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The RN&R’s Gadget column returns after a two-year hiatus. This week, we compare online video streaming services.


I share books, beer and my life with my fiancée, but I do not share control of my Netflix. The online video streaming service is the backbone of many people’s entertainment schedules. At $7.99 per month, the site offers television shows and movies across multiple platforms such as PC, mobile phones, game consoles, Roku boxes and internet-enabled TVs. The content is largely based on what’s on DVD, which is their biggest advantage and disadvantage. While Netflix has more than 200 episodes of Murder, She Wrote, you wouldn’t find last week’s episode of Castle. Netflix is always adding more content as it negotiates with networks and production companies. Mad Men drops this summer, but viewers often have to wait for months after movies and television seasons hit DVD before they appear on Instant. For people looking to replace cable, Netflix isn’t the fix. Netflix is to cable what libraries are to airport bookstores; one is going to offer a wealth of older content with limited access to the blockbusters, and the other is pure mass-market titles. Users can subscribe to Netflix’s traditional DVD service to supplement their streaming options, and by the time they plow through 156 episodes of The Twilight Zone, last season’s blockbusters will be streaming across Netflix Instant.

Hulu Plus

One threat to Netflix’s reign is Hulu’s premium service. Launched in November 2010 as an addendum to the site’s free content, the service boasts 16,000 ad-supported episodes from 400 series and shares Netflix’s price point at $7.99 per month. The main selling factor is the wealth of current television. While Netflix subscribers occasionally wait months for past seasons, Hulu Plus often has the most recent episode to air on television on the site within 24 hours. It’s a promising service, but unfortunately, the service is nothing more than that: promising. The catalog pales in comparison to Netflix Instant, the Xbox 360 has a streaming lag, and the user interface is clunky anywhere but the PC. The majority of the problems revolve around the queue: You can only add an entire season through the PC, and there’s no way to manually rearrange shows, and, on Xbox 360, the seasons are listed by episode, not grouped by show, so if you want to find a recent episode of Bones amidst 700-plus episodes of Saturday Night Live, good luck. Hulu Plus offers “hundreds of movies,” but don’t expect to be overwhelmed by recent blockbusters. Still, most of the downsides are technical frustrations and not lack of good, current content. Smooth out the user interface, and the price point will make it a serious competitor not just for Netflix but for cable providers.

Amazon Instant Video

You may know Amazon as the website that personally visited every brick-and-mortar bookstore and karate chopped the doors closed, but the site also has its eyes set on the streaming video market. Though it’s been through a couple of iterations since 2006, the current model is an amalgamation of competitors such as Netflix, Hulu Plus and Blockbuster. Users can rent or own, as a stream or download, a mixture of blockbuster movies and current television. Available on the PC, Roku, and internet-enabled televisions, the service has yet to come to game consoles and mobile phones, which may be holding it back. The content is fairly extensive, enough for the average viewer, and the user interface is simple and effective. Unlike most streaming providers, Amazon Instant Video isn’t a monthly service. Users can purchase titles or seasons individually, so it’s a viable option for people who just want to catch a few new movies every month, but it can get quite pricey (expect $1–$2 per episode). In addition, members of Amazon Prime, a yearly paid service that offers free shipping and other benefits, have access to roughly 5,000 titles. A great option if you missed one episode of your favorite show, but if you’re looking to replace cable or fill a weekend: stick with Netflix or Hulu Plus.