If you are unwrapping a brand new Roku 3 this week to upgrade your cord cutting lifestyle or simply trying to figure out what to watch on your smart television, the variety and volume of content on streaming video subscription services has never been greater than it is now. 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 2013 breakdown of the three most popular streaming video services:
Price: Amazon Instant Video
Based on price point alone, a subscription to Amazon Prime at $79.99 per year is slightly cheaper than the $96 per year that’s spent on a Netflix or Hulu Plus subscription. At approximately $6.67 per month, Amazon Prime subscribers get access to all the streaming titles on Amazon Instant Video in addition to free two-day shipping on all products sold by Amazon and one free book a month from the Amazon Lending Library to use on a Kindle device.
If you purchase more than one item a month off Amazon, it’s definitely going to save you money in the long run. For cord cutters, you can also find discounts on season passes for the current season of shows like The Walking Dead and Psych that air on cable-only networks and aren’t available on a service like Hulu Plus.
Supported Devices: Three-Way Tie
All three organizations have made great strides over the past few years in providing access to content on a variety of connected devices including high definition televisions, streaming set-top boxes, gaming consoles, DVR boxes, Blu-ray players and home-theater-in-a-box systems.
In fact, it’s difficult to purchase a connected device that doesn’t have support for all three services. For a full list of supported devices for each service, be sure to check out the hardware lists on these pages: Netflix Instant, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video.
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.
Besides iOS and Android platforms, Netflix and Hulu Plus applications can be found on Windows 8 mobile devices as well as Kindle and Nook tablets. However, neither company has announced plans to support the upcoming BlackBerry 10 platform.
Audio / Video Quality: Netflix Instant
Netflix is taking strides in offering “Super HD” 1080p streams in addition to 3D streams for subscribers with 3D capable televisions. However, availability of a 1080p stream is dependent on the speed of the subscriber’s Internet connection as well as participation in the Open Connect platform at the ISP level.
Alternatively, Hulu Plus and Amazon subscribers are limited to a maximum of 720p for streaming content. Regarding audio quality, Netflix offers Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 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. It’s 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 based 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 as well as timed exclusives on shows like Fringe and the West Wing.
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. Alternatively, Netflix 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 me which company won the crown for original content at the end of 2012, I 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.
However, the release of Kevin Spacey’s House of Cards has officially vaulted Netflix into first place and the upcoming fourth season of Arrested Development coming in May 2013 will likely solidify Netflix’s reign in the original content category for 2013. Netflix also has Eli Roth’s murder mystery Hemlock Grove and comedy series Orange is the New Black rolling out later in the year. While Amazon is also starting to branch out into original content and Hulu will likely continue to launch new shows this year, it’s really tough to beat the lineup that will be available to Netflix Instant subscribers during 2013.
- 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 end of 2012, Netflix hit the 82 percent marks in adding subtitles to all content on the streaming service. According to company estimates, Netflix plans to reach 90 percent by the end of 2013 and 100 percent by the end of 2014.
- 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.