Now that Tesco's big investment in Blinkbox is finally paying off, ramped up its content and being pushed out to more devices, it’s time to have a look at what we can actually get from the PAYG-only service, and compare it to what our original streamers, LoveFilm, Netflix and Now TV, are currently offering.
On the face of it, when we're talking about subscriptions, LoveFilm still wins on the price front right now. Literally hours after the announcement of Netflix pricing with in the UK, Amazon spat out a streaming-only LoveFilm plan rolling in at a quid cheaper than Netflix’s £5.99, and a whole £10 cheaper than Now TV. However, Blinkbox's PAYG offerings could end up being cheaper for you, if you're only an occasional streaming movie watcher. Prices start from 99p, but most of the decent content is £3.49 to rent or around £11 to buy (why anyone would buy a movie on a streaming-only service, I do not know).
LoveFilm’s DVD and Blu-ray library is quite sizeable, but unfortunately the same can’t be said for its streaming library. There are roughly 4,000 titles currently available, with Amazon adding new and cycling titles rapidly.
Netflix’s movie collection isn’t quite as strong as LoveFilm’s on the face of it -- at least for relatively new releases -- and it doesn’t publicly list how many films and TV shows it currently has for UK streaming as far as I can see. There are a few big-name and recent films, but if you’re looking for the latest blockbuster releases, Netflix isn’t going to cater for you as well as LoveFilm, Now TV or Blinkbox might. Netflix does, however, have an OK back catalogue of older films -- but compared to what’s available in Netflix’s US library, it’s hard not to feel like we’re getting stiffed a bit.
Both subscription services also have exclusive deals sewn up with movie studios, so you might find you simply can’t get a particular film on one service because the other has it. For films though, LoveFilm is more likely to float your boat. But then again neither streaming-only service can really match up to what’s available on DVD or Blu-ray from LoveFilm still, and I can’t see that changing within the near future.
Now TV, on the other hand, is chock-a-block full of the latest movies. Sky pays a lot of money to grab films in what's called the first "pay TV window". Both LoveFilm and Netflix battle it out to secure films in the second of these so-called pay TV windows, which are at least a year behind the first window. The result is that Now TV has a whole lot more in the way of current or recently released titles for you to stream, including five new premieres every Friday, with quite a lot of the year's biggest films landing on the streaming service before the year is out. Having said that, Now TV's total movie library is pretty small, compared to LoveFilm's at least, with under 1,000 films available for streaming through the Movie Pass subscription package and another 1,000 or so "on-DVD" or classic movies for PAYG on-demand. So, Now TV is great for the latest movies, but you might find its back catalogue a bit lacking or pricey.
When it comes to movies, Blinkbox comes somewhere in between Now TV and the likes of LoveFilm and Netflix. I has quite a few recent movies for streaming, taking a handful from the first pay TV window when possible and mixing it in with movies from the second. The Blinkbox library is currently undergoing rapid expansion, but what's available now is pretty all-inclusive already. It won't have every movie you're ever going to want to rent, but there's plenty to choose from to keep you going for a month or two.
Most of LoveFilm's launch selection of TV shows came from Channel 4, old BBC programs, or were kids TV shows. There’s the odd episode of Poirot, Robot Chicken and several seasons of Peep Show among the mix, so there's normally something decent to watch on there. Recently, though, Amazon's been piloting its own original content, which means there's a couple of unique-to-LoveFilm shows in the pipeline. Amazon's also been ramping up its acquisitions of TV shows from American networks, and while LoveFilm doesn't get them quite as quickly as Amazon Streaming does in the US, they slowly trickle over to the UK with things like The Walking Dead and Vikings recently hitting the service.
TV is something Netflix does really well. We already know that Netflix signed-up the BBC for its back catalogues, and they’re all present and accounted for. If you’re partial to a bit of British TV like Poirot, Lewis or Fawlty Towers, Netflix will do you right. Other highlights include lots of American TV shows like South Park, Breaking Bad, 24, Prison Break, Dexter, and Heroes, something LoveFilm doesn’t really offer in abundance quite yet. Unfortunately, again comparing what Netflix is offering in the UK to what you can get in the US, I can’t help but feel we’re getting a raw deal -- there are no episodes of Bones, or Monk, or the absolutely fabulous The Good Guys for instance. I’m assuming that’s down to licencing issues, and there’s a possibility that these kind of shows could be added at a later date (there have been a couple of American TV shows added to the Netflix library since launch like Warehouse 13), but for now you’re out of luck if you love watching a forensic anthropologist and a FBI agent bust down doors and lock-up murderers.
Like LoveFilm, Netflix is also making a big push into original content. Right now there are new shows like House of Cards (USA), Hemlock Grove, and of course a fresh season of Arrested Development. Some are certainly better than others, but it's all new, and pretty much all of them have been worth watching so far.
Even though it's got television in the name, Now TV doesn't actually offer any TV other than sports (which we're not going to cover here) at present. That's set to change in the future, as Sky's bringing TV content to Now TV in the future, but right now it's movies and sport only.
Blinkbox's TV selection is, like its movie catalogue, pretty decent with a mix of UK and American TV shows. Series like Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Homeland and Sons of Anarchy are all right and present, as well as the likes of Merlin and Red Dwarf. The biggest issue with Blinkbox's TV offerings is that you have to buy each episode individually for £1.89 a pop, or fork out for the whole season for a smallish bulk discount.
On the quality front, things are getting closer, but there’s still not really much of a comparison. If you have a fast enough connection 5Mbps and above should probably do it, then Netflix will furnish your screen with 720p streaming video and Dolby Digital Plus surround sound; if you’re lucky enough to have a solid 8Mbps or above connection and a PS3 or computer, you can even pull down a 1080p full HD stream. While it’s not quite as good as the kind of video you get from a Blu-ray, it is pretty damn impressive and compares really well with the current broadcast TV HD offerings from Sky, Virgin, FreeSat HD and Freeview HD.
Unfortunately, this is where LoveFilm is perhaps at its weakest. LoveFilm has recently added 720p HD streaming to certain devices, which has made a big difference especially to TV streaming, rather than on a computer. It certainly as good as Netflix’s super-high quality full HD streams at the moment.
Likewise, Now TV's HD streaming is currently a bit limited. Sky has 720p HD up and running on the Xbox 360, the PS3 and Roku, but quite a lot of movies aren't available in HD yet. If you happen to be on anything else, you're strictly limited to SD, and there's also no talk of 1080p streaming, so those of us with 10Mbps+ connections won't be able to up the quality -- a shame for movie watching, where getting a really decent picture makes the most out of all those cinematic masterpieces, or trashy action romps, on show.
Blinkbox's biggest issue right now is streaming quality. It's SD at best and it's not high bit-rate SD at that. Through the PS3 on your big-screen TV for instance, you can visually see blocky artefacts in fast moving scenes, while the audio is surprisingly low quality, pushing muddy bass across almost all the audio if you have anything resembling a home cinema setup going. Tesco's promising HD streaming in the near future, which is sorely needed, as compared to the others it's way, way behind the curve on quality.
Again, Netflix certainly has the edge over LoveFilm, Now TV and Blinkbox in the delivery department at the moment. You can stream on a whole variety of devices including iOS and Android devices. The three major consoles are all supported, along with the Apple TV, some Smart TV and Blu-ray players, the Roku box, and of course, a PC or Mac.
LoveFilm on the other hand will stream to some Smart TVs, home theatre systems and Blu-ray players; the PS3 and Xbox 360; the iPad, and a PC or Mac using Silverlight. Some of LoveFilm's streaming apps are better than others, but most of them are pretty sluggish and slow in the navigation department.
Now TV is available on YouView, consoles, iOS, select Androids, Roku, as well as your PC or Mac of course. Hopefully it'll be on every device that supports streaming, considering Sky's aiming Now TV to be platform agnostic, but there's no telling how long it'll take to actually arrive on your streaming device of choice.
Blinkbox has decent device coverage, following the others, with Mac and PC, Xbox 360 and PS3, and a couple of smart TVs, Blu-ray players, and set-top boxes supported. Apps are available for both iOS and Android, but only for tablets and not all content is available on the mobile devices yet. It's worth mentioning that the PS3 support is through the built-in browser, which is less than ideal, and pretty infuriating to use. It badly needs a decent dedicated app.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a clear winner here. Both LoveFilm and Netflix have their strong points, with Now TV offering an expensive but reasonably compelling offering too, and then Blinkbox augmenting the others with PAYG offerings. LoveFilm probably has more current and big-name movies than Netflix, but Now TV blows both of them out of the water for the newest big-name blockbusters. On the other hand Netflix has more TV shows than LoveFilm, and has a really great interface you can actually use without tearing your hair out. On the quality front, Netflix wins hands down too beating all others by miles, and you can currently stream Netflix to a greater variety of devices. But it’s also £1 more expensive than LoveFilm.
My advice is to take all three subscription services up on their free trial offers and test-drive them for yourself, while having a poke through the Blinkbox library. I’m intending to maintain my LoveFilm two-disc subscription with Instant streaming on the side (£9.99) and add Netflix into the mix for TV shows. I'm also going to keep Now TV's PAYG option live, combined with Blinkbox for the odd massive blockbuster movie that I can't be bothered to grab on Blu-ray. Having said that, my preference is certainly in that order; if it's on Netflix, then Netflix is where I'd rather watch it above all others. That little lot works out at £11 a month, plus the odd £3.49+ rental, which isn't bad in the grand scheme of all things media, especially when you look at just how expensive a full TV subscription to Sky or Virgin is.
At any rate, there’s never been a better time to cut your pay-TV subscriptions and go purely over-the-top in the UK. Neither Netflix nor LoveFilm might deliver everything you want to watch right now alone, but it’s certainly a great start and with Now TV and Blinkbox filling in the movie-based gaps it's a winning combination. Let’s hope having the four of them battle it out will bolster their libraries giving us more on-demand content and keep prices low. We’re still in recovery from the recession, so the cheaper the better in my book.
Image credit: Boxing gloves from Shutterstock
This comparison has been edited since it was originally published on January 10th; updated to reflect the changing libraries and with thoughts on Sky's Now TV for movies and Blinkbox added.