As for Amazon, it’s just ugly. Period. Selections are presented in the same format as the regular site, so you really have to know what you are looking for in order to find anything. While there are decent recommendations (in the same fashion as regular Amazon purchases), the layout is just not suitable for a streaming service: It requires you to click too much. You can’t endlessly scroll looking through titles, and you also can’t hover over films to read their descriptions.
iTunes displays a very similar layout like Netflix and Hulu. However, more items appear on the screen, and movies and TV shows are automatically divided into two separate pages. Content is delivered in a sleek, fluid, interactive format, and honestly, it’s a pleasure to use. The right sidebar showcases the most popular bits of entertainment in order for each genre, and content art is clearly viewable on all parts of the site.
This time around, iTunes takes the cake. Simply put, it’s easier to use and prettier to look at.
Rather than fluff things up, I’ll just let the device compatibility speak for itself.
- Hulu: Mac, PC, iOS, Android, Xbox 360, PS3, Roku, TiVo, Nintendo Wii, Nintendo Wii U, Kindle Fire, NOOK, Blu-ray, SmartTV
- iTunes: Mac, PC, Apple TV, iOS
- Netflix: Mac, PC, iOS, Windows Phone, Android, Xbox 360, PS3, Boxee, TiVo, Nintendo Wii, Nintendo Wii U, Nintendo 3DS, Kindle Fire, NOOK, Blu-ray, SmartTV
- Amazon Instant Video: Mac, PC, Kindle Fire, Kindle Fire HD, iOS, Android, Xbox 360, PS3, Roku, TiVo, Nintendo Wii, Nintendo Wii U, Blu-ray, SmartTV
As far as devices go, we have a three-way tie: Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Instant Video all do a marvelous job of supporting their customers regardless of how they are viewing content. As for iTunes, it’s stuck in Apple Land, surrounded by towers of polished aluminum and retina billboards advertising newish products.
Amazon advertises its streaming content for PC as being “DVD quality” – in short, this means it’s standard definition. So unfortunately, you cannot stream HD content to your computer, but you can stream HD to your Kindle Fire HD, Xbox 360, PS3, Roku, or TiVO. For regular laptop users, this means Amazon is out. No questions asked.
Netflix’s and Hulu’s streaming quality are too similar to really see a difference, and users can watch content in both HD and SD. However, Netflix provides the option to throttle your quality as a means to prevent from going over your data cap, and this is a nice consideration for its clientele. But for those of you who enjoy crystal clear viewing, iTunes’ HD content has been compared to Blu-ray. With that said, iTunes is the winner of this round.
Bear in mind that the quality is also based on your connection. You could live in Podunk, Nowhere, with the worst ISP in the world, and iTunes would look pretty horrible.
As you can tell, it appears that Netflix is the best best instant video streaming service out there. It’s incredibly well-rounded, providing a good variety of content for a vast set of devices at a fair price.
This doesn’t mean that the other services are poor, by any means. Hulu Basic and Hulu Live are perfect for those who are addicted to live television shows. Amazon Instant Video comes with the total package, including books, music, and shipping via Amazon Prime. iTunes is great for hanging onto your entertainment.
What do you think? Did I pick the best service? I want to know what your opinions, so leave your thoughts and feedback in the comments.