When you rent movies from your cable company, Redbox, Vudu, Google Play, or Apple's movie store, the rules and prices are pretty straightforward; but finding your favorite TV show to binge on can bemore
When you rent movies from your cable company, Redbox, Vudu, Google Play, or Apple's movie store, the rules and prices are pretty straightforward; but finding your favorite TV show to binge on can be aggravating and confusing. Even if you can cover all your bases by just subscribing to Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime at the same time, it's important to know what you're in for and how to get the most out of each service. Let's take a look at the big hitters in 2018 to see how they stack up.
Netflix has gone through a number of evolutions since it began sending DVD rentals by mail in the late '90s. It still does that, but it's now spending a fortune on original episodic content streamed to you over the internet, aiming to become the next HBO, just not on cable TV. The "Standard" subscription costs $10.99 a month and lets you stream on up to two devices at once. If you want 4K, you need the "Premium Plan" for $13.99 a month, which also lets you stream to up to four devices at once. Netflix recommends a connection speed of 25 megabits per second or higher for 4K.
Lately, Netflix has been bankrolling, exclusively licensing, and branding so many shows that it's getting difficult to keep up with the flow and intent of content. In the app, the company's own Stranger Things, the BBC-produced Happy Valley, and Dark are all "Netflix Originals." But Netflix did not fund the production of Happy Valley, and Dark is performed in German with English subtitles. Then there's Babylon Berlin, which is a German-language "Netflix Original" but wasn't funded by Netflix at all. And there's Sherlock and Doctor Who, which are not branded as "Netflix Originals" despite both coming from the BBC.
While it's great to see the company introducing viewers to a wider range of shows, the lines between content types are blurred enough that you don't actually know what "Netflix Original" is going to deliver anymore.
On the bright side, the mobile app does not use the same content preview style that we see on home streaming devices like the Apple TV, Roku, or Amazon Fire TV. Instead, previews are in their own section, and they all feature proper trailers instead of the dialog-free scene montages set to royalty-free music, which you can't disable. However, despite some confusing characterization of content, the Netflix app still provides a good user experience, with intuitive navigation, a savvy search function, legible text, and smoothly delivered streams that sometimes include HDR and Dolby Vision for compatible devices. You can also download most content for offline viewing.
Hulu specializes in recent episodes of broadcast TV and basic cable, starting at $8 a month for a stream that has "limited commercials," with a $12/mo option to nearly remove all ads. (There's also Hulu with Live TV starting at $40/mo, which gives you an experience like cable TV that streams to you over the internet and bundles regular Hulu. But the lack of a channel guide makes it pretty difficult to navigate.)
There's much less original content here than on Netflix, but The Handmaid's Tale has collected a ton of buzz and prestigious awards, including eight Emmy awards and two Golden Globes just for its first season. And nearly everything in the "Hulu Originals" category appears to be exclusively for Hulu. Past and current shows have starred well-known actors like Hugh Laurie, Joseph Fiennes, Sarah Silverman, and James Franco. With Hulu co-owned by Disney, 20th Century Fox, Comcast, and Time Warner, the service has deep pockets to produce high-quality original shows.
Because Netflix has been leaning heavily toward its own exclusive productions, Hulu is arguably a better place to catch up on network and basic cable TV shows; it has more variety in this area, and you can stream episodes from current seasons. The app is easy to navigate, easy on the eyes, and provides sensible recommendations that should help you populate your short list pretty quickly. There is no 4K option, but the standard 1080p stream should scale well on a recent TV set if you decide to cast it from your phone.
There currently isn't an option to download content for offline viewing, but Hulu says that it's coming soon.
Amazon Prime Video or APV is a Netflix-like service bundled with your Amazon Prime subscription. The annual price for Prime will increase from $99 to $119 on May 11, 2018. You can also subscribe to Prime monthly for $12.99. You can get the Prime Video app on roughly the same devices where you'll find Netflix and Hulu.
If you're not looking for original shows, Amazon has scored a number of popular exclusives like Psych, The Americans, Monk, and Justified. It's arguably a better source of third-party shows than Netflix at this point, though Hulu ultimately takes that crown.
Prime Video doesn't get nearly as much love (or marketing dollars) as Netflix or Hulu, but it's definitely worth checking out. And if you're a Prime user, you already have access to it, so you might as well take advantage of it. Like Netflix, Amazon lets you download a lot of its content for offline viewing.