Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Netflix: The big three streaming services compared

Which online entertainment service offers cord-cutters the best combination of original content, user interface, and bottom-line value?

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Amazon | Netflix | Hulu

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Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix—the three biggest players in online entertainment—are like the three broadcast networks that dominated the early days of broadcast television. But unlike ABC, CBS, and NBC, cord-cutters must pay subscription fees to watch what these services have to offer. Assuming you don’t want to sign up for all three, which one delivers the best value for the dollar?

Let’s compare each service’s original movies and television series; the depth and breadth of their licensed content; their user experience (on smart TVs and streaming devices, in a web browser, and on mobile devices); the availability of 4K content; and prices.

Amazon Prime Video

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Amazon

Rachel Brosnahan stars as the stand-up comic title character in the Amazon Original series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

Amazon has been leaning into producing its own original content—some of it quite good—but it also licenses movies and TV series from other sources. Amazon is unique among these three services in that it operates on a hybrid model: You get lots of content for the price of a subscription, but if you don’t want to wait for a particular movie to “age” into that availability tier following its theatrical run, you might be able to rent it for an additional fee (once you start streaming a rented movie, you typically have 48 hours to finish watching it).

Smart TV streaming: Amazon Prime’s Smart TV app is cleaner than its desktop experience, with an easy-to-see menu bar at the top of the screen: “Search,” “Home,” “Originals,” “Movies,” “TV,” “Kids,” “Video Library,” “Watchlist,” and “Settings.” The ad is just below, a static banner, followed by rows of titles to choose from. The “Watch Next” is first up, followed by lists of originals and other suggestions.

Clicking on a movie gives viewers options to see what customers also watched, a look at the cast, or options to change subtitle or audio choices. Titles can be added or removed from the Watchlist. On certain titles a pause during play brings up the cast members that are currently in the scene, with an option to go to “X-Ray” for a deeper look (Amazon owns IMDb—the Internet Movie Database—so its metadata can be very good). Viewers can also adjust the closed-captioning from the movie interface, fast-forward, or rewind.

TV viewers should be aware that if you’ve decided to start watching a show that is already in its second or third season, Prime defaults to the newest season, as opposed to the first season. You must manually go back to select Season One. (I made this mistake myself, accidentally watching the entire second season of One Mississippi, accompanied by the vague notion that I had missed something.)

Amazon Prime Video user interface Jeffrey M. Anderson / IDG

When using Amazon Prime Video in a web browser, It’s not always easy to navigate away from the Amazon store to its Prime Video section.

Browser streaming: On the desktop, it’s not always easy to navigate away from the Amazon store to the Prime Video section (there is a small “Prime Video” link in the top menu bar), and from there to find movies that are “Included with Prime,” versus rentals that cost extra. But once there, Amazon provides several options, including “Watch Next” (which is essentially your queue, plus anything you might have clicked on earlier), Prime originals, movies and shows Amazon thinks you’ll like, trending, popular, recently added, and then on to genres (“mystery,” or “horror,” or what have you).

Amazon advertises its latest offerings in a small banner at the top of the page. The “My stuff” queue is well organized and has separate tabs for TV shows and movies. You’re given the ability to rewind or skip ahead ten seconds, activate optional subtitles, choose video quality, cast information, and trivia. Amazon originals feature trivia, behind-the-scenes bonuses, spoken audio tracks, and other extras. Some originals are also available in 4K at no additional cost.

On the go: With the Prime Video app on your smartphone or tablet, Prime Originals or “Included with Prime” titles can be downloaded for offline viewing for a limited amount of time. Titles are available for 30 days in all, or for 48 hours once viewing has started; you can download up to 15 or 25 titles (depending on your location). Purchased titles, are, of course, always available.

Aeronauts Amazon

Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones star in the Amazon Original movie The Aeronauts.

Best original movies on Amazon: The Aeronauts, The Big Sick, Brittany Runs a Marathon, Chi-Raq, Cold War, Crown Heights; Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot; Elvis & Nixon, The Handmaiden, Honey Boy, I Am Not Your Negro, Last Flag Flying, Late Night, The Lost City of Z, Love & Friendship, Manchester by the Sea, The Neon Demon, One Child Nation, Paterson, The Report, The Salesman, Suspiria (2018), The Wall, Wonderstruck, You Were Never Really Here, etc.

Best original series on Amazon: Bosch, The Boys, Carnival Row, Catastrophe, Fleabag, Forever, Goliath, Good Omens, Hanna, Homecoming, Jack Ryan, The Man in the High Castle, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Mozart in the Jungle, One Mississippi, Patriot, Red Oaks, Sneaky Pete, The Tick, Transparent, etc., as well as various children’s shows, docu-series, and stand-up comedy specials.

Licensed content on Amazon: A large array of licensed content is also available to stream free via membership (“Included with Prime”), as well as many other movies and shows available for rent or purchase.

Other considerations: Where Netflix’s movies are forever stirring up trouble with theater chains and critics (are they movies, or are they TV?), Amazon avoids rocking the industry boat by giving its original movies limited theatrical releases before debuting them online. Dependable and smooth, Prime looks like a horse that will stay in this race for a long time to come.

Pricing: $8.99 per month for Prime Video only; $12.99 per month ($119 if paid annually) for complete Prime services: free shipping, a limited streaming music service, free games on Twitch, free ebooks, and so on.


The Irishman Netflix

Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro star in the Netflix Original movie The Irishman

Netflix offers a combination of original programming (both movies and series) and licensed content (ditto), but lots of time can pass between the end of a non-Netflix movie’s theatrical run and its appearance on Netflix’s streaming service (availability on disc is another matter—more on that later).

Smart TV streaming: Be sure to have your volume turned down, because after Netflix loads, it can hit you with a sudden, heart-attack-inducing, “ba-BONG!”—its signature startup sound. Depending on how many profiles you’ve set up, you must select yours (profiles can be adorned with images from dozens of signature Netflix shows and movies, from the Stranger Things kids to the Okja pig).

Roughly three-quarters of the home screen is taken up with a promo of whatever is new. But unlike the browser version, no trailers automatically start playing, which is a relief. When a chosen title is selected, it brings up a description and a list of menu items on the left (“audio and subtitles,” “add to my list,” etc.). But, annoyingly, the movie or show then automatically starts playing, even if you’re just trying to read the description and have yet to decide whether to hit the “play” button. (The movie then shows up in your “continue watching” list, where it will stay for the foreseeable future.)

There are dozens of titles to look at on the home screen, but they are almost all Netflix originals or popular recent releases. Anything else must be found via the search option. Fortunately, once a movie or show has been selected and has begun, playback is smooth and crisp, with the option to rewind or fast-forward, or adjust the language track or subtitles.

Netflix user interface Jeffrey M. Anderson / IDG

Netflix likes to promote one of its latest offerings (Lost in Space, here) with a big, noisy, auto-launching trailer as soon as you’ve logged into its service via web browser.

Browser streaming: Once you’ve signed in via a web browser, Netflix loads up with a large, main-window preview of whatever its latest offering is, immediately launching into a noisy trailer. A range of menus appear at the top of the screen: “TV Shows,” “Movies,” “Latest,” and “My List,” with options to search, switch to a kid-friendly interface, order DVDs (Netflix’s original business model), gift Netflix to a friend, or manage your profile. The Netflix queue lumps TV shows and movies together, and is manageable (and sortable) mainly from the website. On playback, users have the ability to rewind or skip ahead ten seconds, display optional subtitles and language tracks, and get assistance by clicking a “help” button.

On the go: With the Netflix app, phone and tablet users can stream as well as download up to 100 videos for a limited time of offline viewing. (Only select titles, including all Netflix originals, are available for download.) The time to watch a download depends on each title, but Netflix sends a warning when only seven days remain. Some titles will expire 48 hours after “play” is pressed.

Best original movies on Netflix: Always Be My Maybe, Atlantics, The Babysitter, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Barry, Beasts of No Nation, Bird Box, Cam, Cargo, The Christmas Chronicles, Deidra & Laney Rob a Train, Dolemite Is My Name, El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, The Fundamentals of Caring, Gerald’s Game, Happy As Lazzaro, High Flying Bird, I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, I Lost My Body, Imperial Dreams, The Incredible Jessica James, The Irishman, Klaus, The Little Prince, Marriage Story, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), Mudbound, Okja, The Other Side of the Wind, Our Souls at Night, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, The Perfection, Private Life, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, Roma, Shirkers, Tallulah, To the Bone, The Two Popes, A Very Murray Christmas, Velvet Buzzsaw, etc.

Stranger Things Netflix

(L to R) Gaten Matarazzo, Noah Schnapp, Finn Wolfhard, and Millie Bobby Brown star in the Netflix Original series Stranger Things.

Best original series on Netflix: American Vandal, Big Mouth, BoJack Horseman, The Crown, Dark, Daredevil, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, Dead to Me, Dear White People, Dracula, GLOW, Godless, Grace and Frankie, The Haunting of Hill House, House of Cards, Jessica Jones, The Kominsky Method, Lady Dynamite, Living with Yourself, Luke Cage, Master of None, Mindhunter, Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return, Narcos, The OA, Orange Is the New Black, Ozark, Russian Doll, Santa Clarita Diet, Sex Education, She’s Gotta Have It, Stranger Things, 13 Reasons Why, Trollhunters, The Umbrella Academy, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, When They See Us, etc., as well as many stand-up comedy specials, children’s shows, cooking shows, docu-series, and more.

Licensed content on Netflix: Membership gives you access to lots of other streaming entertainment, but Netflix puts its own content front and center. You’ll need to use the search window if you’re looking for something specific.

Other considerations: Netflix offers a plethora of exclusive Adam Sandler movies: A selling point for some; a deterrent for others. And if you want a great home-theater experience without worrying about what your broadband service provider offers in terms of bandwidth (or bandwidth caps, as the case may be), Netflix still offers the option of Blu-ray (and DVD) disc rentals through the mail.

Pricing: Netflix’s basic plan costs $8.99 per month, but that’s for a standard-definition stream to just one TV at a time. The midrange plan bumps you to $12.99 per month, but you get a high-definition stream to two TVs at once. If you want 4K HDR and your service provider can deliver the bandwidth to support it, Netflix’s Premium plan allows you as many as four simultaneous streams at that resolution for $15.99 per month.

Adding disc rentals to your subscription costs an additional $7.99 per month to have one disc checked out at a time, or $11.99 per month to have two discs out. There is no limit to the number of discs you can rent per month.


The Handmaid’s Tale Hulu

Elisabeth Moss stars in the Hulu Original series The Handmaid’s Tale, based on the dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood.

Hulu was founded in 2007—the same year that Netflix added streaming to its business model—but musical chairs amongst its ownership consortium made the service seem a bit schizophrenic. ABC, AOL, Comcast, Disney, Facebook, Fox, NBC Universal, Time Warner, and other big media companies have all been involved with Hulu at one time or another—with some of those corporations gobbling up others in the interim.

None of that stopped Hulu from eventually producing some compelling original series, including adaptations of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Mergers, acquisitions, and strategic partnerships have since given Walt Disney Company a majority stake in Hulu, which Disney considers a fitting bookend to its family-oriented Disney+ streaming service.

Smart TV streaming: As does Netflix, Hulu loads up asking users to choose a profile (but without the fun little icons). From there, navigation is not exactly intuitive. The default selection is TV, with new and promoted titles up front, whether you want them or not. Artwork takes up the right side of the screen, and a highlighted first title on the list appears on the left. Scrolling down brings up a seemingly random list of shows. You must scroll up to the menu to get to “keep watching” or “unwatched in my stuff.”

For a channel that specializes in TV content, and drops its episodes one at a time, it makes sense that one of these two menu items ought to be the default. Other menu items are “Movies,” “Kids,” and “Hulu Originals,” followed by “Blockbuster Movies,” etc. There’s a smaller menu at the very top for “Home,” “My Stuff,” “Browse,” “Search,” and a user’s profile settings. Again, once streaming starts (and the ads are over), the experience is largely smooth and seamless. Viewers can fast-forward or rewind, start the movie over, go to the next “autoplay” movie, adjust the language track or subtitles, look up more recommended titles, or go to “details.”

Hulu user interface Jeffrey M. Anderson

Hulu arguably offers the best user interface of the three services compared here.

Browser streaming: In a browser, Hulu’s simple, navigable home screen loads up with plenty of disparate selections, and the “Browse,” “My Stuff” (i.e. the queue), and “Search” buttons are readily visible. The queue keeps TV shows and movies separate. You can rewind or skip ahead 10 seconds, and there are optional subtitles and language tracks on selected movies, as well as an option to turn “autoplay” on or off.

On the go: Hulu’s mobile and tablet app basically offers the streaming capabilities of its web and smart TV-based services, but the service does not offer downloads for offline viewing.

Best original movies on Hulu: The Amazing Jonathan Documentary, Ask Dr. Ruth, The Beatles: Eight Days a Week - The Touring Years, Becoming Bond, Batman & Bill, Crime + Punishment, Fyre Fraud, Jawline, Little Monsters, Minding the Gap, Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie, Too Funny to Fail, Untouchable, etc.

Best original series on Hulu: The Act, Castle Rock, Casual, Catch-22, Difficult People, 11.22.63, Future Man, The Handmaid’s Tale, Harlots, I Love You America with Sarah Silverman, Into the Dark, Letterkenny, The Looming Tower, Marvel’s Runaways, The Mindy Project, The Path, PEN15, Ramy, Spoilers with Kevin Smith, Veronica Mars, Wu-Tang: An American Saga, etc.

Licensed content on Hulu: TV entertainment was Hulu’s original strong suit, with the service streaming new episodes of the network’s TV after they had aired on their respective networks. That could continue for the ABC and Fox networks, which Disney owns, but CBS now has its own streaming (CBS All Access) and NBC is preparing to launch its own service (Peacock). It will be interesting to see what Disney does with the service now that it controls its destiny.

Mind the Gap Hulu

A scene from the Oscar-nominated Hulu Original documentary Minding the Gap, about a group of skateboarders over the course of a decade.

Other considerations: Unlike Netflix and Amazon, Hulu releases new episodes of its original series one a time. That means you can’t binge-watch something like The Handmaid’s Tale unless you’re willing to wait for the entire season to run its course (hoping no one reveals spoilers along the way). Most of Hulu’s original movie offerings, meanwhile, have been documentaries. Some of them—such as the Oscar-nominated Minding the Gap—are excellent, but if you’re looking for drama, comedy, or other fare, you won’t find it here.

Pricing: Hulu offers an ad-supported service plan (content is occasionally interrupted by commercials, much like broadcast TV) for $5.99 per month. Hulu’s ostensibly ad-free alternative costs $11.99 per month (I say “ostensibly” because a disclaimer states that ads will still play during certain shows). Disney also offers a bundle consisting of the ad-supported Hulu, Disney+, and ESPN+ for $12.99 per month.

Hulu is also unique among these three companies in that it operates a live TV streaming service (think cable or satellite TV, but via the internet). Hulu + Live TV costs $54.99 per month for 60-plus channels of live TV from the major networks, plus Hulu’s own original content, a DVR in the cloud for time shifting, and more. You can read our in-depth review of Hulu + Live TV at this link.

The bottom line

Assuming you do a fair amount of shopping on Amazon, free shipping, a modest but excellent library of original content, and a large selection of licensed titles, an Amazon Prime membership offers the best value among these three streaming services and is therefore our top pick.

Netflix, on the other hand, has the highest quality and the largest amount of original content. Masterpieces such as The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, The Irishman, Marriage Story, Mudbound, Okja, The Other Side of the Wind, Private Life, and Roma; guilty pleasures like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny and Mascots; and water-cooler series like Stranger Things can make this service seem essential.

Hulu is very much in transition, but with Disney now determining its destiny, this service’s future looks bright. If you’re looking to cut the cord—that is, sever your ties with your cable- or satellite TV service provider in favor of getting live TV over the internet—Hulu + Live TV is our second-favorite choice (YouTube TV being our top pick that category).

All three services have compelling entertainment on offer, but subscribing to Amazon Prime, Netflix, and Hulu will cost you anywhere from $24 to $42 per month. That jumps to about $84 per month if you go with Hulu + Live TV.

Your other alternative, of course, is to subscribe to and then cancel each service on a revolving basis. Freedom from long-term commitment is one of the greatest benefits that comes with cord-cutting.

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