I’ll be cancelling my Netflix subscription today, essentially sending a Dear John letter to Netflix along with my my final disc-by-mail. The price increase that goes into effect today will cause most people’s membership to rise 60%. Mine went from $11.99 a month for a single Blu-ray and unlimited streaming to $17.98 a month for the now individually priced pair. It went from a “little over $10” to “almost $20.” But it’s not just the 50% price hike that is compelling me to tell Netflix to take a hike - it’s the fact that there are several new alternatives to Netflix that didn’t exist when I subscribed at the start of the Xbox 360’s streaming program. Some options are cheaper, while others are more convenient, so it’s important to carefully chose the best Netflix substitute based on your viewing habits.
I caught up on every episode of The Office from the seventh season in one fell Sunday swoop thanks to Hulu Plus. On Netflix, the seventh season doesn’t exist - not on Blu-ray or DVD and certainly not on instant streaming. You’d never know Michael Scott left Dunder Mifflin if Netflix was your sole source of streaming. The $7.99 a month plan of Hulu Plus is the same price as Netflix’s streaming option and it really caters to fans of television, whether you want to watch the past two weeks of The Daily Show in HD on your Xbox 360 or PS3 or every episode of Family Guy seasons 1 to 9, eschewing $20 DVDs.
The downside to Hulu Plus is that its movie selection is the opposite of its stellar TV lineup: terrible. Also, it’s filled with either one or two ads at every usual commercial break even you’re paying that $7.99 every month. That’s not a big deal for some people. For others, it’s an atrocity. Lastly, it supports HD video on Xbox 360 and PS3, but the service has yet to come to Wii, which we just found out this week is the most widely used console for Netflix streaming. Strictly speaking, Hulu Plus is the best option if all you were watching on Netflix were television shows anyway.
Amazon.com has a free two-day shipping and $3.99 one-day shipping service called Amazon Prime and it covers almost everything you would buy from the site. If you are already a member, you’ll to happy to learn that the $79 fee now includes 6,000 instantly streamable videos from the Internet-based retailer’s website. That amounts to $6.58 a month or, if you look at it in the best light, free.
The Prime Eligible category has a better selection of movies than Hulu Plus and Amazon just signed a deal with NBCUniversal and CBS to bring an additional 2,000 movies and TV episodes to its subscribers. Star Trek, The Tudors, Medium, Numb3rs, Cheers, and, if you didn’t get enough of Dr. Crane from Cheers, Frasier too. Additionally, Amazon offers most new releases at $3.99 for a standard 24-hour/30-days to start watching rental. The price is right and the selection is slowly but surely coming together - the only thing missing is being able to stream on consoles. While Prime Instant Videos are available on a host of different Internet-connected HDTVs and set-top box devices, there’s no app for streaming them via Xbox 360 or PS3.
So far, I’ve looked at Netflix streaming alternatives, but not at fallback plans for DVD and Blu-ray discs. That’s where Redbox has cornered the market. With kiosks in grocery stores and outside of strip malls, physical discs start at $1 a night for DVDs and $1.50 a night for Blu-rays. You could rent five Blu-Ray movies in one month from Redbox and still come out ahead of Netflix’s $9.99 one-at-a-time Blu-ray plan. Better yet, you could rent eight Redbox DVDs and match Netflix’s $7.99 DVD plan! How many Netflix Blu-rays and DVDs have you been able to finish off in the past month?
That episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 that came during the month of E3 2011 wouldn’t have seemed like such a waste if I was a dedicated Redbox user instead of a Netflix user. I wouldn’t have rented it in the first place from Redbox, but it came automatically from Netflix and went unattended in my mail pile for so long that I almost reported it missing when I eventually looked at my Netflix queue. This makes Redbox a great a la carte alternative, and the fact that the Coinstar-owned company added video games to 27,000 of its kiosks doesn’t hurt.
Taking full advantage of today’s price increase, Blockbuster is running blatantly targeted promotions right now. “Seeing red?” it asks Netflix customers on its basked-in-blue homepage. “Switch to Blockbuster Total Access today.” Clicking the banner brings you to a special sign-up page where the starting price is $9.99 a month after a free 30-day trial. Curiously, clicking “Sign up” at the top of the homepage shows the price as $11.99 a month following the 30-day trial. Talk about a targeted sell to Netflix customers.
At $9.99 and with Blu-ray included, Blockbuster Total Access is the same price as Netflix. Furthermore, the by-mail service gets “many” new releases 28 days before Netflix and Redbox and allows its members to substitute movie and TV show discs for video games at no extra cost. Lastly, if you live near one of the Blockbuster stores that wasn’t shuttered by its bankruptcy and subsequent purchase by Echostar, then you can exchange any by-mail disc for something new. Blu-ray, video games, 28-day head start and in-store exchanges. Not bad, right? Unfortunately, these great perks don’t extend to Blockbuster On Demand, which is separate from Total Access. Yes, its a la cart structure is fairly priced at $3.99 for most new releases (prices do vary, though) and it works with a number of HDTVs and Blu-ray players.
But On Demand isn’t an all-you-can-eat instant streaming service and it lacks support for streaming via game consoles. Blockbuster Total Access seems like a good deal for Netflix refugees and the situation may turn into a surprise rebound for a company that filed for Chapter 11 less than a year ago.
Slingbox PRO HD
My Philadelphia cable channels made the 2,700-mile move with me to Los Angeles thanks to the Slingbox PRO HD. Designed by Sling Media, this streaming device that you leave at home provides travelers with full access to their DVR and recorded shows anywhere in the world, so long as they have an Internet connection. However, it’s also the best subscription-free Netflix alternative. I have the Slingbox and a hardly used cable box sitting in my old home. There, Slingbox’s component cable inputs and outputs ensure the unused DVR still works just in case anyone needs it. At the same time, its Ethernet port syphons the DVR signal to a password-protected site I can view using the SlingPlayer plug-in software.
Now I have my Philadelphia-based cable company of choice, instead of being forced to use Time Warner, along with full control of the DVR remotely. Ongoing television episodes I want to watch? They’re DVR’d. Past episodes? Video on Demand. Movies and Pay Per View? VOD again. Hometown sports games? Phillies games aren’t out-of-market anymore. In addition to having access to the dormant DVR through a browser, I bought a SlingCatcher, a discontinued Sling Media device. It does the opposite of the Slingbox, exactly as the name implies: captures the streaming DVR signal via Ethernet and outputs the content through component cables to my Los Angeles HDTV. There are only a few downsides to this setup. A strong Internet connection is required on both sides for HD streaming, the Chrome browser isn’t supported yet and that discontinued SlingCatcher is expensive on eBay.
Luckily, Google TV and Boxee Box are beta testing a SlingPlayer app, so that last problem should be solved before the end of the summer.
VOD - Video on Demand
Your cable or satellite box is the oldest way to instantly rent movies. It also remains the easiest. With four presses of your remote control, you can be watching a new release without having to get up off of the couch. Video on Demand services have fallen by the wayside for many consumers because, on average, new releases cost $4.99 and HD versions are a premium at $5.99. But with Netflix’s price increase, this may be something to revisit depending on your movie-viewing habits. After all, with this method, there’s no checking the mail, no setting up a streaming device and no configuring an online queue. VOD may be in demand again.
Let’s not forget about iTunes, Apple’s ever-present digital store on almost everyone’s computer. I’m sure more people still use Internet Explorer 6 than lack iTunes. So renting or downloading movies or TV shows is a cinch and the prices are competitive. New releases are $3.99 for SD and $4.99 for HD - a dollar less than VOD. Meanwhile, TV episodes range from $.99 for most network shows to $2.99 for classier channels (FX, AMC, Showtime, etc). Like VOD, there’s the option to buy or the unique ability to purchase a Season Pass. This allows you to download TV episodes as they come online, sort of like a TiVo Season Pass, but you own the episode. Knowing you have an iTunes account and that the Apple TV is just $100, Netflix’s price increase may be iTunes’ chance to dominate sales of digital movies and TV shows.
Unless you’re Al Bundy and posses a library book that’s overdue by 31 years, the public library is your cheapest Netflix alternative. You’re probably not going to get the newest movie release, the latest TV season or the Blu-ray version of anything. But you will find that libraries are increasingly offering movies, television shows and even video games at no cost. And, they don’t have to be educational, either. Don’t have access to Dexter or Mad Men anymore via Netflix instant streaming? Your local library might have it... for free. Just remember that unlike most of the other options, there’s a late fee associated with this classic borrowing method. You don’t want to test the Jerry Seinfeld theory that there’s a library cop out there named Mr. Bookman.
These are just eight of the most prominent Netflix alternatives, and new disc-by-mail and streaming methods are popping up every couple of months. Netflix will likely remain the favorite for a long time to come, but only going with its movie-discs-by-mail option feels like a step backwards. Relying solely on its instant streaming doesn’t quite cut it either - it isn’t fleshed-out enough to stand on its own. That’s why, like most people writing a Dear John letter, I’m unafraid to try new options, especially with free trials and promotional offers that make leaving so easy.
Matt Swider has been writing about video games for 12 years and received his degree is journalism from Pennsylvania State University. Now based in Los Angeles, he is actively expanding GamingTarget.com and his freelance opportunities.