Yesterday, Amazon announced that it struck a deal that would allow Prime members to stream a number of popular HBO programs. It’s great news for many: Amazon Instant Video beat its competitors to become the first online-only streaming site to get HBO programs, HBO got to stick it to Netflix, Prime members get a plethora of new (and great!) shows to watch, and those who love to incessantly talk about The Wire can now seamlessly work the show into any conversation tangentially related to Amazon.com.
This deal is also significant on a larger scale because it gives Amazon a huge push forward in the ongoing race between the three big streaming sites: Amazon Instant Video, Netflix, and Hulu. More and more people are “cutting the cord” and getting rid of their too expensive cable packages, opting instead to watch more television via the Internet, whether it’s using their computer to stream free episodes on networks’ official websites or, more often, by pairing subscriptions to at least one of these sites with a device, like Apple TV or Roku, that allows them to watch the shows on their TV set. Each of the three sites has its pros and cons, but which one is coming out on top? Well, it depends on what you’re looking for.
Hulu is the best when it comes to current programming and, in a way, it’s the most similar to cable. It’s still a little iffy because the timing of episode availability depends on the network. Popular NBC shows like About a Boy and Community are available the day after they air (and for free, too! You don’t even need Hulu Plus!), as are Comedy Central’s timely programs The Daily Show and Colbert Report (good luck with the rest of their shows, though). On the opposite end, a network like ABC is more restrictive: episodes of Scandal, Modern Family, etc. aren’t available for free until eight days after broadcast unless you sign up for Hulu Plus or connect with a cable subscription, which seems a bit silly if you’re trying to replace cable with Hulu.
If you’re going to use Hulu, I’d recommend paying up for Hulu Plus. At $7.99/month, it’s definitely cheaper than cable (although it’s obnoxious that you still have to sit through annoying advertisements), and of the three, it’s the best way to stay up to date on your favorite shows. Sure, you may want to avoid Twitter on the nights Scandal airs, but at least the episode will be available by breakfast time the next morning. I basically use Hulu the same way I use my DVR.
As much as I enjoy Hulu Plus, mostly because of its collection of older, forgotten, and fun to hate-watch sitcoms, it doesn’t really have a dog in this fight. It is, without a doubt, the best for current-season episodes but has the fewest selection (and, if you fall asleep watching it, it will just autoplay random programs until you wake up and realize Dads has been on for an hour). That leaves Netflix and Amazon. I use and love both — and together, their selections provide me with enough television to watch until my eyes fall out — but there are a few slight differences. Netflix has the better interface and allows separate profiles for separate users in the same account (on Amazon, everyone can immediately see that my “Watchlist” features iCarly), as well as a better search function. But Amazon does have a ton of different categories that are fun to browse through because you’ll always discover something great.
The prices are about the same — $7.99/month for Netflix, though that’s likely to increase soon, and a $99/year price for Amazon that averages out to just $8.25 a month — but whereas Netflix just includes video streaming, Amazon’s price includes streaming, a digital lending library, and free two-day shipping. Netflix might be my first love, but Amazon is luring me away by appealing to my love of free e-books and habit of impulsively buying pointless things because, hey, free shipping! Either way, all are incredibly cheap in comparison to cable. My current cable/Internet package — which doesn’t feature HBO or Showtime or even channels like IFC or Game Show Network (the latter is particularly heartbreaking for me) — costs more monthly than paying for both Netflix and Amazon subscriptions, and that’s even after being split between three roommates.
What about selection? Neither site is very current, featuring a mix of older seasons of currently airing shows (Netflix: Bob’s Burgers, Parks and Recreation; Amazon: Inside Amy Schumer, Hannibal) and classics (Netflix has every episode of Cheers and Amazon loves its ’90s Nickelodeon), though you can purchase individual episodes on Amazon, similar to iTunes. Both sites seem to just be a way to encourage our binge-watching habits, but they come in handy if you need to, say, watch all of Louie before next month’s premiere (Netflix) or find out why the Internet can’t stop yelling about Orphan Black (Amazon).
When it comes to the top shows on television, Netflix has definitely come out on top — last month, Lifehacker did a comparison of popular programs and site availability — but Amazon’s HBO deal gave it a much-needed push. If you’re like me, then you’ve already seen Breaking Bad and have no desire to re-watch How I Met Your Mother, so your Netflix account has been collecting dust. And if you’re like me, you could watch Enlightened a million times and, fine, will finally sit down and watch The Wire, so Amazon is looking pretty damn beautiful right about now. There is a caveat, though: the current deal leaves out newer programs such as HBO Go-crashing titans Game of Thrones and True Detective and those with syndication deals (no Entourage! What a shame!), so you’ll still need a subscription for those.
So, what’s your best bet? Netflix is still better overall and shows no signs of slowing down, but it might be time to give Amazon Instant Video a shot. It has been wrangling exclusive deals left and right and has been beefing up its own original programming. Netflix is still king of that, too, because Amazon’s Alpha House and Betas went ignored, but Amazon’s upcoming slate — particularly Transparent and The After — could very well surpass House of Cards when it comes to Internet buzz.
Personally, I’m leaning more and more toward Amazon Instant Video, but I’ve yet to cut ties with Netflix. It’s tough! I vote for both because it’s worth it (and inexpensive). The best thing about Netflix vs. Amazon is that their competition makes obsessive TV watchers the real winners. But if you have to choose, here’s my suggestion: Keep Netflix through mid-June, give yourself enough time to marathon the new season of Orange Is The New Black at least twice, and then make the switch to Amazon, where HBO will welcome you with open arms.
Or, you know, just keep borrowing your roommate’s login.