Thousands of titles available, for just $8 a month! Content from major movie studios! If you listen to the marketing behind most subscription video services on the Web, you might think you’d never run out of interesting things to watch.
But before you commit to a subscription, you might want to consider whether the titles available are actually new and relevant, and how you’ll be able to access them.
I’ve had the enviable task of testing four of these streaming video services: Amazon Prime Instant Video, Hulu Plus, Netflix, and the newly announced Redbox Instant by Verizon, which is still in beta mode and is expected to launch sometime in the next couple months.
Other Web video services might come to mind — including Apple’s iTunes and Google Play — but I focused on these four because they’re all subscription models.
Below is a guide to how they stack up against one another in the U.S., but, in short: Netflix is still my go-to streaming service for newer TV shows, some new movies and a bunch of old movies (despite company stumbles and lapsed content deals that made me pause my subscription for a while last year).
Hulu Plus is better for TV shows than movies, although Hulu Plus runs ads, and newer TV shows tend to be only from ABC, Fox and NBC. Amazon’s Prime Instant Video service can be less compelling than it’s a la carte service, Amazon Instant Video; its biggest benefit is that if you’re already an Amazon Prime shipping subscriber, you can stream the Prime video for free. And Redbox Instant is the newest entrant, with the smallest number of titles. It currently doesn’t offer any TV content.
Netflix charges $8 a month for unlimited movies and TV shows streamed through the Web. You can also get DVD mail-in service (one rental at a time) for an additional $8 a month.
Hulu Plus, the subscription-based version of Hulu, charges $8 a month for unlimited streaming.
Amazon and Redbox Instant offer both subscription video services and individual purchase options. Amazon’s subscription-based streaming video service is tied to Amazon Prime, the company’s two-day shipping service, which costs $79 a year.
So, if you’re a Prime member, you have unlimited access to the Prime Instant Video catalog at no additional cost. If you’re not a member, and you want to rent or buy one digital download, you do that through the Amazon Instant Video Store. Rentals are usually $4 or $5, and most movie purchases range from $8 (“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” for instance) to $15 (“Snow White and the Huntsman”).
Redbox Instant offers unlimited streaming for $8 per month. That also includes four DVD rental credits to redeem at any of the 42,000 Redbox kiosks across the U.S. Additionally, some of the titles can be digitally purchased and stored in your Redbox account. For example, I purchased “Eat Pray Love” for $12 through Redbox Instant.
|Netflix||Amazon Prime Video||Hulu Plus||Redbox Instant|
|Netflix||Amazon Prime Video||Hulu Plus||Redbox Instant|
|“The Hunger Games”||No||No||No||No|
|“Lost in Translation”||Yes||No||No||No|
|“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest||No||No||No||No|
Netflix won’t specify exactly how many movies and TV episodes can be streamed, except to say that it has “hundreds of thousands” of titles available through both DVDs and instant streaming. Hulu Plus subscribers can stream more than 63,000 TV episodes and 3,700 movie titles. Amazon Prime members can access around 33,000 movies and TV episodes through the subscription, with 140,000 episodes available through the entire Instant Video service. Right now, Redbox Instant only streams around 8,000 movie titles and, again, it doesn’t offer TV episodes.
Often you’ll hear things from these services like, “We carry Epix movie titles,” or “The streaming content will be available 28 days after the DVD is available.” That’s great. But what does this mean?
Some of the Netflix titles I’ve watched or browsed through recently include: “30 Rock,” “Arrested Development” and “The West Wing” and, on the movie side, “Tiny Furniture,” “Lost in Translation,” “Louis C.K.: Chewed Up,” and “Blue Valentine.” Netflix’s assortment of romantic comedies is probably enough to satisfy any Nora Ephron fan.
On Hulu Plus, you can currently watch episodes of “Modern Family,” “The Daily Show,” “Downton Abbey,” “Glee,” and many more TV shows. But Hulu Plus’s movie selection is lacking. When I clicked on the Drama genre, a bunch of skin-filled movie covers came up, like “The Wild Reporter,” which didn’t look like it was about investigative reporting.
Amazon Prime’s movie offerings were so-so. I’ve already seen “Morning Glory” and “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” more times than I should admit. Amazon Prime’s appealing TV offerings were mostly early seasons of newer shows, like “Downton Abbey,” “Arrested Development,” “The Closer” and “Parks and Recreation.” I also saw a fair amount of kids’ titles.
But Amazon’s non-Prime, or a la carte, offerings seemed much more inclusive than its Prime subscription service (“Men in Black 3,” “The Bourne Legacy” and “The Hunger Games” were a few newer titles).
At this early stage, Redbox Instant isn’t up to par. Again, there was “Morning Glory.” There were also a few award winners from last year, like “True Grit” and “Winter’s Bone.” Frankly, there were a lot of movies I liked 10 or 15 years ago, like “Steel Magnolias,” “Snatch” and “Flatliners.”
When it comes to online video, 1080p HD isn’t a priority for me. I’ll gladly watch old standard-definition episodes of “The West Wing” on Netflix. But, for some consumers — especially those who have spent good money on fancy TVs — the quality matters.
Netflix and Hulu Plus stream full HD (1080p) content when it’s available, whereas Redbox Instant and Amazon Prime Instant Video top off at 720p.
Mobile Apps and Devices
Streaming video is no longer just about the PC. Some of the devices you can access these services from include new “smart” TVs and Blu-ray players, Roku boxes, Apple TV, Sony PlayStation 3, Nintendo Wii and Microsoft Xbox 360, to name a bunch.
Redbox Instant will be available on LG Electronics Blu-ray players and smart TVs, as well as Google TV devices, but the company hasn’t confirmed yet whether it will be on gaming consoles, Apple TV or Roku.
All of these services have iOS and Android apps optimized for mobile video watching — with the exception of Prime Instant Video, which has an iOS app but not an Android version. (You can, however, watch Amazon’s instant video offerings on the Kindle Fire tablet, technically an Android tablet.)
Most of my mobile streaming experiences have been good. I’ve watched several episodes of “30 Rock” through Netflix mobile, and parts of “Into the Wild” through Amazon Prime on mobile, without interruption. In fact, I like the look and feel of the Amazon video mobile app (as well as the TV app) a lot more than I like the desktop experience.
All four services also offer the ability to stop and start videos from one device to another. So, for example, I started watching “Stand By Me” through Redbox Instant on my PC, then picked it up where I left off on my iPhone, then went back to watching on my PC.
It’s important to keep in mind that these offerings are constantly changing, too, as content deals are made (or lapse), and as more platforms, like new mobile devices and “smart” TV set-ups, become available.