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Choosing the Right Streaming Video Service

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More and more viewers are watching their favorite TV shows and movies online, via Internet streaming video. In this article, author Michael Miller examines the major streaming video services and helps you decide which ones best fit your viewing habits.

When I was a kid we had four TV stations (ABC, CBS, NBC, and an independent – this was before the dawn of PBS) and the only places to watch movies were movie theaters and drive-ins. We didn’t have cable TV, digital video recording, or video on demand.

It’s a lot different today. Most cities have a dozen or so television stations, some with digital sub-channels, and your cable or satellite provider adds another 200 or so channels on top of that. That’s a lot of programming to watch.

The problem is, when you’re watching over the air or on cable or satellite, you’re still watching on somebody else’s schedule. And if you’re watching via cable or satellite, you’re paying through the nose for that privilege.

There’s a better way to watch your favorite TV shows and movies, however. Thanks to the Internet, you can now stream just about any program you want directly to your computer, smart TV, or digital set top box, on your own schedule. You can truly watch what you want, when you want, and for far less money than you currently pay to your cable or satellite provider.

The challenge is determining which streaming media service or services to use. The choices are myriad – there’s Netflix and Hulu and Amazon Instant and Vudu and CinemaNow and… well, the hits just keep on coming. Which of these services are the best for you?

Understanding Streaming Video

Most movie lovers and TV viewers prefer to “rent” rather than purchase – that is, to watch something once rather than own it. That’s the appeal of streaming video services, where you sign up for the service and can then watch all the programs they offer, as often as you want. The alternative is to purchase each program you want individually and then download them to your PC; this option is a little more involved and a lot more costly.

Streaming video, then, is the way to go for most viewers. Some streaming video services are free, although the major ones (that is, the ones with the largest selections) charge a relatively low monthly subscription fee. Once you pay your monthly fee you have access to the thousands of movies and television programs available on that service – which you can access from your computer, smart TV or Blu-ray player, or digital set top box (such as Roku and Apple TV) connected to your TV.

We’ll look at the most popular streaming video services today.

Netflix

Netflix is the largest streaming video service today, controlling two-thirds of digital movie deliveries. The company has more than 29 million subscribers, 21 million of which are in the U.S. To date, Netflix subscribers have spent more than 2 billion hours watching streaming video online. During peak hours, Netflix accounts for a third of all the traffic on the Internet.

Netflix was founded in 1997 as a DVD-by-mail rental service. It moved into Internet-based streaming video in 2007, and today offers more than 12,000 movies and television shows to its subscriber base. You pay $7.99/month for a Netflix subscription.

The Netflix service specializes in movies of all types, although it does offer some older television shows and has a good variety of children’s programming. In addition, Netflix also offers select original programming, such as House of Cards and the new season of Arrested Development.

Netflix delivers its content at a minimum DVD-level quality, with approximately a third of its programming delivered at 1080p high definition with 5.1 surround sound. You can access Netflix over the Internet using any Windows or Mac computer and your favorite web browser. It’s also an option on almost all streaming media devices, including set top boxes and so-called smart TVs.

Hulu and Hulu Plus

Hulu is a streaming video service that specializes in delivering current and classic television programming. The company was founded in 2007 as a joint venture between NBCUniversal Television Group, Fox Broadcasting Company (News Corp), and Disney-ABC Television Group.

The basic (free) Hulu service has more than 38 million viewers. In addition, there is the paid Hulu Plus service ($7.99/month) that offers an expanded content library in the form of full seasons and more episodes of shows already available through the basic Hulu service. Hulu Plus also offers high definition streaming; regular Hulu is standard definition only. In addition, Hulu Plus is the version of Hulu available on many freestanding devices, including Apple TV, TiVo DVRs, Roku and WD TV media players, videogame consoles, smart TVs, and smartphones.

Between its two services, Hulu offers more than 50,000 hours of video programming. That’s 60,000 TV episodes and 2,300 series, and counting. Most TV programs are available on Hulu the day after they’re first broadcast. Hulu’s movie selection isn’t that great, however; with a few notable exceptions, it’s a service for TV lovers.

Like Netflix, you can access Hulu from any computer using any web browser. It’s also an option on most streaming media boxes and smart TVs.

Amazon Prime Instant Video

Amazon Prime Instant Video is an offshoot of Amazon’s Instant Video on-demand service. It offers streaming of select movies and TV shows to members of the Amazon Prime program.

Prime Instant Video itself is free, but you have to pay $79/year to sign up for the Prime service. That lump-sum charge might seem high, but it’s actually less than you’d pay in a year for Netflix or Hulu (their $7.99/month charges add up to $95.88 for the year). Of course, your Prime membership also gives you free second-day shipping on most everything you order from Amazon, so there’s a real attraction there.

Amazon offers a selection of both movies and TV shows to subscribers, although that select changes from month to month. The movie selection is less than you’ll find with Netflix, and the TV selection less than you get with Hulu Plus. Prime Instant Video does offer some original programming, but the overall selection still leaves a little to be desired.

As to viewing quality, Amazon supports up to 1080p HD video with 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound audio. This varies by device, however; not every streaming box offers HD viewing.

Another downside to Amazon’s streaming video service is that it’s not an option on all streaming video boxes and devices. If you’re interested in the service, make sure your device has an Amazon button before you subscribe.

Crackle

Crackle is billed as “full length, full force entertainment for the connected guy.” The emphasis is on programming for guys, in guys’ favorite genres – action, sci-fi, horror, and comedy.

In actuality, Crackle is owned by Sony Entertainment and features Sony-produced and –owned movies and TV shows almost exclusively, along with some original programming. The selection isn’t great, but the price is right – everything is free.

That said, you get what you pay for, at least in terms of video quality. There’s no high definition video here; everything is at DVD-quality (480p) – or less.

WB Archive Instant

As you might suspect from its name, WB Archive Instant is a streaming video service for Warner Brothers films and TV shows. It actually has a decent selection from the studio, include a lot of rare and hard-to-find titles.

You pay $9.99/month to watch all you want. You can watch on your computer or Roku box, with video quality up to 1080p.

Redbox Instant

Redbox Instant is a new streaming video service that’s a joint venture between the Redbox DVD-rental guys and Verizon Wireless. You pay $8/month and get unlimited streaming videos plus four physical DVD rentals from your local Redbox kiosk.

Redbox Instant is a movies-only service, with 4,600 or so titles available. That’s far less than what you get with Netflix, and there are no TV shows or original programming.

Like Netflix, however, don’t expect to find the latest releases here; it’s all stuff that’s already been released on DVD and pay cable. Most movies are from Lionsgate, MGM, and Paramount.

For now, don’t expect to access Redbox Instant from your smart TV or connected device; it’s too new and unproven to be included in the list of streaming video apps and gadgets. Instead, you can watch from your computer, using any web browser.

XFINITY Streampix

XFINITY Streampix is a streaming video service from the cable folks at Comcast. It’s free if you subscribe to select Comcast premium packages, or $4.99/month if you don’t. The service offers television programming from ABC and NBC, as well as movies from Sony and Warner Bros.

Figure this one as a web-only service for now. It’s unlikely that your smart TV or streaming box will have a Streampix app or widget.

HBO GO

If you subscribe to HBO on your cable or satellite service, you have access to all that programming online, via the HBO GO service. HBO GO lets you watch HBO programming on any TV or smartphone, and on selected streaming media devices. That includes this month’s movies and HBO original programming, such as Game of Thrones, Veep, and True Blood.

HBO GO is free with your HBO subscription. You can’t access HBO GO unless you already subscribe to HBO via cable or satellite, even though it is an option on many smart TVs and streaming devices.

Digital Download Services

Then there are those services that offer a la carte viewing – that is, the purchase or rental of individual movies and shows for downloading or on-demand streaming to your PC. These digital download services often have the latest movies well before they end up on Netflix and other streaming video subscription services.

The most popular of these digital download sites include the following:

Comparing Streaming Video Services

With all these options available, which service (or services) should you use to view video programming online?

The answer, of course, depends on just what types of programming you’re interested in.

If you’re a movie lover, Netflix has the best selection of any streaming service. But it’s not perfect; like most streaming services, it doesn’t (or can’t) offer the most recent releases. For the newest films, you have to move beyond streaming video to an on-demand download site, such as Amazon Instant Video or the iTunes Store.

If watching television is what you do, and you like to do it in season-long chunks, *Hulu Plus is the best option. Chances are what you want is there, especially with newer series. (Older series – those who’ve released entire seasons on DVD – can often be found on Netflix.

For many viewers, then, the best solution is a combination of Netflix and Hulu Plus. That’s about $16 per month, which is a far sight cheaper than even the most basic cable bill. What you can’t find there can probably be rented or purchased at the iTunes Store or Amazon Instant Video.

Of course, you probably want to check out all the options, just in case one better suits your needs. Check out the details in the following table.

Streaming Service

Monthly Subscription

Movies

TV Shows

Video Quality

Netflix

$7.99

Yes

Some

480p to 1080p

Hulu

Free

Some

Yes

480p

Hulu Plus

$7.99

Some

Yes

Up to 1080p

Amazon Prime Instant Video

Part of $79/year Amazon Prime membership

Yes

Yes

Up to 1080p

Cackle

Free

Yes (Sony)

Some (Sony)

360p to 480p

WB Archive Instant

$9.99

Yes (Warner Bros)

Yes (Warner Bros)

Up to 1080p

Redbox Instant

$8.00

Yes

No

480p to 720p

XFINITY Streampix

$4.99 (free for some Comcast subscribers)

Yes

Yes

480p

HBO GO

Free to HBO cable subscribers

Yes

Yes (HBO programming)

Up to 1080p

By the way, if you want to find out which service has available a particular movie or TV show, check out the Can I Stream It? website. Enter the name of the program you’re looking for and Can I Stream It? shows you where you can find it – either for instant streaming or online purchase.

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