Streaming movies and TV shows from the internet has caught on fast. There’s no shortage of content to stream these days, and there are tons of different services out there vying for your attention. But with so many services out there offering up am ever-evolving slew of programming, how do you know which one to subscribe to?
This article is intended to be a concise comparison of some of the top streaming services available. Below, you’ll find them stacked against each other and compared in the areas of content selection, pricing, and availability to help you find the service that best suits your needs.
We’ll start with the obvious. Even if you were living in a cave for the past decade, you probably still had Netflix deliver DVD’s to your stone mailbox. Back in 1997, that’s exactly how the company got its start, but after realizing that physical media was dying off, it rapidly adapted its business model to focus more on instantly-available streaming content. The company has been king of the media streaming jungle ever since.
Content: Netflix doesn’t specify the number of movies and shows available in their library beyond just saying that it numbers in the thousands, which is vague, but nonetheless accurate. Netflix has the most robust content library of any streaming service out there. The selection leans more toward feature-length movies, but its collection of TV shows is constantly growing and improving. Netflix even offers its own highly successful TV shows, including Orange Is the New Black, and House of Cards. 2015 promises even more from Netflix, with successful productions of Bloodline and Daredevil.
Price: Netflix streaming service starts at $9 a month for new customers, and also gives you the option to get physical DVD’s sent to your mailbox one at a time for the same price – but seriously, who wants to do that anymore? Netflix also offers a $12 “platinum plan,” which unlocks Netflix’s growing collection of 4K content, and expands the number of devices that can stream at once to four.
Availability: Hardware compatibility is off the charts high. Because Netflix got into the streaming game early, it’s been picked up by all kinds of devices. You can get it on everything from gaming consoles, to streaming boxes, to your smartphone. Nearly every mainstream app store has a Netfilx app.
Verdict: Netflix is a solid choice. The content selection continues to grow over time with a good number of new releases each week. The library of TV shows isn’t as robust as what you’ll find on Hulu, but Netflix is completely ad-free.
Amazon: it started with selling books online, and now it’s the Walmart of the Internet. Amazon sells everything, and a few years ago the company broke into the media streaming market with Amazon Prime Instant Video.
Content: Amazon’s streaming site started off as a pay-per-view service, but as it gained traction, it expanded to include subscription-based on-demand video streaming to Amazon Prime subscribers. The library used to be small in comparison to that of Netflix, but recently Amazon has been using its industry clout to sign partnerships with companies like Epix and Warner Bros. The content library has ballooned as a result and includes Amazon Studio exclusives like Alpha House and Transparent.
Price: Amazon Prime Instant Video comes as part of the Amazon Prime bundle, which costs either $99 a year or $8.25 per month. If you order a lot of merchandise from Amazon, Prime is a no-brainer. In addition to the streaming services, you also get free two-day shipping on your Amazon orders. This is easily the best deal in the bunch, even if you don’t order stuff from Amazon.
Availability: APIV is available on most major set-top streaming boxes, as well as most major gaming consoles, tablets, and smartphones.
Verdict: Amazon puts pretty much everything at your fingertips – whether it’s instant streaming content, pay-per view movies and shows, or digital media you can buy and own. Based on how quickly Amazon’s service has grown in the past year alone, it’s likely that APIV will continue to expand its content library and availability to rival or surpass that of Netflix. Time will tell.
Hulu was created in 2007 as a joint venture between veteran media broadcasters NBC Universal, Fox Broadcasting, and Disney-ABC. The media streaming service was originally completely free, but rolled out subscription-based Hulu Plus after the service gained a massive following.
Content: Hulu has a modest selection of movies, but no other streaming service can hold a candle to its library of TV shows. Netflix and Amazon tend to get TV shows after the season ends, or after they’ve gone off the air completely – but Hulu, in addition to having a long list of older shows and programs, posts new episodes of shows currently playing on cable just days (and sometimes hours) after they air. The only downside is that even though you pay for Hulu Plus, you’ll still be forced to sit through ads.
Price: Hulu has tons of free content that might satisfy the needs of the occasional TV watcher, but if you want access to Hulu’s full and regularly-updated library of current shows, a Hulu Plus subscription is the only way to go. It’ll cost you $7.99 per month, which is considerably cheaper than cable, but it’s also generally a day or two behind.
Availability: Hulu is everywhere. You can get it on just about every set-top streaming box, internet-enabled TV, smartphone, or tablet.
Verdict: Hulu Plus is great for TV. You’ll get access to a Hulu’s large library of TV shows and even some full-length movies. And it’s constantly updating. Unlike Netflix and Amazon, the most recent TV show episodes usually appear on Hulu the day after airing.
Sling is the newcomer to this bunch. Released in 2015 as a supplement to subscription sites like Hulu and Netflix, Sling will stream live TV from networks like ESPN, Comedy Central, AMC, and TNT. There’s no contract or cancellation fees.
Content: Originally for cord-cutters looking to gain access to ESPN without paying a cable subscription, Sling now has over 200 channels in 18 languages and is continually adding more. ESPN alone might be enough for sport fans to ditch their cable subscription. You can upgrade your subscription to include HBO Live to stream Game of Thrones.
Price: Baseline services with Sling will cost you $20 per month. It’s significantly more expensive than Netflix and Amazon Instant, but far less expensive than regular cable subscriptions that’ll run you between $60-90 per month. You can add bundles of additional networks for $5 per package. HBO live will cost an additional $15.
Availability: Sling’s availability is limited. You can download the app and run it on your Amazon Fire TV Box and Stick and Roku TVs as well as most Apple devices running on iOS 7 or later, and the Xbox One.
Verdict: Sling is ideal for sports fans and cord cutters, but it’s not an alternative to your 85-channel cable subscription. However, those who just want ESPN and ESPN 2 without dropping a premium for cable, Sling TV is worth a shot, considering it doesn’t require signing any contract and offers a far lower price than traditional cable subscriptions.
Here’s a fun fact: YouTube was founded on Valentines Day in 2005 – which could be why everyone fell in love with it. Google bought the site for around 1.6 billion dollars just a year after its inception, and since then the simple video hosting service has amassed an unfathomably large user base. Just don’t read the comments.
Content: YouTube hosts just about everything that isn’t porn. You can find everything on here from small children pondering existentialism while loopy on nitrous oxide, to Joe Rogan’s reaction to two women eating each other’s excrement out of a cup. Sure, there’s a lot of junk and downright weird stuff on here, but the site also boasts a healthy library of both free and pay-per-view movies.
Price: YouTube is mostly free, but if you use the site’s video-on-demand service, you can expect to pay anywhere from $0.99 to $3.99 for each flick you rent. You’ll have 2 days to watch the movies once you start it, and every rental will expire after 30 days. Alternatively, you can also purchase movies from YouTube and have access to them forever. Purchase prices are generally as low as $9.99 and usually not higher than $19.99.
Availability: Absolutely everywhere. If it has a color display and can connect to the Internet, chances are good that it can play YouTube videos.
Verdict: There are going to be those nights when you can’t find anything to watch, so you just start YouTube’ing random topics that pop into your head. No matter how big the libraries of Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon get, they’ll never have trampoline accident compilations or footage of people lighting their farts on fire – and for those reasons, YouTube will always enjoy a spot on the video-streaming podium.
Google continues their quest for domination with Google Play. The media hub has a great selection of newly released movies and TV shows are usually available the day after airing. They’ve even been known to offer a free movie once in a blue moon. I downloaded the Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring for the great price of zero dollars. So keep your eye out.
Content: Google Play has a good selection of new releases. They’re also pretty good with current TV shows. Their on-demand format is similar to Vudu or iTunes, and at this point, Google Play is a great supplement to sites like Netflix and Amazon Instant Video.
Price: Renting a movie will cost $5 for HD and $4 for standard definition. With rentals, you’ll have two days to watch movies once you start it, and rentals will expire after 30 days. Buying movies will almost always cost less than $20 and you’ll have the option to stream in HD.
Availability: Google Play will stream in HD quality on every Android device running 4.0 or later. This includes the Android TV box and Android TV. It also works with Google Chromecast and Playstation 4. Other devices (including Apple products) can still stream movies from Google Play in SD.
Verdict: Google Play is great for new movies, but the fact that Google Play isn’t available on every device doesn’t bode well. The pay-per-content model is great for getting the newest releases but those rental fees will add up quick. But it’s a good place to start, if you’re looking for a movie. They often have killer deals.
We’ve already covered services from Google, Amazon, and major TV broadcasters, so this list just wouldn’t be complete without any mention of Apple’s streaming service. Apple realized long ago that physical media was dying and was among the first companies to create a digital music storefront for MP3’s. Over the years, it quickly became clear that DVD’s would soon be a thing of the past and Apple started building its video library as well.
Content: iTunes has a solid collection of both movies and TV shows. You’ll find a good number of new releases in the store as well as a sizable library of older flicks and series that are no longer on the air.
Price: The iTunes Store operates on a pay-per-content model, so even though it has a large selection of media, you can expect to pay more here than you would for a subscription-based service. Apple gives you the option of renting or buying movies TV episodes, and if you know you’ll want to catch every episode of a particular show, you can purchase a MultiPass, which gives you access to one episode plus the next 15 episodes for a fixed price.
Availability: iTunes is a downloadable app for most mobile devices and computers, but is generally missing from any streaming box that isn’t an Apple TV.
Verdict: Apple scores big points for content selection and purchase options, but gets demerits for not being readily available on every device. The pay-per-content scheme also gets expensive if you consume a lot of movies and TV, so we suggest using iTunes to fill in the gaps left by Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu.
Amazon may be the Walmart of the Internet, but that’s not stopping Walmart from getting in on the online streaming game. Vudu is Walmart’s pay-per-content store, and the brick-and-mortar behemoth is giving all it has to make sure that Vudu becomes a household name.
Content: Vudu has content comparable to what you’ll find on the YouTube or iTunes video marketplace. It’s a hodgepodge of movies and TV shows, but overall the content veers toward more feature-length movies. Walmart does a good job of offering new releases at around the same time that they come out on DVD. Vudu will also host any Ultra Violet digital copies that may be available with the movies you buy with a free digital locker service.
Price: Vudu is a pay-per content store, so you can expect to pay just as much for a digital movie rental as you would for a physical copy. Digital rentals typically start around $3.99, and go up from there depending on the video and audio quality you want. 1080p movies with Dolby Digital Plus surround usually go for $5.99
Availability: You can get Vudu on Xbox 360, Play Station 3, Mac, and just about any set-top streaming box. Vudu smartphone apps are also available on iOS, Android, and Windows Phone.
Verdict: Although it’s definitely not as good as the others listed on this page, it still makes the top five simply because it has more to offer than services like Epix and
Crackle, to which we’ll give an honorable mention.
Amazon and Netflix are definitely the two best choices for movie watchers, Hulu Plus is the undisputed winner when it comes to TV shows, and Sling TV is best for Live TV. We recommend a combination to get the most bang for your buck. Sports fans will want to combine Netflix or Amazon Instant with Sling TV, and if you’ve got stock in currently-airing TV, you’ll also want to consider Hulu Plus. There’s a bit too much of an overlap in content between Netflix and Amazon to make it sensible to subscribe to both.
YouTube and iTunes are great for filling in the gaps. If you can’t find what you’re looking for in your subscription-based streaming library, there’s a high likelihood that you can find it in a pay-per content store like iTunes or Vudu. Mix and match TV streaming services for the best results!
Updated April, 22, 2015: This article has been updated since it was originally published to include Sling TV and reflect design and price changes in Netflix, Hulu, and Vudu.