Article updated 5/7/2014 by Ryan Waniata
Services like Netflix Instant, Hulu Plus and Amazon Instant Video offer a massive amount of content to watch at a low monthly cost. It’s really a fantastic way to provide extensive entertainment options to an entire family. Trying to figure out which subscription service to use while sticking to a frugal entertainment budget? Check out our updated 2014 breakdown of the three most popular streaming video services:
Price: Amazon Instant Video
With Amazon recently moving its Prime package up from $79 to $99, it essentially makes the difference in price between the $96 cost of either Hulu Plus or Netflix a wash. However, if we add in the bonus of getting free shipping on all of your Amazon Prime shopping – something that is a near-vital necessity in today’s online shopping paradigm – Amazon comes out on top.
As an added bonus, signing up for Amazon’s service can also get you deals on the purchase of current seasons of shows you can’t find on other sites like The Walking Dead, which isn’t a part of the Hulu Plus universe.
Supported Devices: Amazon Instant Video
We’re giving this one to Amazon as well, due in no small part to the recent launch of the company’s own streaming device, Fire TV. Hinted at for years, the Fire TV debuted to mostly favorable reviews in April. The box hosts all three services in our showdown, but debuted with a voice-operated search feature exclusive to Amazon Instant and Vevo, accessible through the microphone atop the device’s slick control wand. More recently, Fire TV added the Hulu Plus library to voice-operated search, along with Crackle, and Showtime Anywhere, but Netflix is still off the list.
That said, all three services are offered on almost every streaming device in the land, and Netflix often stands as the easiest to access on Blu-ray players, DVRs, and TVs given the wide array of such devices that feature its bright red button right on the remote. Still, having its own hardware gives Amazon a slight edge, and could lead to the creation of more bonuses for choosing its service on the in-house device in the future.
Interface/Ease of Use: Netflix Instant
Netflix software has always offered a pretty impressive user experience – depending on the device with which you chose to connect to the service, that is. But as you may have noticed, in November big red got way more intuitive on many newer devices, adding easier search functionality, more engaging and accurate content info for shows and movies, and a slick new design with an intuitive carousel. The update originally launched on newer HDTVs, gaming consoles, Rokus, and Blu-ray players, and has since made its way to other devices including most laptops and desktop computers.
The upgrade was a re-design from the ground up which not only allows Netflix to offer a congruent experience across multiple platforms, but also allows for singular upgrades for all included devices when Netflix adds a new feature or option to the site.
Hulu Plus has made some upgrades to its lineup recently as well, making searching and finding the “Shows You Watch” even easier, while Amazon comes in third with its more scattered interface. Again, we’ll add a caveat here to say that searching for Amazon content is optimized on the Fire TV with voice command prompts, but that applies to a limited populous at this point.
Mobile Applications: Netflix Instant / Hulu Plus
While each mobile application has pros and cons when streaming over LTE or 3G, both the Netflix and Hulu Plus applications stand out when it comes to content discovery, speed / quality of video playback over Wi-Fi, software stability, and the continuity of the layout design between smartphone, tablet, computer and home theater device platforms.
All three services are compatible with iOS devices like iPhones and iPads, as well as Amazon’s Kindle Fire devices. Netflix and Hulu Plus applications can also be found on Windows 8 mobile devices and Nook tablets, while Amazon Instant still lags behind there. And there’s another glaring omission in the Amazon Instant lineup, as well: Android. While there are workarounds for the tech-savvy on some devices, the service does not have a natively compatible app for the world’s most popular mobile platform. That alone puts Amazon far behind its peers in the realm of mobile compatibility.
Audio / Video Quality: Netflix Instant
Netflix is on the front lines of high-resolution streaming, taking strides to offer “Super HD” 1080p streams, in addition to 3D streams for subscribers with 3D capable televisions. Alternatively, Hulu Plus and Amazon subscribers are limited to a maximum of 720p for streaming content. However, availability of Netflix 1080p streaming is dependent on the speed of your Internet connection and can also be affected by the provider itself.
Netflix streams started slowing to a snail’s pace on Internet service providers that did not take advantage of its Open Connect system, Netflix’s in-house solution to more slowing streaming speeds, until independent deals were made with big players like Comcast and Verizon. The deals set a troubling precedent of payment for faster streams which allow for higher resolution video, which Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has since denounced. Regardless, slowing speeds means trouble for HD. To see where your provider stacks up, checkout Netflix’s monthly speed index archives.
In addition to 1080p, Netflix has begun quietly rolling out its proposed 4K/UHD resolution streams, beginning with episodes of its original series House of Cards. The 4K streams met mixed reviews upon release do to stability and compression issues, and the feature will depend even more heavily on access to high-fast internet connections, as well as limited access to a small selection of compatible 4K/UHD TVs and streaming devices at present. Still, Netflix is a veritable pioneer in the 4K streaming landscape.
As for audio quality, Netflix offers Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 surround sound encoding on the majority of content in addition to 7.1 encoding on select content. By comparison, Amazon offers 5.1 encoding on select content, and Hulu Plus is limited to stereo sound, despite many network television shows offering 5.1 surround sound during the original broadcast and the Blu-ray disc release.
Volume of Content: Netflix Instant
Definitely the most value for your dollar when looking specifically at content alone, Netflix Instant offers the largest content library of the three services. While Netflix lost content from Starz a couple years ago, the company has aggressively continued to build out the library of television shows in addition to popular films from the past thirty years.
Analysts estimate that Netflix’s content library is roughly double to triple the size of Amazon’s library, though the company has made a push to catch up. Netflix’s vault is also larger than Hulu’s library, but the type of content that’s available on Hulu is significantly different than what’s available on Netflix. Regarding the retail giant, don’t discount Amazon based solely on the content volume. Strategically speaking, Amazon is attempting to pick up television shows and movies that have expired on Netflix in addition to snagging exclusive access to popular shows like Downton Abbey and Falling Skies.
Release Date: Hulu Plus
If you are the type of person that absolutely wants to see the latest episode of a new show the week that it airs on a major network, you really can’t go wrong with Hulu Plus. While the availability of new episodes is often dependent on the network, the majority of new episodes are available the following day after the show airs.
Of course, the ability to catch the newest shows right away comes anchored to a massive caveat: commercials. Users who pay for Hulu Plus do so knowing they will have to watch a stream of ads, which has only grown more frequent as the service has expanded. To compound the issue, many of the ads are on re-feed over a single series, which means binge watchers will see the same commercials over, and over, and over again.
Alternatively, Netflix’s add-free service doesn’t add previous seasons of shows until the new season of a show begins. That time frame ranges from three months up to an entire year based on the agreement between Netflix and the studio that created the show. Over on Amazon, you can purchase the latest episodes for a premium price. However, if you watch tons of network programming, it’s smarter financially to go with the Hulu Plus subscription over paying $1.99 on Amazon ($2.99 for HD) for the latest episode of shows like ABC’s Once Upon a Time or NBC’s Law and Order: SVU.
Original Content: Netflix Instant
If you had asked us a couple years back which company won the crown for original content, we would have said Hulu Plus hands down. Battleground on Hulu Plus was a witty, entertaining political drama, Morgan Spurlock’s A Day In The Life was a solid documentary and even Kevin Smith’s Spoilers had some high points. The only content that Netflix rolled out during 2012 was Lilyhammer, a mildly entertaining drama about a mobster (Steve Van Zandt of The Sopranos) in the witness protection program.
But times have changed. As Netflix has made serious moves (and laid out serious money), it has released a growing list of shows in the last two years that have gained favor from critics and audiences alike, including House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, American Horror Story, and others, have easily vaulting Netflix into first place. And perhaps more importantly, Netflix programming has garnered respect that echoes outside of the burgeoning world of online content, as House of Cards became the first show of its kind to win an Emmy in 2013. In the near future the company is putting out even more cash for content, including a reported $200 million for a host of shows from the Marvel universe.
Still, this race is far from over, and it has proven to be a marathon rather than a sprint. As original online content gains more street cred, Amazon and Hulu Plus have both doubled down, announcing a bundle of new shows for their lineup for 2014. While Netflix is king right now, there is still plenty of room for competitors to expand as viewers – and advertisers – increasingly look online for new and innovative original programming.
- Hate commercials and advertisements? Go with Netflix or Amazon Prime. Neither service requires you to watch commercials in order to watch content; completely opposite from Hulu Plus. However, you will have to put up with some awkward Sony PlayStation plugs when watching House of Cards.
- Need subtitles? Go with Netflix. By the beginning of 2014, the company finished an agreement to subtitle all of its content.
- Will the kids be watching? If you need parental controls, all services are fairly limited in regards to options for limiting content to specific members of the household. However, Netflix does have an option to limit the MPAA / TV ratings on content as a universal setting. Be aware that changing that setting can take up to eight hours to appear on all connected devices. In addition, Hulu recently launched a Kids lock feature on the mobile app that allows parents to lock out mature content before handing a smartphone or tablet over to their child.
Are you not entertained?!
If licensed television and movie content, current network shows and original series aren’t enough to keep your attention, considered allotting a portion of your monthly entertainment budget to renting new release movies on Vudu. While you could rent the same movies from Amazon’s premium side of Instant Video, the audio and video quality is exquisite on Vudu’s service.
Offering pristine 1080p video and 7.1 surround sound on many titles, the service is perfect for new release movies. In addition, users can download films on devices with storage capacity and have 30 days to start watching the film. The 720p version of a new release is priced at $4.99 and the 1080p version is typically priced at $5.99 per rental.
Jumping back to subscription services, keep an eye on startup service Redbox Instant as the year progresses. While the current streaming movie options definitely don’t stack up to the content library found on Amazon or Netflix, the ability to rent four discs a month for free from Redbox kiosks may be enough of a benefit to justify the $8-a-month fee for streaming service. However, be wary that device support will slowly roll out over 2013 as the service gains users. At the moment, Verizon and Redbox have only rolled out an application for the Xbox 360.
What do you really want to watch?
All of these pros and cons aside, the decision to subscribe to any of these services rests on what types of shows and movies that you and family members living within your cord cutting household enjoy watching. If you are on an extremely frugal entertainment budget, consider taking advantage of Hulu Plus’s referral program to earn extra weeks for free and make sure you watch deal sites like SlickDeals or FatWallet for flash deals on prepaid Netflix cards.
However, if your budget allows it, you should also consider subscribing to all three services in order to gain access to the maximum amount of streaming content. At a bit less than $23 per month (approximately $275 per year), you will have access to a wealth of brand new network content on Hulu Plus, a boatload of older television shows and movies on Netflix and Amazon, a variety of original content coming out of all three services as well as the added benefits that come from subscribing to Amazon Prime.
[This article has been updated to include new information for 2014 including content, app compatibility, hardware updates and more, May 6, 2014]