Top services for movie fans to watch at home

Ilyce R. Glink

Sunday's Academy Awards have us in a movie frame of mind. But if you're looking to get caught up on "Argo" and "Lincoln," "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Silver Linings Playbook" – and you're not terribly interested in shelling out $10 to $15 per movie (per person!) to see them in theaters – watching all those movies can be a challenge.

Luckily, you don't have to hit the theaters to see the films everyone is talking about. Here are the best ways for movie buffs to see recent films from the comfort of your own living room.

Internet streaming: Pick and choose (and save)

Streaming movies online – whether you subscribe to a library of titles, as with Netflix, or you individually choose and pay for titles, as with Vudu – may be the cheapest, easiest way to get access to all the movies you want.

And these days, if you want to watch on a screen larger than your computer's, you don't need a smart TV. All you need are services that stream movies from the Internet to your television through an external device. For many of these services, the external device can be a video game console, such as the Xbox or Wii. But you can also access the Internet through a device from companies like Roku, Apple TV or Boxee.

[Is your internet connection up to streaming speed? Click to compare rates from providers now.]

Then it's just a matter of finding the right streaming service:

Netflix is still the leader in movie rentals for a subscription service. For about $8 a month you can stream any movie Netflix has, anytime. The selection changes based on what kind of deals Netflix is negotiating with studios, but Netflix is showing no signs of slowing down: The company even got the notoriously difficult-to-please Disney to sign on recently.

Vudu works a little differently than Netflix. You don't subscribe; instead, you pay per movie. To rent, you generally pay about $3 to $4; to buy, you pay about $10 to $13. The difference between a rental and a purchase is that with a rental, you get 24 hours' access to the movie, starting from the moment you first hit play. If you don't finish it within those 24 hours, you have to re-rent it – so plan ahead. A purchase gives you unlimited online access forever. The selection here can top even Netflix, but renting or buying films individually can add up.

Amazon Instant Video works like Vudu: You can rent or buy individual titles, at comparable prices, without a subscription. But the process can be a little clunkier with some devices, because you might need to use your computer to buy or rent titles before they'll appear in your TV's Instant queue. If you add Amazon Prime into the mix for $79 a year, the service becomes similar to a Netflix subscription: A limited portion of the library is open for streaming anytime. (Amazon Prime also has benefits unrelated to Instant, like free two-day shipping for products.)

Crackle is a Sony Entertainment vehicle, so its movies (along with Columbia's and TriStar's) are available. While the selection is limited compared to other services, the movies are completely free, so you don't have to pay a dime to watch classics or contemporary releases. The catch is that it comes with commercial content.

Cable and satellite: A more reliable picture

Cable and satellite companies have a big factor going for them, movie-wise: The picture is more reliable than streaming. You won't get that pesky "buffering" message.

Streaming can require adequate (and costly) Internet speed to load and render well — and even if you pay for higher Internet speed, network traffic may slow down that connection. You're also more likely to experience a connection interruption when streaming. (See Yahoo! Homes' recent story "How much Internet speed is right for you?")

Plus, when you get HD channels, you get HD channels, whereas with streaming, your ability to receive high definition is again — you guessed it — dependent on your Internet speed.

Another factor in favor of cable and satellite providers: Some of them offer on-demand movies sooner than the movies are available to streaming services.

Still, the companies lost many customers to services like Netflix, and they know it. This means they're working harder to feature more diverse options for customers. To do this, they compete for deals with studios to offer their movies.

If you're looking into cable or satellite providers as a source for movies, you need to do a little research about what the cable companies in your local area offer. A true movie buff will want a package that includes all the regular cable movie channels, and you should ask about their on-demand and premium channel options.

[Looking for the right cable package for movie buffs like yourself? Click to compare rates and packages from providers now.]

"The major thing here is licensing," says Robin Raskin, owner of Living in Digital Times, a company that hosts summits and conferences on digital living. She advises checking on which movie studios have licensing agreements with which cable channels before making your decision.

Providers vary based on location, so ask the following questions before signing up:

1. What package covers basic movies channels such as AMC, Turner Classic Movies, Fox Movie Channel, IFC and the Sundance Channel?

2. Do the available channels have first-run rights with any studios? If you're interested in a premium channel package such as Showtime, HBO or Starz, find out which studios each network has contracts with. This will tell you how quickly you will get new movies, and what genres you'll have access to via cable or satellite.

For example, HBO has exclusive rights for first-run showings of Warner Brothers and 20th Century Fox movies, while Starz has rights to run Disney and Sony Entertainment films. If you're any kind of movie buff, you'll know the studios and their subsidiaries that release the kind of movies you want to see, and that can help guide your selection.

3. What are your on-demand options? Most cable companies and satellite providers offer some kind of on-demand option, which is basically cable's answer to Netflix. Ask your provider how quickly movies are available after they are released on DVD, and what kind of selection they have regularly available.

An added bonus to on-demand: During awards season, many cable companies - such as Cox Communications - offer special "awards season" categories in their on-demand packages, where you can check out some nominated movies and extra features.

Compare your costs

Most streaming options typically run less than $10 a month for subscription services or offer a pay-as-you-go model, meaning you can almost certainly get more movies than you could with cable – for less money.

But costs can add up. Though cable looks more expensive – at an average of $86 per month, according to research group The NPD Group – you need to beware of hidden expenses of streaming. "I think where people make mistakes is you frequently need better, high-speed Internet, and you might end up paying more for that than cable," warns Raskin. (See also Yahoo! Homes' story "Is your Internet fast enough?")

Keep your bottom line in mind when making your decision, and do what's best for your wallet.

Ilyce Glink is an award-winning, nationally syndicated real estate columnist, blogger and radio talk show host, and managing editor of the Equifax Finance Blog. Follow her on Twitter @Glink.