Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video, and Hulu each offer a massive amount of on-demand content at a relatively low monthly cost. Each service makes for a fantastic way to provide extensive entertainment options to an entire family, and as the best streaming services around, they are increasingly becoming an 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 updated breakdown of each of them to find out which one rules in various categories, and which one is best for you.
Amazon offers two versions of its Prime subscription — either $99 annually or $11 per month. Both versions net you the same perks, including two-day shipping, discounted prices on select items, cloud storage, and most importantly for our purposes, 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. This price will also go up should you opt-in to the DVD rental service.
Hulu’s prices are similar — it’s $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 $40-per-month subscription includes 50-plus channels on top of the service’s regular on-demand library.
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. Throw in Amazon’s student discount and it is an easy win.
Winner: Amazon Instant Video
Content is the most important point of comparison for any streaming service. This is difficult to judge in terms of raw numbers. At any given time, what content is available is in flux, and the libraries for all three services change monthly.
In general, Netflix has more content than the other two, especially when it concerns movies and original content — the company spends billions of dollars and often adds dozens of new titles in a single month. 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.
Another major point of difference is how each service handles shows that are currently airing. Hulu and Amazon offer current TV episodes 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 airing on TV, but you get full access to each season once it’s made available.
These differences mean that what you want to watch will largely dictate which service or combination of services is best for you. However, we’re going to give the nod to Netflix here; it just has a better overall library. It might not be the best for keeping up with the latest TV shows from other networks, but that also isn’t exactly what the service was designed for in the first place.
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 from 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. Futhermore, 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
While there are some detractors when it comes to searching through its crowded vault of content, Netflix has terrific search functionality. It curates suggested content through an ever-present personalized “top picks” category on the home screen, and a slick design with an intuitive carousel. Best of all, its interface is also universal regardless of device or brand, including HDTVs, gaming consoles, Rokus, and Blu-ray players, so you will always be able to find the shows or movies you want without having to relearn everything.
Hulu has its own curation as well, with the main category being the “Shows You Watch” tab that features prominently at the top of the interface and keeps everything you’re watching/following in a single spot. In reality, it’s not all the dissimilar from Netflix, but we still prefer Netflix’s.
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. At this point, 4K streams are still pretty new and offerings from any of the services are limited. You also need a compatible 4K Ultra HD TV, of course.
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 (though Apple TV 4K users will be stuck with stereo, for the time being), and Hulu 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. It’s close here between Netflix and Amazon, but Jeff Bezos’ baby just edges out Netflix.
Release date for new content
If you must watch the latest episode of your favorite network show, you need Hulu. New episodes usually appear on the service the day after airing (provided the show is on Hulu in the first place), and nearly all of that content is commercial-free.
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. In addition, 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.
On the flip side, Netflix’s 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 creators that own the shows. And 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”). For serious cord-cutters who want to stream the latest series, Hulu is the way to go.
In 2012, the only content that Netflix had going was Lilyhammer, a semi-entertaining drama about a mobster (Steve Van Zandt of The Sopranos) who was relocated to Lillehammer, Norway, by the U.S. Federal Witness Protection Program. But, oh, how the times have changed. Netflix made serious moves (and spent serious 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, including dozens of shows of all flavors, as well as original feature films, which began with the Idris Elba war film Beasts of No Nation.
However, both Amazon Prime and Hulu have been catching up to Netflix. In fact, one of the best current TV series, The Handmaid’s Tale, is a Hulu original and exclusive to the service. As for Amazon, notable content includes The Man in the High Castle, which is based on the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name. Speaking of which, another series based on Dick’s adapted works, Electric Dreams, features an all-star cast and will also soon be available exclusively on Prime.
These are just a few examples in every service’s ever-expanding libraries, which even include resurrected prematurely canceled shows and new seasons of shows that had previously wrapped (for better or for worse). When it comes to streaming services creating original content, Netflix still holds the lead.
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. The 720p version of a new release is priced at $5 and the 1080p version is typically priced at $6 per rental.
In addition, HBO and Showtime both offer stand-alone apps (without a cable or satellite subscription) for $15 and $12 per month, respectively. 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. Additionally, 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.
Update: Revised to reflect Amazon Video availability on Apple TV 4K.