Story by Ryan Waniata, via our partner site, Digital Trends /
Updated existing content for relevancy and new information about pricing, and Hulu’s Live TV service.
Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video, and Hulu offer a massive amount of on-demand content at a low monthly cost. Each service makes for a fantastic way to provide extensive entertainment options to an entire family, and, as the best streaming services around, they’ve increasingly become an alternative to the bloated pricing of cable and satellite subscriptions.
For some cord-cutters, a mix of two, or all three of these services is the best solution. But if you’re trying to figure out which streaming service to use while sticking to a frugal entertainment budget, check out our updated breakdown of each to find out which one rules in various categories, and which one is best for you.
Amazon offers two versions of its Prime subscription — either $99 annually or $11 per month. Both versions get you the same perks like two-day shipping, discounted prices on select items, cloud storage, and most importantly for our purposes, video (and music) streaming. The best part is, 4K Ultra HD content with HDR comes standard, with no extra cost. Plus, you can share accounts with friends and family so everyone can get in on the deals.
Netflix’s various subscription tiers range from $8-12 depending on your desired video quality — SD resolution is just $8 per month, but you can also only stream on one device at a time. Moving up to HD will cost you $10 per month for two streams, while moving up to 4K Ultra HD will cost you $12 per month for four streams at a time. This price will also go up should you opt-in to the DVD rental service.
Hulu’s prices are similar, costing $8 for the regular service or $12 for the commercial-free option (which we highly recommend). Hulu’s options don’t stop there, though, as it now offers a streaming live TV package, similar to Sling TV or PlayStation Vue. The $40-per-month subscription includes 50-plus channels on top of the service’s regular on-demand library.
For those who want to stream 4K at the lowest possible price, Amazon is the cheapest bet, and Amazon has stated that the company won’t raise prices for 4K streaming. The sheer number of extra features and benefits included in Amazon Prime gives it an advantage over its competitors. Throw in Amazon’s student discount, and it’s an easy win.
Winner: Amazon Instant Video
Content is the most important point of comparison for any streaming service. This is difficult to judge in terms of raw numbers. At any given time what content is available is in flux, and the libraries for all three change monthly.
In general, Netflix has more content than the other two, especially when it concerns movies and original content — the company spends billions of dollars and often has dozens of new titles in a single month. It also boasts a large number of acclaimed international films (though its film collection in general has dwindled in recent years), and you can find a list of our favorites here.
Hulu and Amazon host current TV episodes available, but Amazon usually doesn’t offer them for free with your Prime subscription. Netflix, on the other hand, is always a season behind what’s currently airing on TV.
These differences means that what you want to watch will largely dictate which service or combination of each is best for you. However, we’re going to give the nod to Netflix here; it just has a better overall library. It might not be the best for keeping up with the latest TV shows from other networks, but that also isn’t exactly what the service was designed for in the first place.
All three services are available on a long list of devices, too long to list out here, in fact. Instead, it may be better to point out where they aren’t supported.
Netflix is basically everywhere. Many devices even feature the red Netflix logo directly on their remote. Hulu, equally, is just about everywhere, often in its native UI, too.
The only real noteworthy gap comes from Amazon, which is absent from Chromecast and Chromecast Ultra. That’s not all that surprising considering these are Google’s devices, and the Google Play store is in direct competition with Amazon. Still, it’s an annoyance to have such restrictions.
Given the near-ubiquity of both Netflix and Hulu, it’s close, but Netflix still beats out its rivals here — it’s even onboard many cable boxes. If you’re not sure, it pays to do some research before committing. The full list of compatible devices for each service are available here: Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime.
Interface and Ease of Use
While there are some detractors when it comes to searching through its crowded vault of content, Netflix has terrific search functionality. It curates suggested content through an ever-present personalized “top picks” category on the home screen, and a slick design with an intuitive carousel. Best of all, its interface is also universal regardless of device or brand, including HDTVs, gaming consoles, Rokus, and Blu-ray players, so you’ll always be able to find the shows or movies you want without having to relearn everything.
Hulu has its own curation as well, the main category being the “Shows You Watch” tab that feature prominently at the top of the interface keeps everything you’re watching/following in a single spot. In reality it’s not all the dissimilar from Netflix, but we still prefer Netflix’s.
Amazon comes in third with a slightly more scattered interface, but like its rivals, it’s constantly improving. One point in its favor is that you can browse Prime Instant Video directly on the Amazon webpage, and its various apps. However, these interfaces tend to differ from one another, and frankly, some aren’t as intuitive as the others.
Audio and Video Quality
In addition to offering 1080p streams, both Netflix and Amazon have launched 4K Ultra HD resolution and HDR streaming support. Netflix charges extra for the privilege, bumping the monthly subscription fee to $12, but as stated above, Amazon provides 4K for free. At this point, 4K streams are still pretty new and offerings from both services are limited. You’ll also need compatible 4K Ultra HD TV, of course.
As for audio quality, Netflix offers Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 surround sound encoding on the majority of content in addition to 7.1 encoding on select content. By comparison, Amazon offers 5.1 encoding on select content, and Hulu is limited to stereo sound, despite many network television shows offering 5.1 surround sound during the original broadcast and the Blu-ray disc release. Its close here between Netflix and Amazon, but Bezos’ baby just edges out Big Red.
Release date for new content
If you must watch the latest episode of your favorite network show, you’ll need Hulu. New episodes usually appear on the service the day after airing (provided the show is on Hulu in the first place), and nearly all of that content is commercial free.
That said, if you’re not willing to move up to the premium tier ($12/month from thestandard $8 fee) the commercials can really get in the way of Hulu’s greatness. Users who don’t move up will have to watch a stream of ads, the number of which has only grown more frequent as the service has expanded. To compound the issue, many of the ads are on re-feed over a single series, which means binge watchers will see the same commercials over, and over, and over again. In addition, Hulu has live TV available at $40 per month, if you’re willing to pay, while Amazon has “Channels” which allows you to add select channels with newer content.
On the flip side, Netflix’s add-free service doesn’t add previous seasons of shows until the new season of a show begins. That time frame ranges from three months up to an entire year based on the agreement between Netflix and the content creators which own the shows. And if you don’t pay for Channels on Amazon (which are pricey to add on), you can purchase the latest episodes but you’ll end up paying a massive premium that makes it all but prohibitive ($2-3 per episode for SD, $3-4 for HD). As such, for serious cord-cutters who want to stream the latest series, Hulu is the way to go.
Back in 2012, the only content that Netflix had going was Lilyhammer, a semi-entertaining drama about a mobster (Steve Van Zandt of The Sopranos) whose been relocated to Lillehammer, Norway by the witness protection program. But, oh, how the times have changed. Netflix has made serious moves (and spent serious money) to easily take the win here. Once House of Cards started winning Emmys, Netflix hit the throttle, and the network/streaming service/movie studio hasn’t looked back. From a fledgling creator of a few small series, Netflix has now amassed hundreds of hours of original content, including dozens of shows of all flavors, as well as original feature films, which began with the Idris Elba-starring war film Beasts of No Nation.
Netflix has since inked deals with major filmmakers, as well as partnerships with big players like Marvel, including a reported $200 million deal for a host of shows from the Marvel universe, along with another deal for exclusive rights to Disney movies. It seems the sky is the limit when it comes to just how much content Netflix can churn out. In short, there’s really nothing else like it.
Amazon and Hulu are on the move in an attempt to keep up with the champ. Both have made various deals of their own, amassing respectable original content libraries and even bringing prematurely-cancelled shows exclusively to their platforms. That said, when it comes to streaming services creating original content, it’s Netflix’s world right now, and everybody else is just living in it.
If licensed television and movie content, current network shows and original series aren’t enough to keep your attention, considered allotting a portion of your monthly entertainment budget to renting new release movies on Vudu. While you could rent the same movies from Amazon’s premium side of Instant Video, Vudu offers 1080p video and 7.1 surround sound on many new releases. Vudu even gives users 30 days to watch a film before expiring. The 720p version of a new release is priced at $5 and the 1080p version is typically priced at $6 per rental.
In addition, HBO and Showtime both offer standalone apps (without a cable or satellite subscription) for $15 and $12 per month respectively. Other services like Crackle, Vevo, Funny Or Die, and of course, YouTube have plenty of awesome long and short-form content to keep you entertained. Additionally, services like Sling TV and Playstation Vue, DirecTV Now, and YouTube TV offer live broadcast TV, though they’ll cost you from $20 to as much as $70 per month.
Other features to consider
- Need subtitles? Go with Netflix. In 2014, the company finished an agreement to subtitle all of its content.
- Will the kids be watching? If you need parental controls, Netflix is the way to go. In addition to having an option to limit the MPAA / TV ratings on content as a universal setting, Netflix offers a kids option for individual profiles, ensuring your child only sees PG content and below. In addition, Hulu recently launched a Kids lock feature on its mobile app that allows parents to lock out mature content before handing a smartphone or tablet over to their child.
- Live TV? Hulu is the best. Sure, you’re going to be paying quite a bit more for the addition of live TV streaming to complement your on-demand content, but the $40 monthly subscription is a fraction of what you’d be paying for a normal cable bill.
If we’re going to make a single recommendation, Netflix is still the king of the streaming world. That said, Hulu and Amazon Instant Video offer unique benefits. Ideally, we recommend combining multiple services, which will provide access to the maximum amount of stuff to watch, including current network programming and a growing list of premium original content.
The extremely frugal should also consider taking advantage of Hulu’s referral program to earn extra weeks for free, or plug into Amazon Prime’s student discount.