We've never had better options for streaming movies and TV to our mobile devices, and the services are affordable. However, if you're a cord cutter or a media glutton trying to build your own bundle, the cost of multiple services can really add up -- a la carte can end up costing you more than a cable subscription.
And there are so many services, most with more than one pricing tier. There are flat-rate, all-you-can-eat options like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. There are digital stores for renting and buying, like Google Play, iTunes, and Amazon Instant Video. And then there are Sling TV and PlayStation Vue, which send live TV (with some restrictions) straight to your mobile device. If you can only afford a single service, which is the best value?
Netflix is the clear winner when it comes to depth of content for your dollar. And so far it's doing the best job keeping up with technology.
Huge content library, plus Netflix originals and exclusives
Despite increasing competition, Netflix is the most complete online video store you can find, with movies, TV series, and impressive original shows that range from House of Cards to Marvel's Jessica Jones to BoJack Horseman. Plus, as with Amazon Prime, you get an entire season of those original series at once, so you can binge-watch to your heart's content.
And Netflix plans to hoard even more shows. The company announced at the beginning of 2016 that it plans to spend $6 billion on content this year, an amount that puts it in the ranks of the biggest media companies. Some of that money will go toward original content -- Netflix intends to produce over 600 hours across 30 different shows in 2016 (up from 450 hours in 2015 and 320 hours in 2014). Probably the bulk of those 600 hours will be in more television series, though the company recently purchased the distribution rights to several feature films that were being circulated at festivals.
Recently, Netflix announced that in September 2016 it will become "the exclusive US pay TV home of the latest films from Disney, Marvel, Lucasfilm and Pixar." The wording of this statement is important. If Netflix classifies itself as a "pay TV home," this seems to indicate that other subscription-based streaming services like Amazon Prime Video and Hulu will not get access, nor will premium cable channels like HBO and Showtime. But presumably you could still rent movies from those studios at the iTunes store, Google Play Movies & TV, and Redbox, and of course you could still buy Blu-ray and DVDs. The "latest films" part means that Netflix has negotiated exclusive first-run rights. You'll eventually see these films on pay cable and competing streaming services, but you should expect a delay of at least 30 days, possibly months.
Netflix pricing ranges from $8 to $12 per month. All tiers let you screen unlimited content to your TV, laptop, tablet, or phone. The Basic tier ($8) gets you streaming to one screen at a time but no HD; Standard ($10) offers HD on up to two screens simultaneously; Premium ($12) offers HD, Ultra HD 4K, and streaming to four screens at once.
By comparison, HBO -- which has also announced 600 hours of original programming available for streaming -- charges $15 per month for HBO Now, making it the most expensive option. (HBO Go is bundled for free with HBO cable subscriptions.)
Recently, Amazon made Prime Video available on a monthly basis, for $9 per month. Prime Video has some 4K content, so if you want Ultra HD, Amazon is cheaper than Netflix Premium.
For a complete price comparison, see our chart below.
Ready for high-quality audio and video
Being price conscious shouldn't mean that you have to put up with slow or outdated technology. Fortunately, Netflix is forward-looking on tech standards, offering high-quality audio and video and the ability to stream to multiple devices (like your TV, laptop, and phone) simultaneously.
At the $12-per-month Premium level, Netflix lets you stream to four devices at once and unlocks its 4K library. While 4K phones are few right now -- and your carrier might throttle that much data streaming to your phone -- you'll definitely notice a difference in video quality if you're viewing on a device with 1080p or higher resolution, such as an iPad or a Galaxy S6 or S7, or if you're redirecting the mobile stream to a flat-panel TV. And 4K TVs are coming down in price. Whether or not you have a 4K TV or phone display, high-res video looks like the future, especially if you're interested in virtual reality.
Moreover, House of Cards (arguably Netflix's flagship show) starting filming entirely in 6K for its third season -- 6K has over twice as many pixels as 4K, which has four times as many pixels as 1080p. Netflix is also experimenting with HDR content, but this wider color range requires a compatible TV -- there currently aren't any mobile devices that support HDR video.
For audio, if a movie or show was mixed in 5.1 surround sound, Netflix offers it in 5.1. Of course, the number of audio channels isn't a factor if you're watching on mobile devices.
By comparison, Hulu limits you to two streams, 720p video, and stereo sound. HBO does not currently have a public game plan for 4K, though it does have full-fledged surround-sound support if you plug your mobile device into a home theater system. Amazon has some 4K content, but it doesn't appear to be as enthusiastic about the format as Netflix is.
Bottom line: The competition for your streaming dollar is heating up, but Netflix is maintaining its edge against the competition -- more than that, it's forward-looking in both content offerings and streaming tech like 4K and HDR. It's easily the best value in streaming video.
More video-streaming services
Netflix is the best video service if you can afford only one. But if you're willing to spend more, here are the key selling points of the other services.
Hulu (Android, iOS). Some original content; recent network TV episodes (minus CBS) are available within about a week of live airing; add Showtime streaming for an additional $9 per month (versus $11 per month if bought separately).
iTunes. Apple TVs (the recommended streaming method) are high-quality streaming platforms.
PlayStation Vue (iOS). Wide variety of channels; available on Fire TV and iOS devices.