Because iTunes rentals are compatible only with Apple products and with PCs, you're out of luck if you want to view content on an Android device or a connected TV.
Next: Amazon Prime, Which Is the Best Alternative?
Price: $79 per year
Selection: TV shows, documentaries, older films
Notable titles: Notting Hill, The Tudors, Amazing Planet
Notably missing titles: All new releases
Supported platforms: Connected Blu-ray players, connected HDTVs, Macs, PCs, Roku, TiVo
If you take a quick look at Amazon's Instant Video library, the service seems to have a lot of content--everything from new releases to older documentaries. But Amazon Prime video encompasses only some of these titles--not most of the new releases, such as Bridesmaids and Thor, which are available for individual rental (ranging from $1.99 to $3.99). Rental films are available for 30 days; once you start watching a film, you must finish within 48 hours (most rental services--including Apple's and Blockbuster's--give you only a 24-hour watching window).
The inventory at Amazon Prime includes a few good, recent titles, such as Elizabeth, The Tudors, and Numb3rs, but most of Amazon Prime-eligible titles are older (Notting Hill, You've Got Mail, Lethal Weapon) or classic (High Plains Drifter). Amazon recently inked a deal with Fox, so we should be seeing 2000 additional movie and TV show titles on Amazon Prime sometime this fall. Among the titles, reportedly, are Arrested Development, 24, The Last of the Mohicans, and Mrs. Doubtfire.
Amazon Prime gives you a choice: You can stream videos to your PC, Mac, or compatible device; or you can download a rental video and watch it offline on your PC or TiVo. If you choose to download the video, you must first download Amazon's Unbox player, which is not compatible with Macs.
In my Amazon Prime test, I watched the first season of National Geographic's Amazing Planet documentary series. Video quality was poor. Artifacts (in the form of blocks and fuzzy specks) were visible in most of the scenes. Most were confined to the edges, and therefore not intolerable, but this service definitely offered the worst video quality I encountered in my testing.
The Amazon Prime video player is simple, but it's surrounded by the rest of Amazon's interface. There's no option to "dim the lights," as in Hulu Plus, so your best bet is to go full-screen or pop the video window out. There is no closed captioning option.
Ease of Use
Amazon Prime is easy to use and to set up. You get a one-month free trial before you have to pay the $79 membership fee; and spread over 12 months, the $79 fee works out to about $6.50 per month, so it's cheaper than the other services.
Amazon Prime isn't exclusively a streaming-video service. It also has a shipping component, whose benefits include free two-day shipping on millions of Amazon items and $3.99 (per item) one-day shipping--so if you order a lot from Amazon, Prime may be worth your while even if you aren't a movie buff.
To use the entertainment services, just log in to your Amazon account, hand over your credit card number, and start searching for titles. Note: You must cancel before the month is up in order to avoid getting charged for an annual subscription.
Browsing Amazon Prime is easy because you can narrow your search parameters to search for Prime-eligible videos. The service also lets you browse movies and TV shows by genre, and sort by popularity, customer reviews, and release date.
The Best Alternative
The best Netflix alternative depends on what you're looking for.
Netflix may have unlimited streaming for just $7.99, but its selection isn't great--unless you're a huge fan of Animal Planet documentaries and obscure indie films. Netflix's player is simple, though you can't pop the window out, and quality can be sketchy, depending on server traffic. Still, Netflix has nearly 20,000 titles on hand for streaming, and it's available on a wide variety of platforms.
Hulu Plus is the place to go if you're mainly concerned with keeping up-to-date on the latest TV shows. Movie selection, in contrast, is weak. Hulu Plus consistently has the best streaming quality and the largest number of shows available in HD, but it also has commercials, which it inflicts on paying subscribers. Hulu Plus is available on most popular platforms.
Blockbuster On Demand has good streaming quality, but its website needs a lot of work, and the selection isn't great. Blockbuster's new Movie Pass might be worth getting--too bad it's only available to Dish Network customers (for now).
iTunes isn't a streaming service at all, but it's worth checking out if you like to watch the latest releases. iTunes has almost every new release available for rental. However, if you want to watch more than a couple of movies a month, iTunes quickly gets expensive, since most titles cost between $2 and $4 each. iTunes rentals are available on PCs and Apple devices, but only Apple users can rent HD versions.
Amazon Prime streaming is still mostly a bonus service for people who want fast, free shipping. Selection is lacking, and video quality is poor. But with the addition of 2000 new Fox TV shows and movies, it may be worth checking out in a couple of months. It's the least expensive of the five services I looked at.
As for replacing the part of Netflix now known as Qwikster--good luck. Only Blockbuster currently operates a DVDs-by-mail service, called Blockbuster Total Access, and it starts at $9.99 per month, which is more expensive than Qwikster.
Blockbuster's Movie Pass currently exists only for Dish Network customers but should roll out to non-Dish customers in the future. It combines DVDs-by-mail and unlimited streaming. You can also try Redbox, but you'll have to pick up your DVDs at a Redbox station. and you'll be charged per night. Plus, Redbox stations can hold only so many DVDs--so it's a good idea to check your local Redbox online for the title you want before making the trip to the kiosk.
This story, "Four Netflix alternatives tested" was originally published by PCWorld.