There are dozens of devices that let you stream audio and video content. It would seem to make sense, then, that there are nearly as many services for you to stream. But when you’re looking to subscribe to a new service, which do you choose? Whether you’re a movie buff, TV junkie or all-around entertainment enjoyer, here are my picks for the best streaming services available on the market today.
For the All-Around Movie and TV Buff: Netflix ($8/month)
Netflix is still the king when it comes to streaming movies. Other services will always have exclusive rights and deals with companies on movies that Netflix doesn’t offer, but that doesn’t make Netflix’s catalog any less impressive. With tens of thousands of movies available for instant streaming, and thousands of complete seasons of TV shows as well, it's hard to run out of things to watch. One of the most important things about Netflix is its ubiquity. Just about every streaming device out there – iOS, Android, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Apple TV, Roku, etc. – can run Netflix. It almost seems to be a pre-requisite these days for creating a streaming device. Netflix also has a very user-friendly interface for every device, so you’ll be able to navigate easily. Netflix is quickly becoming one of the hottest places for new original content, and recently inked a deal with Facebook to add social interaction to your viewing habits. You can also add DVDs or Blu-ray delivery by mail to your account, starting at $8 per month.
For the Current Season TV Fanatic: Hulu Plus ($8/month)
Priced the same as Netflix, Hulu Plus offers thousands of hours of movies and television as well, but focuses more on TV than film. The major advantage it has over Netflix is its access to the current episodes of this season of television. While Netflix usually gets TV seasons just before or right as the new season begins, Hulu has deals with most of the major TV networks to host current season episodes. If you don’t have a DVR or don’t want to pay for cable, Hulu Plus is a great way to go. It also has tons of movies, including an exclusive partnership with the Criterion Collection, which is a big perk for classic film fans. Hulu Plus also has apps on most major streaming devices, which means you probably won’t be limited by your current device of choice. The major downside to Hulu Plus is the inclusion of ads. Sure, you watch ads when you watch live TV, but it’s still annoying to sit through ads when binge watching a TV season. (Netflix doesn’t have any ads in its programming.)
For the Media Junkie: iTunes
iTunes will let you download or buy just about any book, song, movie, TV show, podcast… whatever you want. You can coast on the free content available to you and probably be entertained for the rest of your life. But if you want a new episode of a TV show ($2-$3), a new movie rental ($7+), a new movie download (prices vary), a new album or song, iTunes probably has it. In terms of streaming, the Apple TV is iTunes’ best buddy (of course). Everything works seamlessly over the network. But the downside to iTunes streaming is that you can’t do it on other devices nearly as easily, if at all. It’s not like Netflix or Hulu where every device comes with an app – it’s essentially Apple TV or bust. It’s got the most stuff available to you, but it stays contained in an Apple environment. Caveat emptor.
For the Trend-Setting Cord-Cutter: Aereo ($1/day or $8-12/month or $80/year)
Aereo is the newest entry to the streaming service world, and if it survives all of the litigation against it, it's going to be a huge game changer. Currently available only in and around New York City (with Boston getting the service in the middle of May), Aereo is a streaming service for your computer that lets you watch live TV and acts as an online DVR. For $1, you get access to the full Aereo service for one day and 10 days to watch any TV you recorded that day. For $8 or $12 a month, you get full access to the service and DVR space for 20 hours ($8) or 40 hours ($12). You’re able to watch live TV on your computer or mobile device without paying a company like Comcast or Time Warner a monthly fee. While a judge recently ruled that Aereo doesn’t break copyright law, News Corp. is none too happy and has threatened to pull its channels from network television. It’s unclear how this will all play out, but Aereo is definitely a service worth keeping your eye on.
For the Person Who Sees Streaming Service as a Nice Afterthought: Amazon Prime ($79/year)
The Amazon Prime Instant Video catalog is rapidly growing – inking deals with networks frequently in recent months, like one with FX to own exclusive rights to shows like Justified and The Shield (giving Walton Goggins fans one-stop shopping for streaming) – but the service has not ascended to the level of Netflix or Hulu just yet. Amazon is also digging into its own original programming, with the crown jewel right now looking like a TV series based on the film Zombieland, but has yet to have any of these shows come out. Prime is also found on many streaming devices, though not all, but also encounters weird limitations; for whatever reason, streaming on the Xbox 360 is limited to Stereo and doesn’t currently support 5.1 surround, even though it does on the PlayStation 3. The biggest reason to get Prime is its features that have nothing to do with streaming – free two-day shipping on any item sold by Amazon, discounted overnight shipping rates and even free monthly book rentals from the Amazon Prime Lending Library. Those sort of features are truly and uniquely Amazon, so if you want access to a pretty good streaming library but also want your online shopping dollar to go further, Amazon Prime may be for you.
For the “Best of Both the Digital and Physical Media” Person: Redbox Instant by Verizon ($8/month)
One of the newer services in the streaming market, Redbox Instant offers four physical DVD rentals from any of its kiosks as well as unlimited streaming for the same price that Netflix and Hulu just offer streaming. Redbox Instant is great for those of us who want new releases when they’re first available to rent, rather than waiting months for a service like Netflix to pick them up. As a new service, though, most of the titles you’ll find on Redbox Instant can be found on other services. The other downside is that the service isn’t supported on too many platforms. While new platforms are being added all the time, it’s currently only available to stream on your computer, phone and tablet. No video game consoles, no standalone boxes. The biggest perk ... those four DVD rentals per month -- but it’s tough to stack this up against the bigger dogs in the streaming market.
So there you have it, my top streaming service picks. What is the best streaming device? That's easy ... it's the one you have access to when you feel like streaming something.