Not long ago, streaming movies, TV programs and other video from the Internet to your TV was something not even on the radar screens of most families in the U.S. Now, however, the trend is enjoying explosive growth, fueled by the plethora of over-the-top (OTT) streaming video content providers as well as eager consumer-electronics makers who are adding Internet connectivity to home theater equipment, including TVs, Blu-ray players, video game consoles, digital video recorders, dedicated set-top digital media players and more. (OTT streaming is streaming direct to an Internet-connected device, like a TV, rather than via a computer.) As outlined in our blog post, "Cutting the Cord", it's also being fed by the many families looking for an alternative to costly cable or satellite TV subscriptions.
Most video streaming providers make watching movies and shows on a TV nearly as easy as changing a channel or watching a Blu-ray Disc. Others make it a little more challenging, but not impossible. This report focuses on the video streaming services themselves. You can find out more about the hardware needed to get streaming video to your living room TV screen in our reports on LCD TVs, Blu-ray players and set-top digital media players.
But while streaming movies and TV shows is all the rage, there are some important caveats to consider. One is that your experience will depend greatly on the quality of your Internet connection. Broadband (DSL, cable, fiber) is a must even for standard-definition streams, and HD can strain the capacity of all but the fastest connections. Some providers measure your connection speed and dial down the image quality to ensure the most glitch-free viewing.
If the very best video quality from a streaming movie provider is a priority, many point to Vudu as the best choice. Like similar providers, Vudu offers video in standard definition and HD, but it also offers an enhanced HD format it calls HDX. Some reviewers, such as Barb Gonzalez at About.com, say that HDX approaches the quality of Blu-ray. Others, such as New York Times columnist David Pogue, say it falls a little short of that standard -- though the video quality is still notably better than that of any other streaming source. Vudu is the only video streaming service to offer 3D, though the library of 3D content remains limited for now -- just 15 titles plus a number of free trailers and demos at last look.
Vudu lets you rent or purchase movies. In effect, buying a movie through Vudu gives the purchaser rights to stream it unlimited times to any device registered with Vudu. Rentals are less expensive (*Est. $1 to $6), of course, but are limited to a 24-hour window after purchase, and some of Vudu's titles are only available for purchase (*Est. $5 to $25). Vudu's library is around 20,000 titles according to one estimate we've seen, with more than 4,000 of them in high def (either HD or HDX). TV programming has recently been added to the lineup, including next day streaming of current season TV programming. Episodes are purchased, not rented, and typically cost $3 in HD or HDX. Vudu is also notable among streaming services for offering movies on the same day as their release on DVD, though in many cases that's to purchase rather than rent. Movies still playing in theaters are also offered on occasion. Vudu once required a dedicated set-top box, but is now available on a variety of home-electronics gear.
Amazon Instant Video (*Est. $1 to $6 per rental) earned mixed reviews when it was a service mainly for watching movies on a PC. Like Vudu, Amazon Instant Video OTT streaming is now available via a host of consumer-electronics gear as well as the Amazon Kindle Fire tablet. Video quality falls short of Vudu, and HD is limited to 720p, but it is still pretty good. One advantage is Amazon's massive library of titles -- nearly 50,000 movies and more than 8,500 TV shows when we last checked.
You can also purchase movies and TV shows (*Est. $15 and up for movies, $2 and up for TV episodes), but, like Vudu, you don't download the files. Amazon retains the files on its servers, selling permission to stream and view movies and TV programs either online or on a compatible device whenever you want. HD movies are available, but they can only be viewed on a compatible consumer-electronics device. TV programs, which can only be bought, not rented, are also available in HD and that content can be viewed on a PC. Amazon Prime members can stream a limited selection for free with their membership -- more than 10,000 movies and TV shows at last look. Critical reviews of Amazon Instant Video are generally positive, though most comparative reviews generally favor other video streaming services.
iTunes video streaming has grown considerably since its launch and, according to TechOfTheHub.com, had 14,000 movie titles available for rental as of this past August. However, that still falls short compared to some competing video streaming services. Movies typically cost $3 or $4 to rent, and HD titles are typically $5. Movies can also be purchased, with recent titles typically selling for $15, or $20 in HD. TV episodes can only be purchased (an option to rent those was dropped in August 2011) and typically sell for $2, or $3 in HD, with complete seasons also available.
Unlike most video streaming services, iTunes has not partnered with CE makers to include access via Blu-ray players, TVs, etc. Instead, if you want to stream iTunes content to your living room TV, Apple TV is your only alternative; you can read more about Apple TV in our report on digital media players. Video quality is good, but not as good as from some other video streaming services such as Vudu. In early March, Apple added 1080p content to the iTunes store (it had been limited to 720p before that). Initial reports say that added resolution improves picture quality, but that the improvement isn't always significant. The company also added the ability to watch most of your purchased video via its iCloud service on the Apple TV set-top box (previously, only rented content could be watched via that digital media player).
Pay-per-title streaming providers like Vudu, iTunes and Amazon Instant Video only charge you for the films and TV programs you rent or buy. However, if you are a frequent streamer of movies or TV shows, that can get quite expensive in short order. Netflix takes a different approach -- it charges one flat rate (*Est. $8 per month) for unlimited video streaming.
For lovers of recent, top movies, finding something to watch can be a challenge -- one that became harder still when Starz removed its content from Netflix at the end of February. Netflix subscribers generally have to wait a while for new releases to reach that streaming service -- and many films never make it at all. As we noted in our blog post on Netflix streaming, licensing deals with certain cable networks can keep titles off of Netflix for as long as seven years after their release. Instead, the Netflix catalog is fleshed out by more obscure titles and older films. While some of the newer films are quality fare from smaller independent producers, there's also a generous assortment of movies that are B-grade or worse.
However, Netflix does have something to offer for those who enjoy TV content rather than movies. As The New York Times reports, "Netflix is now primarily an Internet streaming service for television shows, not feature films." The service has been busy beefing up its catalog of vintage and recent TV programming with the end result being that more than half of what's streamed from Netflix is TV programming. Netflix has also begun streaming original programming, such as "Lilyhammer," a Norwegian-produced TV series. Future efforts include a new season of "Arrested Development," previously canceled by Fox.
Current season programming from the major U.S. networks is limited, however. Instead, for unlimited streaming of current-season TV programs, Hulu Plus is probably a better choice. Hulu Plus is the subscription-based OTT streaming version of the free Hulu.com website, a joint effort of ABC, NBC and Fox Broadcasting. Hulu Plus adds some important benefits to the free Hulu website, but also introduces some drawbacks.
First and foremost, Hulu Plus streaming is the simplest means of getting Hulu's content to a living room TV screen, and it is supported by a wide variety of consumer electronics devices. On the content front, Hulu Plus offers nearly 30,000 episodes from more than 1,000 TV shows, including some Internet-only programs. Five of the six major U.S. broadcast networks are represented, with CBS being the notable omission. The free Hulu.com website has a wider library of content, but far less current content -- just the last five episodes of selected series.
On the other hand, due to licensing issues, some shows and episodes available on Hulu.com are not available -- at least not yet -- via Hulu Plus, and that's one of the chief annoyances cited by the video-streaming service's critics. Another is that the embedded commercials -- albeit shorter ones than if watching over the air -- found in content on the free website remain in paid content streamed via Hulu Plus. Another difference is that Hulu.com offers content in standard definition only, while Hulu Plus streams in 720p HD.
Hulu Plus also offers a modest selection of movies. The library is certainly off-beat compared to most streaming services, but also has some high-quality content, including the Criterion Collection films library that's highly regarded by movie aficionados. Like Netflix, Hulu (and Hulu Plus) recently launched its own original programming.
Numerous sites have compared two or more video streaming services, and those are the most helpful in learning which one is right for you. Examples include ConsumerReports.org, which compares five popular sites for its report and Wired, which does the same for eight services. TNL.net reports on which services offer which recent popular movies and top TV shows. TechOfTheHub.com offers a comprehensive table that compares content, costs and technical features of Netflix, Vudu, iTunes, Hulu Plus and Amazon Instant Video.