Who hasn’t been fed up with their cable company at one point or another? In a move that is equal parts cord-cutting and stick-it-to-the-man defiance, more TV watchers are ditching their cable plans and attempting to cobble together a menu of favorite programming via free and inexpensive streaming video services.
Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. “Some people say, ‘That’s it. Netflix works for me.’ They order the occasional movie and watch over-the-air TV to keep up on current events. Other people try it and immediately wither and die because they can’t watch ‘Top Chef,’ ” said John Falcone, executive editor of CNet.com, a tech review site.
If you can be flexible, you can reap significant savings. We called on some leading gadget gurus to offer their guidance.
How It Works: Netflix has long led the pack when it comes to watching what you want, when you want. Besides offering DVDs by mail, the company provides streaming TV and movies through a monthly membership. The service is available through a variety of sources: Internet-connected Blu-ray players, HD televisions and computers; select mobile devices; all major game consoles; and set-top boxes from Apple TV, Roku and TiVo.
What You’ll Love: You can try the service for free with a one-month trial membership. The content is abundant and blissfully commercial-free, and it ranges from Disney flicks to exercise videos to recently released blockbusters. You can get Netflix through most devices, and you can connect multiple devices to one account. “In terms of value for the money, Netflix is the best,” says John Biggs, gadgets editor for TechCrunch.com.
What You Won’t: Biggs says Starz and Sony might leave the service, which will diminish the movie content. Because of licensing restrictions, most of the movies you’ll find on Netflix are older, and new releases aren’t available until after they’ve been in stores for as long as a month. While the TV lineup is more varied, you won’t see episodes from current seasons. So you won’t be able to watch a new episode of “Mad Men” that you missed, but you’ll be able to watch all previous seasons from beginning to end.
How It Works: Because Hulu is co-owned by the companies that own ABC, NBC and Fox, the content focuses primarily on TV programming. The original Hulu offers free streaming TV and movies via Internet-connected and Flash-enabled computers; Hulu Plus is the subscription service that expands device options to include select Internet-connected Blu-ray players and TVs, select mobile devices, some game consoles, Roku and TiVo.
What You’ll Love: For the same price as Netflix, Hulu Plus offers up current- and past-season episodes of TV shows airing on the three networks, with additional content from National Geographic, Comedy Central and more. The movie selection features the Criterion Collection, including some that aren’t currently available on DVD or Blu-ray. A free trial lets you sample the service for a week.
What You Won’t: The movie selection on Hulu is lackluster, and if you’re used to the original Hulu, the fact that some of the free content isn’t available on the paid site can be confusing. Even though you’re paying for the subscription, you’ll have to sit through ads, and there are device limitations: “If you’re watching on a computer, or a computer hooked up to a TV, you have a wide range of options,” says Falcone, whose employer, CNet, is owned by CBS.) “But if you’re watching on a device, you’re limited to what’s on Hulu Plus.”
How It Works: Amazon.com’s streaming video content is offered as part of an Amazon Prime membership, which entitles users to unlimited free two-day shipping on items ordered through the site. The service is available through Internet-connected computers and select Blu-ray players and TVs, as well as Roku, Sony and TiVo.
What You’ll Love: A Prime membership costs $79 a year, which means the monthly rate is cheaper than Netflix and Hulu Plus. For online shoppers, free shipping could mean saving a bundle. And, Falcone says, the site recently boosted its selection significantly. “A lot of these sites tend to skew toward older stuff, but Amazon splits the difference with streaming TV and pay-per-view options,” he says. “You get a selection of [unlimited] stuff, and you can buy TV shows per episode or movies as they become available.”
What You Won’t: The selection of streaming content available to Prime members pales in comparison with the pay-per-view offerings. The site currently offers less than 100 movies released since 2010, and the TV offerings are decidedly old-school. If you’re a fan of retro sitcoms and anything aired on PBS or BBC America, you’ll be happy; if you prefer current network and cable shows, you won’t. It’s not available through gaming consoles.
THE BOTTOM LINE Before you pick a streaming service, consider your viewing habits. If you own an Internet-connected device, such as a Blu-ray player or an XBox 360, make sure it’s compatible with the service you choose. If you’re content to watch TV on your computer, try Hulu’s free option. If you want more choices, try Netflix’s instant video service.