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Choosing the Best Music and Video Streaming Service For You

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There are more companies offering streaming music, movies, and TV than ever before. Whether you want to enjoy your media on your TV, tablet, phone, or computer, you have options. Want to pay a flat subscription price or only for what you watch? You can. There are so many choices, figuring out which streaming service is right for you can be a real challenge. These charts compare music and video streaming services in key categories to help you figure out which one, or which combination, is best for your needs.
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Thanks to the proliferation of technology and the maturing of the Internet, you have more choices than ever for entertainment. Don't like what's on cable? You can stream virtually any movie or TV show you're interested in over the web. Sick of the radio and your music collection? Check out the 20-million-song music libraries available through streaming audio services. With a little curiosity and a few bucks, there's no reason you can't find something to entertain you these days.

But finding something fun isn't always the challenge. Now that there are so many options for streaming entertainment, the bigger question is which service (or services) you'll use. Answering this question is complicated because there are many competing services that have fairly similar offerings.

This article is  helps you make the best choice by comparing the major competing options for audio and video streaming. The charts provide easy comparisons; these definitions explain each category. The good news is that you don't need to select a single service. I use iTunes Radio, Pandora, and Spotify for music, and Amazon Instant, Hulu, iTunes, and Netflix for video. Altogether, they cost me less than $50/month and provide so many options that I'll never be able to listen to or watch everything that seems interesting.

Streaming Audio

When it comes to audio, there are several issues to consider. This section covers the key criteria to use when choosing your ideal audio option.

Type: There are two major types of audio streaming services: jukebox and radio. Jukebox-style streaming services let you choose the songs and albums to listen to and the order in which you want to listen to them. These services are like listening to a CD. Radio-style services are like listening to the radio—less control over exactly what gets played or when—with some key twists. With radio-style services, you choose a song or artist as the basis of a "station" and then hear related music that the service believes you'll like. You can skip songs, giving you more power than a traditional radio listener. Some jukebox-style services, like Spotify, have radio features, but they're not as refined as established radio-style services such as Pandora.

Audio quality: Audio streaming is measured in kilobits per second (kbps). The more kilobits per second, the more data is being sent. The more data sent, the better the quality of the music. Higher is always better, but there's an important catch: unless you have very good hearing or high-end audio equipment, you might not be able to tell the difference between audio at, say, 256 kbps and 320 kbps.

Offline listening: You need an Internet connection to streaming music. Or do you? Some services let you download songs so you can listen to them anywhere, even when you don't have an Internet connection. You have to download these songs while you're online, but once you do, you'll be prepared. Songs saved for offline listening are available as long as you're a subscriber; downgrade or end your subscription and those songs disappear.Availability of apps: Virtually all of these streaming services can be used via a web browser, but some also have desktop and smartphone/tablet apps. The more options you have, the more flexibility and features are available to you.

Music catalog size: This can be deceptive. Of course you want a large selection of music to choose from, but even the most voracious music fan probably wouldn't listen to even half of the catalog available from the smallest provider. Pandora is an important exception here: because it operates like a radio station, it doesn't need a large music catalog. It simply pays radio-style royalties and has access to the same music. Its one1 million songs represent artists with which it has specific agreements.

Ads: Like traditional radio, radio-style streaming services include ads to help pay their bills. Some jukebox-style services include ads in their free plans, but remove them when you upgrade. Some people find ads intolerable, others feel they're a fair trade for free music; which type of person you are will help determine which service is best for you.

Song skipping: Royalty payment issues cause radio-style services to limit the number of times a user can skip songs in an hour and a day. Jukebox-style services have no such limits. You may not encounter song-skipping limits too often, but when you do, they can be frustrating.

Now that you know what the criteria are, Table 1 compares several options to make your decision-making process easier.

 

Google Play Music All Access

iTunes Radio

Pandora

Rdio

Spotify

Type

Jukebox

Radio

Radio

Jukebox

Jukebox

Cost

$9.99/mo

Free

Free

$36/yr – Pandora One

$4.99-$9.99/mo

Free

$4.99-$9.99/mo

Audio Quality

Up to 320 kbps

TBD

Free: 64-128 kbps

Pandora One: 192 kbps

192 kbps

Free: 160 kbps

$9.99 plan: 320 kbps

Offline Listening

Yes

No

No

with $9.99/mo plan

with $9.99/mo plan

Desktop app

No

Yes

with Pandora One

Yes

Yes

Mobile app

Android

iOS

Android, iOS

Android, iOS

Android, iOS

Web app

Yes

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Built into devices

Android

Apple devices

TVs, stereos, Blu-ray, game consoles, set-top boxes

Stereos, set-top boxes

TVs, stereos, Blu-ray, game consoles, set-top boxes

Music catalog size

18 million

26 million

1 million

20 million

20 million

Ads

No

Yes

Ad-free with iTunes Match ($25/yr)

Yes

Ad-free with Pandora One ($36/year)

No

Yes;

Ad-free with $4.99 - $9.99/ mo plans

Song Skipping

Unlimited

TBD

Limited; higher limit with Pandora One

Unlimited

Unlimited

Streaming Video

As with audio, all the options available for streaming video could leave you reeling. This section covers the relevant criteria to consider when choosing a video service.

Type: There are two major kinds of video streaming services: subscription and pay-as-you-go. Subscription services are like cable in that they are always on and let you watch as much as you want for a monthly fee. Pay-as-you-go providers are more like video stores or pay-per-view: you only pay for what you watch. Both types have advantages, but pay-as-you-go services often have the largest selections of the latest movies and TV shows. Subscription-based services may offer the best value for many people, but they don't always have the content you want to watch.

Free content: Most streaming video services try to entice you using limited selections of free content. Amazon and iTunes have weekly free movies and/or TV shows. A large portion of Hulu's library is free. You probably won’t live on free content alone, but it's a great way to preview a service and getting something you want to watch for free is always better than paying.

Ads: Pay-as-you-go video services are like the movies or video-rental stores. Subscription services are like TV. The ones like TV-most notably Hulu, which is co-owned by a number of major TV networks-offer free programming, but in order to keep those shows free, they run ads. Free Hulu users will see ads at every commercial break. Paid Hulu Plus users still get ads, but fewer of them. If you can't stand ads, be ready to pay more each month.

Apps: All of these services have apps for smartphones and tablets. But beyond that, where can you watch them? Some have desktop apps for Mac and PC, others are built into home entertainment gadgets, many can be used on the web. When it comes to choosing what service to use, flexibility and availability are key.

Catalog size: You want the widest selection of movies and TV shows to choose from, don't you? The more options you have, the more likely it is you'll find something you want to watch (and all the better if it's a subscription service where you pay the same price no matter how much you watch).

Release dates: How long you have to wait to see the latest hit releases is another important consideration. Some services—especially subscription offerings—get many big-name titles months or years after they come out on DVD/Blu-ray and debut at pay-as-you-go services. If you want the biggest hits as soon as they're available, you'll have to pay for them through Amazon and iTunes.

Original content: Streaming video sites aren't only about watching things that have been at movie theaters or on TV. Increasingly, they produce their own original, exclusive content to give you more reasons to sign up. Think about the way HBO or Showtime creates shows to entice you into subscribing. Netflix is most well known for this with House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black, but Hulu (Booth at the End, Run) and Amazon have also gotten in on the act.Table 2 illustrates how the various steaming video options stack up against each other (these figures are accurate as of Aug. 2013, but change regularly).

 

Amazon Instant

Hulu

iTunes

Netflix

Type

Purchase/Rental

Subscription: Amazon Prime

Subscription

Purchase/Rental

Subscription

Cost

Rental: $1.99- $6.99

Purchase: $9.99 - $14.99

Subscription: $79/yr

Free

$7.99/month

Rental: $2.99-$6.99

Purchase: $9.99 - $19.99

 

$7.99 - $64.98/month

Free Content

Limited

Yes

Limited

No

Ads

No

Yes

No

No

Mobile App

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Web App

Yes

Yes

No

Yes

Built into devices

TV, Blu-ray, game console, set-top boxes

TV, Blu-ray, game console, set-top boxes

Apple devices

TV, Blu-ray, game console, set-top boxes

Movie catalog size

65,000

3,744

39,000

7,574

TV series

catalog size

14,624

2,160

5,440

3,922

Release dates

Same day as DVD

TV: a day or two after broadcast

Movies: Varies

Same day as DVD

TV: a day or two after broadcast

Movies: Varies

Original content

Yes

Yes

No

Yes

With these easy-to-compare charts, you should be able to start enjoying streaming audio and video in no time.

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