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Netflix vs. Amazon Prime Instant Video: Face-Off

By - Source: Tom's Guide US | B 23 comments

Amazon Prime Instant Video may not have the same kind of household cachet as streaming services like Netflix or Hulu Plus, but it's been growing in popularity over the last few years. Tom's Guide put Amazon's video service head-to-head with Netflix to see how it stacks up.

The good news is that Prime Instant Video is a worthy contender in the growing field of streaming video services. It's affordable, functional and chock full of content. The bad news is that it still lags behind Netflix in three of the four key areas that count: content, image quality, interface and apps.

One important thing to remember about Amazon Prime Instant Video is that the service does not exist in a vacuum: If you subscribe to Amazon Prime, you will also get free two-day shipping on all Amazon orders, as well as hundreds of thousands of Kindle titles that you can borrow for free (at a rate of one book per month, to be fair).

Amazon Prime is also slightly less expensive than Netflix over the course of a year. The streaming-only Netflix service runs $8.99 per month — which comes out to $107.88 a year — while Amazon Prime will set you back $99 per year.

Content

A streaming video service lives or dies by its content selection, and in this respect, both services have a lot to offer. Each one has an impressive selection of movies — both new and classic — and TV shows ranging from epic sci-fi serials ("Star Trek," "Battlestar Galactica") to recent sitcoms ("How I Met Your Mother," "30 Rock").

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Amazon informed Tom's Guide that it hosts more than 40,000 streaming movies and TV shows. Netflix declined to provide exact numbers.

To spot-check the TV content available on each service, we used Nielsen's top 10 guide, which highlights the most popular prime-time TV programs across both network and cable TV in any given week. After eliminating sports, news and one-time specials, we were left with "NCIS," "The Big Bang Theory," "Dancing with the Stars," "Person of Interest," "The Walking Dead" and "Duck Dynasty."

In this test, both services left much to be desired: Netflix had the first three seasons of "The Walking Dead" available, while Amazon had only the first season of "Duck Dynasty." Keep in mind, however, that both services are generally better known for streaming shows that are a few years old. Neither service hosted any of the other shows.

Neither service has any of Nielsen's top 10 recently released movies (based on DVD and Blu-ray sales and rentals) yet.

One area where Netflix excels, though, is in original programming. Netflix has produced a number of original series that it now hosts exclusively, such as the American remake of "House of Cards," starring Kevin Spacey, and the fourth season of quirky sitcom "Arrested Development."

Amazon Prime Instant Video currently has two original shows in its roster: "Alpha House" and "Betas," both serial comedies. Amazon also polled its users to let them decide four of its next original shows. Viewers chose post-apocalyptic drama "The After," family comedy "Transparent," music-heavy drama "Mozart in the Jungle" and police drama "Bosch." The service also offers five original programs for kids.

In terms of licensed content, Amazon Prime Instant Video has two notable exclusives: HBO shows and the hit BBC drama "Orphan Black." Old HBO shows, such as "The Sopranos" and "The Wire" will be available on the service soon, and it's the only place with legal unlimited streaming of "Orphan Black" in the United States. These do not give Amazon a significant edge, however, as the HBO shows have yet to arrive, and "Orphan Black" is only one ten-episode season.

Winner: Netflix. Although Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video both have big, varied selections with some glaring omissions, Netflix still offers a better range of shows with a more developed original content strategy.

Features Compared: Amazon Prime Instant Video vs Netflix

Interface


Although the exact selections differ between the two services, the most noticeable disparity is in how Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video present their content. Netflix makes it much easier both to find what you're looking for and to find new content that may not have been on your radar.

Netflix has a plethora of categories, ranging from general — shows and movies specifically recommended for your tastes — to the freakishly specific, such as "Exciting Revenge Action Sci-Fi & Fantasy." It's also extremely easy to find new content, recently added content and content that's popular with large numbers of users on Facebook.

Netflix also has the ability to host multiple user profiles on a single account. This means that if you enjoy watching "Star Trek" and your sister can't get enough of "Say Yes to the Dress,"  you can keep your preferences separate. Amazon Prime Instant Video has no immediate plans for such a feature, meaning your recommendations can become jumbled if you share your account with someone.

Amazon Prime Instant Video also offers a ton of categories. Whether you're in the mood for something broad like "Action/Adventure" or "Teen," or something specific like "Mafia" or "Vampire," you can probably find something to suit your tastes.

The biggest problem with Amazon Prime Instant Video is that, save for a small "Prime" logo on certain videos, it does not, by default, draw a distinction between content that you can stream for free and content that costs additional money. If you search for "X-Men," for example, you will find both the "X-Men: Evolution" animated series, which is free with a Prime account, and "X-Men: The Last Stand," the 2006 movie that costs $6.99 to buy or $2.99 rent.

Matters get even more confusing with series that are only partially available for Prime streaming. Going back to the "X-Men" example, only the first two seasons are included in Prime. You'll have to pay out-of-pocket for seasons three, four and five, which is a cruel revelation if you've already worked your way through the first two seasons.

Winner: Netflix. Netflix offers more categories and more straightforward search results.

Video quality

The video quality on Amazon Prime Instant Video and Netflix is very similar. Each video streams at a minimum of 480p (although some older shows are upscaled to this standard). Modern TV shows and movies stream at 1080p by default, as long as your connection is fast enough (at least 4 MB/s) and your TV supports that resolution. Otherwise, it will automatically get the highest quality possible for your setup.

Winner: Tie. Under ideal circumstances, both services stream consistent 1080p video.

Online video app availability

In terms of free apps for game consoles, mobile devices and set-top boxes, Netflix once again has the advantage.

The main problem with the Amazon Prime Instant Video app is the dearth of platforms for which it is available. You can get an app for your iOS device as well as for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Roku. However, unless you have a Kindle Fire tablet, you cannot get the service on an Android device. It is currently also unavailable for both Apple TV and Chromecast, and neither Apple nor Google has indicated any plans to add it.

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Netflix provided strong apps across the board, including support for both Apple TV and Chromecast.

Winner: Netflix. Netflix's apps are not perfect, but Amazon Prime Instant Video's lack of apps for Apple TV, Chromecast and the vast majority of Android devices puts it at a distant second.

Overall

There are no two ways about it: At present, Netflix provides superior streaming video service across the board. While you can get a number of shows on Amazon Prime Instant Video that you can't get elsewhere, the service's bare-bones presentation and limited app support make it tougher to recommend.

Amazon Prime Instant Video is not a bad service by any means, and might be worth it in conjunction with its other benefits. But if you want a great interface, a variety of original programming and an app for almost every platform, Netflix is the way to go.

Follow Marshall Honorof @marshallhonorof and on Google+. Follow us @tomsguide, on Facebook and on Google+.

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  • 2 Hide
    azgard , November 11, 2013 5:22 AM
    A real analysis of video quality would be nice not all '1080p' is created equal and 1080p doesn't mean full resolution. Not too uncommon to crop video into a 1440x1080 stream and still try to call that HD on top of massive compression which can compromise video quality.
  • 1 Hide
    egilbe , November 11, 2013 5:27 AM
    I have both, Amazon at least gives me the option to purchase an episode I want to watch that is not on Netflix and I'm a student so I get a student Prime discount, plus shipping. There are benefits to having both services.
  • -1 Hide
    batkerson , November 11, 2013 5:42 AM
    I have both Amazon Prime and Netflix, and have for some time. One thing not taken into consideration by the review is that extremely frustrating fact that movies and shows on Amazon Prime "move" between being "free" streaming content and paid content. In other words, if I put a Prime movie on my watchlist (a list of movies to see later), it may change from free to paid. This is extremely frustrating. I've often wondered if Amazon deliberately does this in the hopes that people will later in advertently pay for something that was previously available for free. I personally have not experienced this on Netflix. That said, Amazon is more likely to have popular recent movies for free, at least free for awhile; e.g., "Cabin in the Woods" and "Hunger Games" which were both available fairly quickly after their theater runs. Personally, I would not want to be without either. However, if I have a choice, meaning a movie/show is on both, I tend to prefer Netflix, bot for image quality, interface, and availability on different platforms. My 2 cents.
  • Display all 23 comments.
  • 0 Hide
    ddpruitt , November 11, 2013 5:44 AM
    I have both and there are some seriously glaring omissions here.

    1) Amazon Prime is available for half the price in a lot of circumstances
    2) Amazon Prime has a wider selection of older shows
    3) Amazon allows you to rent the "top 10" movies, Prime not required (as an aside it's clear which shows are free, someone clearly hasn't used prime all that much)
    4) Amazon Prime will seamlessly switch to different bitrates, Netflix doesn't. This can be useful if someone starts a long download in the middle of a movie
    5) Amazon Prime also has a separate HD option that's a noticeably better quality

    I agree that overall Netflix is a better choice but I would have liked to see an actual face-off versus someone just covering the bullet points from marketing. It would also be nice to compare these to Hulu, although I understand why it wasn't done. In the end just get both. $176 for a year of TV, I know people with cable that pay more in a month. Plus you get free Amazon shipping, the hassle it saves for Christmas more than makes up for the cost :) 
  • 1 Hide
    kawininjazx , November 11, 2013 6:09 AM
    That feeling you get when you buy a season on Amazon and it's on Netflix the next week...
  • 2 Hide
    teh_chem , November 11, 2013 6:51 AM
    I didn't catch it in the article (maybe I didn't read closely enough), but Amazon Prime only streams HD to a short list of approved devices, standard computers not being one of those platforms. I.e., if you have a HTPC in your living room that you use for your video playing and streaming, you're only going to get SD from Amazon (unless you couple your KFHD or some other hardware to your TV). I know this is because Amazon is going to start deploying a set-top box, and it's part of their strategy to advance their hardware. But the relevance is that Netflix doesn't care what you're using; they'll stream the highest definition allowed by their bandwidth analysis.

    I think Netflix is also more advanced in terms of pushing contextual content (some may disagree to its effectiveness). With Amazon, every time I go to check out their library, just looks like a bunch of crap thrown on the screen, with little sort of organization.

    The thing I absolutely detest with Amazon--and this isn't a case because Netflix doesn't offer it--is their DRM on purchased digital movies. It's awful; worse than other DRMs that have long since been abandoned. Of course, once their business goals are achieved, with Amazon hardware in the home, DRM 'won't matter' anymore since people will be watching on set-top boxes vs. their computers. But I will never buy another digital item from Amazon; I'll just pay to get the DVD or BluRay and rip it myself.
  • 0 Hide
    demonhorde665 , November 11, 2013 8:56 AM
    The_chem said
    "I didn't catch it in the article (maybe I didn't read closely enough), but Amazon Prime only streams HD to a short list of approved devices, standard computers not being one of those platforms. I.e., if you have a HTPC in your living room that you use for your video playing and streaming, you're only going to get SD from Amazon (unless you couple your KFHD or some other hardware to your TV). "

    actualy I found a loop hole around this. its windows 8. I bought a movie off amazon only to find out that it would not play in HD on my pc in fact it would not even show up in my win 8/xbox video library , so I went and downloaded it to my xbox. well after that it showed up in my widnows 8 video library as a HD movie and I can now watch the movie in HD on my PC. Screw you amazon for being a hassle !
  • 0 Hide
    demonhorde665 , November 11, 2013 8:56 AM
    The_chem said
    "I didn't catch it in the article (maybe I didn't read closely enough), but Amazon Prime only streams HD to a short list of approved devices, standard computers not being one of those platforms. I.e., if you have a HTPC in your living room that you use for your video playing and streaming, you're only going to get SD from Amazon (unless you couple your KFHD or some other hardware to your TV). "

    actualy I found a loop hole around this. its windows 8. I bought a movie off amazon only to find out that it would not play in HD on my pc in fact it would not even show up in my win 8/xbox video library , so I went and downloaded it to my xbox. well after that it showed up in my widnows 8 video library as a HD movie and I can now watch the movie in HD on my PC. Screw you amazon for being a hassle !
  • 0 Hide
    gidgiddonihah , November 11, 2013 9:18 AM
    Amazon's content usually isn't real 5.1. Its stereo that is formatted into Dobly Digital which puts an edge to Netflix. Plus Netflix's Super HD beats the crap out of anything Amazon has to offer though it still doesn't match Blu-ray.
  • 0 Hide
    Gerry Allen , November 11, 2013 10:02 AM
    We have both on our Roku and the Amazon interface is excellent -- easy to sort, easy to categorize and easy to see the video status. We also use the built-in app on our Samsung TV and it is also a breeze to use. Content is in the eye (and taste) of the viewer; for us, Amazon is far superior, especially since we despise Netflix original programming.
  • 0 Hide
    ipwn3r456 , November 11, 2013 12:25 PM
    "Modern TV shows and movies stream at 1080p by default, as long as your connection is fast enough (at least 4 MB/s)"

    Wait, what... 4MB/s or 4mbits? That's a huge difference there...
  • 0 Hide
    Fuse404 , November 11, 2013 5:17 PM
    You forgot to mention that "ideal circumstances" for Amazon are much more restrictive as they only offer full "HD" on some platforms. Even under ideal circumstances Netflix provides superior video quality and true surround sound. Amazon simply can't compete. I wouldn't even have an account if it weren't for them snatching up Stargate SG-1.
  • 0 Hide
    carollinemax , November 12, 2013 1:02 AM
    Well, I prefer Netflix. I always bought movies from it and convert them to Smart TV with aneesoft video converter. The quality of movies are nice.
  • 0 Hide
    deb08m , November 18, 2013 8:41 AM
    I just purchased a trial for Amazon Prime so I could watch shows and movies on my ipad mini. I downloaded the Amazon app and it was all good until I tried to watch something. A box popped up that said "Proxy detected". Your internet connection is currently using an HTT proxy, content playback is not supported when a proxy is configured. I chatted with Amazon help, and they said that it doesn't support DRM's...what ever that means, I am not up on that
  • 0 Hide
    Sasha-California , November 23, 2013 7:06 PM
    OMG! Amazon Prime!! Wins in my book.

    I've been a hulu subscriber and it's just okay. I've been a Netflix subscriber from before they could stream, but today, I look for two movies on the above to sites and either didn't have them or couldn't want instantly.

    THEN, I went to Amazon Prime and I can watch BOTH! Or, and this is the HUGE part, if I buy them then I can watch anytime I want for-ever! And never have to hold the actual dvd/movie/etc.

    My History. (Male 48 years old, California Native).
    The movie, Gumball Rally (1976).
    In my live I've owned this movie on lazer disk, on VHS and on DVD. Then, I sold it or lost it or something. I want to watch this moving over and over once every 5 years for ... the foreseeable future.

    Now, after 30 years, I can buy (one more time) on Amazon Prime, "The Gumball Rally" move and watch anytime and NEVER have to buy again.

    Netflix, Hulu and for that fact Apple's iTunes || you all LOST. Game Over.

    After I buy this movie I'm going to buy some Amazon stock and short NetFlix.

    To end my rant, I'm going to quote my all time favorite quote from the late Raul Julia (Gumball Rally, Adams Family Values, etc). "The first rule in Italian race driving: What's behind you is not important", as he rips off the rear view mirror in his Ferrari as the race start.

    Meaning, I will not be looking back at Netflix or Hulu again.

    Beep beep. Bye bye.

  • 0 Hide
    dgphotog , December 24, 2013 6:27 AM
    Nothing to do with video services, but a correction: Amazon Prime does not provide "free 2-day shipping on all Amazon orders," as the article states. It provides free 2-day shipping for items tagged as "Prime" which seems to be about 10% of all the items offered. When intending to order from them, I typically check the "Prime Only" box to restrict the search results. I've noticed sometimes (not always) that an identical item from the same supplier can be jacked up in price for the Primed version. So the shipping isn't actually free in those cases - even if promised faster.
  • 0 Hide
    dgphotog , December 24, 2013 6:40 AM
    Nothing to do with video services, but a correction: Amazon Prime does not provide "free 2-day shipping on all Amazon orders," as the article states. It provides free 2-day shipping for items tagged as "Prime" which seems to be about 10% of all the items offered. When intending to order from them, I typically check the "Prime Only" box to restrict the search results. I've noticed sometimes (not always) that an identical item from the same supplier can be jacked up in price for the Primed version. So the shipping isn't actually free in those cases - even if promised faster.
  • 1 Hide
    NetG , December 29, 2013 7:44 AM
    Amazon prime has one more latest season over netflix in the following; big bang, walking dead, and Dr who. Netflix is a season behind amazon on all of these...the had these in nov when this was written too. Considering that, amazon is blowing netflix out of the water. If you like old B movies then netflix wins...but I don't. I look at netflix selection see if they are improving, they aren't. The selection seems to worsen! So far they haven't done anything to even try to temp me back. Reducing and then finally removing my ONE dvd per month with my streaming nearly made me drop them...the lack of ANY new episodes was the final straw.
  • 0 Hide
    shetech55 , December 29, 2013 1:12 PM
    The Amazon Prime interface on the Vizio TV is less than acceptable. Very difficult to find what you are looking for and it does not come with the "watchlist" that you can view on the Samsung TV. When I view the Amazon Prime interface on the Samsung TV it is awesome. There is no consistency on the different TV devices. I plan on switching since Amazon doesn't appear to fix the interface problem anytime soon. It appears this is a known issue for a couple years and it still has not been fixed.
    I guess I should have purchased two Samsung TV's and not a Visio.....
  • 1 Hide
    SoggyPoptart , January 18, 2014 10:35 PM
    Netflix by far has the TV shows miles ahead of any service. Almost any kind of show other than my HBO shows which I have HBOGO for its there. So what if it's a season behind once the new season starts the previous one usual shows up so if you're behind Tivo the newest season and watch the old until you're current. As far as movies go stop complaining people. If you can't afford a $1.50 Bluray Redbox rental for the new releases even just waiting 28 days but can still buy your daily $5 Sbucks and 2 packs of smokes for over $15 then you really need to look at your life. Neflix has all the documentaries kids junk for those who need a babysitter in a age of continual non-parenting. Amazon, the kindle, the Prime video quality with lack of App saturation makes it the clear and obvious loser. Amazon is only good for buying items so stay out of the video business with you're junk Betas garbage that is not even worth mentioning with the greatness of House of Cards, Orange, Arrested Development. Easy decision people.
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