Everybody's doing it — watching movies on their computers. So how do you get in on this cinematic system of instant gratification? There a number of services out there that allow you to stream movies on demand, and we've got the lowdown on the best of the bunch to help you find the service that's right for you.
The current reigning champ of movie streaming is Netflix, and with good reason. Netflix boast a wide selection of thousands of movies, many in high definition, spanning a number of decades up to releases as recent as 2011. It has become popular thanks to its variety of content, which includes substantial family and kids offerings, as well as its low monthly subscription fee of $7.99. Many of it films feature closed captioning.
Watching movies via Netflix is remarkably easy. Once you've set up an account, simply search for the film you want to see on the Netflix website and click the play button. It's also a snap to add movies to your Instant Queue for later viewing. And best of all, you can stream an unlimited number of movies every month.
It's worth noting that some Netflix instant movies can disappear from the list of titles, usually because of licensing issues on Netflix's end, so it's possible that movies you've added to your Instant Queue could become unavailable for several months or more if you don't watch them right away. Movie site Starz, which provides a wealth of content to Netflix, recently announced that it will be pulling its programming from the streaming service due to a lack of renewed licensing. This change takes place on Wednesday, February 29.
For a great site devoted to new Netflix releases and information on their expiration dates, pay a visit to Instant Watcher.
Pros: Inexpensive and easy to use; offers unlimited streaming and a large selection of films to choose from.
Cons: Despite plenty of films to choose from, selection can be a bit dated; long wait for new releases.
Ideal for: People who watch several movies a month (to get the best value from their membership fee); people who don't mind waiting a bit for new releases.
Although it originally debuted as primarily a TV show streaming service, Hulu has expanded its selection of feature films and documentaries over the past year. While its library isn't as extensive as that of Netflix, it does offer a fairly broad selection, a portion of which can be watched for free. Free is great — however, most of Hulu's films are only available to subscribers of Hulu Plus, which costs $7.99 a month.
Most of the films on Hulu Plus are free from commercial interruption; TV shows streamed with a Hulu Plus subscription still have commercials. Paid subscribers are able to watch in HD. Like Netflix, Hulu offers a queue feature to save movies for later and works right in your web browser. Closed captioning is available some films.
Pros: Inexpensive; easy to use; relatively large selection of films — even a few you can watch for free!
Cons: TV shows occasionally interrupted by commercials; smaller selection than Netflix.
Ideal for: Frequent movie watchers who don't mind the occasional commercial interruption and who are also interested in streaming current television shows.
A relative newcomer to the movie streaming world, Vudu offers rentals and sales of streaming films. Prices are competitive with DVD and Blu-ray disc releases and are offered in several price ranges, from standard definition to a proprietary high-definition format called HDX featuring 1080p video and 5.1 surround sound.
Where Vudu differs from Netflix and Hulu is that rather than being a monthly service offering unlimited streaming, it's a pay-as-you-go service that doesn't require a monthly subscription.
Vudu stands out thanks to its large selection of current films, which are added to the service's library on the day they hit stores. In some cases, films will appear on Vudu before they're available in stores — or even while they're still in theaters — as part of special engagements (but at a premium price).
Like Netflix and Hulu, Vudu also works completely inside your web browser. Films begin streaming instantly after purchase and can also be downloaded in their entirety for viewing when you're not connected to the internet. Closed captioning or subtitles are currently available only for foreign language films.
Pros: The earliest new releases; access to some films currently in theaters; no paid membership required.
Cons: Highest cost per movie; no flat rate for unlimited films per month.
Ideal for: The infrequent movie watcher who prefers a pay-as-you-go approach and who wants new releases on time (and sometimes earlier).
Amazon Prime / Instant Video
For the would-be streamer who wants to have their cake and stream it too, online retailer Amazon offers two different ways to watch movies on your computer. The first, Amazon Prime, is an extension of its premium customer program. Growing at a steady pace, it offers several thousand films for streaming via your web browser, many in HD with surround sound. Amazon Prime costs $79 a year, and there's currently no option to pay by the month. Amazon Prime also is great for people who often buy things off Amazon, because it gives you free two-day shipping on many items.
Amazon Instant Video is more akin to Vudu, in that Amazon offers a large selection of current and classic movies for sale or rent in SD and HD definition. These can be streamed within your web browser. Like Vudu, the availability of closed captioning here is limited to foreign films.
Pros: The least expensive annual plan; flexibility of unlimited streaming of older films with pay-as-you-go for newer releases.
Cons: Amazon Prime has the most limited selection of membership model streaming services.
Ideal for: People who watch several movies a month and who are frequent Amazon shoppers who enjoy free shipping. (And really, who doesn't like free shipping?)
Cable subscribers, as well as Verizon FiOS, AT&T U-Verse, and satellite customers also have varying options when it comes to streaming movies. These extras vary by service, but typically allow you to stream both new and classic movies straight through your in-home TV box. Unfortunately, features like user queues and reviews are often left out, and most charge standard pay-per-rental rates for newer flicks, and are usually more expensive than web-based options.
If this type of rental option is available to you, it's definitely something to consider, but with the large licensing agreements made by the companies above, you're likely to get more bang for you buck by avoiding individual rentals through your TV provider, which can quickly tally up.
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