Which is the best movie streaming service in the US? Netflix vs Instant Video vs iTunes vs Google Play and more
Pocket-lint has already detailed the best media streaming services available in the UK, and now we've done the same for the US.
Such services have become increasingly important to the way that we consume our content, and fortunately, there are so many to chose from that it's easier than ever to find the exact thing we want to watch in the exact moment we want to watch it. But it can also get confusing.
From companies like Apple to major studios like Sony, and not to mention all of those connected devices, such as smart televisions, set-top-boxes, and games consoles, the market is flooded with competition. And each rival is hoping you'll deem it King of content.
The problem is: some services are definitely better than others, and some are too close to call. We've therefore detailed the pros and cons to each of the top ones available in attempt to help you decide which streaming service is best (for you). Read on to find out more.
In a nutshell: Netflix offers a wide selection of films and television shows, with several benchmark series being exclusive to the platform or even made and funded by Netflix, such as House of Cards, Arrested Development, and Hemlock Grove. In terms of other series and films, Netflix offers mostly back-catalogue stuff, although the occasional partnership deal will throw up a modern movie. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, for instance, released on Netflix before other streaming competitors
Price: Netflix recently increased the price of its $7.99 a month streaming plan to $8.99 for new members. Current Netflix members get to keep their current price for two years and watch content on any two screens at a time. Netflix also introduced a new $7.99 plan with SD -quality viewing on any one screen at a time.
Devices: You can watch Netflix from any Internet-connected device that offers the Netflix app such as mobile devices (iOS, Android, Kindle Fire, Windows Phone, and Nook), gaming consoles (PS3, Wii U, Wii, and Xbox), set-top boxes (Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire, Tivo, etc), and more. You can also watch from a Mac or PC via your web browser. You can see the full list of supported devices here.
For: The user interface of Netflix is standardised, offering a similar experience on most platforms. Each account also allows multiple people to set up different profiles, meaning you can store favourite series and films for future viewing, and get personalised recommendations for each member of your family individually.
There's also a kid section on the homescreen with films and programming suitable for children. And many of the films and television episodes on Netflix are presented in Super HD 1080p with 5.1 surround sound. One thing that's also coming is 4K video, but that's in its very early days and will be limited to compatible UHD television s from Samsung, Sony, and LG with a 15Mbps broadband connection.
Against: If you're looking for the latest films, either those that have appeared recently on Blu-ray or DVD, or even made it to paid television services, you will have to look elsewhere. In terms of films on offer, there are some that are current, but most are two or more years old. Another negative is that Netflix will remove films and television series when the content deals expire, but with no warning.
Conclusion: Netflix is a great service for those who like to watch television series in a binge-viewing fashion. There is a great selection of shows, and the home-grown Netflix programming exclusives are excellent - Emmy award-winning in fact. It is also reasonably priced. That said, if you are looking for a subscription service to sate an appetite for blockbuster films, you might want to read on.
Amazon Prime Instant Video
In a nutshell: Amazon Prime Instant Video is the streaming-video component of Amazon Prime. Similar to Netflix, Amazon Prime offers instant, unlimited streaming of thousands of films and television series and original programming. Unlike many competitors however, Amazon Prime also allows à la carte rentals and purchases of its content.
Price: You need to buy an Amazon Prime membership for $99 a year to stream any television or show in the Instant Video library at no extra charge (there are also two discounted groups available). You can trial the subscription service for 30 days, but during the free trial period, you don't get access to Instant Video.
Also, you can use Amazon Instant Video services without an Amazon Prime subscription. You'll simply have to buy or rent each piece of content you want to watch. Amazon's prices on content can vary dramatically, from $2 for individual television episodes to $30 or more for an entire season.
Devices: Movies and television series are available to stream instantly on Amazon Fire TV, Kindle Fire HDX, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii, Wii U, iOS devices, Roku, many televisions, Blu-ray players, set-top boxes, and on the web. There is no player for Android, but you can see the full list of supported devices here.
For: Amazon has claimed to offers about 150,000 videos, of which 40,000 are available for instant and unlimited streaming with a Prime subscription (compared to Netflix's estimated 75,000). The bonus of being able to purchase or rent more recent releases adds an all-new element that creates a more complete package, as well. You can also download content to a mobile device for offline viewing.
Amazon has a heads up over some competition in the quality of the films it offers, as the amount of more recent films is very apparent. Much of the content is presented in 1080p and with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, but this is dependant on the device you use and many of them limit you to 720p. That said, Amazon Instant Video announced recently that it is working with Warner Bros, Lionsgate, 20th Century Fox, Discovery, and others to offer 4K Ultra HD content.
Against: Amazon Instant Video is certainly pricier than most competitors. If you want the free two-day shipping and the free Kindle book, Amazon Prime's streaming video is a nice bonus to the Amazon Prime subscription package. There's also a lack of critically-acclaimed and Emmy-award winning original series as well as profiles for individual family members.
Conclusion: Amazon Instant Video is ideal if you want access to newer releases or if you own the Amazon Fire TV - as that set-top box is basically a showcase for Amazon's streaming service. Amazon also offers some exclusive content, such as Viacom (MTV , Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, etc), which is not available on Netflix and Hulu Plus, but you will have to shell out a hefty annual Prime fee to stream instantly and unlimitedly. The alternative is paying through the nose over time to buy or rent individual episodes.
In a nutshell: Apple's digital media store is well established and it has a lot of experience with selling SD and HD films and television shows. It offers a vast selection to rent or buy, which you can play through Apple products or a PC. Apple also streams content from iTunes on the Apple TV.
Price: Prices vary. A new movie can cost $4.99 to rent in SD, $5.99 to rent in HD. Prices to buy are $14.99 for the SD film, $19.99 for HD. Older films cost $2.99 to rent in SD, $3.99 in HD. Prices to buy older films are around $9.99 for SD, $14.99 for HD.
Television series can be bought as a collection on a series pass and as individual episodes in SD, and more often than not, HD. Standard definition series start at $1.99, while HD episodes start at $2.99. Those prices rise depending on the age of the television show. Prices for series passes depend on how many series are available in the package.
Rented films are available for 30 days from purchase. Once you start watching, you'll have 48 hours to finish. All purchased content remains on your iTunes account and can be streamed online or downloaded for offline viewing, depending on the device you use.
Devices: As well as PC and Mac (through the iTunes desktop software), you can also play back iTunes-bought content through iPhone, iPod touch, iPad, and Apple TV. You can view a list of supported devices here.
For: iTunes is well established and has, perhaps, the greatest collection of content available thanks to partnerships with just about every studio, major and minor, and broadcaster. Its system is robust and easy to use, and the devices it is compatible with mostly have the service integrated into their systems.
Its HD content is offered in Full HD 1080p and 5.1 surround sound where applicable. You can also chose to play back or download content in 720p if you do not feel your internet connection is speedy enough. Some older devices will have this as their default anyway, such as Apple TVs before the third generation.
Unlike many other services, you will be able to play iTunes content through a digital AV adaptor and HDMI cable plugged into a television. Your television will need to have HDCP enabled for HD content though. They also work over Airplay, but you might as well use the Apple TV to play them instead in that instance.
Against: There's no blanket subscription option, meaning you will pay more money over time to watch films and television episodes. That's because spending $1.99 here and there on various episodes and then $19.99 on a movie can total up rather quickly.
Also, content bought and stored in Apple's iCloud is locked within that ecosystem. Apart from on a PC running the iTunes desktop client, all other means of watching content requires Apple hardware. If you decide, for example, that you want to move from iPhone or iPad to Android for your next purchase, you'll not be able to access the films and programmes you've bought on your new device.
Conclusion: For Apple device owners, iTunes is an excellent way of accumulating digital video libraries. The quality on offer in both range of titles and AV performance is one of the best. It is limited to the Apple and iCloud ecosystem however.
In a nutshell: Google also has its a digital content store where you can rent or buy films and television shows. It's mainly for Android device owners, but there is a Google Play Movies and TV app for iOS. Google Play offers HD content when its available. Although it has a more limited selection available compared to some competitors, any films or series you purchase will be stored in a Google digital locker.
Price: Prices vary. A new release movie can cost from $4.99 to rent (but most of the time you can only buy new releases). To buy a new move will cost from $14.99. Older films can be rented from $2.99, bought from $9.99. Again though, prices vary.
Television series also vary in price and are available mostly as individual episodes or in series packages. Overall prices depend on how many episodes there are in a series, but episodes start at $1.99 each. Similar to iTunes, you have 30 days to start to watch rented content, 48 hours from the point you start it to finish it.
Devices: You can stream Google Play content from a vast array of Android-based devices, including smartphones, tablets, set-top-boxes, Android games consoles. You can stream to HDTVs as well, via select devices, such as Google's Chromecast.
A new iPhone and iPad app, called Google Play Movies & TV, recently launched as a free download on the iTunes App Store too. Although iOS device users cannot purchase Google Play content through the app, they can play back videos purchased on a computer or separate Android device. You can, of course, also play Google Play films and television series through PC and Mac using a browser.
For: Google's digital store is simple and uncomplicated to use, and the wide variety of Android-powered devices ensures that you should be able to play your films or television series on any screen you like. The new iOS app is really handy too. Unlike Apple's closed ecosystem, Google's has repeatedly affirmed its commitment to openness.
And finally, most films are also presented in 5.1 surround sound. You can also store content locally for offline viewing.
Against: Like iTunes, there's no blanket subscription option, meaning you will pay more over time to watch films and television episodes.
Also, there are reports that HD playback of Google Play content is restricted to 720p, and it's hard to determine whether you are even buying/renting HD content at times. The service also has a smaller library of films and series available in comparison to some of the more established rivals. That library size is more apparent with rentals, as there are many films you can't even rent.
Conclusion: If you own an Android device, Google Play is your most obvious and probably ideal option. It is also tempting to sign up if you sport an iPhone or iPad because of the ability to play content through the new app for those devices. That way you can be safe in the knowledge that you can switch systems without being locked out of your bought content.
In a nutshell: YouTube has many films from major studios around the world available to stream free of charge or to rent and purchase. Each movie rental has a specific rental period, which is indicated in the purchase window that appears when you click the price button on the movie information page. Typically you'll have 30 days to start the movie and 24 hours from the time you begin playback to finish watching, but the exact times will vary for each title.
Price: To purchase YouTube paid content, you'll need a YouTube account with Google Wallet activated. As for prices, they vary considerably but often mirror Google Play Movie prices. For instance, new movie releases may cost $19.99 to purchase in HD or $14.99 to purchase in SD. New rentals may cost $4.99 in HD, $3.99 in SD. Older films may cost $14.99 to buy in HD, $9.99 in SD. And old rentals may cost $3.99 in HD, $2.99 in SD. There are also plenty of films available for free or from $1.99.
Devices: You can watch all paid YouTube content on iOS devices using the YouTube app for iOS. If you own an Android device, you can stream paid content in the YouTube app or download it for offline viewing using the Play Movies & TV app. There also YouTube apps for set-top boxes and gaming consoles that provide access to content bought on YouTube.
You can stream to HDTVs as well, via select devices, such as Google's Chromecast. And of course you can also play YouTube films and series through PC and Mac using a browser. A fill list of supported devices is available here.
For: One of the biggest draws to YouTube Movies is that there are thousands of free films to watch, though they're either B-films or really old releases. Still, it's a good resource to scour if your low on cash but still want to grab some popcorn and watch films at home.
That said, there's also tons of paid films including a huge back catalogue that looks comparable to Netflix. You can even access a Disney on Demand channel with both new and old popular paid films like The Jungle Book and The Little Mermaid. Most titles however are already available in Google Play Movies.
Against: There's no blanket subscription option, meaning you will pay more over time to watch films and television episodes.
The concept behind YouTube Movies is also a little confusing. It's owned by Google but separate from Google Play Movies, even though it has much of the same content and prices found within Google Play Movies. If it weren't for the free and old movie selection, YouTube Movies really doesn't have an advantage over Google Play. The UI isn't even that pleasant to navigate or use.
Conclusion: This is your free and old movie hub. Otherwise, use one of the other competitors. Plus, because Google hasn't spent too much time working on YouTube Movies or marketing it yet, we can't even be sure that it'll be around forever. It might just get folded into Google Play Movies, or Google Play Movies might get better integrated into YouTube Movies. We shall see.
In a nutshell: Xbox Video is the digital movie and TV show streaming service for Microsoft's software and hardware solutions, such as Xbox games consoles, Windows Phone smartphones, Windows 8.1 on PC and through browsers. Like many of the other non-subscription services, it offers new and back catalogue series and films to rent and buy.
Price: Prices on Xbox Video vary but are similar to Google and Apple's prices. Standard-definition versions of films are available to rent for $2.99 with the HD versions available at $6.99. To buy, SD versions of titles are $15.99, while the HD versions cost $19.99.
You may see the prices go down or up, depending on the age and popularity of the movie. Also, renting options are not always available. The rental period for films is 14 days, with the standard 48 hours to watch a film after it has been started.
Television series are available to buy in collections, starting around $14.99 for the SD versions, $22.99 for HD. Prices for entire series depend on how many episodes and the age of the show.
Devices: You can watch Xbox Video content in any browser on a computer - but only in standard definition. Windows Phone will only play SD video too. HD content will play through the Xbox Video applications for Xbox One and Windows 8.1 only (for PCs or tablets). The Xbox 360 also plays Xbox Video content, in SD and HD, but not through a dedicated application. Instead, the series and films are available directly through the Xbox Live dashboard. You can view a full list of supported devices here.
For: Xbox Video has an advantage over other apps on Xbox 360 and Xbox One, for example, by being more contained and integrated into the existing user interfaces. It is easier to use without having to spark up a separate portal. The service also has a pipeline of original programmes in the works, including a Halo-based series by Steven Spielberg's Amblin TV.
Most films and television series are presented in 1080p with 5.1 surround sound on the Xbox 360, Xbox One and Windows 8.1 PCs.
Against: There's no blanket subscription option, meaning you will pay more over time to watch films and television episodes.
The number of devices able to play Xbox Video content is also limited. You will basically need an Xbox of some description or a media PC set up in your living room if you want to play films or television series through your HDTV. You can do it using a laptop and a HDMI cable too, but you will be limited to the resolution of the computer should you have a display less than 1920 x 1080.
Conclusion: Xbox Video is really a service for people who own an Xbox console, Windows PC or tablet, or Windows Phone smartphone. Its prices are standard and the amount of content available is decent.
Sony Unlimited Video
In a nutshell: Sony Unlimited Video offers a huge collection of films and television series from major studios like Sony Pictures Entertainment, Twentieth Century Fox, and Universal Pictures, and more. There are thousands of programmes to choose from, in SD, HD, 3D, and 4K formats, without having to pay a monthly subscription (though some may consider that a bad thing).
Price: New releases rentals start from $3.99 in SD, $4.99 in HD. You can also purchase new films for $14.99 in SD, $19.99 in HD. A new movie in 3D might cost upwards of $29.99 to buy. series are generally available to purchase by episode, and each episode costs $1.99 in SD or $2.99 in HD.
Devices: You can download the Video Unlimited app to watch content on any Sony mobile device or console. You can also download Media Go to watch content on your PC. To access content on your internet-enabled Sony televisions or Blu-ray player, scroll to the Sony Entertainment Network logo and choose the Video Unlimited service. A full list of supported devices is available here.
For: Sony Video Unlimited is more like a pay-per-view download service. It's part of Sony's Entertainment Network and sits alongside Music Unlimited. Because the service is a part of Sony’s Entertainment Network, you can add funds to the Playstation Network, and then easily spend on films and shows. Content costs money, naturally, but it is often newer than what competitors like Netflix offer.
Every film and television show comes with a high-quality trailer and description, and there is an extensive listing of new and popular titles. Also, SD files tend to weigh around 1GB, while HD films weigh around 4GB. But instead of making you wait forever for them to download, Sony lets you stream your purchase while the rest of the film downloads.
Against: Sony Unlimited Video doesn't offer as much content as iTunes or Google Play, and the service's search functionality is horrid. Search for a show, and it displays all the episodes for that show, with no obvious way to sort by series or season.
While you can purchase in practically any format on a PlayStation or PC, the mobile app only allows SD purchases. That said, you can still buy the SD version of your film alongside the HD option at no additional cost. That's ideal for anyone who has a PS4 and an Xperia phone or tablet.
And finally, like some of Sony's competitors, there's no blanket subscription option.
Conclusion: With a huge lineup of new releases and prices being so variable across titles, it’s fair to say Video Unlimited is competitive when compared with iTunes and Google Play Movies. If you have a PS3, a PC, and an Xperia phone, or at least two of these, we can’t think of many reasons not to try out Video Unlimited at the very least.
In a nutshell: Crackle is a Sony-backed streaming services that features both films and television series from major studios and networks. Content partnerships include Columbia Pictures, Fox Digital , MGM, Lionsgate, and more. It also features some original programming and even has an original full feature film.
Price: All content is free.
Devices: Crackle has apps for iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Nook, Kindle Fire, and Windows Phone, and it supports a wide range of smart televisions, streaming players, and gaming consoles. Of course you can also access on the web. A full list of supported devices is available here.
For: Apart from free content, if you register with Crackle, you can subscribe for updates when new content has been added to your favourite genres or shows, create a list of favourite videos, save your viewing history, set up queues of videos to help organise your favourite videos, share videos with friends and other Crackle users, and you can create multiple queues for all your interests.
Against: Crackle is free but comes at a price. You have to watch adverts when you’re streaming content. Then there’s the issue with limited content and a lack of HD streaming. Although there are new-ish films like Bruno and The Ides of March, it really doesn't have a full library. You also can't download films for offline viewing, and everything is only available to stream for a certain window of time.
Conclusion: Similar to YouTube Movies, Crackle is your free and older movie hub. You have to put up with adverts and content is often removed without notice, but the service doesn't cost you a thing and can still supply hours of at-home entertainment.
In a nutshell: Hulu Plus is a premium streaming service that provides access to a wide variety of television series and films on a bunch of different devices. Like the free version of Hulu, the video available on Hulu Plus also contains ads. However, the service offers subscribers an expanded content library in the form of full seasons and more episodes of series already available through Hulu.
Price: Hulu Plus costs just $7.99 a month, and you can test it out with a 1-week free trial.
Devices: Hulu Plus is available online, Xbox One, PS4, Google Chromecast, Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, iOS, Android, Windows 8, Windows Phone 8, Amazon Kindle Fire, Wii, Wii U, Nintento 3DS, PS Vita, Nook, smart televisions, and more devices. A full list of supported devices is available here.
For: Hulu Plus offers entire current seasons and new episodes of numerous television shows. Most recent episodes of your favourites series are available the day after they air. A few of the shoes include Family Guy, Modern Family, Glee, Grey’s Anatomy, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report, and even classic series like Lost, The Office, I Love Lucy, The Cosby Show, etc. Hulu also has original programming, and you can watch all this content on your television or mobile device in addition to a computer.
Against: Content is mostly television shows, though it notably includes current seasons and new episodes. There isn't too many films to choose from. Also, even though you’re paying a monthly fee, Hulu Plus still has adverts. You also have to wait a day to see new episodes. Even worse, Hulu sometimes restrict content based on your internet and cable provider.
One more thing: Content is only available in 720p HD. And that also depends on your hardware and internet connection.
Conclusion: If you're more of a cable TV sort of person but don't necessarily want to pay for a cable subscription, then Hulu Plus is right for you. It's not too expensive and offers up a ton of popular series. And, like you do with cable, you'll still see ads. Yay! Or not.
And that's not all. There are plenty of other streaming services available in the US, such as Redbox Instant, Blockbuster on Demand, Epix, Vudu, and Cinema Now. The list goes on. While they each have a ton of content and perks, none have taken off quite like the nine services detailed above (or, in some cases, they've faded in popularity).
There's also streaming services that require a cable subscription - such as HBO Go. In the coming months, Pocket-lint plans to test and add all of them to this round-up. Until then, leave us a comment below and let us know which streaming service best suits you.