The battle of the streaming services has been heating up the last 12 months, and at stake is your limited entertainment budget, along with hours and hours of your attention each week. While Netflix was becoming more and more like HBO, commissioning one hit series after another, HBO was quietly becoming more like Netflix, building out its regular movie-streaming library and offering a stand-alone service. Meanwhile Amazon and Hulu have been doing their best to keep up, and their best is better than you might think. The only clear winners are the TV and movie lovers who now have near endless choices at their fingertips.
But few people are willing to pay for all four subscriptions, and which one is best for you depends partly on your tastes. Each of the services has its strengths and weaknesses, and I’ve ranked them under the following considerations:
Most of the top 100 grossing movies of 2014 and 2015 are still unavailable on any of the streaming subscriptions. This is where rental services like Redbox and on demand providers still win out. But there are some exceptions, as noted below. Surprisingly, this is one area that Netflix has ceded lately, with just two films: Nightcrawler and The Boxtrolls. Hulu does a little better with four movies: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, Interstellar, Transformers: Age of Extinction and Noah. HBO also has four, but we give it edge since we like their blockbusters better: The Theory of Everything, American Sniper, Mad Max: Fury Road and Birdman. But Amazon Prime wins the category with seven of the top grossing movies of the last two years: Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ex Machina, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, Interstellar, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Noah and Selma
Recent Critically Acclaimed Movies
Our list of the 50 Best Movies of 2015 is much more accessible via streaming subscriptions. Amazon and Netflix have focused on smaller-grossing critical favorites over the more expensive (and not always as good) hits. Netflix was also the first streaming service to exclusively release a movie that made our year-end list. Beasts of No Nation may have been snubbed at the Oscars, but it’s a beautiful and heartbreaking film, told from the perspective of a child soldier in Africa. Hulu was dead last with none, and HBO had a single entry: Mad Max: Fury Road (#9). Amazon Prime had an impressive six: Chi-raq (#1), Mississippi Grind (#20), Ex Machina (#28), Amy (#29), I’ll See You In My Dreams (#31), While We’re Young (#37). But Netflix wins this battle with seven: Cartel Land (#2), White God (#4), Time Out of Mind (#8), Iris (#15), Beasts of No Nation (#32), Dope (#49), Tangerine (#50).
All four streaming giants are well-stocked with classics thanks to cheaper rights for older movies. Even fourth-place Amazon Prime has films like Taxi Driver, Dr. Strangeglove and The Graduate available to stream. What HBO lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality with a movie library that includes The Godfather Epic, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and two of Woody Allen’s best movies, as well as Blade Runner, Blazing Saddles and In the Heat of the Night. Netflix has dozens of great films from the mid-20th century through the 1980s, like the Gregory Peck/Audrey Hepburn romance Roman Holiday, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Shining.
But thanks to its partnership with Criterion, no other streaming subscription service is even in the ballpark with Hulu. Films spanning the ages from Ingmar Bergman, Jean-Luc Godard, Wim Wenders, Lasse Hallström, Roman Polanski, David Lynch, The Coen Brothers, Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Woody Allen, Jean Renoir, Frederico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni mean that Hulu is essential for world cinema buffs. And it’s a lot cheaper than film school.
Again, docs are typically cheaper to acquire, making them plentiful in most of the services. But Netflix and Hulu have focused on quality as much as quantity. Hulu’s best documentaries come courtesy of the Criterion Collection, including Hoop Dreams and the The Times of Harvey Milk. And while Amazon Prime offers a huge selection, we can only recommend a handful like Amy, Grizzly Man and Stop Making Sense. HBO, on the other hand, has poured tremendous resources into their original documentaries, and now offers more than 240 different docs, including exclusives like Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck and The 50 Year Argument.
But Netflix is king here. If you love documentaries, you can spend months of your spare time without exhausting the selection, including some exclusive titles like The Square. They have so much great non-fiction that we made a list of the 50 best documentaries on Netflix.
This is where competition has between the streaming video services has been most intense. For years, HBO and, to a lesser extent, Showtime used original programming to drive subscriptions. Its newer competitors learned from that success and have been investing heavily to catch up. Hulu got a slow start with Casual and Difficult People the best of a lukewarm bunch of originals until it recently stepped up its game, commissioning the Stephen King/J.J. Abrams/James Franco project 11.22.63 and scooping up The Mindy Project. Still, it lags behind Amazon, who now has two legitimate (and much-needed) hits with Golden Globe-winner Mozart in the Jungle and Transparent.
Netflix has made this a closer race recently thanks to Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, the historical crime drama Narcos, Tina Fey’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and the two new Marvel series. And they have 32 more new projects scheduled for 2016, starting with Judd Apatow’s Love and Fuller House. HBO should be worried.
But for now, history is on HBO’s side—they ushered in the Golden Age of TV with The Sopranos, The Wire and Deadwood, and the back catalog (also available on Amazon Prime now) is deep. But rather than let Netflix overtake them as the kings of original programming, they’ve just managed to keep their fingers on the crown by gambling on an epic fantasy Game of Thrones, stealing John Oliver away from Comedy Central and producing two of the best comedies on TV: Veep and Silicon Valley.
Overall TV selection
Here’s where the order shakes up a bit. HBO has no other shows than its own originals, many of which are also available on Amazon Prime. Amazon has a pretty deep catalog, but not deep enough to catch its rivals.
Netflix, meanwhile, has tons of TV series. As long as you don’t mind waiting a year or so for the latest episodes, it’s a great source of binge watching. Netflix has adapted to the way consumers use their product, and that means a much deeper pool of TV shows. Netflix’s Ted Sarandos told CNN that “about 70 percent of the total watching on Netflix is television shows in their previous season models.” If you want to watch an older TV show that didn’t initially air on HBO, chances are you can find it on Netflix.
But Hulu wins this category. The main argument for buying a Hulu subscription is to get current TV shows without waiting for the season to end. Thanks to deals with most major network and cable channels, Hulu has episodes available right after they air on NBC, ABC, Fox, Syfy, USA, Sundance, A&E and even online partners like Onion News Network. If you want to keep up at the water cooler instead of waiting to binge-watch a year later, Hulu is your best bet.
You can find lots of stand-up comedy on all of these services, and it’s a tough battle for which is truly the best for comedy lovers. Even with sets from Robin Williams, Louis C.K. and Sarah Silverman, Amazon is the weakest of the bunch. Hulu would win on pure volume thanks to its deal with Comedy Central that includes John Oliver’s New York Stand-Up Show, along with the Just For Laughs collection from the Montreal International Comedy Festival, 88 episodes of An Evening at the Improv dating back to 1981, The Comedy Shop from the 1970s and Showtime’s Comics Without Borders. Hulu definitely has the longest tail when it comes to stand-up.
But getting an HBO special is still the biggest status symbol for comics. HBO has been filming exclusive comedy performances since its first On Location special with Robert Klein in 1975. The cable channel gave comedians a TV home where they didn’t have to self-censor their material and became the standard bearers for televised stand-up. You can usually find just over 100 different specials streaming at HBO Now at any given time, from Chris Rock, Kathy Griffin and Wanda Sykes to Tig Notaro, Louis C.K., Amy Schumer and Will Ferrell as George W. Bush.
Still, we have to give the nod here to Netflix, whose curated collection of stand-up specials includes dozens of Netflix-only releases like Hannibal Buress, Aziz Ansari, Mike Birbiglia, Tig Notaro and Chelsea Peretti. By augmenting their own offerings with classic sets like Eddie Murphy’s Delirious and Louis C.K.’s Chewed Up, they have an unmatched library of stand-up.
At $15/month, HBO Now retains its premium tag, even after untethering itself from the cable companies. As for Hulu, if you don’t want commercials (which you won’t get on any of the other services), it’ll cost you $11.99/month (pro tip: don’t sign up on your iPhone or iPad or the cost will be $13.99/month, including Apples’s fees). A “limited commercials” version is available for $7.99.
Netflix recently raised its price to $9.99 for standard HD screening on up to two devices simultaneously. You can save $2 by going SD only or spend an extra $2 for Ultra HD resolution on up to four screens at a time.
Amazon Prime wins handily here, as a $99/year membership includes other perks like free shipping on many purchases and an oft-overlooked streaming-music component. And if you’re a student, you get a 50% discount with a six-month free trial.
We’ve awarded three points for each first-place finish, two points for each second-place finish and a points for each third-place finish in the above categories. And Netflix wins with 17 points, followed by Amazon with 12, HBO Now with 11 and Hulu with 8.
But as you can see, which service is best for you really depends on what you watch most. If that’s classic movies and current TV, Hulu is your best bet. If you want some top-notch exclusive original series, docs and stand-up comedy along with a solid selection of movies (and you can afford the price tag), go with HBO Now. If you want to watch some recent blockbusters and a wide assortment of everything else (or if you just order a lot of stuff online), Amazon Prime is a great value. And if you want tons of TV shows, docs, stand-up, original programming and some critically acclaimed movies amidst its dwindling movie catalog, sign up for Netflix. Of course there are also smaller services out there for niche tastes like Shudder for horror fans and Tribeca Shortlist for indie cinephiles. And since all of these catalogs are pretty slow to change, you can alternate between services every few months to get caught up on Game of Thrones, Jessica Jones, Transparent and 11.22.63 when new seasons are released and enjoy the best movie offerings from each.