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Netflix vs. Hulu vs. Amazon Prime: Streaming Showdown

The advent of mobile devices, set-top boxes and powerful game consoles has made online video- streaming services easier to access than ever before. While the market for DVDs and Blu-ray discs is still going strong, instantly streaming the movie or TV show you want to watch beats a trip to the store and a high-price tag for a disc nine times out of 10. (For one thing, you don't have to change out of your pajamas.)

Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime have established themselves as the three most popular subscription video-streaming services, with more than 100 million subscribers combined. While programs like iTunes, M-Go and Amazon Instant Video (Amazon's non-Prime video streaming service) sell a la carte content, the big three services charge you a flat monthly (or yearly) rate for as much content as you care to consume.

MORE: Best Streaming Video Services

Subscribing to all three services, however, would cost at least $291 per year — not an insubstantial sum, although still less than a cable subscription. While each one of the services is worthwhile in its own right, each one also presents a slightly different value proposition.

Netflix is the great-granddaddy of streaming services, providing a robust selection of movies and TV shows, although there's nothing too new. Hulu's selection, by comparison, is much smaller, but you can often find shows just a day after they air on broadcast TV. Amazon Prime is part of a much larger service that also nets you free shipping on Amazon products and a streaming-music library.

Which one stands out above the crowd? Tom's Guide put all three services to the test to find out.

How We Tested

To test content selection, I compiled four lists of top 10s. From Nielsen, an organization that monitors home media consumption, I examined 2014's most popular scripted TV shows (excluding sports, news and reality genres) and the most popular movies (based on DVD/Blu-ray sales). From IMDb, I used the top 10 highest-rated movies and TV shows of all time. Then, I tallied the availability of each movie on the service, as well as the number of seasons for each show (if available). Each service received four separate scores, one for each list, which were averaged to find out which service offered the most content that, in theory, people want to watch.

The results firmly favor Netflix. Netflix had 70 percent of Nielsen's top 10 shows available, and 63 percent of all possible seasons. Hulu scored a similar 70 percent for show availability, but only 30 percent of seasons were accounted for. Amazon Prime did not possess a single Nielsen top 10 show.

Amazon Prime and Netflix traded blows in the IMDb shows: Netflix provided 40 percent of all possible shows, but only 33 percent of all possible seasons; Amazon Prime scored 30 percent on shows, but 40 percent on seasons. Hulu scored only 10 percent on shows and 3 percent on seasons.

No service did extremely well when it came to movies, either modern or classic. Netflix had only one of 2014's most popular movies (How to Train Your Dragon 2), while its competitors had two apiece (Transformers: Age of Extinction and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire). From the IMDb list, Netflix and Amazon Prime had one apiece (Pulp Fiction), whereas Hulu had none.

All told, Netflix provided 29 percent of all possible content, while Amazon Prime came in at 15 percent and Hulu at 13 percent. While it may not provide exactly what you want to watch, from a general standpoint, Netflix stands head and shoulders above the competition.

Content

One of the most important, but most difficult, areas to measure is how much content a streaming service offers. If you're looking for raw numbers, Hulu told Tom's Guide that it has about 117,000 TV episodes and 5,300 movies, equaling about 122,300 pieces of content in total. Amazon is currently investigating this number, while Netflix declined to provide numbers. 

Even so, raw amount of content is not generally a reliable metric; having hundreds of thousands of movies and TV shows isn't worth much if they're not what you want to watch. Similarly, all three services have massive amounts of niche content and — if we're being totally honest — tons of titles that just aren't very good.

If there's something in particular you want to watch, consult Can I Stream.It? This search engine trawls popular streaming services (both subscription and a la carte) and tells you where you can find your TV show or movie of choice. 

Each streaming service offers a cluster of original programming. 'Jessica Jones' is a recent Netflix exclusive.

Each streaming service offers a cluster of original programming. 'Jessica Jones' is a recent Netflix exclusive.

Note, too, that each service offers a number of original shows, such as Daredevil on Netflix, Deadbeat on Hulu or Mozart in the Jungle on Amazon Prime. Amazon Prime's shows generally get the most critical acclaim, whereas Hulu's tend to get the least. Netflix's shows tend to be the most popular.

Winner: Netflix

Although no one service can offer all content for all people, Netflix seems to have the most TV shows and movies that cater to the broadest selection of tastes.

Interface

All the content in the world won't do you any good if you don't have a way to track it down, which is why interface is so important. A good UI should be pretty, intuitive, snappy and put as little space as possible between you and what you want to watch. I tested each service on an iPad, a Windows 10 computer and a streaming device for a TV (a PlayStation 4).

No matter the platform, Netflix's interface is modern, minimal, and attractive.

No matter the platform, Netflix's interface is modern, minimal, and attractive.

Netflix offers the most striking design, full of dark reds and grays. The search feature is also much better than its two competitors'. Rather than entering a full phrase and searching one title at a time, the Netflix algorithm automatically suggests titles. I could also rate titles once I'd finished watching them, which means that the service gets quite apt at recommending new titles.

Hulu's interface provided a moderately good experience, with large graphics to represent shows and movies against a white background with a few green flourishes. Searching for shows can be a bit of a pain, though. Hulu does not autocomplete search queries, and while it does recommend shows based on what you watch, there are no ratings. This means if you watch a show once and hate it, it will still factor into which shows Hulu thinks you should watch next.

Of the three programs, Amazon Prime easily has the weakest presentation. On set-top boxes and game consoles, the layout is gray and utilitarian. Finding content is not easy, as the search tends to put a lot of Amazon content front-and-center, and make users dig around in sub-menus for something as simple as genres. 

Amazon Video's web interface is lousy with blocky layouts and outmoded side menus.

Amazon Video's web interface is lousy with blocky layouts and outmoded side menus.

The interface on a computer, however, is like trying to search for content on a late '90s website. The Amazon Prime video search works just the same as the rest of Amazon's site: plain white interface, orange text and lots of confusing side menus. It even separates out seasons of individual shows for maximum confusion.

If you have a Fire device, such as a Fire TV or Kindle Fire tablet, the Amazon interface is actually quite gorgeous, with a slick slate background, helpful recommendations and smart content organization. On other devices, though, finding something to watch feels a lot more frustrating than exciting.

Winner: Netflix

With a smart, snappy search and an attractive interface across mobile, TV and computer platforms, Netflix easily places above its more labyrinthine competitors. 

Video Quality

In my tests, I didn't discover any significant difference between video quality and buffering time of the three services. In fact, video-streaming quality tends to be much more dependent on a user's home setup than on company servers.

All three services can stream videos at full-HD 1080p resolution, but Netflix and Amazon take it a step further by offering select 4K TV shows and movies. At present, Amazon has a bigger selection of 4K content, and also does not charge additional money to use it (as Netflix does), so the service has a slight edge over its competitors when it comes to hardcore videophiles. 

Winner: Amazon Prime

While both Amazon Prime and Netflix offer 4K video, Amazon Prime doesn't charge you extra for the privilege.

Availability

Luckily, streaming services are available on just about every device these days. Most mobile devices, smart TVs, set-top boxes, game consoles, Blu-ray players and computers have access to all three services — with a few notable exceptions. 

Amazon Prime Instant Video is not nearly as widely available as Netflix or Hulu. You can't watch Amazon Prime on Android devices, Chromecasts, Apple TVs or any device that runs on the Android TV operating system. It works on other major platforms, though, including Windows, Mac OS, Linux and iOS.

Winner: Netflix and Hulu

While there's a good chance you already own a device that supports the Netflix and Hulu apps, Amazon Prime is not nearly as widely available. 

Value

A Netflix subscription will run you $9 per month, which allows two users to watch 1080p shows simultaneously. It also has a cheaper alternative for $8 per month, which lets one user watch a show in standard definition. A $12-per-month plans allows four users to stream 4K content simultaneously.

Hulu has three options: a free service, a standard $8-per-month plan and an $11-per-month "no commercials plan." You can watch a lot of recent TV episodes, as well as some older movies and full series on Hulu's website, but generally, you can only do so on a computer. The $8 plan gives you access to Hulu's full library, although you do have to watch frequent commercials, which seems cheeky in an age where both Netflix and Amazon give you no commercials for roughly the same price. Even the $11 plan does not obviate commercials entirely; a number of shows (like Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) are contractually obligated to have commercials, so Hulu simply front- and back-loads two-minute ads instead of interrupting the show every few minutes.

MORE: Best Streaming Players: Chromecast, Roku, Apple TV & More

Amazon Prime costs $99 per year, which shakes out to $8.25 per month. While this is slightly more expensive than Hulu's standard package, it's also much more valuable. Amazon Prime has a whole host of side benefits, including free shipping on most Amazon items, access to unlimited music streaming and a free Kindle book to borrow every month. What Amazon lacks in content, it endeavors to make up for with overall utility.

Winner: Amazon Prime

Amazon Prime is cheaper than Netflix, only marginally more expensive than Hulu and offers a great deal more for your money than just streaming video. However, you can't pay for it month-to-month. 

Bottom Line

While the three most popular streaming services don't offer exactly the same content, on the whole, Netflix has the most TV shows and movies, the prettiest interface and the widest availability. The service has consistently led the online streaming market, and it's not hard to see why. It's easy to watch your favorite shows on your favorite devices, and it doesn't cost much to do so.

Credit: Netflix

(Image credit: Netflix)

That isn't to say that you should necessarily run out and buy a Netflix subscription right now, though. If you're just looking for stuff to watch, you don't really have to pay for it at all. Services like Crackle will give you lots of content on a rotating basis if you can live with some commercials, and boxes like Roku are absolutely overflowing with free niche channels for old movies and cult TV series.

Furthermore, each one of the big three streaming services has at least one area of expertise that the other two do not. Netflix excels at all-around selection, but don't expect to find anything too new there. Hulu has the latest and greatest shows, plus surprisingly good selections of British TV and anime. Amazon Prime has a ton of shows from Viacom channels, including MTV, Comedy Central and Nickelodeon. Still, when compared head-to-head-to-head, Netflix is currently the standard to beat.

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  • azgard
    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.
    Reply
  • egilbe
    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.
    Reply
  • batkerson
    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.
    Reply
  • ddpruitt
    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 :)
    Reply
  • kawininjazx
    That feeling you get when you buy a season on Amazon and it's on Netflix the next week...
    Reply
  • teh_chem
    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.
    Reply
  • demonhorde665
    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 !
    Reply
  • demonhorde665
    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 !
    Reply
  • gidgiddonihah
    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.
    Reply
  • Gerry Allen
    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.
    Reply