Like to watch a ton of movies and TV programs, but don't necessarily need them to be the biggest recent blockbusters? Then a subscription movie streaming service might be the ticket. These all work similarly and have similar drawbacks, but some have extras or features that could make it the perfect choice for you and your family.
Netflix (Est. $7.99 per month) is the longest-established, best-supported and best-known provider of subscription movie streaming. Its library is widely acknowledged as the largest among streaming movie providers, although the company no longer publishes counts of movies and TV shows. Because of new and expiring licensing agreements, the lineup of titles is constantly changing; hundreds of titles disappear or are added over the course of a year.
The bulk of the titles you will find on Netflix is older fare that's long past its regular showing on cable channels and well after disc sales have diminished past significance. Many of these classic films are high quality. You'll also find more recent titles of more mixed quality from smaller independent distributors. Some are art-house gems; this article from Esquire lists examples. Others are below B-grade films; you can see some examples here. A few new and even blockbuster films can be found through a deal to stream content shown on the Epix cable TV channel. However, Netflix lost streaming exclusivity with Epix in 2012, so that content is now also available on competing movie streaming providers. Netflix has signed a streaming deal that will see all live-action and animated Disney films on the service starting in 2016. It includes content from Disney-owned studios such as Marvel, Lucasfilm and Pixar.
As long as you don't care about current-season TV shows, Netflix is also a robust provider of TV streaming. You can find all the seasons of many long-running but now cancelled programs, as well as all but the last season or two of still-running shows. Content from most broadcast networks and many cable networks is available. Uproxx.com has lists of the top TV series on Netflix, and which seasons/programs are available.
Then there's original programming. "House of Cards" and "Orange Is the New Black" are perhaps best known, but a bevy of other made-for-Netflix series are currently streaming or on the way. As a result of the Disney deal, Netflix will also stream four live-action original series based on Marvel characters beginning in 2015. The unaired final season of "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" is also set to stream on Netflix this year.
Netflix has a limited number of mostly forgettable 3D titles. It has also rolled out some titles in SuperHD, which streams at twice the video quality of its standard offerings. Both features require a very fast Internet connection and are supported on only certain devices. Netflix continues to offer DVDs and Blu-ray Discs by mail, but treats that as a separate subscription. Plans start at $4.99 per month for two DVD rentals per month. Blu-ray Discs are also available, but subscription plans that include those cost more.
Amazon Prime Instant (Est. $100 per year) is perhaps the largest and best-known Netflix alternative. It's part of the Amazon Prime program, which gives Amazon.com customers free two-day shipping on eligible products and a free Kindle book rental per month for those who own Kindle hardware only.
Prior to a March 2014 price increase, Amazon Prime Instant was a little cheaper than Netflix (Est. $7.99 per month), which made it worth considering even for those that bought items on Amazon only occasionally. It's still a bargain (as in essentially free) for those who prize Amazon Prime for its shipping discounts, but for everyone else Netflix offers more content for less money.
The movie streaming library, though smaller, has a strong resemblance to what you'll find at Netflix. At last look, there were more than 15,000 movies, and most new content is courtesy of Amazon's deal with the Epix cable TV channel. The rest of the film library is comprised of older fare, including some pretty terrific titles and newer, less memorable movies, yet there seems to be a little less outright schlock than on Netflix.
The TV streaming lineup is even less robust, although the latest look revealed more than 2,100 titles, almost all being past-season or classic series. Amazon is also trying its hand at original programming. Pilot original episodes are available free for everyone to stream, and viewers can then vote on which ones they would like to see made into a series for the site. Note that Amazon.com offers considerably more content on a video-on-demand basis via its Amazon Instant service; we look at that in more depth when discussing video-on-demand streaming elsewhere in this report.
Redbox Instant by Verizon (Est. $8.00 and up per month) is the newest subscription movie streaming service. It's an outgrowth of the Redbox DVD rental kiosks that can be found near or in convenience stores, supermarkets and other retailers. The monthly subscription includes four one-night DVD kiosk rentals; you can add Blu-ray Disc rentals for an additional $1 per month. The service has fewer streaming movies than either Netflix or Amazon Prime Instant, and no TV streaming titles at all. Like other subscription streaming services, movie content is primarily older yet often very-high-quality films interspersed with B-grade exploitation fare. New top Hollywood streaming movies again come mainly via a deal with the Epix cable TV channel. For those who want discs as well as streaming movies, Redbox Instant is certainly cheaper than Netflix as long as you return your discs promptly. With Netflix, you could hang on to a disc indefinitely. Like Amazon Prime Instant, Redbox Instant offers newer Hollywood hits for streaming on a video-on-demand basis.
Some critics complain that the Redbox Instant user interface is the hardest to use among the streaming providers. Hardware support is limited, but you can find it on Xbox and PlayStation video game consoles, second-generation and newer Roku set-top boxes, LG smart TVs and Samsung smart TVs, and Blu-ray Disc players.