If you have cable TV, you probably just rent your movies directly from your provider. It's easy and straightforward. But what if you want to watch that movie on a mobile device? What if you want to own a copy in the cloud without having to worry about losing access to it if you cancel your cable? Apps from Apple, Google, Walmart and others can help you out here, and we've got the intel to help you make the right choice for your needs.
The iTunes Movie Store
If you're primarily an iOS or Mac user, the movie section of the iTunes Store is arguably your best choice, for a couple reasons. One, there's a huge and varied selection with aggressive pricing on 4K content -- which you get a free upgrade to if you previously owned the HD version.
What do we mean by aggressive? How about Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy in 4K for $34.99 total. The 4K Blu-ray discs have a street price of $25 each. A stream can't compare to the audiovisual quality of a disc, but at these prices, it's hard to complain. On the other hand, 4K versions of Star Wars and Marvel films are notably absent from iTunes, due to a disagreement between Apple and Disney over pricing.
The other reason for Apple fans to go this route is that the company doesn't let you buy or rent movies within any third-party iOS app anyway, granting iTunes a victory by default. To make the other apps on this list fully work, you have to buy your content on their respective websites before you can watch it on your Apple device (or on Windows via the iTunes desktop app).
As you might imagine, Android devices don't get access to your iTunes purchases, and you won't find iTunes on any home streaming device other than the Apple TV. So that means every purchase you make there is one that you can't take with you to another platform later.
Like the remaining services on this list, the Walmart-owned Vudu app can be found in a wide variety of places, starting with iOS and Android. It's still the only service we've encountered where you can own the 4K stream of "Star Wars: The Last Jedi."
Vudu and FandangoNOW are both good sources for 4K streaming, though we'd give the edge to Vudu because it clearly states whether or not the stream has HDR10, Dolby Vision, and Dolby Atmos, plus its website has portraits of the directors and cast members that you can click on to see what else of theirs is available, whereas FandangoNOW's portrait section is limited to the mobile app.
Vudu also offers up a variety of older movies for free (supported by ads) and a rotating sample of free episodes of popular TV shows.
While iTunes is probably the best choice for Apple devices, Vudu is arguably the winner for the other home streaming devices, smart TV apps, and compatible Android devices.
Not to be confused with the regular Fandango app where you purchase movie tickets, FandangoNOW is its other app built around streaming rentals and purchases. It's owned by Comcast through its acquisition of NBCUniversal in 2010, with Time Warner taking a 30 percent minority stake, so most people won't be completely getting away from their cable company. It's available in either Android or iOS flavors.
But it's a good place to cross-shop against Vudu's offerings, because there are occasional differences in price. Right now, for example, FandangoNOW is running a promotion where new customers get a 20 percent discount on all purchases and rentals for the first 30 days after you create an account.
FandangoNOW's device compatibility is roughly as good as Vudu's as well, with built-in apps in Samsung, LG, Vizio, and Sony TVs, and availability on streaming boxes like the Roku, Apple TV (via the Movies Anywhere app), and Google Chromecast. You can find the full list on its website.
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Google Play Movies & TV
Despite its name, Google Play Movies & TV isn't just on Google devices. You can also get it on your iPhone and iPad, on Android devices, in certain smart TVs, and on a Roku. Also, while the Apple TV doesn't have a native Google Play Movies app, there is an end-around: Get the YouTube app for Apple TV, sign in, open your library, and select Purchases. All the movies you've bought in the Google Play store will materialize here, for playback within the YouTube app.
Because of Apple's restrictions, you can't do much more than window shop in the iOS version of this app, though the individual product pages do at least offer a sensible list of recommended films to also watch (except perhaps for "Blade Runner 2049," which lacks a recommendation to watch the original film that it's a direct sequel to). The Android version and the website let you buy and rent whatever is available.
Google Play Movies used to lag behind the others in the 4K department, but it's quickly catching up, though Google's movie store has been following the worrisome trend of not offering a 4K rental option at all -- to watch it at that resolution, the only option you have is to buy it outright, with prices climbing to $30 a pop.
Redbox's streaming service is still in beta and currently lacks 4K, but the app available for Android and for iOS is still handy for the ability to browse the Blu-ray kiosk inventory from the comfort of your couch. Which itself is handy because the discs only cost $2 a day to rent, about one-third of what a stream will cost you, and with superior picture quality and sound.
If the movie isn't out on disc yet, you can add it to your wishlist and get a notification on your phone or tablet when it gets added. And while iOS blocks paying for streams within the app, Apple has no problem (so far) with your ordering discs for pickup from your nearby kiosk. And you can purchase or rent streams on the Redbox website to view within its mobile app later. If you don't have a particular film in mind and you just want to browse, the app's search function has a bunch of filters to help you narrow things down.
If your disc is damaged (or missing from the slipcase when you retrieve it from the machine), you can request a refund within the app, and the turnaround is usually pretty quick.
- If you're firmly in the Apple ecosystem, then the iTunes Movie Store will make the most sense, especially if you have a 4K TV with HDR.
- If you use Android and don't have any Apple streaming boxes, then Vudu is arguably the best choice for you. FandangoNOW comes close, but Vudu offers more information about each title.
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