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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Exploring video options beyond Netflix



Two weeks ago Netflix kicked up a firestorm of discontent when they suddenly increased prices by 50 percent or more for new and existing customers. The price increase was effective immediately for new customers and will take effect on September 1 for existing customers. Based on the initial reaction, Netflix, which had reached a stronghold position in the video rental market with 23 million subscribers, is bracing for an exodus of customers from their streaming and DVD rental services. If you are one of the customers planning to leave Netflix, what are your options? You might be surprised to find there are quite a few options available, although some may end up costing you more in the long run.


Hulu and HuluPlus

Hulu is a very popular service that mostly offers current and classic TV shows in it's free library, which contains more than 29,000 episodes. Desperate Housewives, The Office, Saturday Night Live and Glee are among the current shows offered, and you can watch up to five episodes a month. Hulu also has hundreds of movies and documentaries too, but you're not going to find featured films there. With Hulu you only can watch videos in standard definition on your computer. And of course you have to suffer through some advertising.

Step up to HuluPlus for $7.99 a month and your available library expands substantially, with more than 1,000 seasons of current and classic shows comprising more than 33,000 episodes, 16,000 of which are available on all supported devices. The movie library increases too, adding hundreds of exclusive films from The Criterion Collection. The advertising presence is greatly diminished (some movies have no ads at all) but you still won't find current feature films here.

On HuluPlus you can watch these videos in 720p HD (when available) on computers, smartphones, tablets, gaming consoles, select TVs and Blu-ray players and set-top boxes. This includes iOS and Android devices too. A full list of compatible devices is here. So Hulu and HuluPlus are really a better choice if you like to watch a lot of TV shows. And Hulu does not offer a DVD rental option at all.



The main selling point for the VUDU streaming video service is speed. Compared to Netflix, VUDU says they have new movies available for streaming the same day they're released on DVD. This is 28 days sooner than Netflix has the same movie available for DVD rental, they claim, and up to seven years sooner than Netflix has the movie available for streaming. They're going for the jugular on that last one, because one of the main complaints I hear about Netflix is that their streaming library has mostly old movies. As a Netflix user, I can confirm their library is old, but at least the selections are good. VUDU claims, however, to have the world's largest HD video library. They also have popular TV shows and movie trailers.

On VUDU you get fresh movies you can watch on a Playstation 3, compatible Blu-ray player or TV, on a Boxee or on a computer. Most videos are in the 1080p HD format with Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 sound. Movies are $2 each for a two-day rental with no monthly fees and no late fees. VUDU doesn't have DVD rentals or mobile support so you're a bit limited on the delivery, but it you primarily like to watch new-release movies at home this could be the right service for you.




screen_shot_2011-07-28_at_2.22.15_pm.pngRemember Blockbuster? They were the big dogs before Netflix came to town and chased them out of the yard. Well, Blockbuster is not out of the game and they're taking this opportunity to scrap their way back. They two are advertising that they have new-release videos 28 days before Netflix and they're offering the Total Access plan free for 30 days to Netflix refugees. Their rent-by-mail service gives you unlimited rentals with one disc out a time each month for $9.99. That's for unlimited movies, TV shows and games with in-store exchanges and no due dates or late fees. The two-disc plan is $14.99. Blu-ray rentals are included in both plans at no extra charge.

While their DVD rental service looks very robust, their on-demand streaming service is not. They have some free movies, some for $2.99 or less and others at $3 or more, but the library consists mostly of older and second-run titles. Their streaming service works on select TVs, game consoles, Blu-ray players, DVRs, computers and some Android smartphones. At this point Blockbuster is a good choice for DVD movie and game rentals but it's not a good choice for streaming.


Amazon Instant Video

screen_shot_2011-07-28_at_2.58.15_pm.pngAmazon Instant Video is now offering thousands of movies and TV shows for on-demand streaming, and their library does has more of the current new releases. You can watch videos on supported TVs, Blu-ray players and computers but they don't have mobile support. Some free videos are available and some older titles can be watched for as little as $.99, but current movies are $3.99. If you begin watching a movie and can't finish it, the movie is held in your video library where you can continue watching it on another device when you log back in.

Amazon Prime, a $79 annual membership service that offers flat-fee reduced shipping for purchases, comes with free access to more than 6,000 video tiles in the library. So if you already have Amazon Prime, a lot of videos are available to you for free through this service. A new agreement with CBS is bringing more than 2,000 episodes from TV shows like Cheers, Frasier and Star Trek to Amazon Prime, so it may be another good source for watching classic TV shows. Beyond that, however, Amazon would not be my first choice for streaming video content.


Android Market

For Android smartphone and tablet users the Android Market has a library of videos available with newer releases at $3.99 and older ones at $2.99. Since Netflix has been slow to release their app for Android devices (they're slowly rolling it out now) this has been one of the main ways Android users have been viewing video on their devices. The library is pretty small though, and you won't find the latest releases there. So this isn't a great choice. Also, there have been reports that rooted Android phones are blocked by Google so that movies cannot be played. So if your device is rooted you may not be able to use this service. Installation of the Videos app is required to play videos purchased in the Market.



Apple iTunes

screen_shot_2011-07-28_at_3.21.06_pm.pngVideo rentals through Apple iTunes are much the same as the Android Market at around the same price point at $3.99 per rental for the most recent releases in standard definition. HD rentals are $1 more and videos also can be purchased for for $14.99 (standard def) and $19.99. One advantage with iTunes is that the movies also can be played on a Mac or through an Apple TV device connected to a TV. Some movies are marked with an "iTunes Extra" badge. These rentals have deleted scenes and other special features that are similar to special edition DVDs. Apple iTunes appears to be the only streaming service offering this feature. A large selection of TV shows also is available with episode rental prices as low as $.99 and purchases for $2.99. Entire season passes are also available. For TV shows, HuluPlus looks to be a better deal.



screen_shot_2011-07-28_at_4.31.44_pm.pngCrackle is a free streaming video service for your computer and for iOS and Android mobile devices. Android users take note, because this app is the only completely free way for you to watch streaming TV shows and movies on your smartphone. No, you aren't going to get the latest releases but did I mention it's completely free? You'll find some decent movies there, like Men In Black, Pineapple Express and Gridiron Gang. You'll also find classic TV shows like Seinfeld, Barney Miller, Bewitched, All in the Family and more. Did I mention it's free? What are you waiting for, Edith?



This may be the simplest of all DVD and game rental services and that's probably because it's the least high-tech. Redbox is a kiosk-based rental service and around Tampa Bay you can find them in front of 7-11 and Walgreens stores and inside the front door at Walmart. To reserve an item for rental you select a nearby box and search for available movies and games online. They also have iOS and Android apps you can use to reserve movies. After you reserve your item, you go to the box with the same credit card you used to make your reservation and pick up your rental. When you're done you can return the item to any Redbox kiosk. If you don't reserve in advance you can still rent from any kiosk but you'll be limited to selections that are not reserved by others. Most movies are $1 and Blu-ray movies are $1.50. Games are typically $2 and all rentals are for one night. The movie selection is very current so this is another great way to get DVDs and games at a good price. Redbox is rumored to be readying the launch of a streaming service too, so we'll be watching for that with great interest.


All these video services have something to offer and finding the right combination of services and value is something each person has to do based on their needs and budget. So use this information to explore the available options and come up with a plan that works best for you.

[Last modified: Thursday, July 28, 2011 4:56pm]


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