A couple of recent customer-service snafus by Netflix pushed many users to look for an alternative way to enjoy video services. First Netflix hiked its prices by 60 percent, and later it split its services into two different companies.
Of course, most people have been using Netflix exclusively for a long time, and don’t know anything about the alternatives. Who can tell me the difference between Blockbuster On Demand and iTunes rentals?
In an effort to find the next big Netflix replacement, I compared four different for-pay video streaming and rental services–Hulu Plus, Blockbuster On Demand, iTunes rentals, and Amazon Prime, as well as taking a hard look at the current state of Netflix. I tested each service for price, video quality, movie selection, and ease of use, to see if any of the alternatives makes a good Netflix replacement.
Here’s what I found.
Selection: Older movies, TV shows, documentaries
Notable titles: The Last Airbender, Apocalypto, Gangs of New York, Iron Man 2
Notably missing titles: Thor, Bridesmaids, all recent releases
Supported platforms: Android devices, connected Blu-ray players, connected HDTVs, iOS devices, Macs, Nintendo Wii, PCs, PlayStation 3, Roku, TiVo, WD TV, Windows Phone 7 devices, Xbox
Netflix may have more than 20,000 titles available for on-demand streaming, but surprisingly few of these titles are worth watching. Missing titles include all recent releases and most popular films of the past few years. On top of that, Starz Play, which provides most of the more recent hits for Netflix (current titles include Prince of Persia, Tangled, Alice in Wonderland, and Toy Story 3), has said that it will cut ties with Netflix next February.
Netflix’s streaming quality is okay but you may occasionally run into problems, depending on server traffic. For example, when a Netflix video starts streaming, the first few seconds are often blocky and of very low quality. However, this problem usually resolves itself quickly.
In my Netflix test, I watched the movie Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. The quality was what you’d expect of a DVD–Netflix offers HD streaming for only a handful of titles. In your Netflix account menu, you can adjust video quality, but your choices are ‘Good’, ‘Better’, and ‘Best’ quality, not specific resolutions. Best quality translates into “up to 1GB per hour, or up to 2.3GB per hour for HD.”
Prince of Persia‘s video quality was fine overall, though action scenes were sometimes blurry and dark scenes sometimes showed artifacting or blockiness. Though it had faults, the streamed movie wasn’t unwatchable.
Netflix’s in-browser interface is very simple. It allows you to view videos with closed captions, as well as in full-screen mode.
Ease of Use
Netflix’s interface is probably the easiest to use of the five services I looked at for this story, and its unique rating system means that you’ll always find a fresh supply of suggestions to consult.
After you watch a film, Netflix prompts you to give it a star rating. Once you’ve awarded ratings to enough films (you can rate them without having watched them on Netflix), Netflix will start spitting out recommendations–including genres (on your main screen, you’ll see lists of the genres you seem to like) and individual titles based on your favorite films.
The Netflix search box lets you search for titles, genres, actors, and directors, and you can browse by genre.
Selection: Mostly prime-time TV hits and older movies
Notable titles: The Office, 30 Rock, Saturday Night Live, Pulp Fiction, Good Will Hunting
Notably missing titles: Tangled, Braveheart, most popular movies
Supported platforms: Android devices, connected HDTVs, iOS devices, Macs, PCs, PlayStation 3, Roku, TiVo, WD TV
Hulu Plus’s content selection is limited, unless you’re a big fan of TV. Most of its popular content is limited to the latest prime-time hits, such as Glee, The Office, The Colbert Report, Family Guy, and Modern Family. Most of the videos in the movie section are older or documentaries or both–such as Kennedys Don’t Cry (1975).
Hulu Plus is slowly accumulating more popular films, such as Good Will Hunting (1998) and Pulp Fiction (1994), but its strength remains in TV. Many of Hulu Plus’s TV shows are available just one day after they air–including Fox shows like Terra Nova and House M.D. Over the summer, Fox decided to delay free streaming of its shows for eight days, but Hulu Plus members can see shows one day after they air.
Hulu Plus has had some of the most consistently excellent streaming quality I’ve seen, but it still has problems.
In my Hulu Plus test, I watched several episodes of the NBC sitcom The Office. The first problem I encountered: commercials. Before my show even began, I had to sit through a 40-second Norton AntiVirus commercial, and over the course of each 22-minute episode I had to endure three more commercials, ranging in length from 30 seconds to 1 minute. No other streaming service forces paying customers to sit through ads.
Hulu offers multiple streaming options on the PC: You can watch in 720p HD, 480p, 360p, or even 288p (in case you have a slow connection). You can also turn closed captions on and off from inside the window, pop the video out into its own window, “dim the lights” (dims the Hulu interface in the window so that the video is more visible), and watch in full-screen mode.
Streaming quality was crisp, clear, and very smooth in all modes except full-screen mode. After about 40 minutes of straight streaming in full-screen mode, the video stream began “skipping,” for lack of a better word: Near the top of the screen, the video displayed artifacts–colorful blocky patterns–and the picture jumped back and forth between two frames until I manually skipped to another point in the video. This happened twice in a 90-minute period of streaming tests.
Ease of Use
Hulu Plus’s interface is easy to use. Once you’ve logged into the site, you can browse TV shows and movies, or you can search for a specific title using the search box. The search box auto-completes searches for you; and if the content you specify is a TV show, you can either go to the show’s main page or jump directly to the latest episode.
Hulu also lets you add shows to your Favorites list, so the service will notify you when one of your favorite shows has a new episode or clip available for viewing.
Next: Blockbuster On Demand, iTunes Rentals