By Jay Garmon
Netflix or Hulu? Amazon or iTunes? Which online video service offers the best combination of video quality, selection and price to command your loyalty for (legally) watching movies and television shows on your computer? We break it down in this buyers guide.
In each of the following categories, the contending software applications will be graded as the overall Winner, Pass, or Fail. A rank of Winner will confer two points, a rank of Pass will confer one point, and rank of Fail will confer zero points. The overall points-winner will be crowned as Editor’s Choice for 2009 Online Video Service from NotebookReview.com.
Winner: Netflix Watch Instantly — In general, you can watch Netflix video from any mainstream browser so long as your PC has a broadband Internet connection, a 1.2 GHz processor, 512 MB of RAM, and Windows Media Player 11. That’s the lowest bar to cross for any of the services, and one that even a few netbooks could muster over.
Pass: Amazon, Hulu, iTunes — Worst case scenario, if you have a DirectX 9-compatible video card with 64 MB of memory, 512 MB of RAM, and a 2 GHz processor, you can watch online video without reservation. To consume the high-definition content, you may need a gigabyte of RAM, but even that’s hardly an outlandish requirement on modern PCs.
Fail: Nobody — Each of these services has reasonable systems requirements, unless you’ve got a somewhat aged machine or you’re trying to view on a netbook.
Winner: iTunes Video — iTunes is the only service to offer something close to true high-definition content. Granted, you’ll be downloading multi-gigabyte movie files to enjoy this quality, and there’s no real way to directly stream the content, but the picture you get in exchange for this sacrifice is top-notch.
Pass: Hulu — Hulu has a limited selection of 720p content, but most of their library is available in at least 480p resolution. Solid, if not spectacular.
Fail: Amazon, Netflix — Amazon and Netflix both fail here because they let somebody else handle their video compression, which means far too much of their streaming content suffers from compression artifacts. Unless you like darker scenes to flicker and pixelate, this is a problem.
Winner: Hulu — It’s free. Completely. This may change in the future, but as of now, you can’t beat it.
Pass: Netflix — Netflix offers a number of monthly subscription levels, most of which provide all-you-can-watch streaming video options. For the avid video viewer, this is the smartest buy for content you actually pay for.
Fail: Amazon, iTunes — Both these services charge on a per-download basis, though iTunes does bundle some television seasons into bulk purchases, and occasionally offer free movies and shows. Overall, you’re not getting any break from the prices you’d pay at the corner rental shop.
Winner: Amazon Video On Demand — This one was close, but Amazon’s multitude of relationships with movie studios and distributors gives it far more content than Netflix, and slightly more than iTunes. (Exact selection figures are hard to come by, mostly because none of the services are eager to divulge them.) No service competes with the selection available from traditional DVDs, but Amazon comes closest.
Pass: iTunes, Netflix — iTunes has a near-Amazon level of titles to choose from and really excels with current television shows. Netflix is constantly improving and isn’t that far behind. Unless you are looking for a cult title, both services probably have what you’re looking for.
Fail: Hulu — If it’s not a recently aired major network television episode, it’s not on Hulu. It’s a great service for catching up on what you recently missed, but you won’t do any serious movie-watching here.
Winner: iTunes Video — iTunes wins out here both for the quality of its interface and for its nascent Home Sharing feature, which lets you stream iTunes content between two PCs on the same network. Home Sharing still has some bugs and limitations, but the basic feature set is there, and iTunes otherwise has the richest, most DVD-like interface and control set of any of the services.
Pass: Hulu, Amazon, Netflix — Amazon has an Unbox player that lets you view purchased movies offline. Hulu has a very solid desktop app that accommodates HD content. Netflix streams to Roku set-top boxes and to your Xbox 360. None of them have an interface that will get in the way of solid viewing. It’s simply a matter of which features appeal to you most.
Fail: Nobody — Every service has some nice value-adds that make it unique, and none of them are missing the basics.
All of these services are still in their infancy, but iTunes has the most polish — as you’d expect from an Apple product. The iTunes 9 software, with its Home Sharing feature, is robust but you’ll need a slightly more modern PC to take advantage of those features. You’ll also pay the most for iTunes content, but you generally get the most high-quality video experience for your money. The most economical choice remains Netflix, but they just can’t compete with iTunes interface or HD playback. Hulu remains a tide-you-over service where you can watch free (but commercial-ridden) TV shows while you wait for them to appear on DVD or on one of the other full-featured video services.
For my money, I recommend iTunes.