Whether you like to watch your favorite shows and movies on a phone, a tablet, a desktop computer, or even that strange big, black, rectangular thingie in your living room, chances are you’re leaning more and more toward the Internet as a source of video entertainment. With so many streaming and downloading services, though, it can be hard to know which one (or which combination of several) is right for you. Here’s what you need to know to get started.
The Services Most are available to watch via a Windows or Mac computer, iPad, iPhone, Android tablet, Wii, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Roku, and various WiFi-enabled TVs and Blu-Ray players.
Amazon Prime Instant Video
Check the services’ individual sites for full lists of compatible devices.Can’t decide between streaming, renting, or buying? Don’t. Amazon Prime Instant Video gives you all three. While the massive streaming library makes it difficult to ever say, “I can’t find anything to watch,” you’ll always have the à la carte rentals as a backup. TV episodes of current shows usually appear within a day of their original broadcast.
The cost: $79 a year ($6.58 a month) for access to the Amazon Prime streaming library. Additionally, you can rent non-Prime movies for $2 to $5, rent TV episodes for $2 to $3, or buy movies for $5 to $15.
Worth noting: Amazon Prime membership also gets you free two-day shipping on all orders from the e-tail giant (movie-related or not).
The downside: Browsing for rentals can be frustrating when you repeatedly discover that many of the newest movie releases are for purchase only.
2 of 6hulu.com
Think the Emmys have it all over the Oscars and that all the real quality entertainment these days is on the small screen? The number of TV series here—both full runs of past classics and next-day episodes of current shows—is staggering. And while Hulu Plus’ forte is television, it has a surprisingly deep stock of feature films as well.
The cost: $8 a month. (Note: The free version, without the “Plus,” contains far more limited content.)
Worth noting: Lovers of Brit-coms will find a ton of exclusive series from overseas. And for those who love soaps, Hulu is now the home of One Life to Live and All My Children.
The downside: You might get nostalgic for old TV shows, but probably not so much for that old feeling of having no choice but to sit through commercials. (Except during kids’ shows, which are ad-free.) Plus, there are few new releases among the feature films.
3 of 6itunes.com
Ever waited in line overnight to make sure that, when the store opened, you were the first in the door to buy some fancy, just-released product? Then you may appreciate the ability to preorder hit movies. You can also sign up for season passes to upcoming TV shows.
The cost: No membership fee; à la carte pricing only. Rent movies for $3 to $8; buy them for $6 to $20. TV episodes are free to $6 each.
Worth noting: Many movies now come with “iTunes Extras”—similar to bonus features on a DVD. Extras include things like deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes info, and other interactive elements to play with on your computer.
The downside: “iTunes Extras” only come with purchased movies, not rentals.
4 of 6netflix.com
The forerunner in the streaming-video movement, Netflix offers a clean, easy-to-use interface for finding the shows and movies you want to watch and lining them up for marathon viewing. Those who prize their pop-culture savvy will want to stay up-to-date on the service’s much-talked-about original programming (like Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards).
The cost: $8 a month to watch on up to two devices at a time; $12 a month for up to four devices to be used simultaneously.
Worth noting: Netflix is the only one of the services that will still, for a separate fee, let you borrow actual DVDs.
The downside: TV series generally appear in full-season bundles, so your binge-watching will have to wait until after the finale’s original airdate. (And you’ll need to do some social-networking acrobatics to avoid spoilers until then.)
5 of 6vudu.com
Were you the type who used to alphabetize your VHS collection? Would you like to show off your cinephilia by digitally rebuilding your permanent movie library? While the TV selection here is plentiful—and you can get season passes to some current series—Vudu feels like a service for movie buffs, thanks to the multiple touts of HDX (super-duper high definition) video quality and the spotlight on recent releases.
The cost: No membership fee; à la carte pricing only. Rent movies for $4 to $7; buy them for $10 to $25. TV episodes cost from $2 to $4.
Worth noting: For a fee of $2 to $5, Vudu will let you burn your purchased digital movies onto old-school DVDs.
The downside: These flicks can take a long time to download. Go make some popcorn while you wait.
6 of 6vdio.com
Is sifting through long playlists the only thing you hate more than channel surfing? Wish you could just ask somebody else what to watch? Vdio takes viewing social, allowing you to connect your account to Twitter or Facebook for recommendations from friends.
The cost: No membership fee; à la carte pricing only. Rent movies for $4 to $5; buy them for $15 to $20. Rent TV episodes for $3 to $4.
Worth noting:Vdio doesn’t limit you to following your Facebook buddies. You can follow the Vdio accounts of entertainment websites, like Pitchfork and The A.V. Club. Or you can turn to strangers for assistance: Find someone who shares your favorite movie and see what else she’s watched recently.
The downside: If you don’t apply privacy features, anybody on the Internet can see your entire viewing history.