Netflix vs Hulu Plus vs Amazon Prime vs HBO NOW: Who's Best?

When it comes to watching television and film at home, technology has progressed to the point that one need not leave her house to rent or purchase a movie or TV show. When it comes to TV, one doesn’t even need to have cable.

With services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime, all one requires is a subscription to one or any of the aforementioned services, and a device enabled with the capability to access any of those services. For example, Amazon offers the streaming player called Fire TV, and most major game consoles (e.g. Microsoft’s Xbox One, Sony’s Playstation 4) allow for the easy installment of Netflix and other streaming services. For a minimal monthly subscription to one or all of these streaming services, one can sate all of her visual cravings, whether it’s binge-watching a whole season of the Amazon Prime exclusive Catastrophe or tuning into the developments in original film on Netflix.

With so many excellent options, a problem arises. This problem is known as “the paradox of choice”: if one has so many excellent options at her fingertips, it becomes difficult to narrow them down to just one. (This is akin to the phenomenon military pilots experience called “target confusion.”) Each streaming service has an undeniable appeal, and many of them fall within a similar price point. To help narrow down the broad field of choice afforded to consumers, below you can find a three-point comparison of four major streaming providers: Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime, and HBO NOW. In the end, the choice may not be all that easy, but some clarity can be gleaned from the juxtaposition of these options.

There’s a finite market for DVD-by-mail, and the growth over the next 10 years will be in streaming. – Reed Hastings

Price

The price options page of Hulu Plus, where customers can choose their Hulu plan.
The price options page of Hulu Plus, where customers can choose their Hulu plan.

Any single one of these streaming services runs cheaper than a cable subscription; and when one considers that cable subscriptions usually don’t come bundled with commercial-free premium channels (e.g. HBO, Starz, Showtime), there is good sense in ponying up for a streaming subscription to a service like Netflix and its kin. Not only do companies like Netflix offer consumers a bundle including premium movies and full seasons of of TV series, but they also let the consumer set her own viewing schedule. With Netflix, there’s no need to wait for a show to come on at a particular hour, no need to TIVO something for a later date. All choices are available at the consumer’s own pace and time, with the simple press or click of a button.

Those with deeper pockets can afford to get a subscription to Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime, and/or HBO NOW in addition to a cable package. For those looking for quality film and television on a budget, making the choice between any of the major streaming providers can be difficult.

Here is a price breakdown of each streaming service:

  • Netflix: There are three plans to choose from here: Basic, Standard, and Premium. Following a free one-month trial, consumers can pay, respectively, either $7.99, $9.99, or $11.99. All three choices have the following in common, per Netflix’s description: “Watch on your laptop, TV, phone and tablet; unlimited movies and tv shows; cancel anytime; first month free.” Beyond those primary features, the Standard and Premium plans feature unique perks: both Standard and Premium allow for high-definition (HD) viewing, though Premium is the only option which allows for “Ultra HD,” and while a Basic account gives the viewer a one-screen-at-a-time maximum capacity, Standard users can watch their Netflix account on up to two screens, and Premium members are allotted four.
  • Hulu Plus: Hulu Plus users are given two options: Limited or No Commercials. Limited Commercials, which costs $7.99, allows users to view the entirety of the Hulu database; their viewing experience will be minimally interrupted by commercials. The $11.99 No Commercials plan features no interruptions in viewing, save for certain shows that begin and end with a short commercial, per the licensing agreement that Hulu struck with network providers. (At the moment, these shows are: Grey’s Anatomy, Once Upon a Time, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Scandal, New Girl, Grimm, and How To Get Away With Murder. It is unclear if this agreement is permanent or subject to change.) In contrast to Netflix’s month-long free trial, Hulu Plus can be sampled by users for one week before the monthly charge is enacted.
  • Amazon Prime: While most streaming services operate on a charge-per-month model, Amazon Prime is charged yearly; at the moment, the service costs $99 per year; this breaks down to about $8.25 monthly, or just a little bit more than the most rudimentary options provided by Netflix and Hulu. College students with a current university email are eligible to receive a six-month free trial of Prime, after which they will be charged a discounted price for Prime ($50/year). As will be explained in the next section, Amazon Prime is a great deal more than a streaming service, and comes with a host of benefits beyond exclusive streaming content.
  • HBO NOW: It is first important to make a distinction: HBO GO and HBO NOW are not the same service. Only the latter is analogous to services like Netflix and Hulu Plus; in order to use HBO GO, one has to have a cable subscription to HBO, whereas one can purchase HBO NOW access without having a cable provider at all. In other words, if you’re looking for “Netflix but for HBO,” you need to get HBO NOW; otherwise, you’ll have to pay a much higher subscription price. After a month-long free trial, an HBO NOW subscription will cost $14.99 per month.

All told, the price differentials between these services are marginal in most cases, if not identical (Netflix and Hulu Plus subscriptions, in their most basic form, cost the same amount). Amazon Prime appears steeper at first for its high one-time charge, but broken down month-by-month it is as cost efficient as Netflix or Hulu Plus. HBO NOW has a higher charge than the other three, which is consistent with HBO’s branding of itself as a “premium” channel.

One last price feature is important to outline. Hulu can be accessed for free — that is, without a Hulu Plus account — but the TV episode selection is very limited, and in most cases non-paying customers can only access individual clips of shows, not full episodes. Amazon allows viewers to buy single episodes or whole seasons of shows digitally, although the cost of one season of a TV show would be as much as a month’s subscription to the whole Prime database itself. Whereas Netflix and HBO NOW are “all-or-nothing” buy-ins, Hulu and Amazon feature the opportunity for smaller buy-ins that don’t require a full subscription purchase.

To further understand the cost efficiency of each option, it is necessary to explain what each price point gets the consumer. No matter which streaming option one chooses, she’ll definitely get bang for her buck, though some options are wiser than others.

Selection

hbonowscreen

Of the four previously outline choices, HBO NOW has the most limited selection. The TV shows available through the service are HBO only, and while HBO’s TV programming is highly desired by consumers (see, for instance, the phenomenon that is Game of Thrones), Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon all offer TV selections from a broader range of networks. Those who watch HBO’s programming typically do so on cable, the major source of HBO’s content revenue, though the network’s streaming presence is growing. The database of all HBO television programming, which HBO NOW provides access to, is voluminous, but it is less wide-ranging than its streaming competitors. One advantage that HBO NOW has over Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon is recency: in addition to all HBO TV shows, HBO NOW users can watch movies that have been recently released to home video. Normally, new films take over a year to arrive on streaming services like Netflix or Hulu Plus.

As to the other three streaming providers, it is difficult to say which site has “more” content. The deals each provider cuts with film studios and television networks are not always broadcasted to the general public; in many cases, people won’t be aware something has arrived on Netflix until they see it on their Netflix dashboard. Or, conversely, sometimes people won’t be aware something is leaving Netflix up until the final moments it is about to leave; recently Scrubs star Zach Braff rallied his followers on Twitter to help keep the show on Netflix a few weeks before it was to be removed from the site.

Listing all of the films and TV shows provided on Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Prime would require a book-length treatment. It is safe to say that with each service, customers have an embarrassment of viewing riches; all of the streaming databases run wide and deep. What makes it easier to distinguish between the three aforementioned services are the benefits unique to each one.

  • Netflix’s Unique Benefits: Hugely popular shows like House of CardsUnbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Orange is the New Black are only available for streaming on Netflix. (Those who do not have a Netflix subscription and/or prefer a physical copy can purchase individual seasons of those shows on Blu-ray and DVD.)
  • Hulu Plus’ Unique Benefits: Hulu Plus subscribers have access to streaming versions of the classic films of The Criterion Collection, a company that issues special edition DVDs of essential and often lost works of cinema history. Also unique to Hulu Plus is the frequency of how TV shows are updated. Netflix, for example, releases shows on a season basis; when a new season of House of Cards or Orange is the New Black debuts, all episodes of that season are available. The same goes for shows not developed by Netflix. Hulu Plus, however, updates current TV series on an episode-by-episode basis. If one wants to watch the newest season of Nashville but doesn’t have a cable subscription, she can, through her Hulu Plus subscription, watch the season as it unfolds on network television, rather than waiting for Hulu to upload the whole season months after it has aired. Hulu does also feature full seasons of completed shows, as well as past seasons of continually updated shows. Like most major streaming services, Hulu also has its own original programming, which includes The PathCasual, and East Los High.
  • Amazon Prime’s Unique Benefits: Without a doubt, Amazon Prime takes the cake as far as exclusive benefits go. This is because Amazon Prime is primarily a membership to Amazon itself, and is not limited to streaming video. A one-year Prime membership includes free two-day shipping on most Amazon items, access to a huge database of streaming music and ebooks, and photo storage on Amazon’s servers. Original programming exclusive to Amazon Prime includes BoschThe Man in the High Castle, and the critically revered dramedy Transparent.

In terms of overall value, Amazon Prime is extremely tough to beat. For only 25 cents more than a standard Netflix or Hulu Plus account, viewers get a wide streaming database of music, film, and television, in addition to a bevy of perks for shopping on Amazon.

But here is is necessary to make a distinction between Amazon Prime as a whole and Amazon Prime as a streaming service. If a consumer is only concerned with what she will get for streaming video content, and isn’t interested in the other perks that come with shopping on Amazon, then Amazon Prime is not at an obvious advantage. Like Netflix or Hulu Plus, it has a large amount of streaming content, but whether a viewer will prefer Amazon Prime to any of its competitors is largely a matter of taste. If, for instance, someone is a passionate fan of Transparent, then access to Amazon Prime will be more important than access to Netflix; the opposite would be true for a fan of Orange is the New Black.

Because the selection of each streaming service is too vast to make a simple comparison, the easiest way to narrow down these compelling choices if you only have the ability to choose one is to ask this question: “What unique things do I want out of my streaming service?” A helpful way to narrow that question down would be to ask: “What TV shows do I watch the most?” If the answer to the second question looks something like this: House of CardsThe OCUnbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Family Guy, and Breaking Bad, Netflix will be your answer, as four out of those five are available on Netflix, and two of them are Netflix exclusives. Even though you’ll miss out on The OC (available on Hulu), you’re getting the most for your money by subscribing to Netflix.

Accessibility

The Netflix app, found in the PlayStation store on a PS4.
The Netflix app, found in the PlayStation store on a PS4.

Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime, and HBO NOW are all about equally accessible, with only slight weaknesses in some services. Televisions and computers all take very well to these applications, provided their software is up to date. Each service is available on the two major game consoles, Xbox One and PS4 (Amazon Prime is accessed through an app called Amazon Instant Video), with the exception of HBO NOW, which is available on the Xbox One but not the PS4. (That discrepancy does not appear to be permanent, though there is some confusion on the issue.) The HBO GO app — which requires a link-up with an HBO cable subscription, and cannot be purchased standalone like Netflix or Hulu Plus — is available on both consoles.

In an age where streaming video is ubiquitous, all the major streaming providers have ensured that their services are available across the numerous technological interfaces of the day, including televisions, phones, tablets, and laptop and desktop computers. Excepting HBO NOW, which still has yet to be made ready for certain devices, accessibility will not be a make-or-break concern for those shopping the various streaming applications.

So, who’s the winner?

As much as it is understandable to desire a clear answer to this question, the battle of streaming services isn’t really a battle at all. Each one comes with its own unique content, which will appeal to some people but not to others. If a consumer chooses Hulu Plus because he wants access to the digital Criterion Collection and exclusives like The Path and Casual, that would be a respectable choice. The same goes for the person who chooses Netflix out of love for House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. In either case, the consumer will get access to more movies and television than he could possibly watch; the important thing is that he gets to watch his favorites, and with quick research — in addition to the comparisons listed above — he can make an informed choice about where to spend his money on streaming content. Ultimately, then, the winner can only be declared on a case-by-case basis. But wherever one ends up spending his money — be it Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime, or HBO NOW — he’s in for long hours on the couch.

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