Recently, we learned that Netflix will soon completely split up its Instant Streaming and DVD-by-mail services. Netflix will continue to be the home for Instant Streaming and a new company called Qwikster, run by the same guys who have been running Netflix DVD rentals for a decade, will handle DVD-by-mail subscriptions. If you’re like us, you’re wondering what the heck is going on over at Netflix headquarters. While we’ll be keeping our subscription for now, maybe it’s time to look at some of the rising competition in the instant streaming and DVD-by-mail space. Below are some of our favorites.
If you haven’t heard of Hulu, then you probably haven’t watched TV online before. Hulu is the best place to find just-ran television programs from Fox, NBC, ABC, Comedy Central, MTV, and other cable networks. Some programs are free to watch on the Web, but if you want to watch from a smartphone, tablet, Xbox, or TV box, you’re going to need Hulu Plus, which costs $8 a month and includes expanded access to older episodes and seasons of some popular shows, like 30 Rock and Modern Family. Unfortunately, Hulu is very weak in the one area where Netflix is very strong: movies. The film selection on Hulu is improving, but not at the rate we’d expect. Most of Hulu’s time and energy continues to go into obtaining rights to stream new episodes of TV shows that are currently on the air. It has a somewhat decent library of older shows, but it doesn’t have as many older TV shows as Netflix Instant Streaming. If you want to watch Cheers or Roseanne, Hulu is not your service. (Warning: Hulu does have ads.)
In an effort to beef up its Google TV and Android offerings, Google has begun renting new movie releases on YouTube. The service is usable on the Web and is now built into the Android Market, making it a highly convenient way to instantly stream new titles over the Internet. New movies typically rent for $4 and some old releases go for $2 or $3. You have 30 days to begin viewing a movie and 24 hours to finish watching it once you start. YouTube is still somewhat overlooked, but we really liked how easy and straightforward the service is compared to some others. YouTube is one of the most highly adopted services around and we expect that a YouTube app will soon hit the Xbox 360 as well, making it an attractive option for a lot of people. Best of all, we like that Google isn’t pressuring people to “buy” movies, instead only offering rentals. Purchasing a digital movie is not smart unless you’re certain that you plan to use said digital service for many many years to come. There’s no monthly fee for YouTube.
If you own an iPad, iPod, iPhone, or Mac, this may be an attractive option for you. Apple rents movies over iTunes. It also sells them, if you want to spend $15 to $20 for something you’ll only be able to use within iTunes. To make the most of your instant streaming purchases, you may want to buy an Apple TV. The Apple TV box costs $100, but it’s worth it if you have a big TV and like to watch your movies on it. Recently, however, Apple dropped $1 TV movie rentals, casting some doubt on exactly what direction its service and TV box will take. We should find out soon.
Amazon’s Instant Video service costs the most up front, but is actually the cheapest of all streaming services and has the most perks. To get free Amazon Instant Video streaming, you must sign up for Amazon Prime, which costs $79 per year. Split up, that’s actually only $6.58 per month, but it does require 12 months up front. If you’ve never used the service, you can get a refund at any time, but if you’ve used Prime services, you have through the first three months to cancel for a pro-rated refund, but after that, well, you’re stuck paying for the remainder of the year, which is fair. Keep in mind, Amazon Prime comes with the added perk of free two-day shipping on almost anything ordered on Amazon with no minimum purchase required. Getting something in two days is pretty good, and the one-day shipping charge is only $4 per item. Amazon’s Instant streaming library is growing pretty fast. It has some high-profile shows on it that Netflix has like The Tudors, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Cheers, but also some series that Netflix doesn’t yet have like Frasier, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and The L Word. It’s movie selection is widening as well. However, Amazon offers something Netflix doesn’t: streaming movie rentals and purchases. Like YouTube Movies and iTunes, Amazon offers movie rentals for $4. It also lets you “purchase” movies for $15 to $20. If Amazon can beef up the number of devices that support Instant Video, it could be the best Netflix competitor yet.
Blockbuster has a horrible reputation from its days ruling the retail rental market in the 1990s, but times change. Dish Network recently purchased the ailing company, which has been hit hard by the rise of Netflix and Red Box in the last decade. From what we hear, in October, a new Blockbuster instant streaming service will be unveiled that may include Starz, which will be leaving Netflix as of February 28, 2012. Starz provides most of Netflix’s access to new movie releases and comprises as much as 8 percent of the Netflix Instant Streaming library. Currently, Blockbuster also offers movie and TV show rentals and purchases as well. It’s pricing is largely consistent with YouTube, Amazon, and others: About $4 to rent and about $15 to $20 to purchase. Blockbuster is available on Android and iOS devices as well. We hope it will come to more devices and game consoles in the future.
But wait, there’s more. For those of you pondering leaving the newly formed Qwikster in the dust, Blockbuster offers one of the only comparable DVD-by-mail services: Blockbuster Total Access. The service costs $10 per month and includes Blu-ray movies and video games. Netflix has a base price of $8 per month for one DVD rental at a time (same as Blockbuster), but adding Blu-ray and video games means two more upgrades to your service, making it more than Blockbuster. The fact that there are still some actual Blockbuster rental stores and kiosks (like Redbox) here and there makes it all the more convenient, assuming you’re near a retail location.
While we just covered some of the big names, there are plenty more services to check out.
- CinemaNow – Streaming movie rental ($4) and purchase ($16 to $20) service by Best Buy
- Vudu – Streaming movie rental ($4) and purchase ($15 to $20) service by Walmart
- Redbox – Movie & Game kiosks
- GreenCine – DVD-by-mail, but for indie, anime, artsy, and foreign films
- OnLive – Video game instant streaming service with unlimited $10-per-month plan or purchases
- GameFly – Monthly video-game-by-mail service starting at $16 per month
- Xbox 360 – Has Zune movie rentals and purchases as well as ESPN3 sports access
- PS3 – Streaming movie rentals and purchases through PlayStation Network
- Your local library – You’d be surprised how many DVDs you can rent from your local library for free
Are there any viable services we missed? If so, let us know in the comments below.