Comparing video streaming services

The way we watch TV and movies is changing. So-called “time-shifted” television and on-demand movies make it possible to see just the programs we’re interested in when we have the time to watch. I love this practice because it lets me get work and family activities completed first, and save TV watching for when my schedule allows it.

There are many ways to access on-demand movies and television shows. Each has its own pros and cons. In this article, I’ll look at some of the most popular options, describing the benefits and drawbacks of each.


Netflix

Netflix started out as a way to rent DVDs through the mail, and today it provides streaming television and movies to millions of users. I’ve been a customer for about two years and I enjoy the service quite a bit.

Pros:

  1. Compatibility. Netflix is available on the iPad, Android devices, the Nook, Kindle Fire, the web, iPhone, Nintendo Wii and more. If you’ve got a connected smart device, it just might run Netflix.
  2. Original programming. Netflix has produced at least two high-quality original TV shows. Lilyhammer starting Steve Van Zant of The Sopranos and Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band was a delightful fish-out-of-water story that put a New York City mob boss in Lilyhammer, Norway, via a witness protection program. Meanwhile, House of Cards starring Kevin Spacey takes a look at the hard-scrabble world of D.C. politics. Netflix is also working to revive Arrested Development, which Fox shut down in 2006.
  3. Navigation. Using Netflix is easy. The company has released several updates to its web app and device-specific applications. It’s clear the team is determined to produce a high-quality product.
  4. The queue. You can identify shows or movies you’d like to see and store them in a queue. When you’re ready to watch, simply open your queue and make a choice from among those you’ve saved.

Cons:

  1. Mediocre selection. Overall, Netflix’s selection is mediocre. The TV selection is better than the movies. Once you’ve seen the ones you’ve heard of, you’re left with obscure documentaries and other films that didn’t make a splash at the box office. Now, many of them are quite good, but be aware that you might not find the latest summer smash in Netflix for quite some time.
  2. Cost. It’s not expensive, but at $7.99 for access to streaming content (DVD rentals are more), it adds up over time.
  3. Search isn’t great. It can take a while to find a title you’d like to see from among the many thousands on offer.
  4. Not very kid-friendly. Netflix features a “kid mode” that only presents child-appropriate content, but anyone can defeat it with two taps, no password required.

Hulu Plus

Hulu Plus is the paid version of Hulu, the online streaming service that works in a web browser, iPad, iPhone and more.

Pros:

  1. Kid mode done right. Unlike Netflix, Hulu Plus requires a password to exit its kid-safe mode.
  2. Fantastic TV selection. Hulu often gets episodes of popular television shows the day after they run, so you don’t wait. TV really is Hulu’s main strong point.
  3. Wide device support. Hulu Plus is available on many devices, from the Xbox to the iPad to Android tablets and phones.
  4. Nice image quality. I’ve watched several programs on my 27″ display and my HD television (via Apple TV) and they always look great.
  5. Picking up where you left off. You can start a program on, say, your iPad and pick up where you left off on your computer (to be fair, other services do this, too).

Cons:

  1. Abysmal movie selection. This is a sticking point for most streaming services but it seems to be a real issue for Hulu. I can often find something to watch on Netflix. On Hulu, I stick with TV. The movie selection is not to my liking at all.
  2. Cost. Just like Netflix, Hulu Plus will run you $7.99 per month. Not a lot on its own, but it adds up when purchased along side other streaming services.

PBS

The PBS app for iPhone and iPad is very nice. Here are a few things I like about it.

Pros:

  1. The scheduling feature is quite helpful. Tell the app your home location to browse a full programming calendar. You can even create reminders to catch upcoming shows.
  2. Favorites. After creating a free account, you can monitor your favorite shows and receive notifications of relevant information.
  3. Great navigation. This app is beautifully laid out and easy to use.
  4. It’s free!

Cons:

  1. Restricted to PBS programming. That’s not a bad thing, especially for PBS fans, but the drawback is obvious: you can’t watch anything other than PBS shows.
  2. Some series are incomplete. For example, I was able to find Julia Child’s Cooking with Master Chefs, but not The French Chef (which I prefer).

iTunes

Apple’s media behemoth iTunes is a great choice for people who want access to current TV and movies in HD.

Pros:

  1. TV shows are current and movies often hit iTunes when they’re released on DVD.
  2. 720p and 1080p HD programs are available.
  3. The iTunes software is available for Macs and Windows PCs.
  4. Renting is less expensive than buying.
  5. The iTunes Store is updated weekly, so content is always fresh.
  6. Apple’s iCloud lets you store iTunes purchases on Apple’s servers for playback on any approved, compatible device.

Cons:

  1. Unless you’re using iTunes on a Windows machine, you must have an Apple device to view rentals and/or purchases. There’s no Android support here.
  2. A la carte pricing. This sounds good, but it’s a lot less economical than the all-you-can-eat flat fee of services like Netflix and Hulu. Every time you want to watch anything, you must pay for it (unless you’ve bought it outright, of course).

Amazon Prime Streaming

Prime is Amazon’s service that includes two-day shipping on qualifying items plus access to its library of streaming video. It’s a good deal for those who shop with Amazon and love streaming video.

Pros:

  1. Cost. At $79 per year, Amazon is much cheaper than the other services listed here (save PBS). That works out to about $6.58 per month, and includes the shipping benefit.
  2. Prime members with an Amazon Kindle can “borrow” books as well, essentially turning Amazon into a lending library.

Cons:

  1. Selection. It’s not good. The movie section is especially lacking. You’ll find some hits that are around 20 years old, but other than that you have to dig.

Vdio

There’s also a newcomer to the group. As of yesterday, audio streaming service Rdio has added streaming video to is business: Vdio. It’s only available to Rdio Unlimited subscribers in the US and UK for now. In the few hours I spent looking at it, I found the selection to be small in number but big in names. Recent hits like Lincoln, Les Mis, The Hobbit and Life of Pi are available right now. Vdio is young but definitely a service to watch. (Sorry for that pun).

So there’s a look at the more popular video streaming services. There are more, of course, but this post is already long enough. It’s really nice when you can schedule TV viewing on your own terms. The whole process becomes more efficient with less time wasted. Have fun watching TV in “the cloud!”

32 Comments for “Comparing video streaming services”

  1. posted by Jude on

    Actually, I find Netflix’s selection to be quite good, lacking only HBO (which is HBO’s fault). I never run out of things to try, and they email me when new seasons are added to shows I’ve already watched. Also, their search engine is infinitely better than Amazon’s because Amazon has no clue what I want. I forget that Amazon exists, even though I have a Prime account, and only search it when something isn’t available on Netflix. I dropped my cable subscription last year, so I have a carefully created TV schedule, augmented by subscriptions to TV review blogs (which let me know what’s hot and upcoming) as well as a subscription to TunnelBear, which is amazing, but I’ll let you research it on your own. I refuse to use Hulu Plus, but free Hulu lets me avoid ABC’s horrible player for current content. The only drawbacks to being cable free are Fox which holds everything for 8 to 30 days and occasionally USA, which holds programs for an indeterminate amount of time. But hey, I can even watch streaming video on CSPAN, so why would I need cable?

  2. posted by WeaverRose on

    One important thing you did not mention: commercials.

    Netflix doesn’t have commercials while Hulu does on both free and subscription service. I will wait until something shows up on Netflix to avoid commercials.

    I watch PBS online, not with the app you mentioned. It has commercials from sponsors but they aren’t the horrible annoying commercials that I find on Hulu.

    I will watch CBS to see Big Bang and put up with the commercials (even worse than Hulu) for that show.

  3. posted by Matt on

    In the Vdio blurb, you hinted at something which is also a “con” for Hulu and Amazon Prime Streaming (not sure about PBS): they’re only available in certain regions, usually the US.

    “Not available” is a pretty big con for those of us who aren’t US-based. (And yes, I know there are some tricks you can employ to make the services think you’re in the US, but having to resort to subterfuge just to use the service is ALSO a “con”).

  4. posted by Brad on

    We received Netflix as a gift this year. Like you have pointed out, I was pretty dismayed at the movie selection. I thought it would contain “every movie” in the universe like their DVD selection would lead one to believe. There are very little new and popular movies to watch. We do end up finding something, but it is a compromise. I do like the ease of the interface, but an advanced search function would be welcome.

    We also have Amazon Prime. I think the selection is fairly similar with Netflix. The interface is not as polished, but usable. If I had to choose, I would stay with Amazon as the free 2-day shipping and other media is a better perk.

  5. posted by Dede on

    We’ve been with Netflix almost nine years, and have really enjoyed it. We watch more TV through Netflix than the local cable, but it is almost all classic TV and BBC. My one con with Netflix is why the entire library is NOT available for streaming. We also watch the free version of Hulu, so it is probably time to ditch the stripped down cable we get.

  6. posted by Holly on

    A couple things you have missed.

    On Amazon you also have the option of renting or buying individual new movies or tv shows in addition to (or instead of) the instant streaming. This service is more like the iTunes option.

    Vudu is a great service that lets you rent new release movies and tv shows and is available as an app on many smart tvs and electronics.

  7. posted by Violette on

    I use Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Instant Video and iTunes as a substitute for cable TV. Even all four together are cheaper than Time Warner Cable, minus the abysmal customer service and piece of garbage cable box that has to rebooted every time the neighbor sneezes. The only thing I miss out on is HBO and I was always too cheap to pay for it when I did have cable, so I wait for the DVDs of True Blood and Game of Thrones just like I did when I had cable.

  8. posted by Egirlrocks on

    Re Amazon Prime, if you’re a student (and I believe you must provide proof), you can get this service for $39/yr. You may also be able to get the first year free.

    I subscribe to Acorn TV and watch Brit TV (www.acornonline.com). There are about 18 featured shows each month, and they run occasional marathons (e.g., the entire collection of Foyle’s War). I may not be able to see all episodes of a particular show but the variety is quite good and I’ve come to know and love several (especially Inspector George Gently) that I would otherwise not have heard of. The subscription is only $30/yr.

  9. posted by Becky+P. on

    I live in Europe and can’t seem to use any of these. I tried Amazon Prime for the trial just to see if i could watch a few things, but can’t…”sorry, but you don’t live in the US”. It’s enough to help me understand why so many use torrents!

    Do any of these allow people who live somewhere else other than the U.S. to use their service? (I am an American, but live overseas for now.)

  10. posted by Nicleau on

    I love video streaming services. I just wish this selection was available in Canada:(

  11. posted by Auntpeso on

    I watch both Netflix and Hulu Plus via a Roku box hooked to my TV.

    Netflix works perfectly. Hulu Plus has so many hiccups I’ve considered canceling my subscription.

    (And I’m not the only one to have had problems with Hulu on Roku — for some reason, the interface is just buggy.)

    If I watch Hulu on my computer, I can pause it, rewind, etc. without problem. And it never freezes up for no reason. So there, it works great.

    But about every other thing I try to watch on Hulu on the TV (with the Roku box) will stop playing partway through (requiring me to reboot the entire Roku box) or will not respond to the remote control when I try to pause it.

    If I wanted TV I couldn’t control, I would’ve kept cable.

  12. posted by Sandra on

    Thanks for the comprehensive roundup David.

    For me the biggest problem is that you need a supporting device (like a playstation or an xbox) to stream these services through.

    Ok. You can watch them on an ipad. But who wants to do that most of the time?

    Its a pity that the cable to connect the ipad to the tv is so expensive, or many more of these services would be a viable option for non-kit owning folk like me!

  13. posted by Bree on

    I’m not sure why the PBS con is that the app only offers PBS programming. That sort of silly, just to fit the parameters of your article.

    Regarding streaming outside of the US – blame the studios/production companies. All the sites listed above have to pay to license the content for streaming from the original producers/owners. Due to the onerous restrictions on streaming, most of them have to geo-block non-US users.

    Even US users, if they travel, get geo-blocked. I’ve gone to Toronto and couldn’t use my PBS or Amazon app on the hotel’s WiFi.

  14. posted by Tracy G on

    I cut the cable cord 2 years ago and never looked back. Mac Mini hooked up to my main tv and watch hulu for free as well as many other stations through the plex app.

    I do pay for Netflix.

  15. posted by Christine on

    Just wanted to add that some of the shows on Hulu Plus are “web-only”, meaning you can’t watch them on your devices. That’s a drawback for me since I watch most of the shows on my phone when I’m not at home. I guess I could carry around a laptop everywhere. :/

  16. posted by Olivia on

    For Auntpeso: We used the ROKU device and had major trouble with Hulu as well. It was so awful. It just froze, and the lengthy reboot wouldn’t even work at times. The only reason we kept Hulu is because it has current television content, and I refuse to pay for cable ever again. Luckily (I guess), our old plasma died and we replaced it with an LG smart plasma that streams content on its own without a separate device and Hulu works beautifully. Unfortunately, we can no longer stream Amazon Prime content, though, which is infuriating. I guess it’s legal to block certain companies from streaming on your device? Antitrust maybe?

    Also, I don’t think we’re going to see free streaming of current movies for some time (if ever). My husband and I just use the Netflix mail option and Redbox (although selection pretty limited) for those. Redbox is not free, but much cheaper than any of the streaming sites, which rival fees we used to get at Blockbuster.

  17. posted by McKay on

    We depleted most of Netflix movie and TV show collection after a couple of years but for the most part it was a pretty good service. We are now using Hulu plus since it has more of the current shows on it. The commercials are a little annoying though. I wouldn’t mind if they would show a different commercial each time but they show the same 1 or 2 a million times!

    There is a cool new project that has come out that actually allows you to create a Netflix app but with your own movies. It turns your home computer into a private cloud so you can access the media on your computer using any of your devices.

    It has a Kickstarter going right now. http://www.kickstarter.com/pro.....eamstash-0

  18. posted by Auntpeso on

    @Olivia: Thanks for the tip! I will keep that in mind when my TV dies and it comes time to replace it.

    Since you use Redbox, I recommend checking out thekrazycouponlady.com. Do a search on there for Redbox — the site lists coupon codes for free Redbox rentals from time to time.

    (I am in no way affiliated with that site — I just check every now and again for coupon alerts.)

  19. posted by Brian H. on

    I use Netflix and find it to be more than adequate. However, you make the poor movie selection (for all services) sound like the fault of the service. It’s the fault of the greedy movie studios, not the streaming services.

  20. posted by CanadianKate on

    Canadian here (obviously!) and we cut the cord to paid-for over a decade ago.

    Had to upgrade our tvs when digital over-the-air (OTA) came in but we also upgraded our antennas at the time, investing in a tower-mounted one (we already had the tower for internet) which feeds into the household’s cable system. No more rabbit ears! And we get 18 English channels.

    We were also Zip.ca users (Netflix dvd by mail equivalent in Canada) to augment our OTA tv but gave that up when our lifestyle changed and we couldn’t watch enough to make it worthwhile. In the winter we use our local video rental store who offers 7 movies, for 7 days for $7. Yes they are older ones but most often they aren’t on Netflix, even though they are old. He also offers current blockbusters if that’s what we want.

    We’ve been Netflix users for 15 months now. I still hate it because whatever I want to watch isn’t available. My dh loves it because he never watched television before and now watches at least 2 shows per day. Since he has 50 years of viewing to catch up on, he’s very happy.

    For time shifting one can buy a pvr and just use OTA to time shift one’s viewing.

    We also watch current season tv shows from the different networks which allows us to watch an episode when when I want. I just have to wait a few days after the show aired. Since I watch such a small amount of tv, that is more than enough for me.

    Like a previous poster, the only thing I can’t get that I’d like is access to HBO shows. I’d pay for that but it isn’t an option right now.

  21. posted by CanadianKate on

    Additional comments on Netflix:

    Pro: your account works on all country versions of Netflix. When we are traveling in the US we get access to Netflix US and when we are traveling in the UK we can access Netflix UK.

    Con: Things get pulled off Netflix. So we were several seasons into Monk and it got pulled before we finished the series (we were desperately trying to get to the finale but ran out of time.)

    Con: You must be signed in to search. So you must be a member to see if what you want is available.

    Con: The things on offer vary by country. So if I read about something being available on Netflix, that doesn’t mean I can get it on Netflix Canada.

  22. posted by Me on

    A new one that has recently come out (or soon will be) is Redbox streaming. There is a plan for $6 streaming only or $8 for 4 DVD credits with streaming. (I believe that is the price.)

    The selection is low now, but it is one that I will be watching to see if there are good reviews about the program and if the movie selection improves, might be one I’d be willing to try out.

  23. posted by Me on

    @CanadianKate — I saw Monk on the instant watch yesterday. I know there have been some shows that feel like they’ve been on there forever and then they are gone only to reappear sometime later.

  24. posted by carla on

    @Becky+P: use a VPN. there are free ones out there, but a paying service is worth it for reliability. Then you can choose which country to be in for your tv viewing needs.

  25. posted by Joe on

    I personally use Lovefilm but I live in the UK, it has a great variety of films that cater to my taste and my wifes god awful taste. if you can get it where you live a suggest giving it a go.

  26. posted by Patty@homemakersdaily.com on

    Thanks for this. Very helpful.

  27. posted by Shalin on

    Another thanks for a helpful, succinct comparison! :)

  28. posted by Robin on

    Really glad you included the PBS streaming application. It doesn’t get as much love as it deserves. :)

  29. posted by Jim in PA on

    I use a Roku with a separate program called Playon. You buy both of these for a one-time fee – and if you shop around, you may very well find them bundled for under $100. With that combo and your internet connection you get a LOT of content. Yes, you can access your Amazon, Hulu+ or Netflix accounts, but for FREE you can also watch plain Hulu (NOT Hulu+) and content from the networks and so on. Overall it’s a good package and I highly recommend it.

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  31. posted by Linda on

    In Europe, I use Let Me Watch This. Some of the movies are filmed illegally with a camera inside a movie theatre and you can get people walking in front of the camera and hear people eating popcorn and the audio might be bad, but you at least see a movie for free. Use the one that has CH on the end. Once “in” there are usually many companies to pick from and you learn which ones to avoid. I use Gorilla the most. I don’t have to sign up for it or jump through any hoops. I can watch TV shows too-without commercials.I can’t get some TV shows during the year they are new. I am a year behind on some. I’m sure it must be illegal. You can’t get Hulu, that’s all I know.

  32. posted by Mike on

    This is a very nice list of video streaming services. I would like to see more cheaper services. It sucks that expensive services often have poor selection :( and now ads (looking at you hulu)

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