The era of Blockbuster is dead. Even as we’re shoveling DVDs and VHS cassettes into a blue-and-yellow coffin, the battle to see who will replace the physical media dinosaur with a digital cinema pipeline straight into your living room is on. On Tuesday, Internet retail titan Amazon threw open the valve on its own solution by launching a long-rumored unlimited streaming service for Amazon Prime subscribers. The deal: Pay for Amazon Prime, which offers free two-day shipping on any Amazon purchase, and get access to 5,000 streaming movies and TV shows bundled in for free.
Though Hulu Plus failed to rattle Netflix supremacy with premium content from major networks, Amazon’s clout may make it the toughest challenger Netflix has ever faced. Is it worth abandoning your Netflix subscription for Amazon? Let’s take a look at the numbers.
True to its reputation as one of the cheapest places to find virtually anything on the Web, Amazon has outpriced Netflix with Amazon Prime. While Netflix’s streaming-only plan runs for an affordable $7.99, Amazon Prime’s $79 annual subscription breaks down to just $6.58 a month. On the flip side, it doesn’t offer the flexibility of monthly billing, so when you’re in, you’re in for a year. Both Netflix and Amazon Prime offer one-month free trials to let potential users dip a toe in the streaming waters before committing.
Amazon may save you a George Washington and change every month, but is it providing the same number of titles? Well, no.
Amazon claims that 5,000 movies and TV shows are eligible for streaming with Amazon Prime, but browsing available Prime content shows just 1,668 movies and 484 TV shows. Huh? That’s about 3,000 shy of the claim. The discrepancy likely comes from counting every episode of every TV show in that 5,000 number. Sly, Amazon.
According to InstantWatcher, Netflix now offers 11,563 streaming titles, including 1,587 TV show seasons and compilations, not episodes. If you want to be remove the ambiguity of TV shows and look at movies alone, that means Netflix offers six times more titles than Amazon.
That’s not to say Amazon offers nothing Netflix doesn’t, though. Cross referencing Amazon’s first page of popular movies turned up seven movies (out of 25) that Netflix didn’t offer streaming: the original Hairspray, Caligula, Analyze This, Scooby Doo in Where’s My Mummy, Les Miserables, Clifford’s Really Big Movie, and Jeremiah Johnson.
Amazon wisely got a head start on hardware adoption by integrating Amazon Video Demand into a ton of set-top devices — 200 to be exact. Now that Amazon Prime streaming has launched, all the same devices will let you grab Prime Instant Streaming content.
Netflix hasn’t given a firm number of devices with Netflix support, but anyone who has browsed the aisles at a home theater store knows that it’s nearly ubiquitous on Internet-connected Blu-ray players, televisions and more. We think the number would total more than 200. Anecdotally, we had no issue finding boxes with Netflix support and no Amazon support, but every single box we could find with Amazon also had Netflix. (Go ahead, try it for yourself through Amazon’s list of supported devices.)
Even if we weren’t counting numbers here, Netflix has a number of key devices nailed, including the Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii, not to mention the iPhone and iPad. Amazon streaming is missing on all of them.
Both Netflix and Amazon use the VC-1 codec for encoding movies, but any number of factors – like bitrate and source material – can affect how playback looks. Fortunately, the high amount of overlap between both services made it easy to watch the same content on both and compare. Because Amazon only offers 300 titles in HD, we chose standard-def comparisons to make it fair. (Yes, Netflix’s roughly 2,000 HD titles makes this a bit of a one-hand-behind-the-back comparison, though.)
We froze identical screens from Top Gear, Battlefield Earth and March of the Penguins to see which service offered better quality. The screen captures below were all taken from each service’s desktop player set to full screen, which was scaling content up to 1080p for our monitor.
In Top Gear, Amazon offered far better quality. A fast-action shot of a VW spinning out on the track seemed to get the worst of Netflix’s compression algorithms, creating ample digital noise where Amazon had much less. Amazon also preserved more fine detail in the license plate and tree line.
Interestingly, Netflix offers a letterboxed version of Battlefield Earth and Amazon offers it in full screen, but the letterbox version appears to be clipping a lot of content out above and below without adding much extra from side to side. What’s the point? We favor Amazon for this reason alone, but also found the details slightly better preserved again.
March of the Penguins offered by far the closest results between the two. Either would be totally acceptable, and we had to really analyze them closely to decide. Netflix seemed to offer slightly more detail in the distant icebergs and more accurate color, but Amazon offered seemed to offer a more natural gradient with less banding in the sky. We’ll call it a wash.
The rather convoluted conclusion here: Netflix offers a much better chance that you’ll find what you want in HD. We could have watched March of the Penguins and Battlefield Earth in HD, for instance. But if you don’t, Amazon offers better quality.
If there’s one category where these services grossly diverge, it’s the perks they both offer outside streaming.
Netflix, having started as rent-by-mail house, offers one DVD out at a time if you opt for the $9.99 monthly plan. Amazon offers free two-day shipping on anything from Amazon.com with its $79-a-year plan.
For the cinemaphile or TV addict, Netflix may make more sense, especially considering that it gives you access to more than 100,000 titles. For avid Internet shoppers who want to avoid malls and retail stores in favor of a more recluse-friendly option, Amazon’s free shipping makes more sense.
Verdict: The sleeping giant is starting to stir
Amazon isn’t ready to take on Netflix just yet. A limited movie library and smaller selection of compatible devices will keep it from drawing over serious couch potatoes right now, but don’t rule out the kingpin of Internet retail for good. Both problems can be fixed with time, especially considering how deep Amazon’s connections with content providers run – it already offers more than 41,000 titles (including individual TV shows) for rent and purchase through Amazon Video on Demand. If the retailer can coax more of those titles over to the Prime pool, we could have a serious Netflix competitor. Right now, Prime Instant Streaming will likely remain an interesting curiosity for Amazon lovers who have already forked over their $79 for an infinite supply of brown boxes on the doorstep.
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