Your PC is a video store--and it's killing off brick-and-mortar video stores even as we speak. Your computer can give you prime-time TV at any time of the day or night, too. It's also a source of shows you love on cable TV, minus the cable bill.
Of course, your computer's screen probably isn't the biggest TV display in your home, but it's surely the most versatile one. And it just keeps getting better.
Internet-based sources of movies and TV shows, plus a search engine that helps you find stuff to watch all over the Web. I focused on PC-based viewing, but see the chart "It's Showtime--Anywhere and Everywhere" here for a guide to all of the TVs, set-top boxes, phones, and other gizmos that these services support.
In the end, it's impossible to name one service as the champ. All have their advantages and drawbacks, and each one supports a different set of devices beyond the PC. But five of them--Amazon Video On Demand, Apple iTunes Store, Clicker, Hulu, and Netflix Watch Instantly--do what they do really well.
Here's the breakdown.
Amazon Video On Demand
Amazon's video service has a competitive selection of new and back-catalog movies and TV episodes--and it has been particularly appealing since June, when it filled a long-standing hole by adding Disney titles. Its prices are competitive, as well, and it permits you to take 48 hours to watch some older titles that have 24-hour windows on other services. But the most appealing thing about this service is how easy it is to use: Finding, buying or renting, and watching stuff takes only a few clicks, which is more than you can say about Blockbuster or CinemaNow.
You can purchase and view videos in your browser right at Amazon.com, building an entertainment library in the cloud that's available for immediate streaming to any PC or Mac. If you have a Windows system, you get another option: Unbox, an application that allows you to download movies and shows to your hard drive for watching regardless of whether you're connected to the Internet. (This is the only service of the group that lets you choose to stream or download.)
What's not to like? Regrettably, unlike iTunes, Netflix, and Xfinity TV, Amazon doesn't have high-def movies for PC viewing--only TV episodes. And its support for devices beyond computers is on the thin side compared with some rivals; most notably, the only phones it currently supports are a handful of Nokia models.
Bottom line: More HD would be nice, but Amazon's service is still a slick, well-rounded winner.
Apple iTunes Store
iTunes isn't a mere movie/TV download service. It's a veritable universe unto itself, with content of all sorts for all kinds of devices--but mostly devices made by Apple, including the Apple TV, iPad, iPhone, and iPod. Unlike all the other services here, there's nothing Web-based about it: You find, buy, download, and watch shows and movies via Apple's software.
For the most part, that's a plus. Apple does a far better job of making the whole process quick and seamless than do Blockbuster and CinemaNow. Note, however, that some people--Windows users, primarily--find iTunes to be bloatware they'd rather avoid.
iTunes has one of the best selections of major movies and TV shows in this group, especially since HD versions are often available. Prices are comparable to those at Amazon, and often cheaper than Blockbuster and CinemaNow. Rumors of an "iTunes in the cloud" streaming service and an improved $99 Apple TV are intriguing, but Apple's video store already scores well for choice, price, and overall polish.
Bottom line: Unless you're anti-iTunes, this service remains one of the best ways to watch movies and TV on a computer--and it's a no-brainer if you own Apple gadgets.
Weird but true: Clicker is the only service here that doesn't provide content of its own--yet it's the single best place to head for when you're in the mood to watch something. That's because it's a really slick search engine for TV shows and movies: It finds items on most of the other venues in this group, plus the sites of major networks and channels. (It's particularly handy for news and other nonfiction programming that often isn't widely distributed.)
Clicker finds both no-cost and for-pay content; one of its best features is the ability to filter search results to show only free versions of a particular item, so you don't plunk down money unnecessarily. It embeds videos in its own interface when it can, and sends you elsewhere when it must. And if you use its neat playlist feature, you can subscribe to TV series and receive e-mail alerts when new episodes are available.
Bottom line: It's one of the best things to happen to Internet video lately.
Since its 2007 launch, Hulu has been the kingpin of catch-up TV--a terrific way to watch recent episodes of popular and not-so-popular shows from ABC, NBC, Fox, and many other sources for free. (CBS is the one major absentee.) Its user interface is pleasingly streamlined and intuitive, and the ad breaks are much less frequent and intrusive than on broadcast TV and basic cable. Unless you're really allergic to commercials, you don't have much reason to pay another service for a TV episode if it's on Hulu.
The service's movie section has hundreds of titles, but most are the type you might catch in the wee hours on a cable station--it doesn't get much more exciting than Crocodile Dundee II. I do, however, dig its selection of older TV series, which includes everything from iconic works (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, early SNL) to entertaining oddities (The Amazing World of Kreskin ).
One of Hulu's main attractions has always been the fact that it's a freebie. But you can now request an invite to a preview version of Hulu Plus, the upcoming premium version. It has full current seasons rather than a handful of recent shows, plus 2000 episodes from seasons past. And it works on the iPhone, the iPad, and a variety of TVs and Blu-ray players. The $10 a month you'll pay doesn't get rid of the ads, though.
Bottom line: Hulu is the best single place on the Web to watch TV.
Netflix Watch Instantly
Think back to the last time you went to a video store. If you headed for the new releases, Netflix Watch Instantly probably isn't for you. But if you went spelunking for older titles you never got around to seeing the first time around, this service is both a delight and a deal. (You can pay as little as $9 a month for one of Netflix's discs-by-snail-mail plans and get unlimited access to Watch Instantly as part of the package.)
In its early days, the service had a reputation for emphasizing quantity over quality. It still doesn't have major new releases, but it does offer plenty of reasonably recent big-name entertainment, including movies such as 2012, District 9, and Up and full 2009 seasons of shows like House and The Office.
You need to be online to watch Netflix, since it streams video rather than letting you download it. The all-you-can-watch pricing means you can gorge on content without fretting about the cost; you also don't have to worry about watching rentals in their entirety within 24 hours of beginning playback, as you do with other services. But if you see something you're dying to watch, don't wait forever: Some items vanish from Watch Instantly over time.
For the most part, Watch Instantly's interface is nicely done--I especially like the thumbnail previews you see if you skim forward in a video. But I wish it provided a way to search only the Watch Instantly collection; currently the results pages mix results for Watch Instantly and DVDs indiscriminately.
The bottom line: At Netflix, you'll find a bountiful buffet for less than the price of one movie purchase elsewhere.
Next: The Runners-Up