The Streaming Wars: Which Platform Is Best for You?

Eric Reed

Once again, entertainment is lurching its way through a format change. This time, DVDs -- not all that long after cleaning VHS's clock -- are collecting dust on shelves as consumers favor subscription streaming services. And why not? What's not to love about turning on your TV to find the movie right there? No middleman, no trip to the corner store necessary. It's entertainment in the most efficient way possible.

There's of course one big problem: libraries. It would be great if every service could offer every film, but it doesn't work that way. Streaming copies a movie, since small pieces at a time get sent to your computer. An owner can rent out physical DVD's as often as he likes, but to make any kind of commercial copy he needs the movie studio's permission. That doesn't come free, and it doesn't come without a contract -- hence the checkered landscape.

Most of the major subscription streaming services are pretty competitive these days, and none stands head and shoulders above the rest. Here, MainStreet outlines how the platforms stack up against each other to help you figure out which one is right for your needs.

Price: $8.00/month
Selection: Largest available

Pros: Netflix offers the largest streaming library, full stop. It also has original works like "House of Cards" and "Orange is the New Black," and it looks like the company's commitment to original programming is growing. Its variety of both TV shows and movies means that you can get not only new-ish releases (more on that below though), but also an impressively deep bench of old classics and sitcoms. Finally, you can watch Netflix on any device that can handle streaming movies, including Androids, iPhones and tablets.

Cons: Those new releases tend to be pretty stale. It takes Netflix a while to get movies, and no TV show has episodes from its current season. Netflix also offers its streaming and DVD services as separate products, so $8 per month only buys the on demand while some competitors have begun offering more.

Overall: Its legacy library is Netflix's biggest flaw, but the service makes up for that with raw numbers. While Netflix may not have exactly what you want, it's almost certain to have something you'll like and the awesome number of TV series makes for easy binge watching. This is the best choice for anyone who wants to be able to watch something but isn't too concerned about getting exactly what he had in mind.

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Price: $8.00/month with limited advertising
Selection: Specialty focus on TV shows, good selection of those

Pros: Hulu Plus was made for TV. If Netflix is famously the service that put cable companies on the ropes, Hulu might be the one that finishes them off. Hulu Plus offers entire current seasons of TV shows, with most recent episodes available the day after they air. Hulu also has original programming; although they're generally not of the same stature as House of Cards, Hulu did produce the fun and engaging "Battlegrounds." Finally, subscribing allows you to watch Hulu shows on your TV or mobile in addition to a computer.

Cons: Although it costs money, Hulu Plus still has commercials, still makes you wait until the next day to see new episodes and still restricts some content based on your cable provider. It also already gives its most valuable service away for free, streaming most shows' recent episodes the day after they air for all Hulu users regardless of subscription. Many shows also offer only their current season through Hulu Plus, so although you can catch up on one season there's no going into the back bench.

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Price: $8/month including 4 kiosk rentals
Selection: Poor

Pros: As far as streaming service goes for Redbox, I'm honestly not sure if there are any pros. For fans of the Redbox rental service, $8 per month for four discs and occasional streaming is a good price. Those four rentals apply to Redbox's video game selection as well, opening up a market in which none of the other services even exist.

Cons: Redbox Instant has approximately one-third the movies of Netflix streaming and no TV shows at all. Although its kiosks offer new release movies, the instant service does not, taking away its one possible advantage. Redbox Instant is available on fewer devices than Hulu or Netflix and does not look poised for significant growth in its devices or catalogue any time soon (although that, of course, could always change).

Overall: As a streaming service, this is a straight loss. Redbox Instant offers a small fraction of the content that Netflix does, and none of the TV shows of Hulu. In fact it has no TV shows at all. This service is good as a bonus for existing Redbox users, however. The company's kiosks offer new release movies, a feat no subscription streaming service can replicate. For users who want to watch recent hits, Redbox Instant could be a good extension to their current product.

Price: $6.59/month
Selection: Competitive

Pros: Amazon Prime Instant is an extension of Amazon's Prime service, which also comes with free two-day shipping on most products and over 350,000 rental books for the Kindle. Prime's video on demand is a solid part of this service, with a wide selection of movies and TV shows available as well as original programming. It's also cheaper than Netflix or Hulu, adding up to $79 per year compared to their $96.

Cons: Amazon still doesn't have the content that Netflix does, not even close. It also lacks the niche specialty of a Hulu. Right now the service offers a standard array of slightly-stale TV shows and movies, just considerably fewer than Netflix has. Although Amazon also has original programming, none of it has received the same degree of acclaim of Netflix's shows, even the highly questionable remake of "Arrested Development."

Overall: Similar to Redbox Instant, although far superior, Amazon Prime is a great expansion of an existing product. This is best for existing customers who want the free shipping and e-books to begin with and get some instant movies thrown in. Anyone looking specifically for a streaming service, however, should stick with the greater selection of Netflix or the up-to-date library of Hulu Plus.

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Eric Reed is a freelance journalist who writes frequently on the subjects of career and travel. Read more of his work at his website, The Wandering Lawyer.

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