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In the early days of television, three networks, ABC, NBC, and CBS dominated the airwaves. Today, cord-cutters might be more familiar with the big three streaming-video services: Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, and Netflix. If you’ve cut the cord—or plan to—in order to save money, you might one to choose one of these. We’ll compare what each service has to offer in terms of original and licensed content, usability, and price to help you choose the one that’s right for you.
If finding great entertainment is more important to you than saving cash, on the other hand, we wouldn’t discourage you from signing up for all three.
Amazon Prime Video
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).
Amazon Prime Video pricing
Amazon Prime Video by itself costs $8.99 per month. A full Amazon Prime subscription that also includes free shipping, music, ebooks, and more costs $12.99 per month or $119 if paid annually (that breaks down to $9.92 per month).
Best original movies on Amazon
The Aeronauts, The Big Sick, Blow the Man Down, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Brittany Runs a Marathon, Chi-Raq, Cold War, Coming 2 America, 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 Map of Tiny Perfect Things, The Neon Demon, One Child Nation, One Night in Miami, Paterson, The Report, The Salesman, Selah and the Spads, Small Axe, Sound of Metal, Suspiria (2018), Sylvie’s Love, Troop Zero, The Vast of Night, The Wall, Wonderstruck, You Were Never Really Here.
Best original series on Amazon
Bosch, The Boys, Carnival Row, Catastrophe, Fleabag, Forever, Goliath, Good Omens, Hanna, Homecoming, Hunters, I Love Dick, Jack Ryan, The Man in the High Castle, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Mozart in the Jungle, One Mississippi, Patriot, Red Oaks, Sneaky Pete, Tales from the Loop, The Tick, Transparent, Undone, Upload, etc., as well as various children’s shows, docu-series, and stand-up comedy specials.
Additional content on Amazon Prime Video
A large array of licensed content is also available to stream free via membership (labeled as “Included with Prime”), as well as many other movies and shows available for rent or purchase.
Amazon smart TV experience
Prime Video’s Smart TV app is cleaner than the desktop, with an easy-to-see menu bar at the top of the screen: “Search,” “Home,” “Originals,” “Movies,” “TV,” “Kids,” “Video Library,” “Watchlist,” and “Settings.” Like Netflix and Hulu, Prime Video now starts up with profiles for individual viewers. Unlike Netflix and Hulu, their promoted title is a just slim strip at the top of the page, taking up maybe 25 percent of the screen. The “Watch Next” list is first up, followed by lists of originals, other popular suggestions, and movies from your personal library.
Clicking on a movie gives you options to see what other customers also watched, check out the cast and crew, or change the subtitle or audio options. (The movie does not automatically start playing, giving you an opportunity to make popcorn and grab a frosty beverage before showtime.) 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. Viewers can also adjust the closed captioning from the movie interface (change the font size and color), fast-forward, or rewind. Additionally, some originals are also available in 4K.
Amazon Prime Video desktop experience
On the desktop, once you find the Prime Video button on Amazon’s regular website, you come to a screen that offers the latest promotions in the banner, as well as your “Watch Next” list. As of 2021, in a wonderful upgrade, Amazon has included a handy “Free to Me” button that makes it much easier to find digital movies you own, as well as all the “Included with Prime” content on one handy page.
The “Free to Me” page is organized by categories like Originals, Movies We Think You’ll Like, IMBD Top Rated Titles, Mystery, etc. The “My stuff” queue—accessible from another button at the top—is well organized and has separate tabs for TV shows and movies. During playback, users have the ability to rewind or skip ahead 10 seconds, display subtitles, adjust video quality, view cast information, and read trivia. Amazon originals feature trivia, behind-the-scenes bonuses, spoken audio tracks, and other extras.
Amazon Prime Video mobile experience
With the Prime Video app on your phone 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; users may download up to 15 or 25 titles (depending on location). Purchased titles, are, of course, always available.
Amazon Prime Video summary
If you do a lot of shopping on Amazon, it could be argued that Amazon Prime Video delivers the best value of the three main streaming services because of what you save in shipping costs. Amazon owns an excellent and rapidly growing library of original content, and it offers a surprisingly large selection of other licensed titles—including dozens of obscure classics. Immense, dependable, and smooth, Prime looks like a horse that will stay in this race for a long time to come.
Hulu was founded 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. Today, the streaming services is majority owned—and entirely controlled—by the Walt Disney Company, which considers it a fitting bookend to family-oriented Disney+ streaming service. It’s available in several forms, as we’ll discuss in the pricing section, below.
Hulu’s basic pricing plan is $5.99 per month with ads—$59.99 if paid annually (about $5 per month)—or $11.99 per month without ads. The ads are so frequent and repetitive, you’ll quickly consider upgrading. The special Hulu + Live TV service, which includes dozens of other TV channels, is $64.99 per month with ads, or $70.99 without ads. Cord-cutters can get a bundle that includes Hulu (with ads), Disney+, and ESPN+, for $12.99 per month. Hulu offers a free 30-day trial period.
Best original movies on Hulu
The Amazing Jonathan Documentary, Ask Dr. Ruth, Bad Hair, Batman & Bill, The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years, Becoming Bond, Big Time Adolescence, Boss Level, Crime + Punishment, Fyre Fraud, Happiest Season, I Am Greta, Jawline, Little Monsters, Minding the Gap, Palm Springs, Run, Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie, Too Funny to Fail, The United States vs. Billie Holiday, Untouchable.
Best original series on Hulu
The Act, Animaniacs, Castle Rock, Casual, Catch-22, Devs, Difficult People, Dollface, 11.22.63, Future Man, The Great, The Handmaid’s Tale, Harlots, High Fidelity, Hillary, I Love You America with Sarah Silverman, Into the Dark, Letterkenny, The Looming Tower, Marvel’s Runaways, The Mindy Project, Mrs. America, The Path, PEN15, Ramy, Shrill, Spoilers with Kevin Smith, Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi, Veronica Mars, Wu-Tang: An American Saga.
Additional content on Hulu
A fairly large variety of licensed outside content—arguably more TV than movies—is also available to stream with membership. Hulu and Amazon Prime Video tend to double-up on licensed movie titles. If Hulu offers a movie, Amazon is likely to offer it as well.
Hulu desktop experience
On “Home,” promoted titles now take up almost the entire screen. Scrolling down brings up your recently watched shows (Keep Watching). Click on the Keep Watching link to see a more detailed page, keep track of all of your watched shows, and see how many episodes are left in each series. Other menu items are TV, Movies, My Stuff, and Hubs, and then a search window and account settings. (For some reason, Hulu has seemingly done away with its Kids’ Menu button at the top of the page.)
My Stuff is, of course, your queue, with TV shows on top and movies below. Hubs brings you to a page that lets you narrow down what you’re looking for, including Hulu Originals, News, and, yes, Kids. Again, once streaming starts (and the ads are over), the experience is largely smooth and seamless. Users 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.
Hulu smart TV experience
As with Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, Hulu loads up asking users to choose a profile (but without the fun little icons). Promoted titles now take up about five-sixths of the screen, with your Keep Watching items mostly visible below. Scrolling down brings up a seemingly random list of shows and movies. The top menu bar items are the same as on the web. My Stuff offers a submenu to get to TV Shows, Movies or even things that will be expiring soon. In TV and Movies, viewers can search by genre, with an array of categories, including Black Stories, LGBTQ+, Family, and International, along with the usuals.
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 an info screen. Despite its huge promotional space-hogs, Hulu arguably has the best and most varied menu system.
Hulu mobile experience
Hulu’s mobile and tablet app basically offers the streaming capabilities of its web and smart TV-based services. Only subscribers who pay extra for the ad-free service have access to mobile downloads.
Hulu maintains a solid third place in the streaming wars. Original TV series remain its biggest strength, with titles like The Handmaid’s Tale and Ramy leading the field. Unlike Netflix and Amazon Prime Video (with some exceptions for the latter), which allow users to binge-watch an entire season all at once, Hulu drops single episodes at a time, which—ostensibly—keeps viewers coming back for more. The service’s original movie selection still consists mainly of documentaries and horror movies, but as of 2020, they have begun to step up their game in terms of feature film originals, including Palm Springs, Happiest Season, The United States vs. Billie Holiday, Boss Level, and hopefully more to come.
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 DVD or Blu-ray is another matter—more on that later).
The basic plan is $8.99 per month, with no HD or 4K options, and streaming is allowed on just one TV at a time. The standard plan is $13.99 per month, with HD included and the ability to stream on two TVs at a time. The premium plan is $17.99 per month, with HD and 4K, plus the ability to stream on four TVs at once. Netflix offers a 30-day free trial period. We recommend at least the middle package, for HD viewing, but Netflix might automatically bump you to the premium plan at the same price—at least for the first 30 days.
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 1-2, Crip Camp, Da 5 Bloods, Deidra & Laney Rob a Train, Dolemite Is My Name, El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, Extraction, The 40-Year-Old Version, The Fundamentals of Caring, Gerald’s Game, Happy As Lazzaro, High Flying Bird, Hillbilly Elegy, I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, I Care a Lot, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, I Lost My Body, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Imperial Dreams, The Incredible Jessica James, The Irishman, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, Klaus, The Little Prince, The Lovebirds, Mank, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Marriage Story, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), The Midnight Sky, Mudbound, My Octopus Teacher, Okja, The Old Guard, The Other Side of the Wind, Our Souls at Night, Over the Moon, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, The Perfection, Pieces of a Woman, Private Life, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, Roma, Shirkers, Tallulah, To the Bone, The Trial of the Chicago 7, The Two Popes, A Very Murray Christmas, Velvet Buzzsaw, The White Tiger.
Best original series on Netflix
American Vandal, Big Mouth, BoJack Horseman, Bridgerton, The Crown, Dark, Daredevil, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, Dead to Me, Dear White People, Dracula, Emily in Paris, 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, The Queen’s Gambit, 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.
Additional content available on Netflix
A decent array of licensed outside content is also available to stream free via membership; however, it’s extremely slim pickings if you’re looking for classic movies made before 1980. Since Netflix tends to promote their original content up front, these other titles are mostly likely to be found using its search tool.
Netflix smart TV experience
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 there are, 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 Bridgerton elite). Roughly three-quarters of the home screen is taken up with a promo of whatever is new, and the trailer begins playing. 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.).
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 play button. (The movie then shows up in your “continue watching” list, where it will stay for the foreseeable future.) As with the desktop version, 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 started, playback is smooth and crisp, with the option to rewind or fast-forward, or adjust the language track or subtitles.
Netflix desktop experience
On the desktop, after clicking on your icon, Netflix loads up with a large, main-window preview of whatever their latest offering is, immediately launching into a noisy trailer. At the top are a range of menus, “TV Shows,” “Movies,” “New & Popular,” and “My List,” with options to search, switch to a kid-friendly interface, 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 can rewind or skip ahead 10 seconds, display subtitles, change language tracks, and click a help button.
Netflix mobile experience
With the Netflix app, phone and tablet users can stream as well as download up to 100 videos for a limited time for 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. Certain titles will expire 48 hours after you press play.
Amazon Prime may be the king, but Netflix is the rock star of streaming services; its name has even become a verb for “streaming.” (Let’s Netflix something tonight.) Despite quite a few terrible, but popular Adam Sandler original movies on this service, (which may be either a selling point or a deterrent), there’s little question that Netflix has the highest quality and the largest amount of original content.
Aside from any flaws or setbacks in terms of finding movies or getting them started, great films like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Da 5 Bloods, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, The Irishman, Mank, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Marriage Story, Mudbound, Okja, The Other Side of the Wind, Private Life, Roma, and The Trial of the Chicago 7, as well as dozens of other must-see movies (and guilty pleasures, like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny and Mascots) in addition to so many acclaimed, beloved water-cooler shows (Stranger Things, The Crown, The Queen’s Gambit), make this service essential.
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Jeffrey has been a working film critic for more than 14 years. He first fell in love with the movies at age six while watching “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” and served as staff critic for the San Francisco Examiner from 2000 through 2003.