iPad App Faceoff: Netflix vs. Hulu Plus

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There’s a movement underfoot. A movement to break free of cable providers’ high costs and poor service. A movement to time- and device-shift. A movement to watch what we want, where we want, when we want. For me, personally, there’s no way I can rid myself of my cable bill. My wife is the chief TV watcher in the family who also pays the bills, so, well, we’re getting cable. However, were I to be a single guy, I’d not pay for cable; I just can’t justify the money. Plus, I tend to get wind of the cool TV show to watch three years after it debuted, leaving me to play catch-up. Usually, that’s in the form of an expensive DVD set or iTunes purchase. I am also usually just as comfortable watching something in my office, or in bed on the iPad.

This has made me take a serious look at Hulu Plus and Netflix.

The CliffsNotes version of this article: if you’re a movie person, get Netflix, If you’re a TV person, get Hulu Plus. The reason: Hulu’s movie selection is completely abysmal, whereas Hulu Plus is good for current-run TV shows.

Now, lets look at the apps. Our sister site NewTeeVee has a write-up covering the availability of shows here, so I’m not going to subject you to a large table in this post.

Hulu Plus ($9.99 per month)

There’s been a lot of bloviating about the short ads you’re forced to watch, even on the paid version of Hulu. They are noticeable, with an announcer’s voice that frequently grated on me. While I can kinda see the point, for me, it’s not a big deal; my cable-only channels subject me to longer, more frequent commercial interruptions. The ads on Hulu Plus aren’t a deal-breaker for me, but they are a point against the service.

What’s more of a bother to me is how limited the mobile offerings are. Not all Hulu shows are available for viewing on the iPad or iPhone. Stargate SG-1 is available in its entirety on the web; not at all on mobile (according to Netflix, this will be available for streaming August 15, so we’ll see if it’ll be on Hulu Plus then). However, Hulu Plus’s offering are deeper — where the free version might only have three shows of a season, the Hulu Plus version is more likely to have the full season. I did find Hulu was more likely to have older TV shows, as full seasons of Hill Street Blues and the A-Team are available (and let me say, the A-Team does not hold up well after all these years). Hulu’s movie selection is very weak — no mainstream movies to be found.

The app performs well. You can manage your queue, although, oddly, you can’t add a full season in one press. Because Hulu’s service is entirely streaming, I found the app a little easier to navigate than the Netflix app. However, in a curious technical decision, the Hulu Plus app doesn’t support the VGA output cable. Since I don’t have a 3G iPad, Hulu was the only one I was able to test over a cellular connection, and the results were fair, but from a small sample set: On the train to work, where AT&T coverage is spotty, the video was pixellated; at home with a better signal, it worked fine. One annoying feature in the Hulu Plus app is every time I launched it, it reminded me I was watching a video and did I want to continue watching it?

Netflix ($8.99 per month)

Comparing Hulu to Netflix is a lot like comparing iBookstore to Amazon’s Kindle store; like Amazon, Netflix has the benefit of a large library. As with Hulu, there are shows only available on Netflix — I could not find Nip/Tuck, Weeds, and Thirtysomething on Hulu; the complete offerings are only on Netflix. It also bears repeating for people who skipped my intro bit that Netflix is the place for you to go if you’re into movies.

I found the Netflix app to be a little sluggish. The video playing was usually fine, but I encountered a lot of slowness browsing the libraries. It’s also hard to pull down the Genres list — postings at the bottom were cut off. In addition, it’s impossible to just search by the titles available for streaming. Unlike the Hulu app, Netflix actually uses the VGA cable.

Final Thoughts

I was hoping that, at least for TV shows, one service would be a home run. Sadly, that’s not the case. While I found more TV shows on Netflix than Hulu that I enjoyed, I could convince myself to pay for Hulu for a few months to re-watch Hill Street Blues as well as start House and Law and Order. I’d be well ahead of the DVD costs. Hulu also earns points for current shows.

Given the economics, it’s not a requirement for an either-or service, For less than $20 a month, you can have access to a great library of movies and TV shows. The ads on Hulu Plus are a bummer. You get no commercials and larger selection (including movies, on Netflix) but Hulu Plus also lets you stay current on your shows. If you’re just staying current,  and not digging through a backlist, there’s little reason to sign up for Hulu Plus.

Looking Ahead: My Wishlist

Both these apps are fantastic, but operate under the necessity of an Internet connection, which means you’re screwed if you’re on a plane or in a bad cell area without Wi-Fi. What I’d love is for these apps to have the ability to also download movies into their device library for off-line viewing. I’m not sure how the licensing or logistics would work, but I hope that’s in their plans.

Which app do you prefer, and why?

Related GigaOM Pro Research: Three Reasons Hulu Plus is No Threat to Netflix

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