Online TV: Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu Plus compete

The young world of online video streaming used to be ruled by one great red queen: Netflix. Since then, its throne has become threatened by ambitious newcomers, the most ominously similar of which are Hulu Plus and Amazon Prime.

As busy college students, we don’t have time for nonsense. We want to get home on Friday and be entertained until 30 minutes prior to class on Monday. So which of these three competitors can best provide that experience?

My sister has a Netflix account, and my mother has an Amazon Prime account, so for research purposes, I signed up for a free week trial of Hulu Plus. This is what I found after comparing the three.

Obviously the first factor to consider when signing up for anything is price. Hulu Plus and Netflix both cost $7.99 per month. Amazon Prime however, edges out the competition with a yearly payment that equates to about $6.50 per month.

With this, Prime immediately stands out. In fact, in addition to price, Amazon Prime has two extra features not included in Hulu Plus or Netflix, making it a different kind of service altogether. Not only is it a streaming service, but users also get free two-day shipping on select physical items purchased at Amazon.com and one free e-book rental per month.

Behind this veil of perks, Amazon Prime hides limitations to its “Instant Video” service. This is, after all, a review of that aspect in particular, so it makes all the difference. The most frustrating of these limitations is the separation of the Prime service from the rest of Amazon Instant Video.

Let’s say you want to watch “Xena: Warrior Princess,” like any reasonable person always has the urge to do. You log in to your Prime account, search for this classic favorite and see that it is in the Amazon library. Desperately, you search for the green “Watch Now” button, only to find a “Buy $0.99” button in its place. You proceed to die on the inside.

The tragic flaw of Amazon Prime is that it has basically everything you would ever want to watch, but the only portion that is included in the $79 annual fee is more limited than the other two services. That explains the low price. With Amazon Prime, what you see is not what you get.

In fairness, Amazon Prime seems to have more newly released movies that can be streamed at no extra charge compared with the other two services but not nearly as many as your average Redbox provides.

I don’t buy enough products online to justify the shipping discount, and I just don’t think I’m prepared to forgive Amazon Prime for the Xena thing. So because its selection is misleading to the consumer and limited, for me, it is out of the running.

Now, lets take a look at Netflix and Hulu Plus. Neither have decent new release sections, and both are available on multiple devices, so the deciding factors are TV content and older movie selections. As part of its movie section, Hulu Plus features the “Criterion Collection” of seriously respected classic films, but Netflix’s general library, including many classics, dwarfs its competitor.

When it comes to television, Hulu Plus offers episodes of many popular shows like “Community,” “Family Guy” and “The Colbert Report” the day after they air. Netflix does not. But then again, there are many alternative ways to watch shows soon after they air. Not only do the On Demand channels of many cable providers and network websites like NBC.com have this capability, but Hulu itself will allow you to watch the most recent episodes of many shows without signing up for Plus.

However, you must be willing to sit through the bane of the internet TV customer’s existence — commercials. Yes, Hulu makes you endure at least four commercial breaks for every episode you watch. These breaks get shorter with a Hulu Plus subscription, but they’re still there, even though you’re paying the same price as an ad-free Netflix subscription. Because they both have all six seasons of “Xena: Warrior Princess,” this unfortunate feature alone tips the scale irrevocably.

So, if you’re in the market for instant entertainment, Netflix reigns supreme.

Reach this reporter at shmartin@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @shmartin09