Deciding which streaming service is right for you can be tough. Obviously, if you want to watch everything, you have to subscribe to everything. If you’re on a budget, however, you’ll need to make some tough choices. Amazon Prime is home to some buzz-worthy original dramas, and comes with other, non-video-related benefits. Specialty services like the horror-focused Shudder trade variety for a curated selection of stuff you know you’re like. Disney Plus isn’t out yet, but if you’re a Marvel, Star Wars, or Pixar fan, it’s going to be a must-have.
Chances are, however, that if you can only afford one streaming service, you’ll be choosing between the two biggest players in the game: Netflix and Hulu. Both services have enough content to keep you busy for years, but there are some major differences between the two. For a well-rounded viewing diet, you’ll most likely want both, but if you have to choose we’re here to help you find the service that best fits your streaming habits, and won’t break your budget.
A streaming service isn’t worth anything if you don’t like the movies and television shows on offer, so your biggest challenge is going to be figuring out whether Netflix or Hulu has more of the videos you’re interested in.
In terms of quantity, Netflix blows Hulu out of the water (and virtually everyone else). That’s what happens when you spend an estimated $13 billion a year on content. As a result, Netflix hosts some of the very best movies and complete seasons of many of the all-time most popular television shows from Friends to Breaking Bad. Netflix’s original programming also includes tons of huge shows and movies, from Alfonso Cuaron’s Oscar-nominated drama Roma, to Stranger Things, The Haunting of Hill House, and countless others.
On the other hand, while Hulu has a number of great films on offer, its biggest draw is its up-to-date television content. Typically, Netflix only gets the newest episodes of a television show three months to a year after the entire season ends. On the flip side, networks and cable channels like NBC, FOX, ABC, and others put new episodes of many of their shows on Hulu the day after they air. Hulu has also been making big gains in original content, thanks to critically-acclaimed projects like The Handmaid’s Tale, PEN15, and the upcoming Veronica Mars revival, although it pales in comparison to Netflix.
There’s also the Disney factor to consider, now that Disney’s purchase of Fox assets is complete. While Netflix is its own company, Disney owns 60% of Hulu (Comcast/NBC owns another 30%, while AT&T controlled the remaining 10% until very recently). That, in addition to Disney Plus, is going to change things pretty dramatically in the near future, since Disney seems to be planning to push Hulu in a very big way.
While you can find Disney properties like Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Avengers: Infinity War on Netflix at the moment, Disney is in the process of removing its content from the streaming giant, and will be posting it on Disney Plus instead (reportedly, the Netflix-Disney split is why Netflix’s popular Marvel series, which included Daredevil and Jessica Jones, weren’t renewed for more seasons).
Hulu will be getting some of that Disney and Fox content, too: Reportedly, films like Deadpool and Marvel’s animated adult comedies, which don’t fit with Disney Plus family-friendly mandate, will make their way to Hulu instead. Netflix has enough high-profile original material to weather the break-up without much trouble, but it’s important to keep the upcoming changes in mind, especially if you’re a fan of the properties that Disney owns — which, these days, feels like almost everything. Finally, Hulu also offers a live TV service you can add to its on-demand service, though it’ll cost you a pretty penny.
Here is where things get tricky. Both Netflix and Hulu are available at a variety of different price points, and how much you’re going to spend on each depends on a combination of what features you want, how important image and sound quality is to you, and whether or not you’re willing to put up with ads.
For $9, you can get a “Basic” Netflix subscription that runs in standard definition, and allows you to stream video to one device. The $13 Standard plan upgrades your stream to HD (if it’s available for the movie or show you’re watching), and lets you use two devices at once. At the $16 price point, you’ll get 4K Ultra HD resolution and four simultaneous streams. DVD mailing plans cost an extra $5 to $12 a month, depending on the plan.
Meanwhile, Hulu’s basic subscription only costs $6 a month, but that comes with ads that run during scheduled commercial breaks. If you want to watch Hulu ad-free, you’ll need to pay double, but if you can afford it, the higher tier is the way to go. Hulu seems to be adding more ads as time goes on, and individual ads are tied to specific programs. If you’re binge-watching a particular show, you’re going to see the same ads over and over, which is a very easy way to ruin your viewing experience.
Tacking on Hulu’s live TV service adds an extra $39 to your subscription fees in exchange for access to 60 or so channels. You can augment Hulu Live TV with extras, too, although they cost even more. For example, Hulu’s “Enhanced Cloud DVR” service, which lets you fast-forward through commercials and gives you more virtual storage space, costs $10 a month, the ability to stream Hulu Live TV on an unlimited number of devices (the default is only two) will set you back another $10, an optional HBO subscription is $15, and so on.
Here’s the good news: if you have a smartphone, a tablet, a streaming box, a video game console, or a home computer, you should be able to watch both Netflix and Hulu without any trouble. Both services are extremely popular, which means they’re supported by almost every video-playing device. It’s probably worth checking each service’s compatibility list before signing up (here’s Netflix’s, and here’s Hulu’s), but unless your hardware is extremely old or phenomenally obscure, you’re probably set.
Sound and picture quality
If you’re an audiophile or home theater enthusiast, Netflix is the clear winner, although you’ll pay extra for the high-quality streams. While Netflix’s basic subscription is standard definition-only, its $13 plan offers HD streams, while the $16 subscription gets you 4K quality. Netflix also offers Dolby Atmos soundtracks for some of its content, in addition to 7.1 and 5.1 surround sound offerings.
By contrast, Hulu streams in HD at all subscription tiers, but doesn’t currently offer 4K resolutions. Hulu programming only broadcasts with stereo sound, too, so if you’re looking to show off your fancy home-theater setup, skip Hulu. It simply won’t get the job done.
Interface and accessibility features
Both Netflix and Hulu look great and are easy to use, and if you’ve used a modern smartphone app, neither should give you much trouble. Netflix’s recommendation engine can be a great way to find new stuff to watch (although it seems to favor original Netflix content), while Hulu’s interface is fast and snappy, and, if you subscribe to premium channel add-ons like HBO or Showtime, the service helpfully consolidates all of your various channels into a single package.
If you rely on subtitles, Netflix has a slight edge: In 2014, the company announced that all of its content would have closed-captioning. Netflix also has more robust parental controls, including the option to lock certain profiles out of any content with a rating harsher than PG. If you’re worried about what your little ones are watching, Netflix is the safer option.
If you’re a cinephile or you’re hunting for exclusives, Netflix is your best bet. Not only do the 4K resolution and surround sound options make for a more immersive viewing experience, but Netflix’s original content is also some of the most talked-about programming around. If you’re not a Netflix subscriber, you’re missing out.
If new broadcast TV is your main jam, on the other hand, Hulu might be a better option. You’ll get to watch many of your favorite shows just a day or two after they air, meaning they won’t be spoiled for you before they hit Netflix, while Hulu Plus Live TV provides an option for those who are sick of dealing with cable. Thanks to the Disney-Fox merger, Hulu will also be getting a lot better very soon, so even if you go with Netflix, you might want to consider switching (or adding) services once we know a little bit more about how the upcoming changes will shake out.
Ultimately, Hulu and Netflix are at the top of the streaming scene for a reason: They’re both full of great content, and either one will give you more than enough to watch. If you’re really serious about your entertainment, subscribe to both. If you can’t swing that, then look over what they offer and make your choice accordingly. Either way, you can’t really go wrong.
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