Netflix takes a lot of crap, but that’s expected when you’re a name that’s almost synonymous with streaming entertainment. The company’s reputation was built on more than a decade of providing the best DVD-rental-by-mail service ever—one that giants like Blockbuster and Walmart couldn’t even compete with. Now, Netflix is the biggest name there is in streaming media from Hollywood, be it movies or TV shows. According to Sandvine, at the end of 2012, Netflix was providing one-third of all the peak-time traffic on the Internet in the United States. That’s more than YouTube and BitTorrent traffic combined.
Of course, Netflix takes its hits because the streaming content it offers is notoriously mediocre. It’s certainly not as great as its selection of DVDs or Blu-ray discs and it’s always changing at the whims of Hollywood.
Perhaps you’re fed up with the changes or occasional Netflix outages or perhaps you don’t like its CEO, Reed Hastings. Maybe you don’t like the thought of Netflix getting Facebook sharing or that Netflix is trying to become its own network to battle HBO, with original shows like House of Cards (coming February 1) or new episodes of Arrested Development. Possibly, you don’t want to pay the very reasonable price of $7.99 per month to watch a massive selection of programming on just about any digital device you own without a single commercial interruption.
In that case, here’s a list of all the services you can use instead. Whether you’re streaming movies and shows to your computer, phone, or HDTV, or still renting discs, we’ve got a look at the alternatives to Netflix.
Amazon Prime/Amazon Instant Video
Platforms: Xbox, Wii U, Wii, PS3, iPad, Roku, Kindle Fire, Web browsers, Smart TVs, Blu-Ray players
Price: $79/year ($6.58/month) for Prime and/or individual prices for non-Prime video purchase/rental
Amazon really wants to take down Netflix. The biggest retailer of all offers two separate services: Instant Video for buying or renting a video for instant watching, and unlimited viewing of streaming films if you’re a member of an Amazon Prime account.
With Instant Video, for example, you can buy a film for $14.99 and always have access to it (in theory) or rent it for 24 hours starting at $2.99. This selection typically includes lots of new stuff and even next-day TV shows at $1.99. You can also get a season pass that saves five percent per episode. All of these go in your video library and you have an option to download to the Kindle Fire for offline viewing.
With an Amazon Prime membership, you get unlimited access to a large selection of films and TV, but nothing that’s brand-new. Still, Netflix’s ocean of content is certainly deeper. Then again, what you find may be totally different as Amazon and Netflix get different deals with the studios. Prime videos you want to watch go in a queue called Your Watchlist but the Watchlist can also contain videos you’d like to buy or rent.
Amazon might be the best option you have, especially when it comes to streaming a newly released movie. It’s not a huge savings compared to what you could save with a DVD subscription at Netflix, but then again, if you’re not judicious about watching and returning discs, you may be frittering away any potential savings at Netflix every month.
Platforms: Xbox, PS3, Wii U, Nintendo 3DS, iPad, iPhone, Android, Apple TV, Roku, TiVo Premiere, Kindle Fire, Nook, Web Browser (with Flash), Smart TVs, and Blu-Ray players (full list)
Price: $7.99/month (with advertising)
Hulu is a joint venture between some TV networks (Fox, ABC, NBC) and money men, all hoping to take control of how you watch shows once they get to the Web. Make the price affordable and the content plentiful, and everyone will come. Well, Hulu has the same problem Netflix does; a general dearth of content and what’s there is always shifting, usually at the discretion of the studios that actually own the shows. The networks can’t even get every single one of their shows on Hulu, let alone the entire backlog. Worse, you can’t skip the ads. You can’t even fast-forward through them, and sometimes the ads take longer to buffer than the shows. That said, this video-on-demand site has high quality and Hulu Plus is available on almost every device you can imagine. It’s still a cheap way to catch a lot of great shows the day after they air, plus you’ll find content from overseas and lots of other cable channels like Comedy Central (The Daily Show and Colbert), Syfy, Style, FX, and even PBS. There are also lots of movies, but nothing close to the selection you’ll find on Netflix.
Platforms: iOS, Android, Web browsers, Xbox, PS3, Nintendo Wii, Apple TV, TiVo, Kindle Fire, Nook
Of course you know about YouTube. But did you know you can watch some full-length films on the site? Well, you can, if you can find them. And the legality of seeing a film like The Last of the Mohicans with Daniel Day-Lewis on YouTube is dubious. You can still enjoy millions of hours of other content on the site, even if almost none of it is from a big-name studio or network.
Platforms: Download for MacOS and Windows (but videos can then be viewed on any iOS device, too)
Price: For movies, new releases are $19.99 in HD, $14.99 for SD; older films are $9.99 in HD, $3.99 for HD rental. TV shows are $2.99 per HD episode or $1.99 in S and up to $49.99 for season passes in HD.
iTunes is a player and iTunes is a store. Legendary as the downloadable software that incorporated the world’s biggest music store, iTunes has also long been a source for high-def 1080p movies and next-day TV shows. iTunes is not about streaming or subscribing, it’s about buying. Pricing sometimes seems completely out of whack, though; season nine of The Office is $39.99, but season five is $44.99. Thankfully, what you can shop for is about as thorough a catalog as you’ll ever find. You just have to be willing to pay plenty. These are the kind of à la carte prices that make you glad you have a cable box with 500 worthless channels.
Platforms: Xbox, PS3, Smart TVs, Blu-ray disk players, Roku, Android, iPad, desktop Web browser
Price: Movies are 99 cents to $5.99 to rent; $4.99 to $24.99 to purchase. TV shows are $2.99 HD/HDX and $1.99 SD to purchase; an entire season is $16.99 to $43.99.
Now owned by Walmart, Vudu first tried to take on Roku with a box of its own. It gave that up in favor of providing 1080p movies direct to as many devices as possible (and just recently it started offering 1080p on PCs), some of it even in 3D. One big selling point of Vudu is it promises to have videos ready to stream on the same day the film comes out on DVD, whereas Netflix waits 28 days to get DVDs, and sometimes a year or more to offer streaming. New TV shows pop up here as well. Whether you can buy or rent to watch it for 24 hours depends, as always, on the deal struck with the studios. Vudu created its own enhanced-definition format, HDX, so it can stuff 1080p quality movies with surround sound into 24 frames per second; it’s not quite Blu-ray quality, but close.
Vudu also works with the Ultraviolet video-anywhere platform for storing and playback. That means that if you buy a video from any source that supports Ultraviolet (including DVDs and Blu-ray discs) and store a copy in your Ultraviolet digital collection, you can play that video back from Vudu.
Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360, Google TV, Sony Blu-ray players, Roku, Bravia TVs, Nook, Windows Phone, Android, iOS devices, Web browsers (with Flash)
Price: Free (with commercials galore)
Crackle is owned by Sony, so don’t be surprised to see a particular bend toward Sony properties, both in the products it can be streamed on and the videos offered on Crackle. (Sony has its own Hollywood studios.) The site has expanded to produce and distribute originals—some have come and gone, like Trenches, but new shows are on the way, including one called Chosen staring Milo Ventimiglia from Heroes. We’re not talking the quality of HBO here, or even that of the big-name titles coming soon from Netflix, but original content is still nice to have. That’s especially because Crackle, while free, has an extremely limited selection, even if they are uncut (as in uncensored). But it’s natural of Sony—the company that created the Memory Stick—to try and go it alone rather than partner with services like Hulu.
Platforms: Android, iOS, Kindle Fire, Roku, Xbox 360, Google TV, Blackberry Playbook, Web browser
Price: Free if you subscribe to the cable channel
Epix is a hybrid premium cable channel (like HBO or Showtime) that also has a video-on-demand service at www.epixhd.com. Since it’s owned by Viacom (Paramount), MGM, and Lions Gate, naturally the content involved comes from them (all movies, many of the direct-to-video-kind, with no TV shows). Unfortunately, even if you have a device that can stream movies and shows from Epix, you can’t get access unless you already pay for the premium cable channel, which isn’t even available on all cable systems (sorry Cablevision, DirecTV, and Time Warner customers), but anyone can try the free 14-day trial.
Platforms: Android devices, Kindle Fire, Nook, Google Chrome Web browser
Price: Movies are $2.99 to $19.99 to own, $1.99 to $3.99 to rent TV shows are $1.99 per episode; $14.99 to $38.99 per season.
The Android market has changed a lot, especially in how it provides video programming in the Google Play Movies & TV channel. No matter what your Google-based handheld platform, you’ll need to download a player to get to the content or watch it in the browser. Of course, what’s available depends on the deals. Nevertheless, it’s a good service to have on hand to fill in the occasional gaps in viewing.
Platforms: HDTVs, Blu-ray players, Web browsers, Xbox 360, PS3, Android, iOS devices
Price: Movies are up to $19.99 to buy and up to $4.99 to rent. TV shows per episode can be up to $2.99 to buy in HD, $1.99 in SD.
Plugging away since the early aughts, CinemaNow relaunched a couple of years ago after BestBuy bought it. While better than ever, it still doesn’t have anything that really makes it stand out against the competition. It does have the unique distinction of offering some HBO shows, something usually you can only get online with the HBO GO app (usable only by HBO cable subscribers), including Enlightened, Girls, and all six seasons of The Sopranos, plus up-to-date seasons of great shows from FX and AMC. The film selection is pretty standard and it’s annoying when a half-hour comedy costs as much as a one-hour drama, but that’s how CinemaNow seems to price TV shows. You can’t subscribe to a season to get a discount, either.
Blockbuster On Demand
Platforms: Samsung TVs, Blu-ray players, and home theaters; select Android phones; Web browsers
Price: Rentals range from $1.99 to $4.99; on-demand purchases from $7.99 to $21.99
Blockbuster barely seems like it’s trying to take on its old rival Netflix with this paltry selection of devices it supports. (No viewing video on iOS devices? Really? Really. The iPhone app is only for changing your queue.) On Demand is not part of the Blockbuster By Mail service, which directly takes on Netflix in the DVDs-by-mail arena; it’s a separate cost per rental or purchase, not a subscription like Netlfix offers for streaming. You only pay for what you rent, but here’s a deal-killer: it appears no TV shows are available for streaming from Blockbuster On Demand, at all.
By Eric Griffith, PCMag