What Is Amazon Prime?

Amazon Prime is a membership program that gives customers access to streaming video, music, e-books, free shipping and a variety of other Amazon-specific services and deals. Amazon Prime is a no-brainer for those heavily invested in the Amazon ecosystem, but others should read through the perks before deciding to spend $100 on it.

That said, there's no better time of year than right now to sign up. Starting a 30-day free trial gives you early access to Amazon's Black Friday deals, plus free two-day shipping on gifts from now through the holidays.

Q.: What is Amazon Prime?

A.: Amazon Prime is a paid service ($99 per year, plus a free 30-day trial) that gives Amazon shoppers a few distinct advantages. Members of Amazon Prime are eligible for free one- or two-day shipping on most items, among several other perks.

  • Free two-day shipping on eligible items to addresses in the contiguous U.S. and other shipping benefits. For more information, go to Amazon Prime Shipping Benefits.
  • Free same-day delivery in eligible ZIP codes. For more information, go to Order with Prime Free Same-Day Delivery.
  • Prime Instant Video: Unlimited streaming of movies and TV episodes for paid or free trial members in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. For more information, go to About Prime Instant Video.
  • Prime Music: Unlimited, ad-free access to hundreds of Prime Playlists and more than a million songs for members in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. For more information, go to About Prime Music.
  • Prime Photos: Secure unlimited photo storage in Amazon Cloud Drive. For more information, go to About Prime Photos.
  • Prime Pantry: Access to Prime Pantry, where members can purchase and ship to addresses in the contiguous U.S. low-priced grocery, household and pet care items for a flat delivery fee of $5.99 for each Prime Pantry box. Prime Pantry orders cannot be shipped to addresses in Alaska, Hawaii or Puerto Rico.
  • Amazon Elements: Access to Amazon Elements products, Amazon's own line of everyday essentials.
  • Prime Early Access: Get 30-minute early access to Lightning Deals on Amazon.com and new events on MyHabit.com. For more information, go to About Prime Early Access.
  • Kindle Owners' Lending Library: Accessible to members in the U.S. For more information, go to Kindle Owners' Lending Library.
  • Kindle First: Early access for members in the U.S. to download a new book for free every month from the Kindle First picks. For more information, go to Kindle First.
  • Deals and Discounts, Compliments of Amazon Mom: These include 20 percent off diapers through Subscribe & Save and 15 percent off eligible products from your baby registry. For more information, go to Get 20% off Diaper Subscriptions or About the Completion Discount.
  • Membership Sharing: Two adults living in the same household can create an Amazon Household to share certain Amazon Prime benefits. For more information, go to About Amazon Households.

It's worth noting that if you opt for free, no-rush shipping (which can take five to seven days), you can earn money toward music, video and e-book purchases. Also, if a Prime-eligible package arrives after the two-day shipping guarantee, Amazon will extend your Prime membership for a month.

Q.: How much does Amazon Prime cost?

A.: The membership fee for Amazon Prime is $99 per year. The first 30 days are free, and you can cancel anytime. Unlike with most other streaming services, you can't pay for Amazon Prime on a month-to-month basis.

Students can get a price break, however. An Amazon Student account is granted some of the Prime benefits, but it's free for the first six months. After that, you will need to subscribe to Prime, but at a 50 percent discount. During the six-month trial, students can get free shipping but will not be able to access streaming video and music, or borrow Kindle books. However, they will receive full Prime benefits if they choose to subscribe at the discounted price afterward.

Customers in Arizona, California, Florida, Kentucky, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia and Wisconsin will have to pay sales tax on the membership.

Q.: What are Amazon Households?

A.: Amazon Households allow two adults and up to four children to share digital Amazon content. Two adults in the same household can share a number of Amazon Prime benefits, including two-day shipping, streaming video and access to the Kindle Lending Library. To add yourself to — or remove yourself from — a household, follow the instructions on the Amazon website.

Q.: Which items get free two-day shipping with Amazon Prime?

A.: The vast majority of items that Amazon sells qualify for free two-day shipping with Amazon Prime. Oversize items, such as treadmills and basketball hoops, get free standard shipping instead. However, items sold through third parties (via Amazon Marketplace) are ineligible for any kind of free shipping, unless the seller happens to offer it.

MORE: How to Save Money on Amazon

Q.: Which Kindle books are available to borrow?

A.: Amazon states that there are more than 1 million books available in the Kindle Lending Library. To see if a book you want to read qualifies, simply search for it on your Kindle device, Kindle app or the Amazon website, and see if the Prime logo appears next to it. If so, a Prime subscription lets you borrow it for one month. If not, you'll have to pay for it the old-fashioned way.

Q.: What is Amazon Prime Music?

A.: Amazon Prime Music is a streaming music service, similar to Spotify or Pandora. Users can choose albums or songs to stream, or allow Amazon to create a customized profile to suit their tastes and do it for them. Currently, the service offers more than a million songs, but its selection still pales in comparison to those of Spotify and Pandora. Amazon Prime members can also download these songs and listen to them online (as long as their Prime membership remains active).

Q.: What is Prime Now?

A.: Prime Now is an app for iOS and Android devices that promises delivery of select goods from Amazon within an hour. At the outset, the service is only available in select cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Seattle and Phoenix, but the program adds new cities on a regular basis. The goods offered are mostly groceries, toiletries and small gifts, but this could change as Amazon gains additional local partners. To see if your area is within Prime Now's delivery range, check the Prime Now website.

Q.: What is Amazon Prime Instant Video?

A.: Amazon Prime Instant Video is the streaming-video component of Amazon Prime. Like Netflix and Hulu, Amazon Prime offers unlimited streaming of tens of thousands of movies and TV shows. Unlike its two competitors, however, Amazon Prime also allows à la carte rentals and purchases of its content.

Amazon Prime also hosts a number of original series, including hits like Mozart in the Jungle, Transparent, and Alpha House. Users can also stream older HBO shows, such as The Sopranos, Eastbound & Down and the first season of Veep.

MORE: Netflix vs. Amazon Prime Instant Video: Face-Off

Q.: Can I use Amazon's streaming video services without an Amazon Prime subscription?

A.: Yes, but you will have to buy or rent each individual piece of content you want to watch. The prices on this content can vary dramatically, from $2 for individual TV episodes to $30 or more for entire seasons.

Q.: Will a Prime subscription give me access to every streaming video on Amazon?

A.: No. Amazon offers only certain TV shows and movies for unlimited streaming. For brand-new movies and recently broadcast episodes of TV shows, for example, you'll have to dish out money for each individual piece of media. Amazon marks its unlimited streaming shows and movies with a Prime graphic across the top of the box art; everything else is pay-as-you-go.

Q.: Where can I watch Amazon Prime Instant Video?

A.: Amazon Prime Instant Video is available on PC, Mac and Linux computers, as well as all modern and last-gen game consoles. All iOS users can download an Amazon Prime app, but Android users are not so fortunate. The only Android devices that support Amazon Instant Video are Amazon's own Kindle Fire tablets and Fire TV devices. The service is available for Roku set-top boxes and most smart TVs, but not for Google Chromecast or Apple TV.

Q.: Is Amazon Prime Instant Video better than Netflix/Hulu?

A.: The short answer is "no," but the longer answer depends on what you're looking for in a service. If you want the free two-day shipping and the free Kindle book, Amazon Prime's streaming video is a nice bonus. The unlimited streaming options are generally not as robust as those offered by Netflix and Hulu Plus, but the cheaper price and extra Prime features may make it worthwhile for Amazon fans — particularly those who own Kindle Fires or Fire TVs.

Q.: Why shouldn't I subscribe to Amazon Prime?

A.: If you tend to make infrequent Amazon purchases that exceed $35, the service is probably not for you. (Spending $35 will get you free shipping, even without a Prime membership.) Likewise, if you get your e-books from Barnes & Noble, Apple or Kobo, the free Kindle book will not benefit you much. If you already subscribe to Netflix or Hulu, you have access to a wider selection of unlimited streaming video than what Amazon Prime offers.

Q.: How can I sign up for Amazon Prime?

A.: Visit Amazon Prime's Web page, and follow the instructions. You'll need a free Amazon account as well as a credit card.

If you decide you want to cancel the subscription afterward, go to your account and select Manage Prime Membership. Click End Membership if you're currently subscribed, or Do Not Continue if you're on a free trial and do not wish to start a paid subscription.

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  • Yet another service/fee. *sigh* The internet is great until it starts to nickel-and-dime you to death.
  • Must be a slow news day on toms...
  • Why even put it on http://www.tomshardware.co.uk/ when Amazon Prime is so different from the .co.uk version of Amazon Prime.