For a lot of people, online video streaming services like Netflix and Hulu are becoming regular entertainment options. But unless you want to have multiple subscriptions, it can be tough to decide which one is best for your family.
Do you want to watch Hollywood classics, foreign films, hit TV shows, original programming or all of the above?
Here’s a look at what separates the three biggest subscription services, including a look at some of the content exclusive to each one.
Netflix, by far, is the biggest of the major streaming services and boasts nearly 38 million subscribers worldwide — more than double Amazon Prime Instant (10 million) and Hulu Plus (four million) combined.
So what does Netflix have that the other streaming services don’t?
For starters, it offers the largest selection. Netflix is estimated to have anywhere from twice to three times as much content as Amazon Prime Instant, its biggest competitor. That includes a huge array of exclusive movies and TV shows unavailable on other streaming platforms.
In just the last year, for example, Netflix has signed multi-year licensing deals with Disney (beginning in 2016), DreamWorks and The Weinstein Company, giving it sole streaming rights to everything from upcoming Marvel superhero movies to recent animated fare like “The Croods” to potential Oscar contenders like “Lee Daniels' The Butler."
Those join the already huge back catalogue of titles, ranging from old classics to more recent films.
Netflix has also recently had a lot of success with original content, including the Kevin Spacey-starring political drama “House of Cards,” which made history this year as the first non-TV network show to win a Primetime Emmy. Other original series currently available include “Arrested Development,” “Orange is the New Black” and “Derek,” among others. Although most of these shows are decidedly adult in content, ranging from TV-14 to TV-MA, the recent deal with DreamWorks will see 300 hours of brand new-kids shows added to Netflix's lineup of original programming, including a "Turbo" spinoff series called "Turbo: F.A.S.T."
Netflix also offers the best viewing quality. The standard subscription service now allows users to stream content in glorious 1080p, or "true HD" — as opposed to Amazon Prime Instant and Hulu Plus, which max out at the lower resolution 720p. The sound quality is also better. Depending on the program, viewers can choose between Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound.
A recent update also added the option to have multiple user profiles on a single account — a nice feature for families with different tastes.
And finally, for parents, Netflix has both ratings-based parental controls that can be customized for each user profile as well as a “Just for Kids” option (developed with input from Common Sense Media) that only displays content suitable for children ages 12 and under.
In a nutshell:
- The biggest selection
- Exclusive content, including plenty of family-friendly shows from DreamWorks Animation and Disney
- Original programming
- Viewing experience
- Multiple user profiles with individually customizable parental control features
- A “Just for Kids” option
- Parental controls
Cost: $7.99 per month
Amazon Prime Instant
Despite a much smaller library of content compared to Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant has recently become a serious competitor in the world of subscription video-on-demand services thanks to some aggressive licensing deals.
Earlier this year, the company pulled off a significant coup when it signed an agreement with Viacom for exclusive streaming rights to more than 250 TV seasons and thousands of episodes of programming from MTV, Comedy Central and, most importantly, Nickelodeon.
The deal includes a number of children’s shows that had previously been available on Netflix like “SpongeBob SquarePants,” “Dora the Explorer,” “Go, Diego, Go!” and “The Backyardigans.”
If that wasn’t enough to convince some parents to go with Amazon Prime Instant, the company also secured rights to more mature (though, not necessarily TV-MA) shows like “Downton Abbey,” “Fallling Skies,” “Grimm” and “Suits," among others, giving it a lineup that may not top Netflix’s, but at least offers something different.
As far as original content goes, Amazon is a little behind its competitors, although earlier this year, it greenlit five new series — two comedies and three kids shows — and announced five more pilots aimed at kids, including older, grade school-age children.
What really sets Amazon Prime Instant apart from the other major streaming services, though, is that it’s a feature included at no additional charge with every Amazon Prime membership. At $79 for a year-long subscription, which comes out to $1.41 less per month than either Netflix or Hulu Plus. That might not sound like a lot, but when you include other Prime member benefits like free two-day shipping, it turns out to be a surprisingly attractive deal.
Amazon Prime Instant also offers parental controls that allow users to restrict the types of content accessible to stream.
Completely separate from the Prime membership, Amazon also has a huge catalogue of movies for rental and purchase, meaning that if you can't find the one you're looking for, you can always just pay a little bit more and watch it anyway.
In a nutshell:
- A smaller selection, but lots of kid-friendly options
- Exclusive content that might appeal to parents
- Included as part of an Amazon Prime membership
- Costs less per year than Netflix or Hulu Plus
- Parental controls
Cost: $79 per year ($6.59 per month)
With the smallest archived selection of movies and TV shows, Hulu Plus might seem like the obvious loser in the three-way battle for SVOD supremacy. Depending on one’s viewing preferences, though, it could actually turn out to be the best option.
Unlike Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant, which mostly specialize in movies and past seasons of TV, Hulu Plus’ main selling point is the ability to stream primetime TV shows the day after they air. Some of the titles include hit ABC series like “Revenge” and “Once Upon a Time”; brand-new shows like “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” and “Sleepy Hollow”; Comedy Central's “The Colbert Report” and 39 full seasons of “Saturday Night Live.”
Along with newer series, Hulu Plus also features plenty of vintage content that might appeal to families — titles like “Fragglerock,” “He-Man” and “I Love Lucy,” to name just a few.
The selection of movies, on the other hand, is pretty sparse compared to other streaming services. For art house and foreign film junkies, though, Hulu Plus includes access to more than 800 titles from the esteemed Criterion Collection, including films by the masters of cinema like Akira Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman. That alone could be well worth the $8 per month.
Along with Netflix, Hulu Plus also has the biggest lineup of original content, although the quality isn’t quite up to par.
One of the other big differences between Hulu Plus and its competitors, though, that could be a deciding factor is the presence of advertisements that periodically interrupt programming. The one exception is on the Hulu Kids page, an ad-free selection of family-friendly programming similar to Netflix's "Just for Kids" option. Unlike the other two services, though, Hulu Plus does not offer other forms of parental control for the regular selection of movies and TV series.
In a nutshell:
- The smallest archived content library
- Next-day viewing of current TV shows
- Access to hundreds of hard-to-find foreign and art house films
- A large selection of original content
- Streaming experience regularly interrupted by ads
- Hulu Kids
- No parental controls for regular viewing experience
Cost: $7.99 per month
A native of Utah Valley and a devoted cinephile, Jeff Peterson is currently studying humanities and history at BYU.