Which online video service is right for you?

In this Ask Maggie, I help one reader navigate the confusing world of online video, and another with basics about free streaming music apps.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
10 min read

Smartphones and tablets are no longer just for surfing the Web and checking e-mail. They've also become mini-TVs.

But figuring out the best place to get your video for these devices is not easy. Sure there are tons of companies offering access to the latest movies and TV shows for streaming or downloading onto all kinds of mobile devices. But not all services work with all devices. In this Ask Maggie, I help one reader figure out how to choose a service. I also explain how those free online music services work.

Caught between a gadget and a hard place.

Dear Maggie,
I have an Android smartphone, and I am thinking about getting an iPad. I'm also planning to cut my cable cord. I was wondering what is the best way to buy or rent TV shows that I want to watch. I have a Netflix account, but it sometimes takes months to get current TV shows. I also want to be able to download movies and shows onto my devices so I can take them with me. I figure I could download stuff from iTunes, which I've used for my iPod music. But can I watch those shows on my TV through a Roku box or on my Android smartphone? I really want to purchase or rent TV episodes and movies on one service, so that I can use anywhere and on all my devices. PLEASE HELP!!!

Need TV

Dear Need TV,
This is a great question. But I have to warn you that there is no easy solution. Even though it seems like there are tons of online video services to choose from, the reality is that none of them is perfect for your particular situation.

When you rent a movie on Play Movies, it immediately becomes available on any Android device. Google

And the reason is simple. The three largest players offering video for downloading and streaming services are Apple, Amazon, and Google. Each of these services have their pros and cons. But the biggest headache is that they each want users locked into their respective ecosystems. This means that Apple's iTunes video works only with iOS devices. Amazon limits its service to certain devices, like its own Amazon Kindle. And even Google, which is all about openness, really wants you buying Google Android devices to access its content.

The idea is that if they can keep you locked into their content ecosystems, then you have to keep buying their hardware products. And if their hardware can only access their content ecosystems, then you're forced to buy more stuff from them instead of buying it somewhere else.

I don't like that these companies are doing this, but it's hard to fight it. So my first bit of advice is to choose an ecosystem: Apple iTunes, Google Android, or Amazon. This means that if you want to buy into Apple's ecosystem, you should ditch the Android phone and get an iPhone, iPad, and AppleTV. If you want to go with Google, keep the Android smartphone and buy an Android tablet instead of the iPad. And when Google Play comes to Google TV, you can buy a Google TV device so you can view all of this content on your TV, too.

If Amazon appeals to you, you're kind of out luck on the smartphone front, since the Amazon Instant Video player doesn't work on Android or iOS, and Amazon doesn't sell its own phone. But you can get the Kindle Fire, which is a tablet designed for Amazon content. There are also several game consoles, DVD players, connected TVs, and devices like Roku that will give you access to Amazon streaming services.

I'd also recommend keeping your Netflix subscription or signing up for HuluPlus, which offers more current TV shows than Netflix and also offers some movies. But keep in mind that Netflix and Hulu are streaming-only services. So you can't take your TV shows and movies with you on a plane or some other place where you don't have access to wireless Internet. But the good thing is that these services are offered as apps on iOS and Android devices, so you won't be as locked into one ecosystem or another. And it's a subscription service, so you can watch more without having to pay for each individual episode or movie.

Getting back to the ecosystem question: How should you decide which one is right for you? Here's a look at what Apple, Amazon, and Google offer with some specifics about the pros and cons.

Apple iTunes: If you are an Apple fan and use only Apple products, iTunes is a great service. Apple offers a huge catalog of the latest movies and TV shows. So you should be able to find current shows the day after they air on the network. And each episode generally costs about $2.99.

Now that iTunes has iCloud storage, you can watch movies and TV shows that you buy (not rent) on any iOS device anytime by syncing your device wirelessly to the iCloud. This means that whether you've got an iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad or even Apple TV, all your iTunes videos will be synced and easily accessible on any one of these devices.

Apple also offers AirPlay, which lets you stream music, photos, and videos directly from an iOS device (iPod Touch, iPad, or iPhone) to your Apple TV. So even though Apple TV doesn't offer Netflix or Hulu, like a Roku box offers, it does allow you to access those apps from your other iOS devices.

Another advantage is that you can download the TV shows on your devices and you're not limited to streaming. This is important because it allows you to watch it later even if you don't have wireless access, since it's stored on your device. The iCloud also allows you to start watching a movie or TV show on one device and allows you to pick up where you left off on another device.

But there is one major downside to iTunes. The iCloud and all the content you've purchased through iTunes is only available for iOS devices. This means that you won't be able to access your iTunes TV shows via your Roku box or your Android smartphone. And because Apple doesn't support Adobe Flash, you won't be able to go to the Amazon or Google Play Web sites and just watch stuff that way either. The only way to get true anywhere access for all your content is by buying only Apple products, so that means ditching your Android phone and switching to an iPhone. It also means chucking the Roku box for AppleTV.

Amazon Instant Video: Amazon's streaming service, like iTunes, offers some of the latest and greatest TV shows and movies. Current TV shows are available the day after they air on network TV. Amazon also lets you stream the episode in either standard-definition for $1.99 per episode or $2.99 for the high-definition version. Another benefit is that Amazon Prime members, who pay a yearly subscription for free shipping from Amazon, also get access to some streaming video content for free. That said, the free content is limited. And most of the newer shows are not offered free for Prime subscribers.

The Amazon Instant video service is also cloud-based. Amazon is a bit more open than Apple, and its service can be accessed on more types of devices, such as PCs, Macs, game consoles, and media players like Roku.

But Amazon has not made the Instant Video service available on mobile devices, except its own Amazon Kindle Fire tablet. Another potential drawback is that Amazon's service is almost entirely a streaming service. You can download TV shows and movies onto the Kindle Fire, but Amazon doesn't offer the same option to download video to a laptop.

You may be able to access your Amazon Instant Video account via your browser on an Android phone or tablet, but you'll have to make sure that you are accessing the full Web page and not the mobile version. Apple products don't support Adobe Flash, so you won't be able to play the video through the browser.

Google Play Movies: Google has rebranded its Google Market store, where Android users could access apps, games, e-books, and video. And now it's calling that service Google Play. Google Play Movies is the cloud-based video service designed to give Android users access to video on multiple devices. You can rent films, including a selection of new releases and older movies, for between $0.99 to $9.99. You can watch a movie right away via streaming or you can download it and watch it later on Android devices using the Google Play Movies app.

But like the other two services, Google also has some limitations. For example. Google Play Movies allows films to be downloaded on Android devices, but if you want to watch it on your computer, you can only stream the video. Also, as the name of the service suggests, right now it's limited to movies. There are no TV titles available yet.

Also, Google Play Movies is not supported by any Web-connected TVs, game consoles, DVD players or any other dedicated video playing hardware, like a Roku box. Even devices supporting Google TV don't have access to the Google Play Movies content. But that functionality may be coming down the road.

At this point, Google doesn't have the breadth of content that Apple and Amazon have. But it's still early days for this service, and I expect Google to line up more content deals, including access to current TV shows. And because Google Android is already on devices from dozens of manufacturers, it offers consumers more choices in terms of gadgets.

Google Android smartphones are already hugely popular. Even though Android tablets haven't sold well so far, there's a good chance that Google's content strategy could help accelerate adoption. Also, Google is rumored to be working on its own tablet, much like it's done with the Nexus smartphone line of products. And that could push the company forward in terms of developing content specifically for these tablets.

So what should you do? Even though I hate the idea of being forced into a particular ecosystem, at this point, it really makes the most sense for you to simply choose one. Sure there may be workarounds so that you can view content bought through one ecosystem on another ecosystems' devices, but why go through the hassle if you don't have to? The good news is that if you're going to cut your cable cord, you will be saving loads of money, which you can use to buy all these new gadgets!

I hope this advice was helpful. And good luck!

How can streaming music apps be legal?

Dear Maggie,
Here's a question for your column: Are free music apps on Android or iPhone legal? If so, how do the artists and labels get paid? And if they're illegal, are there any legal sites I can use?


Dear Jeremy,
I am not sure exactly which free music services you're talking about in your question. There are several from Pandora to Last.fm to Spotify to iHeartRadio.

Most of the music apps are free to download, and many, like Pandora, Last.fm, iHeartRadio, and Slacker Radio, offer free listening with advertisements. Others, like Spotify, are free to download, but then you have to pay a fee to listen to the music.

The free services generally allow you to customize a "station," but they don't allow you to pick which songs you listen to. And they also generally force you to listen to advertising if you don't upgrade to a paid service.

In Spotify's case, there's a free desktop version of the service and a mobile app, which costs $9.99 per month to access. Spotify allows you to pick and choose the songs you want to play and to create playlists that you can share. Even though there is a fee associated with it for the mobile device, it guarantees unlimited, ad-free listening.

To answer your question, these services are all legal. Artists and music labels are getting paid for access to their songs. Exactly how much they're getting paid and how the deals are structured depends on the service. And most deals haven't been publicly disclosed.

I asked CNET's entertainment reporter and digital music guru Greg Sandoval how the payments work. He said that services like Pandora pay a rate for access to a catalog of music that is set by Congress. They pay this fee to a private agency that collects the royalties for public performances and then the agency distributes the money back to music creators.

Services, such as Spotify, pay the labels and publishers a negotiated rate for their music. Sandoval said that some people claim that Spotify and Rhapsody, another subscription service, are paying based on how many times a particular song is played, which could be hugely expensive for the company when millions of people want to play the same song. But he said he doesn't think that Spotify has actually ever revealed the specific terms of its business.

At any rate, you shouldn't worry that the free music apps in the Apple App Store or in the Google Android store are illegal. They are legal and artists are getting paid. So enjoy!

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.