Netflix or Amazon Video: Which is the best video streaming service?
The world is in love with streaming. No longer are the walls of our living rooms lined with DVDs and Blu-rays, as our film and TV needs are now fulfilled by video-on-demand services.
The two main purveyors of this kind of internet-based entertainment are Netflix and Amazon, with its Prime Instant Video service.
But with only so many hours in the day, deciding which of these two streaming giants are worth signing up for has become somewhat of a challenge. With that in mind, we've taken a closer look at both Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video to find out which comes out on top.
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Netflix vs Amazon Video - Pricing
One point to get out there first of all is that both Netflix and Amazon Video offer free trials. Netflix gives you a free month while Amazon offers a 30-day free trial of its Prime membership, getting you access to the online catalogue of films and TV shows, free speedy postage from Amazon's retail side, access to an Kindle eBook lending library, as well as the Amazon Music Prime streaming service.
Students can get a 6-month trial of Amazon Prime. Just head over to the website and click on the section that asks whether you're a student to sign up.
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, which comes with all the above mentioned perks.That's great value if you're a regular Amazon shopper as well as an Amazon media consumer.
But it's also possible to treat Amazon Video as a stand-alone service. You'll find that there's a £5.99-a-month video-only subscription available in the Amazon accounts menu. This still doesn't seem to be available in the US, though.
Netflix's standard service starts at £5.99/$7.99 a month, which only allows for a single standard definition (SD) stream. We wouldn't recommend it to anyone unless money really is very tight indeed.
A far better starting point is the £7.49/$9.99 middle tier, which enables HD streaming and the use of two screens simultaneously. There's also an £8.99/$11.99 'premium' tier, which enables four simultaneous streams using the same account, plus access to 4K TV on a steadily growing range of titles. Of course, you'll need a compatible 4K TV to use the latter.
Related: What is 4K and UHD?
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 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. Netflix, conversely, 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.
It's a strange matter of perception - Amazon actually gives you more choice than Netflix, but by mixing in standard rentals with 'free' content, it can feel like you're being fleeced in comparison to Netflix's more limited service.
Netflix vs Amazon 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.
Netflix support is significantly better in some areas. For example, Netflix has been available for Chromecast for ages now, but we're still waiting to get an official Instant Video app. However, you can use the Chromecast's browser cast function to throw Amazon Prime Video from your laptop or smartphone browser onto your TV.
Related: Chromecast tips and tricks
It's a similar state of affairs with Apple's revamped Apple TV. It shipped with Netflix app support, but not Amazon Instant Video. There have been claims that Amazon is set to launch an app for the Apple TV some time soon, but for now it's just another compatibility win for Netflix.
There is an Amazon Video streaming app for both Android and iOS, and both now allow you to stream video over a mobile network connection (which the iOS app didn't used to support). However, 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.
One plus that comes with having the iOS app is that you can stream Amazon content to your Apple TV. Simply start the show you want to watch on your phone or tablet using the app, and tap the Airplay button to cast the show to Apple TV.
One standout feature of Prime Instant Video is the ability to download certain films and TV shows onto your Fire tablet, Fire phone, and Android/iOS devices for watching offline. While not all titles are available, there's a good amount of content which you can download. This is something that Netflix doesn't currently offer.
Things are definitely improving for Amazon Video users in terms of compatibility. A case in point is the popular Roku family of media players, which has added Amazon support in recent months.
Of course, while Amazon's platform support is improving, Netflix is already pretty much flawless. There's no problem at all getting your Master of None or House of Cards fix, regardless of your chosen media streamer.
Netflix can be streamed freely using Wi-Fi or a mobile internet connection with Android phones and iPhones alike, just like with Amazon. There are simply fewer hoops to jump through than with Amazon.
Netflix vs Amazon Video - Which has the best films?
As of the time of writing, the UK version of Netflix has 3,011 items on it according to the New on Netflix UK website. Amazon Video UK has 1,815 items, as per the equivalent Amazon site.
These numbers vary slightly according to the third party source you consult, so we only use this as an approximate guide, but Netflix appears to have an edge in terms of pure numbers here in the UK.
In the US, things appear to swing the other way, with Amazon having a couple of thousand more than Netflix according to JustWatch. For both services, our American cousins have a much richer library of content to pick from by a factor or two or three.
There is often surprisingly little overlap in these services' film 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, several of which we've mentioned above. FlixSearch is another good universal one to check out.
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 George Lucas)
We've run this test before, and last year found that Netflix UK and Netflix US performed equally well, and that both did better than Amazon Video UK and Amazon Video US.
This time around, Netflix US and UK performed the best, followed by Amazon UK and Amazon US in joint last. But what's most notable here is how poorly they all did. Netflix UK and US won with 3 out of the top 20.
What's clear is that neither of these services should be your first port of call if you're a film buff in either the US or UK. Neither gets anything approaching first pick when it comes to the latest films, of course, with rental services still understandably given priority.
But it seems even the older, more established films aren't trickling through like they used to. We'd guess that this is as a result of both services opting to focus on original TV and movie content rather than chasing after film licenses quite as much as they used to.
Indeed, with awards-tipped Beasts of No Nation, Netflix has taken a bold step into producing its own movies. It's got movie studios and theatres running scared, but it's very good news for the customer.
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Netflix vs Amazon 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 Video seems to have a wider array of UK curiosities than Netflix. Shows like Downton Abbey can be 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, but strangely you'll have to pay to rent anything other than season 7 on Amazon. 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, the biggest part of their appeal is becoming about shows bankrolled by the services themselves, rather than what golden oldies they have on their books.
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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, Bloodline and, more recently, Narcos can stand up to any show produced by one of the major TV networks, while Daredevil and Jessica Jones are building a gritty shared comicbook universe that's way beyond anything made by The CW. On the less serious side, Netflix is also behind the animated comedy show BoJack Horseman, as well as achingly hip Aziz Ansari comedy Master of None, and the Judd Apatow produced Love.
Amazon started off its original programming with a much lighter touch, but also made less of an impact, with comedy shows like Betas and Alpha House. However, it has stepped up its game considerably, and has taken a little more of a Netflix-like approach.
This arguably started with the high-quality comedy-drama Transparent, which won a Golden Globe award for best TV series (comedy/musical). More recently we've seen the acclaimed dystopia of The Man in the High Castle, and the perfectly pitched '80s nostalgia of comedy-drama Red Oaks.
Amazon takes a slightly less focused, more blunt-force approach to obtaining original content than Netflix. This can pay off spectacularly, such as with Amazon UK winning the right to show one of the hottest US dramas of the past year in Mr. Robot.
Amazon's scattershot approach also sees it running a yearly pilot season, with viewers voting for the shows they want to see more of. It's TV production by way of crowdsourcing, which sounds very modern indeed.
In terms of output it lacks a little finesse, as you might expect from such a 'throw it at the wall and see what sticks' method. It hasn't produced as many Netflix-level classics as Amazon would have hoped for, but it does at least allow for some intriguing experimentation.
Amazon's deep pocketed approach has also seen it win the rights to produce a new car show from the former Top Gear presenters, led by Jeremy Clarkson.
Original programming is definitely where the battle between the two services is becoming more interesting. 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 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 based on a book, perhaps – and left/right to check out movies or TV series within that sub-set.
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.
Netflix has made its apps far more image-led and seamless than before, with information panels developing on the same page rather than switching to whole new one, and in some cases, with videos effectively starting automatically in the background.
We like the Netflix style. It's simple and elegant. However, many people say it takes quite a while to find anything, especially when using the relatively content-poor UK version.
Amazon has evidently taken notes from the Netflix school of media streaming interface design. The Amazon Video apps of today are far heavier on the curation side of things than they used to be.
Amazon seems to be gradually bringing its various apps closer together in terms of look and functionality, but they're still not as uniform or as strongly defined as Netflix. You can tell you're in Netflix as soon as you glimpse one of its apps, but Amazon's various offerings often seem to lack a clear identity.
However, what used to be a big problem for the service, i.e. the confusing mixture of content belonging to different payment structures, is no longer an issue in Amazon's latest apps. What you see is what you can watch for free.
Where there is a mixture of content, such as in the PS4 app, the different strands of content are cleanly walled off, and Prime content has a clear sticker over the corner.
Amazon's apps still aren't as clean and intuitive as Netflix, and there's a good chance they never will be. Amazon's service is simply too sprawling and multi-tiered by nature. But its mobile apps in particular borrow heavily from its great rival, and there's no longer a massive usability gulf between the two services.
One way in which the Amazon apps are notably superior to the Netflix ones is in the aforementioned offline support. It's possible to download Instant Video content for later viewing.
Neither service has come up with a perfect way to relay thousands of bits of content, both services are generally strong. Netflix wins for the clarity and consistency of its UI, but Amazon has improved massively in this regard (largely by aping Netflix's style, admittedly). However, Amazon has its own reason to boast with its offline feature. The sooner Netflix adds this, the better.
Netflix vs Amazon 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.
As of April 2016, there are a number of 4K titles available on Netflix, including Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Marco Polo, House of Cards. On top of providing UHD films and TV shows, Netflix has also begun streaming content in HDR. Short for High Dynamic Range, HDR is set to be the big TV tech of 2016. Head over to our 'What is HDR?' guide for a full explanation of how the new technology works. In short, HDR refers to TVs that can produce a much wider array of colours, much brighter whites, and much deeper blacks than traditional screens. The result is a much more realistic and detailed image, providing you have an HDR-compatible TV.
As of April 2016, Netflix begun streaming original series Marco Polo in HDR, with the second season of Daredevil soon to follow. More HDR shows and films are sure to come throughout the year.
In December 2014, Amazon announced it was adding a few 4K shows to its books. The selection is still relatively limited, but key shows are available at the higher quality, including Transparent, Bosch, Red Oaks, and Alpha House. It also offers a selection of movies in 4K.
What's good about Amazon's approach to 4K when compared to Netflix is that you don't have to pay extra for the privilege. What's more, Amazon was ahead of Netflix when it came to HDR content, releasing the first season of its original series Mozart in the Jungle in HDR in the US last June and in the UK last August. You also don't have to pay extra for HDR with Amazon Prime Instant Video.
Related: Netflix 4K Ultra HD review
Netflix vs Amazon Video
Has Amazon Video caught up with Netflix after years of trailing behind a bit? In most of the ways that count, yes it has.
Netflix no longer steamrolls the Amazon rival in terms of its library, though we'd argue it still has the edge on the consistency and stunning highs of its original content. Amazon has improved considerably in this regard over the past 12 months or so, and there's every sign that it's going to continue to do so.
Amazon has also improved its platform and app support in recent times, but it's still not as cohesive or ubiquitous a service as Netflix, which has one of the most identifiable and user-friendly interfaces around.
Netflix's edge has never been as slight as it is now, but it still gets our nod in a straight-up fight. Of course, at present there's no reason why you can't skip between the two. Each has TV series worth getting hooked on, so why not play the field?
Got a favourite when it comes to the streaming giants? Let us know in the comments.