The evolution of video streaming services is remarkable by multiple measures, including subscriber base, number of original productions, revenue, and industry accolades. Hulu, Amazon's Prime Video, Netflix, and HBO had already scored a staggering amount of nominations at the 70th Primetime Emmy Awards, and the 71st edition in 2019 was no different.
In 2018, HBO was outranked as the leading nominee in the awards show for the first time in 17 years. The network worked hard to take back the crown, chalking up 137 nominations in 2019 – 20 more than Netflix. Amazon's nominations more than doubled (from 22 to 47), while Hulu's decreased from 27 to 20.
The market is growing at a fast pace, and these companies must compete with yet another titan: Disney+. The Walt Disney Company's long-awaited streaming service has recently rolled out in the USA and will expand to other markets within the next years. Disney+ features original series and the catalogs of NatGeo, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, and of course, Disney. Just three months after its launch, the service had already reached an astounding 28.6 million subscribers.
The ever-increasing options make it harder and harder to choose between Netflix vs Amazon Prime vs HBO Now vs Hulu vs Disney+ vs Apple TV+ (or to pick a niche provider like MUBI). But don't fret. We've got it all covered for you.
Last year, Apple announced its entry into the crowded video streaming market. The tech giant is trying to differentiate its service from others by focusing on carefully curated storytelling. Apple TV+ offers shows and series produced in collaboration with famous names such as Steven Spielberg, Jennifer Aniston, JJ Abrams, and last but not least, Oprah Winfrey.
The service was announced alongside a redesigned Apple TV Channels app, which brings together over 25 streaming services, from large platforms like Hulu to art-house ones such as MUBI. By integrating all channels into one platform and allowing users the flexibility of buying or renting content, Apple pledges to make the streaming experience more convenient and user-friendly. Additionally, a sophisticated machine-learning algorithm vows to deliver on-point content recommendations.
Long gone are the days when I would scan the weekly guide of the few available TV channels and get organized to watch a movie or a series episode. While I have fond memories of Wednesday evenings, when I could catch a new episode of "The X-Files," it was freeing to see limitations go away. First came pay-TV, providing more frequent runs and, often, concurrent licensing; from there on, keeping up with every development and possibility became infeasible.
As I wouldn't want reminiscences of lazy days bygone to torment those of you born post-Internet, let's fast-forward to present times. Although pay-TV's revenue still tops video on demand's (or VOD), the gap tightens each year. VOD services abound, and algorithm curation dictates what we see. Yet, we have the sensation of ruling over content from our TVs, laptops, tablets, and smartphones, determining where and when to watch true-crime series, thought-provoking documentaries, unenlightening (but thoroughly entertaining) movies… Whatever suits the viewer.
Instead of rushing home from work to see where the cliffhanger from last week's episode led to, viewers now experience a different kind of distress: the pain of choosing a streaming service. Technology and its infinite options can surely provoke anxiety, but I'm here to help you make up your mind. It might even be that you decide to sign up for multiple services (guilty as charged) or to stay subscription-free and pay per title. I will also discuss the main features of top tier services Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, and HBO Now.
Founded in 1997 by Reed Hastings and Marc Randolph, Netflix started as a DVD-rental-by-mail enterprise and struggled for years with then-giant Blockbuster (now a one-shop zombie). Randolph was Netflix's Chief Executive Officer until ceding the post to Hastings in 1999; he left Netflix in 2002, and Hastings remains CEO. The company's video streaming service was introduced in the USA in 2007 and expanded internationally in 2010. Since then, Netflix has reached over 190 countries and 158.3 million memberships.
Following the 2013 release of "House of Cards" (tarnished by the 2017 revelations of sexual assaults committed by actor Kevin Spacey), Netflix has focused its strategy on original content development, under the guidance of Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos. The company's 2020 content budget is expected to reach US$17.3 billion – a US$2 billion bump from the previous year. Hundreds of products currently carry the Netflix Originals label: among them are hit shows "Stranger Things," "BoJack Horseman," "The Crown," "Grace and Frankie," and "Sex Education," as well as docu-series, stand-up comedy specials and feature films ("Marriage Story" being a successful example).
The VOD titan does not shy away from experimenting boldly, and from withdrawing its bets. This means that subscribers must be ready for Netflix to quietly pull the plug on their favorite shows. On a more positive note, unlike other video streaming services, Netflix does not push ads (however, tests have been run, and that could eventually change). You can access the platform's catalog on your smart TV, computer, plug-and-play micro-consoles, video game consoles (Nintendo 3DS, PS3, PS4, PS Vita, Wii U, Xbox 360, and Xbox One), set-top boxes, home theater systems, Blu-ray players, as well as a mobile app compatible with Android, iOS and Windows systems.
As of now, Netflix offers a one-month trial offer and three types of plans for flat-rate, unlimited streaming. The basic plan is the cheapest option (US$8.99) and only allows for standard definition streaming on one screen at a time (you can also download selected titles to one mobile device). Next, the standard plan (US$12.99) allows for high definition streaming on up to two devices simultaneously, as well as for download on two mobile devices. Finally, the premium plan (US$15.99) – popular among families and groups of friends – allows for HD and ultra-HD streaming on up to four devices (same number of devices for download).
Interestingly enough, Netflix still offers DVD and Blu-ray plans. The "vintage" options start at US$7.99, and the different rates determine the number of discs you can check out at a time, as well as the format (standard DVD or HD Blu-ray). This service is not available in all countries.
Hulu is home to the critically-acclaimed "The Handmaid's Tale," a disturbingly-close-to-reality dystopian drama series based on Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel. It is currently available only in USA territories and in Japan. Announced in 2007 and launched in 2008, Hulu is owned in its majority (67%) by The Walt Disney Company since Disney acquired 21st Century Fox in March 2019. This gives the service the upper hand as the video streaming market is expected to face a significant shift with the introduction of Disney+.
The company has more than 30.4 million subscribers and offers free trials; its most inexpensive subscription option includes commercial interruptions and is available for US$5.99/month. If you can afford a little more, you can get a No Ads plan for US$11.99/month, but there's a catch-22: "[a] few excluded shows play with ads" (so why call the plan No Ads, Hulu?). Both options only allow for one stream per account. It's also possible to sign up for a US$12.99/month bundle that includes Hulu (with ads), Disney+, and ESPN+. No free trial for this one.
Now, if live TV really matters to you and you are ready to forsake your old TV plan, you can sign up for the Hulu + Live TV option for US$54.99/month. This package includes a 50-hour Cloud DVR storage, simultaneous access from two devices, as well as 65+ live and on-demand entertainment, news, and sports channels. If you would like to watch Hulu on more devices, you will have to pay extra for unlimited screens at home. Premium network and Spanish content add-ons are also available, as well as Enhanced Cloud DVR.
You can access Hulu's Live TV service via:
Amazon's CEO and founder Jeff Bezos did not leave the video streaming market out of his world domination plans. Rules for access and catalogs differ throughout the 200+ territories where the service operates. In the USA, for instance, a great variety of movies and TV shows can be watched at no additional cost for Amazon Prime members. The Prime Video service also includes titles for rental or purchase, as well as separate subscriptions to stream content from partners such as Showtime, Sundance Now, and Starz. In some territories, it is possible to subscribe to Amazon Prime Video without a full Amazon Prime subscription.
Amazon Prime Video was launched in 2006 under the name Amazon Unbox, slowly finding its identity and business model. Prime Video eventually established itself as one of the leading players in the international VOD market. Through the Amazon Studios subsidiary, the company has been developing, producing and licensing series and films since 2010. Its first accolades came with the comedy-drama series "Transparent," which tells the story of a Los Angeles family whose father figure reveals themself as a trans woman. Another big hit came with "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel." The comedy-drama by Amy Sherman-Palladino (creator of "Gilmore Girls"), which follows a housewife-turned-stand-up-comedian in 1950s New York City.
Prime Video has been investing big bucks in sports acquisitions in the United States and abroad. In 2017, it paid US$50 million for non-exclusive rights to stream portions of NFL's Thursday football games to USA Prime Video subscribers. Among several other sports deals, the company recently secured exclusive British TV rights to the ATP World Tour (previously Tennis Masters Cup) for the 2019-2023 period. Prime Video also signed a five-year deal for exclusive rights to the US Open, also for the British market.
The video and audio resolution offered by Prime Video depends on the title and the streaming device and can go up to 4K and High Dynamic Range streaming. Prime Video can be accessed via all Amazon's Fire devices, as well as several smartphones, tablets, computers, TVs, Blu-ray players, and consoles. If you consider becoming a Prime Video user, make sure to check for compatibility with your devices. Although workarounds may be possible, some products, such as Chromecast and Apple TV, do not support what Bezos' corporation has called the "Amazon Video ecosystem." Finally, keep in mind that, when renting or buying content, users may be charged higher prices for non-SD versions.
Launched in 2015, HBO Now is a standalone service for on-demand streaming of HBO's original series catalog, as well as movies, documentaries, comedy specials, and sports programming. It provides access to the same content available at no extra cost for HBO's linear TV subscribers via the HBO Go service. Confusing? You bet. Put simply, you already have access to HBO's VOD service if you're an HBO TV subscriber. However, an HBO Now subscription does not grant access to HBO's linear channels programming.
HBO Now had 8 million subscribers in February 2019, in addition to 49 million HBO pay-TV subscriptions in 2018, when "Game of Thrones" was still running (sources: Statista and Bloomberg). Besides a powerful current lineup, HBO's original series catalog includes highly successful shows such as the already mentioned GoT, the 2019 miniseries "Chernobyl," and all-time classics "The Wire," "The Sopranos," and "Sex and the City."
HBO Now can be purchased for $14.99/month in the US, with a 7-day trial period. You can sign up directly via HBO Now, or you can pay for the add-on in combination with Amazon Prime Video or Hulu plans. Although streaming on multiple devices is allowed, the company is not entirely clear about the amount, stating that "in most cases, members of your household can sign in to HBO Now on different devices, and watch different shows at the same time."
In addition to browser access, HBO Now can be streamed via:
Finally, even though HBO Now is available exclusively in the United States, you could still have options if you live elsewhere, as HBO may offer a VOD service under another name. You may find this quite confusing, and I agree: in Brazil, for instance, HBO's VOD plan is called HBO Go, the same name as the service offered at no extra cost for HBO pay-TV subscribers in the USA. If in doubt, contact your local provider.
If you haven't yet made up your mind after reading our top video streaming services rundown or would like to explore other options, we recommend that you look into the following information when narrowing down your choices:
This one goes without saying, but remember not to get carried away with all the exciting options – stay true to your budget and don't break the bank. This may mean not having multiple subscriptions, so pay close attention to your priorities (no stress: the following tips will help you further).
Does the service offer more than one plan? If so, make sure that the one that matches your budget also matches your needs. Perhaps only the cheapest plan would be affordable. Still, that plan could have downsides, such as resolution restrictions or a simultaneous streaming limit that is not enough for you.
Does the subscription fee cover every single item on the service's VOD catalog, or are some titles only available at an extra cost?
Does the service produce original content, or does it rely exclusively upon licensing agreements? These deals eventually expire, whereas original content tends to remains available indefinitely.
In the increasingly competitive video streaming market, a studio deal could make or break a service. When in doubt between different services, it might be a good idea to check whether the company has exclusive contracts with movie studios.
Does the service offer a trial period? If so, sign up for it and test all features that matter to you before making up your mind. Pay attention to cancellation deadlines as to not be charged for a subscription that you don't want to keep.
Please don't put yourself through the frustration of paying for a service only to find out that it is not compatible with your streaming device of choice. Always check the list of compatible devices provided on the streaming service's official website, and as already mentioned, make use of trial offers to be sure that everything is in order.
Some of us cannot stand ads, especially when we are paying for content. If that is your case, double-check the company's current ad policy and keep in mind that their strategy could change at some point. It still may be that a catalog is exciting enough that you would be willing to put up with ads. Again, make use of trial offers if available.
You may have invested a lot of money in your home theater system, so confirm that your expectations are compatible. If you are stoked about your brand-new 4K TV, you might want to go for a service that supports 4K streaming. Whichever the case, remember that the highest resolution may not be available for all catalog titles.
How many devices can be granted simultaneous access to the streaming platform? Check that it's enough for you. The same company may offer other plans that match your needs.
Not all companies allow users to share their accounts with friends, and multiple screen access may be limited to users in the same household. If your goal is to share a video streaming account with someone who doesn't live with you, read your chosen service's FAQ page.
Can you download a selection of movies and programs to watch on the go without killing your data plan or while on airplane mode? This feature comes in especially handy when traveling.
Perhaps you want to have multiple video streaming options, but find it easier to manage as few subscriptions as possible. In this case, keep an eye out for bundle options.
Some video streaming services offer options to bulk up your subscription (e.g., Hulu with Enhanced Cloud DVR). Evaluate if that is important to you and whether add-ons wouldn't take the plan out of your affordability range.
At last, but absolutely not least, make sure that the content option offered in your region won't disappoint you. Years ago, plenty of users used to bypass licensing restrictions with the use of VPNs, but companies now make this increasingly harder. Also, if you're a frequent traveler, you might want to make sure that the service can be used by you while abroad.