Every year, new services launch that stream movies and TV online, and we're reaching the point that you no longer need a cable or satellite TV subscription to enjoy all the medium has to offer. But which services are the best?
Hulu and Netflix are the leaders, even though TV.com makes a valiant effort. Both Hulu and Netflix stream shows instead of selling downloads to you, but they have very different content - and different policies about when, where, and how you can watch the shows you enjoy.
If you're just looking to sign up for one (both charge monthly fees to access all the available shows and movies), you'll want to know about what makes the two services different. Let's compare what Hulu and Netflix have to offer.
TV show selection
The first thing you need to know: Hulu is focused on TV and Netflix is focused on movies, but both are working hard to catch-up in the areas where they're not strong. Hulu offers almost all the prime time TV shows from the broadcast networks Fox, NBC, and ABC. Only recent episodes are available for streaming in most cases, but Hulu Plus subscribers (who pay a monthly fee in addition to seeing ads) get a lot more old episodes.
The two other broadcast TV networks - CBS and The CW - don't offer shows to Hulu, instead choosing to stream them from their own websites if they stream them at all. Various cable TV networks (particularly those owned by NBC, which is just as big in cable as it is in broadcast) offer some shows too, including both clips and full episodes, and Hulu has some original programming like League of Extraordinary Dancers (LXD).
Netflix's TV show selection is much more complicated. It is more likely to carry older episodes of cable shows - the types of shows you'd find on DVD - but it also has a deal with NBC to stream new episodes of Saturday Night Live and some other shows. Beyond that, it's a smattering of shows without a lot of rhyme or reason.
The good news is that Netflix tends to offer entire libraries of TV shows; you can watch all of The X-Files, for example. The bad news: It doesn't have very many newer shows or episodes. Hulu has a much bigger selection of new shows, and Hulu Plus subscribers get a back catalog that rivals that of Netflix, so we're giving this one to Hulu.
The competition isn't over yet! Even though Hulu trounces Netflix with its TV collection, it can't come close to touching Netflix's vast selection of feature films. Hulu only has a few generally lesser-known films in its library, plus almost all the movies from the art-house Criterion Collection, which includes films from great directors like Akira Kurosawa and François Truffaut. That makes Hulu tempting for foreign film buffs (provided they're willing to pay the monthly fee for Hulu Plus, which is required for Criterion films), but everyone else will want to sign up for Netflix. It has thousands of films of all types, from Hollywood blockbusters courtesy of Starz to edgy, independent fare.
Just be aware that in both cases, movie deals come and go - so just because a movie you want to see is available on Hulu or Netflix today, that doesn't mean you'll be able to find it 2 months from now.
Price and ads
Neither Hulu nor Netflix sell you individual episodes or movies like iTunes or Pay-Per-View do. Instead, they use either ads or monthly subscription fees to pay the bills and profit.
Netflix charges one flat rate for unlimited streaming of all its movies and shows ad-free: $7.99 per month. You can spend a little bit more to get DVDs mailed to your house, but there's just one price for the streaming-only plan.
Watching Hulu on the web is free for anyone, but ads are inserted into movies and shows just like on broadcast TV. Hulu also offers a program called Hulu Plus. Hulu Plus subscribers pay a monthly fee of $7.99 per month, just like Netflix. In return, they get extra features like HD video on some shows and the ability to watch on mobile and living room devices like the iPhone, the iPad, Android phones, the PlayStation 3, and select smart TVs. They also get to watch tons of extra shows and episodes that free users don't have access to.
Unfortunately, Hulu Plus doesn't remove the ads, and not every show is available on mobile or living room devices because content companies can choose to restrict their shows and movies to the web. Netflix also offers slightly different programming across different devices, but we've found that the difference is not so radical as it is with Hulu. That's why we're giving the win for this category to Netflix; it's simpler, and it's ad-free.
Watching on the computer
You can watch both Netflix and Hulu from within your web browser. Hulu uses a technology called Adobe Flash, while Netflix uses Microsoft's Silverlight technology. They produce similar results, but Silverlight seems to run more smoothly, so we're giving the advantage to Netflix on that point.
However, Hulu also offers a downloadable desktop app that comes in handy for people with home theater PCs or who just want a more focused viewing experience. Clearly both services have their advantages here, so this one's a tie.
Watching on the TV or a mobile device
You can also watch Hulu or Netflix shows and movies on the TV in your living room if you have the right gadgets. Sony's PlayStation 3 streams both Hulu Plus and Netflix, while the Microsoft Xbox 360 and Apple TV only do Netflix - Hulu Plus support is expected to arrive on both of them later in the year, though.
Some smart TVs or Blu-ray players stream from either Netflix, Hulu, or both, but Netflix has a huge head start when it comes to support from these devices. The iPhone has apps for both, but their Android equivalents haven't been released yet. Granted, you can watch Hulu on some mobile devices that support Adobe Flash, but there aren't all that many of those, and the execution is often less than desirable for movie-watching.
It's much easier to find a TV or mobile device that streams Netflix than it is to find one that does Hulu Plus, so Netflix is the clear winner in this category.
This post originally appeared on Tecca, which helps you get the best from the personal technology in your life.