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Ranking film and television streaming services

Amazon Prime users have access to Amazon's Instant Video collection. Photo courtesy of Rahim Ullah.

Amazon Prime users have access to Amazon's Instant Video collection. Photo courtesy of Rahim Ullah.
Amazon Prime users have access to Amazon’s Instant Video collection. Photo courtesy of Rahim Ullah.

In a matter of decades, we’ve gone from vast movie palaces, towering screens and drive-in movie theaters to minute electronic displays — those belonging to the cellphones, tablets and laptops, which stream the latest in cinema and television with a few quick keystrokes. And what’s the small screen without a streaming service to match? We selected and evaluated eight online entertainment platforms for the quality of their film libraries, pricing and overall usability.

  1. Netflix

A time-tested favorite, Netflix got into the subscription-service game early, and it’s got the expansive library to show for it. For $8.99 a month (upped recently from $7.99), you’ll have access to thousands of feature-length films and TV shows, many of them in Super HD 1080p. Netflix does a fairly good job of keeping abreast of recent indie films and will occasionally offer a new blockbuster film ahead of its competitors (e.g. “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”).

Each Netflix account can host multiple user profiles, and each user can view personalized movie and TV recommendations as determined by viewing habits. Furthermore, Netflix is compatible with most devices — your Xbox, Tivo, Kindle and more. Netflix gets high marks for the quality of its content and user-friendliness.

  1. Amazon Prime Instant Video

The company that had its beginnings in the bookselling business has since expanded to encompass other forms of media. Amazon Prime Instant Video comes part and parcel with purchase of Amazon Prime, which is currently $50 per year for students compared to $108 per year from Netflix.

Instant Video streams on most devices, though mobile users must have Wi-Fi to watch — a hassle for those users who have limited access to Wi-Fi and cellular data. Furthermore, its user interface isn’t as navigable as Netflix’s.

In addition to its subscription service, Instant Video also offers 30-day rentals for $2.99 a pop. If you’d like a la carte film selections in addition to your bread-and-butter offerings, Prime’s got the goods.

  1. iTunes

iTunes has all the selection of Netflix and Amazon Prime Video without the monthly subscription fee to match. If you’re an infrequent filmgoer, or if your tastes run to the slightly more eccentric, you’ll find an ideal streaming service in iTunes Movies. The Apple-hosted service fills in the cracks left by more popular services, but the pay-per-film model might be a hassle for the more avid movie-watcher.

iTunes tends to be a bit finicky about its compatibility — make sure you’ve got the latest version of Mac OS or Windows installed, with the most recent version of iTunes to boot.

  1. Google Play

In the style of Apple’s iTunes, Google Play offers pay-per-selection services for film and television. Prices for film rentals range from free to $6.99; purchase is typically $10.99-$14.99. While iTunes outstrips Play in terms of size of selection, Google Play has the upper hand in the comprehensibility of its user interface.

  1. Fandor

A purveyor of cult, classic and indie films, Fandor offers subscription services starting from $7.50 per month. The streaming service gets top marks for its selection of international films (check out its world map of offerings, ranging from Azerbaijan to Yemen) as well as its Criterion Classics collection.

Fandor also fosters a tighter viewer community than other larger-scale subscriptions services; Fandor fans can write their own reviews of films on the site, which are then rated by other users.

  1. Hulu

Although not the film buff’s ideal streaming service, Hulu’s a go-to for its library of TV shows; its film catalog is far more limited. Though Hulu does offer a limited selection of free films and shows, you’ll likely want to upgrade to Hulu Plus ($7.99 a month, or $95.88 a year) for more options. Opt for a Netflix/Hulu Plus combo if you’d like a mix of quality films and up-to-date TV offerings. A perk of the Plus package, additionally, is the Criterion Collection library, a treasure trove of 900-plus classic films.

  1. Mubi

The self-proclaimed hub for “cult, classic, independent and award-winning films from around the world,” Mubi provides a limited, curated selection of lesser-known films for $4.99 a month. The Mubi staff selects one new film every day for inclusion on the site; the selection is available for 30 days before it disappears.

It’s small, underground and indie. Mubi caters to a niche, and admittedly hipsterish, audience even as it adopts Netflix’s tried-and-true business model.

  1. Vudu

Registration and membership are free, but films are pay-per-rental or purchase. Vudu is newer than Netflix and has a more limited selection of films, but almost all of its films are in HD or HDX.

Contact Madelyne Xiao at madelyne ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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