With Hulu Plus debuting this week, online video fans will soon have another alternative to the overpriced programming bundles offered by the cable and satellite companies. While Web-based services that stream movies and TV shows to the home can't yet match the immediacy and depth of traditional pay TV, they're edging closer.
Hulu Plus hasn't opened for business yet, but let's take a look at how it compares on paper with Netflix, the movie rental service that most closely matches Hulu Plus's all-you-can-stream business model.
Price and Features
Hulu Plus will cost $10 a month, and will let you watch every episode from the current season of popular shows from the major TV networks, including ABC, NBC, and Fox. (Sorry, CBS fans, you'll have to get your Big Brother fix elsewhere.) In addition, you'll be able to watch entire past seasons of classic shows such as 30 Rock, The Office, and The X-Files. In theory, you'll never need to buy a boxed DVD set again for your favorite shows--well, unless your tastes veer toward the eclectic.
Netflix costs a minimum of $9 a month and has a very extensive catalog of movies and TV shows. There's one big drawback, however; you won't find episodes from the current season, and some past seasons are available only on DVD/Blu-ray. Overall, though, Netflix is better for movie buffs, while Hulu Plus is best for network TV fans who want to keep up with current shows.
Netflix, with more than 20,000 titles available for streaming, kicks booty here. Hulu Plus has a mere 2,000-plus TV episodes. Both services will continue to stockpile titles, of course, so these numbers will continue to rise.
Home Hardware Support
To watch Hulu Plus or Netflix on your big-screen TV, you'll need an Internet-enabled TV with an ethernet port, Wi-Fi, or both; or a Net-ready Blu-ray player, game console, or set-top box that's compatible with the service you want.
It's no surprise that Netflix, the established veteran, supports more devices. These include the top three game consoles (Sony PlayStation 3; Microsoft Xbox 360; and Nintendo Wii); seven Internet-enabled Blu-ray players; three HDTVS; the TiVo digital video recorder; and three set-top boxes, including the popular Roku Streaming Player. Hulu Plus, by comparison, will initially run on select Samsung TVs and Blu-ray players, with support for Sony and Vizio hardware coming later this year. PlayStation 3 compatibility is "coming soon;" Xbox 360 support is slated for early 2011. The Wii? Well, eventually.
Hulu Plus will support Wi-Fi and 3G connections, and it'll run on a trio of Apple's mobile devices: iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch. Netflix's mobile story is similar: the iPhone/iPod app should arrive soon, and the iPad app is already out. But are 3G data networks and streaming movies are a good match? Based on my experiences, they're not. With 4G networks on the way, however, both services could soon be major players in the mobile entertainment biz.
Shows on Hulu Plus, like their counterparts on the regular (and free) Hulu, will have commercials. That's a bummer for subscribers, but a second means of income for Hulu. Netflix has no commercials. That alone would make me choose Netflix over Hulu Plus. (Then again, I'm also more of a movie buff than a TV watcher, and Netflix has a lot more of the content I want.)
Hulu Plus shows will be in high-def (720p) resolution, but the speed of your Internet connection will play a big factor in image quality. Netflix shows certain titles in HD, but only if your broadband link is 5 mbps or faster.