Netflix or Amazon Prime Instant Video: Which is the best video streaming service?
Physical media is so over. Who has room for a collection of 400 DVDs or Blu-rays anymore?
That’s just one reason why we’re so into streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video. They’re also cheap and come, for the most part, with none of the commitment of a Sky subscription.
But there are only so many hours in a day, so which of these two streaming giants should you sign up for? We've taken a closer look to find out.
Netflix vs Amazon Prime Instant Video - Pricing
One point to get out there first of all is that both Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video offer free trials. Netflix gives you a free month while Amazon offers a trial month of its Prime membership, getting you free speedy postage from Amazon’s retail side, access to an Kindle eBook lending library and the new Amazon Music Prime streaming service.
Anything we talk about here you can check out for yourself through those trials.
After you’ve drained the freebies dry, there are several plans available for each service. Amazon tends to big-up its £79/$99-a-year Prime service, but there’s also a £5.99-a-month video-only subscription somewhat hidden in the Amazon accounts menu. This doesn't seem to be available in the US, though.
Netflix’s standard service is £5.99/$8.99 a month, but there is one other option. The £5.99 plan allows two simultaneous streams, but there’s an £8.99/$11.99 one that enables four simultaneous streams using the same account, plus access to 4K TV where available. Of course, you’ll need a compatible 4K TV to use the latter. That pricing may well change in the as Netflix CEO Reed Hastings recently revealed that customers can expect a price rise in the future. Hopefully it won't be for a while though.
None of these plans comes with any extra commitment, but with the Amazon annual deal you pay for the whole year up front. Make sure you cancel your Prime trial before it ends unless you’re happy to pay out. Read that last sentence again – it’s important.
Amazon Prime Instant Video isn’t just a pure all-you-can-eat video streaming service either. There are also options to rent and buy titles, featuring some films and TV series that are a little bit newer than the core selection. This is the Instant Video, minus the "Prime" bit. Netflix is a pure subscription service, with no extra charges to pay even if you wanted to.
While discovering more movies and TV episodes at your fingertips sounds like a good thing, more often than not we hear complaints from Prime Instant Video customers saying they searched for something and found it, only to discover it’s not included in their subscription.
Netflix vs Amazon Prime Instant Video - Supported platforms
Most current Smart TV platforms support both these services, but if you’re wondering about your own TV, it’s best to check on its app store if there is one.
The latest Philips TVs still lack Amazon Prime Instant Video support, but this is more a Philips issue than an Amazon one: its TVs also lack other UK services including 4oD and Demand 5.
However, Netflix support is also significantly better in some other areas. For example, Netflix has been available for Chromecast for ages now, but we’re still waiting to get an official Instant Video app. At present you have to use a third-party workaround.
Related: Chromecast tips and tricks
There is, finally, a streaming app for Android and iOS for Amazon Prime Instant Video, but with an iPhone you can’t actually stream video using mobile internet, just Wi-Fi, making it pretty much useless for many.
Just to make things even more complicated, you need to download the Android app from the Amazon Appstore, not Google Play, and for some reason need to have the Amazon store app installed too.
Given that you pay for Instant Video, needing to have the whole Amazon app suite on your phone seems pretty rich.
For Roku owners, you're out of luck on the Amazon Prime Instant video front at least if you live outside of the US. For Netflix, there's no problem at all getting your Orange is the New Black or BoJack fix.
Netflix can be streamed freely using Wi-Fi or mobile internet with Androids and iPhones alike – there are far fewer headaches.
There are some special features for people who own an Amazon Fire phone or tablet, though. You can download certain Instant Video titles to watch when you’re out of range of an internet connection. These function much like a digital rental, expiring 48 hours after you first start watching the video. You can only have 15 of these downloaded at any one time, but it’s a neat extra that would be a big calling card for the series if it wasn’t restricted to Fire phones and tablets.
Netflix vs Amazon Prime Instant Video - Which has the best films?
At present, the UK version of Netflix has over 3,000 items on it according to the Netflix Around the World website. Amazon Prime Instant Video UK has around 3,700 items, as per the Amazon site. However, it’s important to consider the different ways these services log their content: Amazon lists each season of a TV show as an item, where Netflix separates shows only, not series.
Their content libraries are similar in scope, then, although the US version of Netflix offers many more items, with over 7,500.
There is often surprisingly little overlap in these services' libraries, presumably because each works to get a certain degree of exclusivity, especially with titles it thinks might act as a draw for new subscribers.
Want to check the movie list out for yourself? Amazon offers its own library browser as part of the Amazon website, but Netflix doesn’t. As standard you can only check out the Netflix library if you login.
Of course, that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to check out the library. There are numerous sites that let you do so. Netflix Around the World lets you search through the entire global Netflix offering, although you might find it makes depressing reading: the US has over twice the number of titles as the UK.
It’s the same case with Prime Instant Video: in the US there are 17,000-odd US titles, just over 3700 in the UK.
To offer a slightly more concrete test, we checked out the top 20 titles from the IMDb top 250 films list, leaving out multiple from the same film series and the original Star Wars films. (They don’t seem to be available anywhere. Blame Gerorge Lucas if you like.) Here’s what we found:
Netflix UK performing better than Netflix US? It’s an odd aberration that shows the US doesn’t have the same films as the UK, but more. It has a rather different library. But, yes, it is a better one all told.
Prime Instant Video does worse in both the US and UK, only offering titles like City of God that seem to be available just about everywhere. It may have a lot of films, but fewer recognisable classics, it seems.
Related: Netflix tips and tricks
Netflix vs Amazon Prime Instant Video - Which has the best TV shows?
The roll call of TV shows runs like the movie line-up. Once again, the US versions have a much better line-up than the UK side.
However, Amazon Prime Instant Video seems to have a wider array of UK curiosities than Netflix. Shows like Ashes to Ashes, Waterloo Road and Spooks are found on Amazon’s service but not on Netflix.
This disparity used to be a lot more marked, though. For example, Doctor Who used to feature on Instant Video but not Netflix. Now it’s on both. And those UK curiosities are generally found towards the bottom of the "most popular’ lists, suggesting not all that many people are bothered.
As these streaming services develop, a big part of their appeal is becoming about shows bankrolled by the services themselves, rather than what golden oldies they have on their books.
Netflix started very boldly in this area, with exclusive shows that are "HBO-quality". That means high-quality dramas with serious-ish themes, if you’re not familiar with the network.
Shows such as the House of Cards remake, Lilyhammer and, more recently, Orange is the New Black, can stand up to any show produced by one of the major TV networks. On the less serious side, Netflix is also behind the animated comedy show BoJack Horseman.
Amazon started off its original programming with a much lighter touch, but also made less of an impact, with comedy show like Betas and Alpha House. However, more recently it has taken a little more of a Netflix-like approach with the high-quality comedy-drama Transparent, which won a Golden Globe award for best TV series (comedy/musical). It's well worth checking out.
However, in 2014 the Amazon approach seemed to change a little. Amazon put as much focus on pushing its "exclusive" TV series as well as Amazon-funded ones: Extant and Black Sails are perhaps the two most obvious recent examples. We presume it's a cheaper, lower-risk strategy.
Are they any good? Yes, but not at the level of of the Emmy award and Golden Globe-winning Transparent or a Netflix Originals series. Amazon is happy to embrace the pulpier side of TV, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
On the Amazon Originals side, Amazon Studios productions now take an almost crowd-sourced approach to green-lighting a show: or at least they appear to. You can watch pilot episodes of the shows, the metrics of which may well go on to control what earns Amazon’s dollar.
Original programming is definitely where the battle between the two services is becoming more interesting especially with the latest news that Amazon has secured the Top Gear trio for an Amazon Prime Car series despite Netflix have been keen to secure Clarson and company.
The Amazon approach is quite interesting and seemingly-experimental, but the Netflix Original name has become a more reliable seal of quality.
Netflix vs Amazon Prime Instant Video - Which has the best apps?
Netflix tries hard to make sure its apps are fairly consistent across all platforms. It looks fairly similar on a PS4, a Sony TV or an Android phone.
All of Netflix’s apps take a "lean-back" approach, designed to be idly thumbed through in a pretty carefree fashion. You scroll up and down to flick through themes or genres – horror films or those with a strong female lead, perhaps – and left/right to check out movies or TV series within that sub-set. The recent re-design has changed things swapping the whie background for a darker Spotify-style hue.
One of Netflix’s cleverest elements is that these little subgenres will depend on your preferences. While the basics stick around, other categories are determined by the films you’ve picked previously.
The mobile apps take a slightly more conventional approach, though. The look is the same, but you manually choose subgenres for the most part.
We like the Netflix style. It’s simple. However, many people say it takes quite a while to find anything, especially when using the relatively content-poor UK version,
Amazon Prime Instant Video has different interfaces for each platform, offering much less of a sense of a curated experience.
The new-ish mobile apps (roughly) nick the Netflix style, the PC interface lives within Amazon’s retail front-end and the interface on TVs and game consoles is something else again. It has a lean back style, but navigation is a bit more convoluted than Netflix’s.
Amazon Prime Instant Video’s search feature is also hampered by its diverse pricing structure — there are paid rentals and outright digital purchases of titles you can’t get on the subscription service. You might search for a film and see it listed only to get that sinking feeling as you realise it’s not actually included on the all-you-can-eat streaming part.
Neither service has come up with a perfect way to relay thousands of bits of content, but we think Netflix is ultimately more successful.
Netflix vs Amazon Prime Instant Video - Image quality
Netflix has been something of a pioneer in increasing sound and video quality in mainstream streaming. It now offers an awful lot of 1080p content with surround sound, while there are also 3D films for compatible devices and, if you sign up for the more expensive package, 4K video.
It started trialling 4K content as early as 2013, and now offers the most practical way to get 4K content on a TV. Not every single 4K TV’s Netflix app will support this higher resolution, though, so be sure to check this before getting too excited.
In December 2014, Amazon announced it was adding a few 4K shows to its books, but at present the selection is very limited. It looks as though Amazon is going to primarily use 4K to push its paid-for rentals, rather than making it a core of the pay-monthly line-up. Still, this does mean you can get a limited selection of 4K videos without paying extra, unlike Netflix.
Related: Netflix 4K Ultra HD review
Netflix vs Amazon Prime Instant Video
Has Amazon Prime Instant Video caught up with Netflix after years of trailing behind a bit? No, not quite, but it's getting there slowly but surely.
Netflix no longer steamrolls the Amazon rival in terms of its library, but a more progressive approach to device support and video quality mean it’s the one to pick for most people.
However, at present there’s no reason why you can’t skip between the two. Each has TV series worth getting hooked too, so why not play the field?