Ten years ago, the idea of accessing thousands of movies and television shows with a few quick clicks of your remote would have sounded like a scenario from The Jetsons. Today it’s a reality, and a relatively inexpensive one at that. Whether you prefer your content to be an all-you-can-stream buffet or an a la carte, pay-as-you-go experience, there’s bound to be a service that suits your needs.
Netflix is probably the most well-known streaming service and one of the most affordable, offering thousands of hours of entertainment at the flat rate of $7.99 per month as of February 2012. The library contains a diverse collection of movies, documentaries and TV series, ranging from cult classics like “Dark Shadows” to recent hits like “Downton Abbey.” If you’re looking for the latest episodes of your favorite shows or want to watch movies the day they’re released on home video, you’re out of luck – television content is limited to past seasons and movies usually take at least a few months to show up, if they show up at all. Premium content is scarce – Netflix doesn’t carry any shows from HBO and only a few from Showtime and Starz.
Although most people are probably familiar with Hulu as a provider of free streaming content on the Web, the company recently extended service to mobile devices and smart TVs with the introduction of Hulu Plus. Hulu Plus is the paid version of the service and the only version that can be streamed to devices other than your computer. The $7.99 monthly subscription gives you next-day access to new episodes of your favorite shows from most major networks, including ABC, NBC, Fox and The CW. Availability of older episodes varies depending on the network; some shows, like “Grey’s Anatomy,” can be streamed from the first episode to the most recent, while others only allow a handful of recent episodes to be streamed. Content from premium cable channels is not available and some shows are Web-only, meaning that they can’t be watched through your mobile device or streamed to your TV. Films are limited to a few older releases and some made-for-TV movies.
Amazon offers two types of streaming content. If you subscribe to Amazon Prime at $79 per year, you have access to a streaming library of older movies and TV shows, containing many of the same options as Netflix. If you want more recent fare, you can rent or buy digital copies of newly released movies and recently aired television episodes. Prices start from $1.99 to $3.99 for movie rentals and individual television episodes. New TV episodes are usually available the day after they air. Amazon Instant Video also carries premium content from HBO, Showtime and Starz, and shows can be purchased an episode at a time or by the season.
HBO Go and Showtime Anytime
These services are relative newcomers to the streaming scene and, unlike Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, require a cable TV subscription to access their libraries of TV episodes and movies. Both HBO Go and Showtime Anytime are free for current HBO and Showtime subscribers, but with a catch – your cable provider has to support access to the service and not all do. Content is limited to a rotating list of old and new movies, and past and current seasons of each network’s hit shows.