The future of TV, movies, and home entertainment feels like it's changing by the day, thanks to the impact of the digital revolution. Netflix is the top dog thanks to its $8 subscription streaming service, but your viewing choices are severely limited. For a la carte, pay-as-you-go services, Apple's iTunes has been the default choice for many when it comes to buying, renting, and viewing videos. Splitting the difference was Amazon's Instant Video: it offers a diverse library of pay-per-view TV shows and movies, plus a subset of "free" content for subscribers to the company's $79 per year Amazon Prime service. But until recently, its lack of availability on most mobile platforms has been a drawback.
Now, however, Amazon Instant Video is available on the iPad. That's in addition to its presence on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Roku, and many other home video and TV products. Now that Amazon Instant is on the world's most popular tablet, is it a more effective rival to iTunes? There are a number of differences and advantages to each service, but Amazon has definitely closed the gap more than ever before.
It's hard to keep count of how much content lives on various video stores, but Amazon's Instant Video store has all the major studios and networks just like Apple does. Even so, availability of content is a mixed and mysterious bag, as it is with most online video stores these days. Certain titles appear on iTunes but not on Amazon, and vice versa.
I searched for the films of David Cronenberg and David Lynch (always a test I like to run because their catalogs are hard to come by), and found 9 Cronenberg movies on Amazon Video, and 10 on iTunes. (all were the same except for "Existenz," which was iTunes-only). I found 5 films directed by David Lynch on both services, but, oddly, one movie was exclusive to each: "Eraserhead" was on iTunes, and "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me" was on Amazon.
This is hardly a scientific test, but it's a small window of how the search for most online video these days, even purchased or rented content, is hit-or-miss at best for back-catalog entertainment.
Meanwhile, TV content on Amazon and iTunes has normalized, for the most part. Most TV shows are available on both services.
Bottom line: Too close to call. Both services offer plenty of movies and shows, but have holes in their back catalogs: check through both yourself to see what's available and missing.
iTunes: Movies are available to rent or buy, while TV shows can only be purchased. Apple charges up for HD versions: up to $4.99 per rental for movies, and anywhere from $14.99 to $19.99 for HD movie purchases (with occasional sales at $9.99). Selecting the cheaper "SD" (standard definition) version requires an extra click, and isn't clear or intuitive to the average person. TV episodes work out at about $1.99 an episode for SD and $2.99 for HD, and full-season purchases are offered at a slight discount.
Amazon: So far as we know, TV and movie studios set the prices on their content, so most Apple and Amazon pricing should be identical. But Amazon seems to offer lower prices on many titles, presumably eating the difference as an inducement to get more business. Amazon also only offers movies in HD, so there's a one-size-fits-all price for rentals or sales. Rentals range from 99 cents to $3.99, and movie purchases tend to range from $9.99 to $14.99, but you'll occasionally see discounts down to as low as $4.99. Most TV episodes cost the same as they do on iTunes. There's also, of course, Amazon Prime, a Netflix-like subscription that offers up a package of free streaming movie and TV content for customers of Amazon's $79-a-year Prime service (which also entitles you to two-day delivery of goods with free shipping). The amount of "free" Prime content isn't as large as what you'll find on Netflix, but there's more content than you think. And while most of the Prime content is a subset of Netflix's offering, Amazon has ramped up some exclusives, including many Paramount movies and (for the next few weeks, at least) shows like "Fringe" and "The West Wing."
Bottom line: Amazon tends to offer less expensive movie rentals and purchases, and it's hard to beat Amazon Prime's offerings unless you have Netflix.
Apps and platforms: Where to watch
iOS: Apple's iTunes only works on Apple devices, or on PCs running iTunes. That's no surprise. You'd need an Apple TV, iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch, or Mac to watch what you've purchased. On iOS devices, you'll need to download your purchase or rental before watching -- streaming is not an option.
Meanwhile, on Amazon's new iOS app, free Prime videos can be streamed, and purchases and rentals can be downloaded or streamed. However, you can't search for content or buy through the app directly: you have to shop on Amazon's Web site and have the app push your watch lists to you afterward, like the Kindle app. Also, the new Amazon app won't play nicely with the Apple TV: if you use AirPlay from the iPad app, you'll get audio only -- no video.
TV: Amazon Instant Video works on a more varied set of devices and platforms: PCs and Macs, Roku streaming boxes, the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Amazon's Kindle Fire tablets, and a variety of televisions, Blu-ray players, and other devices from Vizio, Samsung, Sony, Panasonic, Logitech, and LG. It may already be on a Smart TV you bought, and Roku boxes that work with Amazon VOD cost as little as $50. Plus, Amazon's app is on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, and has been announced for the Nintendo Wii U.
Apple's iTunes works via Apple TV, but that's about it. You can access all your previous iTunes purchases (TV shows and movies), and rent new titles at the click of the remote.
Android: With the exception of the Amazon Kindle Fire, there's no Amazon Instant Video app for Android...yet. For those Android tablets that support Flash, using the Web browser works as a (somewhat clunky) workaround. Meanwhile, iTunes isn't supported on Android. So, for now, Android fans need either a Kindle Fire or Flash-enabled tablet to get their Amazon Instant fix.
Bottom line: Unless you're an Apple TV owner or an owner of multiple Apple devices, Amazon Instant Video makes far more sense in a lot of cases. Just be aware that, when it comes to iOS, Amazon only works on the iPad -- and it doesn't allow easy searching or purchasing of content within the app.
You need an Apple device to take advantage of iTunes video content, while Amazon's video service is clearly open to spreading across multiple platforms. That gives a clear advantage to Amazon, except for one critical usage group: Apple device owners. Right now, if you're already an owner of an Apple TV and an iPad, iPod Touch or iPhone, it's pretty easy to use and enjoy iTunes. However, if you don't own an Apple TV, Amazon's video service now has a lot of ways to watch content on a big screen, and you may already own one of the Amazon-compatible gadgets. Amazon's future in video is getting brighter than ever, now that it's finally stepping out from the shadows. Picking an ecosystem to build a video library in is a tough decision, but Amazon's definitely making it even tougher.