Internet streaming of television and movies has skyrocketed in the last few years, largely due to the emergence of Netflix as a streaming content contender. But Netflix is not the only player in the streaming game. Apple has iTunes; Amazon has Video On Demand; TV networks have Hulu and their own websites, and Vudu has a movie streaming service.
When deciding which service you want, it is not a matter of simply choosing the highest streaming quality or lowest price. Each service has their own catalog of titles, some exclusive, so in order to get the content you want, you may have to use two or more. This guide should help you sort through each service and decide which ones you want and which you can do without. Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu will receive more detailed coverage because their wider user base and device support.
Netflix is primarily known for its large movie catalog, but it also has TV shows and documentaries. Their current movie contracts include Epix, Starz, and back-catalog titles from Time Warner, Universal, and 20th Century Fox. TV content comes from NBC Universal, 20th Century Fox, Sony Pictures, Disney-ABC, Domestic Television, and some Warner Bros.
Each deal has its own restrictions and limitations. While some movies may be added shortly after DVD releases, others may not make it to the catalog at all. Television shows are generally only for those already released on DVD, although the Disney-ABC deal also includes current seasons for some shows with a 15-day delay. Conspicuously absent from the list is CBS, which does not seem to offer any titles through Netflix streaming, despite reports 3 years ago that the two had inked a deal.
All of this means you can watch movies like Prince of Persia and classics like Rudy, as well as TV shows like 30 Rock, 24, Lost, and Bones. You cannot, however, watchNCIS or The Mentalist. CW titles, such as Smallville are also unavailable.
One of the most impressive catalog inclusions for parents are a large number of popular children’s shows, such as Dora The Explorer, Super Why, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Barney, Wizards of Waverly Place, Hannah Montana, WorldWorld, and Phineas and Ferb. They also have a very large selection of Anime shows and movies.
Netflix streaming subscriptions start at $7.99 per month. Streaming is available on a plethora of devices, including the PC (Windows only, no Linux), Mac, several Bluray Disc players, Roku box, Apple TV, iPhone, iPad, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, some Internet-connected TVs, Google TV, Boxee Box, WD TV, Windows Phone 7, and various home theater systems.
Amazon Video On Demand
Amazon recently announced they will now offer unlimited streaming for certain titles to their Amazon Primze customers ($79 a year). The list of “Prime Eligible” titles is small, less than Netflix, but they will continue to stream other content at fixed prices for rentals and purchases. This allows them to offer movies sooner than Netflix, which can only offer new releases on DVD. Get Him to the Greek, for example is available on Amazon for a $0.99 rental. Most movies, such as The Social Network, cost $3.99 to rent.
Amazon’s television channel offerings include ABC, CBS, Comedy Central, FOX, HBO, MTV, The CW, Nickelodeon, PBS, Syfy, TNT, and more. They offer season passes for many shows so that you can get each new episode after it is released. For example, to buy a single episode of Fringe costs $2.99 for HD quality, or $36.93 for a season pass (a discounted price of $2.84 per episode). The videos are then available for viewing on Amazon’s website or through various streaming players.
Amazon has a large catalog, but it can get expensive, especially if you have several shows you would like to follow and expect to watch more than a few movies per month. To purchase the entire 4th season of 30 Rock, for example, would cost $31.99 on Amazon, while you could watch it on Netflix for the regular monthly $7.99, in addition to any other shows in the catalog.
Amazon device support includes PCs (Windows and Linux), Macs, TiVo, numerous Bluray Disc players, Internet-ready TVs, Roku, Google TV, Xbox 360, and Windows Media Center.
Hulu is primarily for TV shows, although it does have a small catalog of movies, many of which you probably would not recognize. Hulu is owned by News Corp, ABC-Disney, and NBC Universal, although NBC will apparently withdraw because of its merger with Comcast. This means Hulu can show content from Fox, Comedy Central, ABC and ABC Family, NBC, Syfy, USA, and others, including a large Anime collection.
Taking a more traditional approach to Internet television, Hulu shows advertisements that are usually shorter than broadcast television but still dramatically different from Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes. They generally only show the current few episodes of a show’s season, although they also offer a paid subscription for Hulu Plus, which adds back episodes of all seasons for select shows. Hulu Plus also gives users the ability to watch shows on devices other than their computers. Hulu Plus, however, still displays ads, despite the $7.99 per month subscription.
Trying to determine what is available through regular Hulu and what is available through Hulu Plus is a bit confusing. For example, Hulu does not have the rights to show some shows like Burn Notice or Chuck on other devices but can show No Ordinary Family. Therefore, you have to be careful and make sure you can actually get the shows you think you are getting when you subscribe.
Hulu Plus works on Apple’s iPhone, iPad, and iPad touch, Android Phones (coming soon), various televisions and Bluray players, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Roku, TiVo, and WD TV (coming soon).
iTunes shows commercial-free episodes of shows like Gossip Girl, House, Glee, Fringe, and NCIS, pretty much covering all of the major television stations. Like Amazon, these shows and their movies are available on a per-title basis.
To even access the iTunes catalog, you need Apple’s iTunes software, which was not available for my Linux computer to allow me to even give you pricing examples, and the list of working devices is pretty much limited to Apple products, such as the iPad and Apple TV.
Promising “Eye-popping 1080p HD Quality”, Vudu really pushes the quality of their content. Like Amazon and Apple, Vudu offers movie rentals and purchases on a per-title basis. For example, you can rent Salt in HD for $4.99 or buy it for $19.99. The title list is quite extensive, though not nearly as large as Netflix. It does, however, have many more new DVD releases.
Vudu is available on Windows computers via Boxee, several Bluray and TV connected devices, and Sony PlayStation 3.
Making a Choice
For what it offers, Netflix is undoubtedly the best deal for its price. With it you get a large collection of movies, commercial-free back episodes of many TV shows, and, for a little more money, access to their large mail-in collection of DVD and Bluray titles. Since they do not offer current seasons of most TV shows, you will need an additional service. Furthermore, if you intend to watch Netflix on your computer and have Linux or another alternative operating system, you can forget it. Amazon and Hulu, however, both work on all operating systems.
If you do not mind commercials, a combination of Hulu, CBS, and The CW websites will get you just about everything. If, however, you want commercial-free viewing, Amazon is the best bet for TV. iTunes is only useful if you have Apple hardware and/or software on your PC. For new release movies, either Vudu or Amazon should work just fine for you on a per-movie basis.