Best of Online Movie and TV Streaming Services

UPDATE — You can finally order stand-alone versions of both Showtime and HBO.

Traditional cable is on its way out; this is inevitable. Cable, has for a long time now been a bit dated, but isn’t completely out-dated just yet.

The problem with cable? Expensive and not very customer-friendly. The worst part of cable is the fact that you have to pay for hundreds of channels you don’t want just to get the ones that you do want like Showtime and HBO. This has been the subject of scrutiny for some time now, to the point that laws had to be passed to force cable companies to allow an à la carte selection of channels (see here as well) instead of forced premium packages.

Comcast, DirecTV, Dish, and others, really don’t want us to have that option. But, the FCC thinks we should have that right. Either way, since this isn’t going to happen anytime soon (although I wouldn’t be surprised to see more cable companies offering friendlier options in the next five years as streaming inevitably starts hitting their profit margins), what are our options? I’ll go over what’s available now from what I believe to be the best:

Netflix

Selection

In my opinion, Netflix is already the best possible entertainment service you can have, beating out all cable companies and subsequent channels. Netflix has a huge and respectable streaming collection of movies, TV shows, documentaries, and more (including many from Showtime). For almost anything else that hasn’t gone streaming yet, you can get on DVD or Blu-ray.

Where/How You Can Watch

Netflix also currently supports the most ways to watch than any other service: TV (through devices like Roku, Xbox, PlayStation, Wii, and several others, even directly through some newer TVs and Blu-ray players), your computer, iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch, Apple TV, and more.

See all devices.

Price

$7.99/month for unlimited streaming. You can also put your account on hold at anytime for up to four months. So, say you’ve already watched everything and don’t want to pay for a service that is just sitting there… put it on hold until there are some great new movies and shows. However, I watch movies and TV like crazy and I haven’t run out of things to watch yet.

What’s the Catch?

You have to pay more to get HD… and you need HD.

Hulu Plus

Selection

It doesn’t have the greatest stock of movies and TV shows, certainly nowhere near what Netflix has. How it makes up for this in return, is that it carries new episodes airing only a day after they air on TV. If you hate cable like myself, it’s worth seeing the latest episode of The Office, House, and Family Guy a day later, but with a much smaller bill.

Where/How You Can Watch

You can watch Hulu Plus on just about all the same devices as Netflix, minus Wii (although that will probably come at some point).

See all devices.

Price

$7.99/month for unlimited streaming. You can also put your account on hold at anytime for up to four months. You might actually need to do this with Hulu Plus because it doesn’t have the most amazing selection. I currently have mine on hold.

What’s the Catch?

There are ads! I know it’s crazy, but you still have to watch ads throughout your programs, even though you’re paying for the service. Not everything in the Hulu collection is available on Hulu Plus. Some items are marked either computer only or online only (if I remember correctly).

Zune

Selection

Great premium selection. Latest popular movies and TV episodes, plus music.

Where/How You Can Watch

Microsoft, as you might expect, kept this really proprietary. So, besides on your computer with Zune software, of course you can only watch on the Zune itself, Xbox, or the Windows 7 phone.

Price

You pay for everything separately and it’s not cheap. There is a season pass option for a whole TV show season, but it’s over $20!

What’s the Catch?

There is no low monthly price with unlimited streaming. You pay for everything separately and it adds up quickly.

iTunes

Selection

Great premium selection. Latest popular movies and TV episodes, plus music.

Checkout iTunes massive media collection of Music, Movies, TV, and more…

Where/How You Can Watch

Apple, as you might expect, also kept this really proprietary. So, besides on your computer with iTunes software, of course, you can only watch through your iPhone, iPod, iPad, and Apple TV.

Price

You pay for everything separately and it’s just about as expensive as Zune. There is a season pass option for a whole TV show season, but it’s over $20!

What’s the Catch?

There is no low monthly price with unlimited streaming. You pay for everything separately and it’s ridiculously expensive. The reason this is a downside to Zune, is because Zune is available on Xbox, which more people have than an Apple TV box, so it’s slightly more convenient.

Amazon Prime

Selection

Great premium selection. Latest popular movies and TV episodes.

Where/How You Can Watch

Computer, Roku, and several TVs and Blu-ray players.

Price

$6.50/month for media that is included.

What’s the Catch?

The big catch for this one is the classic bait and switch. If you look at the Amazon Prime instant video collection, it’s not bad. All of this media is available through Amazon Prime and its connected devices. However, available, in this case, means available for purchase. Only around 10% of Amazon’s video collection is included for your subscription. The rest you pay for individually as you normally would.

When I went to cancel I had to talk to a really annoying salesman that thought he was being clever and personable (though he just sounded really phony, to the point where I wanted to ask him to stop). He tried to keep me on, it was almost reminiscent of how cancellation-retardant old-school AOL salespeople were. Remember that?

Blockbuster

Are they even worth mentioning? I haven’t used them since Netflix basically killed them off. Blockbuster storefronts everywhere are closing. My local Blockbuster is desolate, falling apart. I know they’re trying to get back in the game by copying Netflix and trying to one up them in the streaming game, but it just doesn’t seem to matter. With Netflix and Redbox, I hardly see the use of Blockbuster any longer, for years now.

UPDATE — My local Blockbuster finally closed its doors and the building is for lease again. Besides the clear evidence of Netflix dominating the market, the physical evidence was apparent too, it was inevitable, and I kept wondering every time I drove by when it would finally close up shop. The manager quite literally stopped maintaining the place (while still in business).

The lawn wasn’t kept up, the sidewalks weren’t swept the, sign was dirty, etc. Clearly, they knew they were going out of business, so why put any money into keeping the place up. I keep meaning to take a pic when I go into town of the clean spot with the really dirty outline of where the Blockbuster sign used to be. You can’t stop progress.

Conclusion

That’s about it for the serious streaming services. Did I miss anything? You might now be asking: Well, we still can’t get Showtime and HBO without cable? Actually, it’s already possible (kind of).

Showtime Anytime — You can watch directly on your computer, which means you can hook it up directly to most modern TVs and watch on your TV. I haven’t quite figured out the workaround to order it directly just yet, but there must be a way (I’ll update if I find a way).

HBO GO — Same deal, can’t quite figure out how to order it directly. UPDATE — HBO GO is coming to Xbox Live, so you’ll have to be able to order just HBO directly, I should think. I hope the same deal happens with Showtime Anytime.

UPDATE — As an experiment, I just emailed Comcast, DirecTV, and Dish with the following message:

Hello,

I see Showtime listed for individual sale.

I’m only interested in Showtime and not any other channel. Please help me order Showtime.

Thanks, Bryan

That’s actually true, I found Showtime for individual sale on each site for around $10 – $13 a month. However, the catch seems to be when you go to order you have to log into your account and the only way to create an account is to already have purchased one of the packages (again, including channels we don’t want).

There must be a workaround. Say I purchase the cheapest possible local cable package, like channels 1-13, just to get an online account, then order Showtime to get synced up with Showtime Anytime. Once that’s done, cancel the basic cable so I just have Showtime on my account. Since legally, I’m not doing anything wrong and they’re the ones in fact being shady with these practices, I wonder if it just might fly. That is, in a technical sense and not the “them simply terminating my account” kind of way.

I’m also going to contact Showtime and see if they will ever offer a way to order Showtime directly and even be available on devices streaming. My guess is not anytime soon because the big cable companies probably pay the big bucks for cable exclusivity.

I’ll update everyone with the responses I get.

UPDATE — Sadly, for all the emails I sent off, either I didn’t receive a reply, received an off-topic canned response, or received an “Unfortunately…” type response. Not to my surprise of course. Why must they make it so difficult?

What streaming services do you use? What’s your magic combo? How do you feel about cable?

  • A very fair representation of how cable and satellite television companies, in conjunction with the entertainment companies who own the content, are trying to hold back another great viable option. In early January, Comcast struck a deal with Disney to be the gatekeeper of all Disney channel content. What this means is that streaming services most likely won’t stand much of a chance of getting the good stuff. Kind of like the ESPN thin. I hope your assessment is right in that within five years (hopefully sooner) things will shake up, either through the FCC or outrage from the public that results in a mass cord cutting.

  • Another problem with cable TV is that usually they broadcast movies which are either old or which didn’t get as many publicity. Also, I do not like cable Tv as much because after every few minutes there is a commercial break and it’s hard to get into the mood again. I definitely like sites like Netflix. Although, I haven’t really tried them out yet but I might try them out soon.

  • Netflix revolutionized the next era of how we watch movies and TV. Which in the US where the majority of us watch movies and TV on a daily basis is HUGE.

    If you’re big on movies and TV than there really isn’t any better option than Netflix, hands-down.

    Thanks, Bryan

  • SaideHeldberg

    I can understand why you feel as you do about Blockbuster, I was on that the same page until I realized that with Blockbuster, Dish has changed the delivery of the product. The technology is using Dish receivers that are the best in the industry as far as capabilities and quality. Dish is offering a huge collection with a multi-access package with Blockbuster@ Home and it is definitely nothing like renting a movie from Blockbuster for the night. As someone who has worked for Dish for many years, I’ve seen the innovation process in action but this was a very interesting decision. I have the Blockbuster@ Home service that offers live streaming to my TV or mobile device, unlimited movies, games and TV shows by mail. There are over 100,000 titles to choose from and more content are being added all the time which have no due date, late fees or extra charges for Blu-rays. There is an additional movie package included with over 20 channels, which of course are live streamed like all programming and DVR content. New customers can try the package free for 3 months but I have absolutely no problem paying $10 a month for such a library of movies. As far as Netflix and Redbox, there are no late fees or due dates with the new Blockbuster program and that is a huge deal for me.

  • Netflix has been all that for years now, only you don’t need a DISH to get it.

    The only benefit to the DISH/Blockbuster combo, is for those that live in rural areas that simply can’t get internet.

    Thanks, Bryan

  • amy

    Hi Bryan ,
    So I read your blog about movie/online streaming.. and I am currently looking for a way to get out of having to pay a ridiculous $150/mo for cable!
    I have a teenage daughter and a husband who loves sports..so 3 different tv’s are always on at once..and I don’t mean to sound ignorant on this subject but I literally just started researching all of this..
    How do you suggest I stream the sports stuff? And how possible is it to have all 3 tvs going at once with streaming??

    thanks
    amy

  • Does anyone in the house have an Xbox 360? If so, there already is a streaming ESPN service:

    http://espn.go.com/watchespn/xbox

    On that same Xbox you can stream Sports and Fitness video/movies:

    https://signup.netflix.com/BrowseGenres/Sports-Fitness/9327

    That’s one place to start.

    Thanks, Bryan

  • I liked your article and was very informative. One question though: What’s your take on IMDb pro?

  • IMDbPro is not a streaming service. As far as I know the closest thing it offers is video clips and movie trailers. IMDbPro in my opinion isn’t worth it. I love IMDb and it definitely has a lot of great info, but really nothing that you couldn’t find for free elsewhere. There’s simply no reason to go pro.

    Have a gander:

    https://secure.imdb.com/signup/

    Apologies if this comment was meant for https://bryanhadaway.com/how-to-find-any-movie-film-title-or-actors-name-when-youve-forgotten-it/ – however, I think my response is still relevant anyways.

    Thanks, Bryan

  • Jcorby

    My wife and I are thinking of completely stopping our cable subscription and simply streaming everything to our home that we or our children want to watch. My question to you is this (since I don’t know anyone that does this stuff!)… if I want to watch a sporting event or my wife wants to watch something like the Bachelorette, and we want to watch it at the same time the rest of the world is offered viewing through normal cable, is this possible???

    Thank you very much for your time and I hope you have a bit of insight into this, for I am honestly pulling my hair out each month when I see how much we pay for our services!

  • Yes and no, depending on what you’re doing and have. If you have any of the following, one of the new internet-ready DVD/BluRay players, an Xbox 360, PS3, WII, even some TVs and tons of other devices that are fully Netflix ready you could do this.

    You can use the same Netflix account on multiple devices so if you have more than one Netflix-ready device (http://www.pcworld.com/article/189690/netflix_inside_a_comprehensive_list_of_netflix_streaming_devices.html) you can have multiple instances going in different rooms streaming different things.

    Your internet speed can have an impact on how well this works too. I lived with a roommate once where we both had our own separate Netflix accounts, but ran them through the same internet. Every once and a while there was a hiccup because of this. But this was on 1.5MB internet which is probably the bare minimum that could handle Netflix anyways. So you should be fine.

    Note that this is all very new and experimental. I don’t have all the answers and there’s no saying how one thing will work today or tomorrow. I’m pretty sure Netflix is going to crack down on the multiple people using the same account thing.

    I predict they’ll probably come out with a family plan as they evolve into the position of where cable once stood, you watch.

    Thanks, Bryan

  • Artsyfag

    Have you tried getting basic cable and dropping it and see if you can still get show time?

  • No, it’s just a theory. To be honest, I’m so happy with Netflix I couldn’t ask for much more. I think our best shot is to see how Showtime Anytime evolves.

    Thanks, Bryan

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