Amazon Prime: Still a good deal at $99?

Prime rates are going up, but you can still squeak in your first year for $79 if you hurry.

Amazon

Ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod, you guys -- so much news! First, the comments system is back up and running, so tell me everything you've wanted to say for the past five days. No doubt you had thoughts to share regarding that PopCap game bundle, Levana baby monitor ("A baby monitor? Really?"), and, of course, Republic Wireless shocker. (Speaking of which, there's more Republic news coming later -- stay tuned!)

Second, as you've probably heard by now, Amazon just announced that an annual Amazon Prime subscription will now cost $99, a price increase of $20.

That's not a huge surprise; rumors have been swirling for months that Amazon would raise Prime rates, though I'm glad the widely speculated $129 price didn't happen. (Note to self: Start prepping post for mid-2016: "Amazon Prime: Still a good deal at $129?")

According to Amazon, if your existing Prime membership is scheduled to renew before April 17, it will do so at the current $79 rate. If it renews after that, plan on paying $99. It stands to reason, then, that anyone looking to start a Prime subscription can still do so for $79, at least until April 17. Jason Cipriani has more on that in his How To post.

Initial thoughts: Totally fair move on Amazon's part. Prime has been around since 2005 (!), and Amazon hasn't once raised the price -- despite the skyrocketing costs of nearly everything else (gasoline, transportation, etc.) and a fairly massive expansion of what Prime includes (digitally speaking).

But at $99, is Amazon Prime a good deal?

Prime equity
Around this time last year, I asked the question of whether Prime was worth it at $79. While I suspect an extra $20 isn't going to break anybody's bank, this is still a good moment to reevaluate Prime and its overall value.

Truthfully, it's kind of an oddball assemblage of services. Your $99 buys you two-day shipping on virtually anything you order from Amazon, with no minimum. (Amazon's much slower Super-Saver Shipping is also free, but only if you spend at least $35.) You also get unlimited streaming of movies and TV shows and one borrowed e-book per month.

I can see Amazon wanting to offer some kind of flat-rate shipping-upgrade option, and I can see Amazon wanting to compete with Netflix. But I find it weird that the company lumps those things together.

I also find it awesome. Because, separately, those two elements might be less appealing. Together, they do a great job of bridging left-brain practicality (fast shipping!) with right-brain satisfaction ("Orphan Black" binge!).

My time with Prime
I've been a Prime subscriber for about 18 months, and I'll just come right out and say it: It has changed the way I shop. The promise of two-day delivery, with no minimum order, drives me to Amazon for a majority of my online purchases. Just the other day I went looking for a retractable tie-out reel for the new pup, and although the one I wanted was available for less at another online store, the ground-shipping charge bumped it a few bucks over Amazon's price. And with Prime, I'd get it in two days, not a week.

As for Prime Instant Video, what was once a Netflix also-ran is now a watch-your-back-Netflix competitor. Yes, Amazon's TV/movie library is still smaller, but it's also home to some highly desirable content you can't get on Netflix. Examples: "Downton Abbey," "Justified," "Key and Peele," "The Shield," and, as of just this week, "Orphan Black." I've also been binge-watching season one of "The Americans" with Mrs. Cheapskate, and loving every minute.

Amazon Prime offers some exclusive and original series you won't find on Netflix.
Amazon Prime offers some exclusive and original series you won't find on Netflix. Amazon

Oh, and although Amazon's first stab at creating original series had mixed results, the second wave of pilots (which debuted in February) included some promising contenders. (So help me, I really liked "Rebels," though sadly it didn't get picked up.) It remains to be seen whether Amazon can produce a "House of Cards" or "Orange is the New Black," but I wouldn't bet against it. Needless to say, to watch Amazon's originals, you need to be an Amazon Prime subscriber.

Another huge perk that's often overlooked: a Prime subscription also allows you to download some Instant Video content to Kindle Fire HD and HDX tablets for offline viewing. Before my last couple flights I stocked up on episodes of "The Good Wife" and movies like "The Way Back" and "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang." Smart move on Amazon's part, making this feature available only to owners of its higher-end Kindles. Apple would have charged me rental fees to download the same stuff to an iPad.

Throwing the book at Prime
The Lending Library remains, to me, Prime's biggest disappointment, the red-headed stepchild in this family of services. Nothing about it has changed: You get to check out just one book per month, the selection remains extremely limited, and it's still kind of hassle to browse the catalog -- almost to the extent that you feel like Amazon hopes you won't bother.

Amazon's Lending Library: Same old, same old.
Amazon's Lending Library: Same old, same old. Amazon

I won't say this is a make-or-break feature of the Prime service, but at this point I feel like Amazon should either expand it or ditch it. Right now the Lending Library feels a little insulting, as every time I peruse it in search of something to read, I find the same tired collection.

Amazon could seriously ramp up Prime's appeal to readers by adopting a more liberal model. Oyster, for example, offers unlimited access to its e-book library for a flat $9.99 per month. Granted, that works out to $130 annually, more than the price of a Prime subscription, but it certainly makes the Lending Library seem anemic by comparison.

Still a sweet deal

Books or no books, Amazon Prime remains an enticing service, even at $99. The shipping aspect alone feels like a huge win, and for a TV junkie like me, the streaming library definitely justifies the price. Speaking of which, remember to compare apples to apples: Netflix costs $95.88 per year and doesn't give you e-books, two-day shipping, or offline viewing. Just saying.

Me, I'll be keeping both for the time being. Your thoughts?

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