Remember when “Netflix” and “Streaming video” were virtually synonyms? Yeah, those were the days. Then, in the course of three disastrous months, Netflix jacked prices by 60 percent, announced it was splitting off the DVD business, and then announced that, no, actually, it was going to keep DVDs in house after all. The wacky moves sent investors fleeing like rats and confused customers looking for alternatives – alternatives like Amazon Prime Instant Video. The service offers unlimited streaming and Amazon has signed several new content deals since Prime Instant Video’s launch in March. But is it a Netflix killer? Let’s find out.
When it comes down to it, it’s all about the content. Who has more of what you want? It’s not really much of a contest at this point, unfortunately. Although Amazon offers
a massive 100,000 a la carte programs
for download at $2 to $4 a pop, only around 10,000 of those are available for unlimited free streaming via Amazon Prime. Netflix plays coy with its exact streaming offering numbers, but we’ve found estimates ranging from
titles. Most titles available on Amazon are also available on Netflix, but not vice versa.
Neither Netflix nor Amazon Prime breaks the bank. As everyone probably knows from the price hike outrage earlier in the year, a streaming subscription to Netflix costs $8/mo. for all the video you can watch. Amazon Prime Instant Video costs even less on a monthly basis – about $6.66 (ooh, spooky!) a month – but that’s kind of deceiving; you’ll have to pay a flat $80 up front to purchase a year’s subscription to Amazon Prime. That $80 also includes free 2-day shipping on many Amazon purchases, though. Both offer a free 1-month trial.
Winner: Amazon Prime
It’s kind of hard to make a call on image quality because the speed of your Internet connection makes such a drastic difference. Netflix offers more HD content in general. In a head-to-head viewing test of “Star Trek Enterprise: Season 1: Broken Bow” in HD, Netflix’s image quality looked slightly better overall and ran much more smoothly. We ran into repeated issues with Amazon Prime constantly bouncing our connection speed from the minimum to the maximum rating and back again, which resulted in stuttering playback and reduced image quality. Netflix (and Speedtest.net) didn’t suffer from the same problem.
Amazon Instant Video (which Amazon Prime utilizes) certainly works on plenty of devices, including over 200 Internet-enabled HDTVs, tons of Blu-ray players, Roku, the Logitech Revue and – soon – the $200 Kindle Fire tablet. Even still, that’s not a fraction of the device support offered by Netflix. In addition to HDTV and Blu-ray device support, Netflix ups the ante by streaming to home theater systems, Android, iOS, and Windows Phone 7 smartphones and tablets, tons of set-top boxes (like Boxee Box and Apple TV) and all the major video game consoles – including Nintendo’s 3DS handheld.
Let’s get the bad part out of the way first: in February 2012, all Sony and Disney movies will disappear from Netflix. Since the news broke, however, Netflix has inked deals with Dreamworks, the CW and AMC and says it plans to expand its TV programming. Amazon has deep pockets and recently signed contracts with Fox, CBS and NBC to bring more content to its service. It's looking like TV content providers seem more willing to dance with digital media than movie companies are, at least in the short term. Winner: Push
Don’t get us wrong, Amazon Prime Instant Video brings plenty of stuff to the table: its catalog and device support are nothing to sneeze at, and it’s technically cheaper than Netflix over the course of a year. Unfortunately for Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, everything that Amazon Prime Instant Video does, Netflix does, too – and Netflix does it better. (Amazon’s lack of a play queue doesn’t help things, either.) Amazon Prime is doing great things for a streaming service that's less than a year old, but Netflix is still king of the hill.