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 cheaper than Netflix over the course of a year. The streaming-only Netflix service runs $7.99 per month — which comes out to $95.88 a year — while Amazon Prime will set you back $79 per year.
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").
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 does not currently have any original programming, although it is working on a number of shows, the first of which will debut later this month.
Winner: Netflix. Although Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video both have big, varied selections with some glaring omissions, Netflix's original programming gives it a moderate edge.
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 recently implemented 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.
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.
Netflix provided strong apps across the board, including support for both Apple TV and Chromecast. However, it is worth pointing out that even though the feature has been available on computers and game consoles for months, support for individual user accounts are still not available for its Android apps. (iOS apps recently received support for this feature.) Netflix has previously hinted that individual user profiles on Android will be available sometime in 2014.
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.
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.