Which movie services?

Last reviewed: March 2010

The major streaming movie services offer immediate access to tens of thousands of titles. That dwarfs the number carried by a typical video store and the hundreds in stock at low-cost video kiosks such as Redbox and available on demand from cable and satellite providers.

Most streaming video services are on demand. You register online, generally via computer, and obtain a personal identification number, which you enter on the TV screen or player to link to your account.

As with such services from your TV provider, you browse the library and order with a few clicks, and your account is usually billed $2 to $6 or so. Selections range from new movies and TV shows to classics. The vast majority of offerings are standard-definition, but there are some HD videos. In some cases, the streaming videos are available at the same time DVD and Blu-ray discs are released. After you begin a movie, you usually have 24 hours to view it.

With Netflix, you can stream as much as you want with an unlimited subscription to its mail-order disc service; plans start at $9 a month. That's a bargain and a great reason for Netflix subscribers to get an Internet-enabled device. At the moment, Netflix has less HD content than Amazon Video on Demand and Vudu. Blockbuster had no HD titles at press time. All the services are expected to add more content this year, especially in high-def.

But don't expect the picture quality to live up to its billing. In our tests using a high-speed broadband connection, the standard-definition streams looked like mediocre VHS tapes, and so-called high-definition streams were usually comparable to DVD quality—no match for a Blu-ray disc, still the gold standard for top-notch HD.

The lone exception was Vudu's HDX movie format, the only movie stream that looked like real HD. To see that quality with HDX, though, you need speeds that are at the high end of most broadband providers' standard service (4.5 to 9Mbps). If access to true HD on demand is important to you, your best bet (at least for now) is to buy hardware that offers Vudu service and make sure your broadband speed is high enough. (You can find out by going to www.speedtest.net.)

With all the streaming services, the image might occasionally degrade for a moment or become a little choppy, perhaps due to speed fluctuations in the Internet connection. A movie might even pause once or twice while the stream rebuffers.

Although there are a few glitches, and the quality isn't the best you can get, there's a lot to recommend streaming video. It opens up a new world of options for viewers and gives a whole new meaning to on-demand viewing.