Cheap isn't always cheerful -- and in the world of streaming video, that's especially true. Although, on the face of it, there's several different near-identical video streaming services you can plonk a couple of quid down for, not all were created equal.
As such, we've put our finger to the trackpad to compare the three primo subscription video streaming services out there: Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video (formerly Lovefilm, RIP), and Sky's Now TV. Generally, the services we're looking at provide a mixture of TV and movies, streamed straight off the internet (as opposed to downloaded), and are available on a veritable plethora of devices, from the humble PC, to mobile devices, games consoles, and super-clever Smart TVs.
Netflix is the simplest payment option here: £5.99 gets you full access to their streaming library, with simultaneous streaming limited to two screens; for £8.99, you get a 'family' deal that takes your telly consumption up to four devices at the same time.
Amazon Video is also £5.99, but more enticingly, you can pay £79 per year for Amazon Prime, which gives you access to not only the video library, but also the Kindle e-book lending library, and expedited shipping for all Amazon orders, for free. That means, for just an extra £7 more than Netflix per year (£5.99 x 12 is £72ish), you get all the extra benefits of Amazon Prime.
Now TV offers three main categories of entertainment: movies, TV, and sports. You have to basically buy a separate pass for each: the Movies one is £8.99 per month; Sports is a whopping £9.99 per day, and Entertainment (the TV one) will run you £4.99 per month.
>> Winner >> Amazon's Prime Instant Video wins this round hands-down: for around the same price as Netflix, and for substantially less than Now TV, you get unlimited streaming access, plus the famed Amazon Prime free delivery service and ebook lending -- something that was previously sold for £49 per year, without the whole video thing tacked on. That makes Amazon a steal, in our books.
Film studios generally release their titles in 'windows': cinemas are first, obviously, followed by Blu-ray, DVD, and finally the likes of Netflix, normally six months to a year after the theatrical release.
Now TV gets one up on the competition here: thanks to Sky's backing, owners of the Movie pass on Now TV get access to all the movies showing that month on any of the Sky Movies channel. Those tend to include some of the most recent films, as well as a very respectable back-catalogue.
Netflix and Amazon, therefore, are left to battle it out for older movies. In general, those two will compete for the rights to stream a certain movie, meaning that films will normally be available on one or the other, not both. Whether the particular film you're looking for will be on a certain service sadly comes down to luck on any given day.
That said, based on my purely subjective browsing tastes, I find that Amazon more often has movies that I'd want to watch -- whilst Netflix and Amazon might be equal in terms of the sheer number of titles available, you get the feeling Amazon's pumped the cash in trying to acquire the more desirable flicks.
>> Winner >> Now TV takes the crown if you're a new-movie junkie; otherwise, Amazon's Prime Instant Video is your best winter-evening companion.
TV is where Netflix really shines. Not only does it have award-winning original content (cough, House of Cards), but it also has big shows like Breaking Bad and How I Met Your Mother on the roster. Even better, it's also been on a British buying binge recently, acquiring gems like Fawlty Towers, Blackadder, and The Thick of It, to name but a few.
Amazon's got a good foothold too -- although they can't quite rival Netflix's breadth of content, original shows like Vikings sit well alongside stuff like The Walking Dead and a smattering of older Channel 4 shows. What's lacking, more than anything else, is the current-season, big-name shows that've taken over Netflix's front page.
Now TV's Entertainment pass basically gets you access to whatever's playing on Sky's TV channels -- which can be gold, like Girls or Grey's Anatomy, but doesn't really scratch the I-want-to-watch-a-young-Rowan-Atkinson itch in quite the same way as Netflix. Where Now TV wins, however, is sports: if you're hankering to watch a Premiership football match or ATP tennis, Now TV's the only way to go about it without buying an entire Sky subscription.
>> Winner >> Netflix by a landslide, thanks to frankly fantastic original content, and a back-catalogue that won't see you leave the couch for months on end.
Of course, more movies than the Odeon won't exactly help if you can't watch them on your device of choice.
The primary interface for all of the services is an internet browser, which serves as the Windows and Mac platform. While all of the services work just fine (provided you're not running Internet Explorer -- yes, I'm looking at you), Netflix stands out among the crowd -- its much-vaunted recommendation engine is fantastic for finding you new stuff to watch (and also spells death to any work ethic); the user interface is also a masterpiece in simplicity, if not the prettiest thing in the world.
In terms of mobile devices, all of the services offer iPhone and iPad apps, although with varying levels of quality (which we'll get to in a sec). Android users are not quite so lucky -- Amazon's got no Android app (in an attempt to force people onto its Amazon Fire tablets, no doubt), and although there's a Now TV app for Android, device compatibility is notoriously patchy. You're also limited to a maximum of four activated devices, which is probably fine for a single user, but sucks if you're trying to share one subscription between a household. Netflix, for the record, offer apps for just about every device going.
>> Winner >> Netflix/Amazon photo finish, with Netflix edging it thanks to prettier mobile apps, and a better PlayStation user interface.
The quality will, obviously, depend quite heavily on your internet connection -- if BT has condemned your street to an eternity of ADSL copper-wire hell, then everything will probably be streamed as some variation of an over-pixelated face.
If your home stereo is wired up to the internet's fibre-optic backbone, however, then you're going to see the most benefit from Amazon and Netflix, assuming you have the home theatre to match. Some content is streamed in 1080p Full HD, with Dolby 5.1 surround sound to match, on compatible devices (that's PlayStations, and some Smart TVs). (Update 11/03/14: The consensus among our commenters seems to be that Netflix, in general, has more 5.1-capable movies than Amazon.) Other apps, like those for the tablets, are limited to 720p. (But, then again, if you can tell the difference between 720p and 1080p on a 10-inch iPad screen, your nose has probably been surgically grafted to your tablet, and you've got bigger problems than Leonardo DiCaprio's slightly blurry forehead.)
In real-world terms, Amazon's quality seems to be a little better: on a fast internet connection, Full HD seemed to always be the order of the day, whereas Netflix occasionally jumps between bitrates, resulting in the occasional pixellated sky. Now TV also perform admirably, with the former particularly quick to load, not even giving me time to grab the popcorn.
One other point worth a mention is Netflix's rapid push for 2K and 4K quality, which is starting to become available on a few select pieces of content. While a push towards higher-quality content is undoubtedly laudable, it's also largely pointless: virtually no-one has 2K or 4K-compatible tellies; even if you do, it's probably too small for you to notice the difference when you're sitting a reasonable distance away; and, the number of films or TV shows being released in 4K at this point is pitiful. To all practical intents and purposes, then, 1080p is as good as it needs to get.
>> Winner >> Amazon and Netflix win, thanks to the 5-channel audio and decent (but not exceptional) catalogue of HD-quality movies.
In general, I'd say Amazon has the edge on classic movies, Netflix on TV shows, and Now TV for new releases.
What confuses things, however, is Amazon's bundling of its video service with the Amazon Prime service. If you're already an Amazon Prime member, or you buy tonnes of stuff off their site, it's a no-brainer: Amazon Instant Video is cheaper, and just as good at forcing procrastination as any of the rest.
This was originally published on 11th March 2014.