The evolution of video streaming services is impressive by multiple measures, including subscriber base, number of original productions, revenue, and industry accolades. Hulu, Amazon’s Prime Video, Netflix and HBO were showstoppers at the 70th Primetime Emmy Awards (2018): the first two received 27 and 22 nominations each, and Netflix reaped 112 nominations. While HBO achieved 108 nominations and the same amount of awards as Netflix, the company was outranked as leading nominee in the awards show for the first time in 17 years; besides the entertainment industry giants (now offering one of the best video streaming services worldwide), other companies are emerging. The market is growing at a fast pace, and it’s getting harder and harder to decide between Netflix vs Amazon Prime vs HBO Now, or to take the bold step of choosing a niche provider.
Currently owned by AT&T’s WarnerMedia, HBO is still first and foremost a linear pay TV network. Known for developing high-quality content (Big Little Lies, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Game of Thrones, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, and Westworld are among its current roster), the 45-year-old company also promotes its content through streaming platforms HBO Go – for existing TV subscribers only – and HBO Now, a standalone VOD (video-on-demand) service.
As for this year’s greatest Academy of Television Arts & Sciences nominee, Netflix’s original content splurge has proven to be rewarding, with Primetime Emmy wins rising from three in 2013 to 23 in 2018, and overall wins spanning across several categories: from production design, main title theme music and stunt coordination to cinematography, writing, directing and acting, among several others.
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 new episodes of The X-Files aired in my home country, 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 strenuous, if not infeasible.
As I wouldn’t want reminiscences of sluggish days bygone to traumatize those of you born post-Internet, let’s fast-forward to present times: although pay TV’s revenues still top video-on-demand’s, the gap becomes smaller each year. VOD services abound, and even though algorithm curation dictates the offers that we see, 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 user.
The issue is that instead of biting your nails and rushing home to see where the cliffhanger from last week’s episode led to, choosing a streaming subscription is a new cause for distress. Technology and its infinite options can surely provoke anxiety, and we are here to help you make up your mind among the top video streaming services – it might even be that you decide to sign up for multiple subscriptions (guilty as charged). We will also discuss the main features of the top tiers: 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 zombie brand with just one surviving shop. 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 130 million memberships.
Following the 2013 release of House of Cards, Netflix has focused its strategy on original content development, under the guidance of Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos. The company’s 2018 content budget is of approximately US$8 billion (P&L), with an additional US$2-billion marketing budget. Hundreds of products currently carry the Netflix Originals label: among them are hit drama shows Stranger Things, Orange is the New Black, Narcos, The Crown, and 13 Reasons Why, docu-series Making a Murderer, Chef’s Table, and The Keepers, as well as variety and talk shows, comedy series, anime, animation, and live-action productions, and the list goes on (and on, and on).
The VOD titan does not shy away from experimenting boldly – and from withdrawing its bets. Subscribers must be ready for their favorites programs to be canceled: recently, Netflix quietly pulled the plug on the promising late-night comedy show The Break with Michelle Wolf just three months after its premiere, and other productions such as Bloodline and The Get Down will not return for new seasons. Furthermore, according to unofficial Netflix search engine Flixable, the number of movies available on Netflix USA dwindled from 6,755 in 2010 to 4,010 in 2018; TV shows, on the other hand, increased from 530 to 1,569 titles in the same period, and the overall catalog was reduced from 7,285 to 5,579 titles. It’s also essential to note that, as it the case with all VOD services, catalogs vary by territory.
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 (PS3, PS4, Wii U and Xbox 360), 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$7.99), and only allows for standard definition streaming on one screen at a time (you can also download a selection of titles to one mobile device). Next, the standard plan (US$10.99) 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$13.99) – 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. Such "vintage" plans start at US$4.99, 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 may not be available in all countries.
Announced in 2007 and launched for public access in 2008, Hulu offers both regular video streaming and a top package that includes access to live content from 50+ TV channels. Hulu is currently owned by The Walt Disney Company, 21st Century Fox, Comcast-NBCUniversal, and AT&T. With the forthcoming acquisition of Fox by Disney, the latter will become Hulu’s majority shareholder, which might give the service the upper hand as the video streaming market is expected to face a significant shift with the release of a new Disney VOD service in 2019 (which also marks the end of Disney’s distribution deal with Netflix).
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) and features other successful original shows such as Castle Rock, The Looming Tower, Marvel’s Runaways, and I Love You, America (hosted by comedian Sarah Silverman). Currently available only in the United States and in Japan, Hulu has more than 20 million USA subscribers, and its licensing catalog includes acclaimed TV shows like Seinfeld (NBC) and Rick and Morty (Adult Swim).
The company offers free trials for all of its plans – the most inexpensive of which is the Limited Commercials option, currently available for US$7.99/month, with a current US$5.99/month offer for the first 12 months. The package includes Hulu’s streaming catalog with what the service calls “minimal commercial interruptions.” If you can afford a little more, you can get the No Commercials plan for US$11.99/month, but there’s a catch-22: “a few shows play with a commercial before and after the video” (so why call it No Commercials, Hulu?). Both plans only allow for one stream per account. Premium network add-ons supplement the streaming catalog with HBO, Showtime and Cinemax content, which can make Hulu not that much of a budget-friendly option.
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 with Live TV option for US$39.99/month. This package includes a 50-hour Cloud DVR storage, simultaneous access from two devices, as well as 50+ live and on-demand TV channels with entertainment, news, and sports. If you would like to watch Hulu on more devices, you will have to pay extra for unlimited screens at home and up to three mobile screens for on-the-go watching. Premium network add-ons are also available, as well as Enhanced Cloud DVR.
You can access Hulu's Live TV service via browser, Apple tablets and smartphones (running iOS 10 or newer), Android devices (OS 5.0 or later), Roku, Fire TV & Fire Stick, Apple TV (4th generation), Chromecast, Xbox One, Xbox 360, Nintendo Switch and select Samsung and LG TVs. Streaming-only viewing is also possible via Android TV, 2nd and 3rd-generation Apple TVs, TiVo, Wii U, as well as LG, Sony, Samsung, and VIZIO TVs, and Blu-ray players.
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; however, the Prime Video service includes titles for rental or purchase, as well as separate subscriptions to stream content from networks such as Showtime 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, and eventually establishing itself as one of the leading players in the international VOD market. Through its 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 dealing with the understanding that their father figure is as a trans woman. Another big hit came with The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the latest 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 found out, note that 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.
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 under the service HBO Go; long story short, you already have access to HBO's VOD content if you are an HBO TV subscriber, but note that an HBO Now plan does not grant access to HBO's linear channels programming.
Launched on April 7, 2015, HBO Now had 5 million subscribers as of February 2018 – in addition to 49 million HBO pay TV subscriptions (source: Bloomberg). Besides a powerful current lineup, HBO's original series catalog includes groundbreaking shows such as Game of Thrones, The Wire, The Sopranos, Sex and The City, True Blood, and True Detective, to name but a few highly-successful productions.
HBO Now can be purchased for $14.99/month in the US, with a one-month free trial. You can sign up directly via HBO Now, or you can pay for the add-on in combination with Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, PlayStation Vue, and Sling TV 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 computer access, HBO Now can be streamed via Amazon Kindle Fire tablets (3rd generation and later); Amazon Fire TV, Fire TV Stick and Fire TV Cube; Android smartphones and tablets (OS 4.1 and newer); Android TV (from 5.0 on); Apple TV (2nd generation and later); Chromecast; Nexus Player; Nvidia Shield; Razer Forge TV; as well as some Sharp and Sony smart TV models.
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 we 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.
You may have already made up your mind after reading our top video streaming services rundown, or you may still want to look into other options – no worries! We've still got you covered, and recommend that you look into the following information when narrowing down your options:
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 (don't panic: the following tips will help you).
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, but that plan could have downsides, such as resolution restrictions or a limited number of screens that is not enough for you.
Does the subscription fee cover every single item in 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 deals? Licensing 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, do 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.
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 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 a service. If that is your case, double-check the company's current policy regarding ads, 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 make sure that your expectations are compatible. If you are stoked about your brand-new 4K TV, you might want to pick 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 service? Verify if that's enough for you. The same company may offer other plans that match your needs.
Not all companies allow users to share an account with friends – multiple screen access may be limited to users who live in the same household. If your goal is to share a video streaming account with friends who don't live with you, check 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 bundled subscription options (e.g., PlayStation Vue + HBO Now).
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 video streaming services now make this increasingly harder. Also, if you're a frequent traveler, you might want to make sure that the video streaming service can be used by you while abroad.