The Best (and Worst) PC Movie and TV Services

For the technophile in your life, these items are must-haves.
Harry McCracken
PC World
Monday, August 30, 2010; 12:19 AM

Your PC is a video store--and it's killing off brick-and-mortar video stores even as we speak. Your computer can give you prime-time TV at any time of the day or night, too. It's also a source of shows you love on cable TV, minus the cable bill.

Of course, your computer's screen probably isn't the biggest TV display in your home, but it's surely the most versatile one. And it just keeps getting better.

Internet-based sources of movies and TV shows, plus a search engine that helps you find stuff to watch all over the Web. I focused on PC-based viewing, but see the chart "It's Showtime--Anywhere and Everywhere" here for a guide to all of the TVs, set-top boxes, phones, and other gizmos that these services support.

In the end, it's impossible to name one service as the champ. All have their advantages and drawbacks, and each one supports a different set of devices beyond the PC. But five of them--Amazon Video On Demand, Apple iTunes Store, Clicker, Hulu, and Netflix Watch Instantly--do what they do really well.

Here's the breakdown.

The Best

Amazon's video service has a competitive selection of new and back-catalog movies and TV episodes--and it has been particularly appealing since June, when it filled a long-standing hole by adding Disney titles. Its prices are competitive, as well, and it permits you to take 48 hours to watch some older titles that have 24-hour windows on other services. But the most appealing thing about this service is how easy it is to use: Finding, buying or renting, and watching stuff takes only a few clicks, which is more than you can say about Blockbuster or CinemaNow.

You can purchase and view videos in your browser right at, building an entertainment library in the cloud that's available for immediate streaming to any PC or Mac. If you have a Windows system, you get another option: Unbox, an application that allows you to download movies and shows to your hard drive for watching regardless of whether you're connected to the Internet. (This is the only service of the group that lets you choose to stream or download.)

What's not to like? Regrettably, unlike iTunes, Netflix, and Xfinity TV, Amazon doesn't have high-def movies for PC viewing--only TV episodes. And its support for devices beyond computers is on the thin side compared with some rivals; most notably, the only phones it currently supports are a handful of Nokia models.

More HD would be nice, but Amazon's service is still a slick, well-rounded winner.

iTunes isn't a mere movie/TV download service. It's a veritable universe unto itself, with content of all sorts for all kinds of devices--but mostly devices made by Apple, including the Apple TV, iPad, iPhone, and iPod. Unlike all the other services here, there's nothing Web-based about it: You find, buy, download, and watch shows and movies via Apple's software.

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