How much will I pay?
For the most part, there are two types of services: pay per view and subscription. The former charge by the show or movie (rentals or sales); examples include iTunes, Amazon, and Vudu. Subscription services--such as Netflix and Hulu Plus--charge one flat monthly fee for "all you can eat" viewing, though the selection is generally more limited than the PPV services.
For pay-per-view services, it's important to note that pricing and availability is, for the most part, standardized across the industry. In other words, individual episodes of "Dexter," "Two and a Half Men," "Glee," and "Mad Men" are generally going to cost the same on Amazon and iTunes. Current standard pricing is as follows:
|Content||SD rental||HD rental||SD purchase||HD purchase|
That said, if you shop around, you can often find deals, sales, and specials on any given week from all of the major online pay-per-view video providers. Apple and Amazon are experimenting with 99-cent HD TV episodes (rentals on iTunes, sales on Amazon) from Fox and ABC, for instance. And full seasons of episodes are often sold at a discount as well.
Unless otherwise indicated, all video rentals are available for viewing for 30 days once they're paid for, and for 48 hours once streams are first activated (within that 30-day period). In other words, if your viewing is interrupted, make sure you finish watching within the next two days, or you'll have to re-rent your content. (These restrictions are set by the studios and TV networks, not the online video merchants, so--like the pricing--they're generally standard across the board.)
What it offers: 23,000+ movies and a huge selection of TV episodes to rent and buy.
Upside: Amazon's video purchases are lifetime licenses that are "cloud-based"; so long as you have Internet access, you can always stream any of your purchases videos. That includes accessing videos on a Windows PC or Mac.
Downside: Currently not supported on Apple or Android phones/media players; currently not found on any devices that support Vudu.
Price: Rent or buy individual videos a la carte; currently offers some 99-cent HD episodes from ABC and Fox for purchase.
Compatible devices: All Roku boxes; all TiVo Series3 and Series4 DVRs; most online-enabled Panasonic and Sony TVs, Blu-ray players, and Blu-ray home theater systems (2010 model year and later); Windows and Mac computers. (See Amazon's list of compatible devices.)
What it offers: 10,000+ movies and 65,000+ TV episodes to rent; content purchased on PC/Mac-based iTunes accounts can be streamed via home network as well.
Upside: Apple TV offers easy, streaming access to a very wide variety of movies and TV shows available through Apple's familiar and easy-to-use iTunes Store.
Downside: Content directly accessible from Apple TV is now rental only. (You can still purchase and download TV shows and movies to a computer running iTunes, and then stream those videos to an Apple TV over your home network. Those purchased videos can also be transferred to an iPhone and some iPod models.)
Price: Rent individual videos a la carte; currently offers some 99-cent HD episode rentals from ABC and Fox.
Compatible devices: Apple TV (2010 version); Windows PCs and Macs running iTunes; iPhone; iPod Touch; iPad.
What it offers: 700+ movies to rent; no TV content at this time; no option to purchase content.
Upside: Pronounced "curiosity," Sony's proprietary video-on-demand service offers a relatively small selection of movie rentals. However, its lineup occasionally includes titles still in current theatrical release.
Downside: Currently, Qriocity is limited to a small number of new Sony products. And it's different and distinct from the PlayStation Store content available on PS3 and PSP.
Price: HD movies: $5.99-$7.99; SD movies: $3.99-$6.99
Compatible devices: Sony SMP-N100 Net box; Sony network-enabled TVs, Blu-ray players, and Blu-ray home theater systems (2010 model year and later).
What it offers: Thousands of movies to rent and buy, many with 1080p options.
Upside: When it debuted in 2008, Vudu was a standalone video-on-demand box. The company made the smart decision to become a service provider instead, quickly finding a home in the app menus of many leading home entertainment devices. Vudu, which was purchased by retailing giant Wal-Mart in January of 2010, is currently the only online video service to offer downloads in full 1080p HD and 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus surround sound--which it calls "HDX"--an option for which it charges a premium. Vudu claims its library of 3,000+ movies is the "largest collection of HD movies available anywhere, physical media included."
Downside: Though the video quality of Vudu's HDX features is notably better than that of its competitors, it's not quite as good as the near Blu-ray HDX quality that existed on Vudu's original box (which required a delay as the box precached the video on its internal hard drive). While HD and HDX options are offered for rentals, most of the buy-to-own versions are standard-def only. Vudu offers only a very small number of TV shows. Currently, Vudu is not found on any devices that support Amazon VOD.
Price: Most rentals start at $3.99, with HD versions costing a dollar more, and HDX versions costing an additional $2; most SD purchases are $19.99.
Compatible devices: Most recent network-enabled TVs, Blu-ray players, and Blu-ray home theater systems from LG, Mitsubishi, Samsung, Sanyo, Sharp, Toshiba, and Vizio.
Zune Marketplace (Microsoft)
What it offers: Buy or rent movies, TV shows, and music.
Upside: One-stop media shopping for your Microsoft devices.
Downside: Zune is a Microsoft-only affair, supported only on the Xbox 360, Zune portable media players, and forthcoming Windows Phone 7 devices.
Price: $6 (HD), $4 (SD) HD movies rentals; $20 (HD), $15 (SD) movie purchases; $3 (HD), $2 (SD) TV show purchases
Compatible devices: Xbox 360; Zune media players; Windows Phone 7 cell phones.
In addition to the services listed above, Blockbuster and CinemaNow are available on a growing number of connected devices.