Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video, and Hulu each offer a massive amount of on-demand content at a relatively low monthly cost. These services are a fantastic way to stream movies and TV shows for the entire family, increasingly becoming part of an affordable alternative to the bloated pricing of cable and satellite subscriptions.
For some cord-cutters, a mix of two — or all three — of these services is the best solution. But if you’re trying to figure out which streaming service to use while sticking to a frugal entertainment budget, check out our constantly updated breakdown of each of them to find out which one rules in each of a range of categories, and which is best for you.
Amazon offers two main versions of its Prime subscription, either $119 annually or $13 per month (or $59 annually when you sign up with a valid student email address). Both versions net you the same perks, including two-day shipping, discounted prices on select items, cloud storage, and — most importantly for our purposes — on-demand video (and music) streaming. The best part is that 4K Ultra HD content with HDR comes standard with no extra cost. Plus, you can share accounts with friends and family, so everyone can get in on the deals.
Netflix’s various subscription tiers range from $8 to $14 depending on your desired video quality — SD resolution is just $8 per month, but you can only stream on one device at a time. Moving up to HD will cost you $11 per month for two streams, while moving up to 4K Ultra HD will cost you $14 per month for four streams at a time. The prices will also go up should you opt into the DVD rental service. Netflix is also currently experimenting with a beta “Ultra” price tier in some regions, but it isn’t currently available in the United States.
Hulu begins at $8 for the regular service or $12 for the commercial-free option (which we highly recommend). Hulu’s options don’t stop there, though, as it now offers a streaming live-TV package, similar to Sling TV or PlayStation Vue. The base $40-per-month subscription includes 50-plus channels on top of the service’s regular on-demand library, and there are also paid add-on features
For those who want to stream 4K at the lowest possible price, Amazon is the cheapest bet — and Amazon has stated that the company won’t raise prices for 4K streaming. The sheer number of extra features and benefits included in Amazon Prime gives it an advantage over its competitors as well. Throw in Amazon’s student discount and it is an easy win.
When it comes to sheer volume, this is one of the easiest categories to judge. Currently spending up to $8 billion on content per year, Netflix blows the doors off the competition here. It also boasts a large number of acclaimed international films (though its film collection, in general, has dwindled in recent years). You can find a list of our favorites here.
Apart from volume, another point to consider is how each service handles shows outside of their own original content that are currently airing. Hulu and Amazon offer current TV episodes from other networks as they air, but Amazon usually doesn’t offer them for free with your Prime subscription. Netflix, on the other hand, is always a season behind what’s currently available from other networks, but you get access to many popular shows a year behind their original airdates.
These differences mean that what you want to watch will largely dictate which service or combination of services is best for you. We’re going to give the nod to Netflix here, however; it just has a more diversified and much bigger overall library. It might not be the best for keeping up with the latest TV shows from other networks, but that also isn’t what the service was designed for in the first place, and no matter how hard you try, you’ll never run out of new shows to watch.
All three services are available on a long list of devices — too long to list here, in fact. Instead, it may be better to point out where they aren’t supported.
Netflix is basically everywhere. Many devices even feature the red Netflix logo directly on their remote. Hulu is also just about everywhere, often in its native user interface, too. Hulu is also currently the only streaming service available on the Nintendo Switch.
The only real noteworthy gap comes with Amazon, which is absent from Chromecast and Chromecast Ultra. That is not all that surprising considering these are Google’s devices, and the Google Play Store is in direct competition with Amazon. Still, it’s an annoyance to have such restrictions. Amazon does have its own line of streamers, though, including the new Amazon Fire TV Cube. The app recently made its debut on the Apple TV 4K, but unlike the version of the app you would find on other streaming devices, it currently only supports stereo sound.
Given the near ubiquity of both Netflix and Hulu, it’s close, but Netflix still beats out its rivals here — it’s even on many cable boxes. If you’re not sure, it pays to do some research before committing. The full lists of compatible devices for each service are available here: Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime.
Interface and ease of use
Netflix has great functionality, and it’s relatively easy to find what you want since it curates suggested movies and TV shows through a personalized “top picks” category on the home screen and offers a slick design with intuitive carousels. That said, over the years the company has changed its algorithm, dropping 5-star ratings for thumbs up, and in the process, seems to find a way to push its own content above all others. On the other hand, we love the fact that its interface is universal regardless of device or brand, including HDTVs, gaming consoles, Rokus, and Blu-ray players, so you won’t have to learn to use a new interface.
Hulu has been updating its interface, and it’s actually a lot easier to use these days on most platforms than previously, with categories like Keep Watching, TV, Movies, and Kids that make it pretty easy to navigate. You can also add on premium channels like HBO, and shows and movies from those channels will show up on your main interface — though it can be a bit of a pain to access the apps themselves. For its quick interface and ability to incorporate premium channels, we’re going to designate Hulu (for the first time) as the winner here. Congrats, Hulu.
Amazon comes in third with a slightly more scattered interface, but like its rivals, it is constantly improving. One point in its favor is that you can browse Prime Instant Video directly on the Amazon webpage and its various apps. However, these interfaces tend to differ from one another, and frankly, some aren’t as intuitive as the others.
Audio and video quality
In addition to offering 1080p streams, all three services include 4K Ultra HD resolution and HDR streaming support. Netflix charges extra for the privilege, bumping the monthly subscription fee to $12, while Amazon provides 4K for free. Hulu’s is also free, but support is limited to the PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One S for now — a serious limitation. You also need a compatible 4K Ultra HD TV, of course.
As for audio quality, Netflix offers select titles in Dolby Atmos, in addition to 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound encoding on select content. By comparison, Amazon offers 5.1 encoding on select content (though Apple TV 4K users will be stuck with stereo, for the time being), and Hulu is, unfortunately, limited to stereo sound despite many network television shows and virtually all movies offering 5.1 surround sound. Even though it charges a bit more for 4K, thanks to its support for Dolby Atmos and other surround features, Netflix takes another win.
Release date for new content
If you must watch the latest episode of your favorite network show right after it airs, you need Hulu. New episodes usually appear on the service the day after airing (provided the show is carried by Hulu in the first place), and nearly all of that content is available commercial-free on Hulu’s pricier plan.
If you’re not willing to move up to the premium tier ($12 per month compared to the standard $8 fee), the commercials can really get in the way of Hulu’s greatness. Users who don’t move up will have to watch a stream of ads, the number of which has only grown more frequent as the service has expanded. To compound the issue, many of the ads are tied to a single series, which means binge-watchers will see the same commercials over and over again.
As mentioned previously, Hulu has live TV available at $40 per month, which includes live sports and news if you’re willing to pay, while Amazon has “Channels,” which allows you to add select channels with newer content. Of course, if you don’t pay for Channels on Amazon (which are pricey to add on), you can purchase the latest episodes, but you’ll end up paying a massive premium that makes it all but prohibitive ($2 to $3 per episode for SD, $3 to $4 for HD, or up to $41 for a “season pass”).
On the flip side, Netflix’s totally ad-free service doesn’t add the latest season of a show until the new season begins. That time frame ranges from three months up to an entire year based on the agreement between Netflix and the show creators. For serious cord cutters who want to stream the latest series, Hulu is the only way to go.
As mentioned above, Netflix made serious moves (and spent crazy money) to easily take the win here. Once House of Cards started winning Emmys, Netflix hit the throttle, and the network/streaming service/movie studio hasn’t looked back. From a fledgling creator of a few small series, Netflix has amassed thousands of hours of original content from multiple countries, including dozens of shows of all flavors, as well as original feature films.
Amazon and Hulu have been catching up to Netflix when it comes to quality. In fact, one of the best-rated current TV series, The Handmaid’s Tale, is a Hulu original and exclusive to the service. As for Amazon, notable content includes highly reviewed shows like The Man in the High Castle, Transparent, and, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, all of which are worth discovering.
These are just a few examples of every service’s ever-expanding libraries, which even include resurrected canceled shows from other networks. When it comes to streaming services creating original content, however, Netflix is far and away the winner.
If licensed television and movie content, current network shows, and original series aren’t enough to keep your attention, consider 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, Vudu offers 1080p video and 7.1 surround sound on many new releases. Vudu even gives users 30 days to watch a film before it expires and also allows you to save titles in Disney’s Movies Anywhere vault, alongside services like iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, and FandangoNow.
In addition, HBO and Showtime both offer stand-alone apps (without a cable or satellite subscription) for $15 and $12 per month, respectively, and can even be added to services like Amazon and Hulu for a reduced price. Other services like Crackle, Vevo, Funny Or Die, and of course, YouTube, have plenty of awesome long- and short-form content to keep you entertained. Services like Sling TV and Playstation Vue, DirecTV Now, and YouTube TV offer live broadcast TV, though they will cost you anywhere from $20 to as much as $70 per month.
Other features to consider
- Need subtitles? Go with Netflix. In 2014, the company finished an agreement to subtitle all of its content.
- Will the kids be watching? If you need parental controls, Netflix is the way to go. In addition to having an option to limit the Motion Picture Association of America/TV ratings on content as a universal setting, Netflix offers a kids option for individual profiles, ensuring your child only sees PG content and below. Hulu recently launched a lock feature on its mobile app that allows parents to lock out mature content before handing a smartphone or tablet over to their child.
- Live TV? Hulu is the best. Sure, you’re going to be paying quite a bit more for the addition of live-TV streaming to complement your on-demand content, but the $40 monthly subscription is a fraction of what you would be paying for a normal cable bill.
If we are going to make a single recommendation, Netflix is still the king of the streaming world. That said, Hulu and Amazon Instant Video offer unique benefits. Ideally, we recommend combining multiple services, which will provide access to the maximum amount of stuff to watch, including current network programming and a growing list of premium original content.
The extremely frugal should also consider taking advantage of Hulu’s referral program to earn extra weeks for free, or look into Amazon Prime’s student discount.
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