I am a cord-cutter. I cancelled cable about two years ago. Thanks to both Netflix and Hulu Plus, this is easily accomplished. One can enjoy TV shows and movies on demand, without paying over $100 a month for cable or satellite. I have both services, however, if you only have a budget for one, this article will help you make that tough decision.
Netflix and Hulu Plus are more complimentary than competitive. Netflix tends to have older TV shows, but better movies. Hulu Plus has most of the new TV shows, except for ones offered by premium channels such as HBO or Showtime. Netflix has some of these (such as The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Weeds, United States of Tara), but not the newest seasons. You usually have to purchase premium channel shows on iTunes, Amazon or Google Play. They’re great shows so they can get away with charging more for them. HBO, in particular, has been known to keep shows exclusive to their cable and satellite subscribers. Many HBO shows cannot be purchased for download or streaming. Sometimes I miss cable because of this, but it’s not worth $1400 a year!
There is some overlap. Netflix has a lot of TV shows that are on Hulu Plus, but they are not recent episodes. Hulu Plus has some movies that are on Netflix, but movies are their weakness. One exception is that Hulu Plus recently obtained the Criterion Collection — some of the best classic movies of all time. Other than that, Hulu Plus has weak offerings when it comes to movies. It is difficult to compare the number of titles each offers, as both companies are elusive. It seems that Netflix has more titles. Since content preferences are personal choices, this will have to be a tie.
Advertising: Netflix Wins
Hulu Plus has advertising, but there are fewer ads than on regular TV. A 22 minute program on Hulu Plus, such as an episode of The Office, has about 3 minutes of commercials, although this can vary. When broadcast on TV, it has 8 minutes of commercials. Many people complain that Hulu Plus still has commercials, even though you are paying for it. To be fair, it is the only way they can offer new programming for less than $8 a month. Netflix, on the other hand, has no commercials, but also lacks the newest episodes of TV shows.
In my opinion, Hulu Plus has so few ads, it really doesn’t bother me. To a certain extent, I do want to see some ads, as I am always interested in new products. The ads are highly targeted, which is a bit creepy at times. I always get ads for DICE, specific to jobs in San Francisco, since they know I am a techie. However, since Netflix has no advertising, it is preferrable to Hulu Plus.
Video Quality: Netflix wins
There are differences in video quality, which is quite apparent on Apple TV. Netflix is more mature and offers better video quality. Netflix streaming has been around longer than Hulu. They went through a lot of growing pains. I remember watching Netflix streaming when it first came out, and they would shut down the service at night for maintenance. Back then it was free, as a bonus for subscribing to their DVD-by-mail service. This is no longer the case. Indeed, Netflix is more robust and offers a better quality experience than Hulu Plus. First and foremost, Netflix can stream 1080p video, while Hulu Plus can only do 720p. Of course, if you are watching on a 2nd generation Apple TV, 720p is as good as it gets. Hulu seems to have jerky motion compared to Netflix. They may do some additional compression before converting to H.264 video. It’s hardly noticeable most of the time.
Netflix doesn’t stop or stutter as often as Hulu Plus. Instead, Netflix will “thin” the stream, meaning it will reduce quality if there are bandwidth issues. In fact, you can even set bandwidth limits on the Netflix website (useful if you have an ISP that caps usage). Hulu Plus, on the other hand, doesn’t thin the stream. It will deliver HD quality video (if available), and if there are bandwidth issues, it will pause playback until the buffer fills. You can adjust video quality on the desktop versions.
Hulu Plus is also a bit quirky, particularly on Apple TV. Sometimes video playback will stop, while the audio continues. It syncs up a few seconds later. It crashes a bit too often. Last night I was watching “Parks and Recreation”, and Hulu Plus crashed 3 times. Netflix doesn’t crash. The Hulu Plus apps are not as mature as Netflix, but they are good enough. If you have to pick one, based on overall playback quality and stability, Netflix is the better option.
Between your ISP, the service’s data center, and overall usage of the Internet, one can experience problems with streaming media. To be fair, cable and satellite are not perfect either. In fact, I have less problems after cutting the cord!
If Netflix or Hulu are having problems, you don’t need to wait 4 days for the cable guy to show up. Indeed, one major reason for cutting the cord was out of frustration with constant cable outages. Comcast, now branded as Xfinity, was so bad, they ranked as the worst company in America and were awarded a “golden poo” by The Consumerist. Their internet service was also horrible. It was fast when it worked, but a techie like me can’t make do with 4 day outages. I had about one outage per month!
Apps, Software, and Supported Devices: Netflix Wins
Beyond Apple TV, both Hulu Plus and Netflix offer their programming on a variety of platforms — Apple TV, Roku, Boxee, Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, game consoles, and smart TVs. For a complete list, visit the Netflix and Hulu Plus supported devices pages.
Hulu Plus doesn’t offer its full catalog to all devices. Some Hulu Plus content is external to their site, and Flash-based only. For example, if you watch Star Trek episodes from Hulu, they are actually hosted on StarTrek.com and only playable with Flash on the web. Some programming is web-only due to licensing issues. The best Hulu Plus experience is on your computer’s web browser.
While Netflix does not work on Linux (unless you run a virtual Windows machine), Hulu actually works on Linux, and not through any sort of workaround or kludge. They have developed Hulu Desktop for the main Linux distros. That’s impressive. If you are a die-hard Linux geek, Hulu is obviously a better choice than Netflix. Netflix for computers uses the Microsoft Silverlight plugin, which is only available on Mac and Windows.
I have used Hulu and Netflix on my iPad 2 and iPhone 4. They work well on both. Netflix has true AirPlay support, while Hulu has a screen mirroring mode. The Hulu screen mirroring mode shows the video on TV with the screen of your iPad or iPhone displaying playback controls, information about the show and recommendations. Unfortunately, if you use AirPlay screen mirroring with Hulu Plus, you cannot use your Apple TV remote to control playback. This isn’t a big deal. If you have an Apple TV, you can use Hulu Plus directly. The only reason one would use AirPlay is if the target wasn’t an Apple TV — perhaps another AirPlay compatible device. Since AirPlay is becoming a standard, many devices beyond Apple TV support it. You can also install software that turns your Mac or PC into an AirPlay receiver. That said, most devices that support AirPlay also have native Hulu Plus support. AirPlay support for Hulu Plus or Netflix is a moot issue. You will probably never use it, unless you prefer the user experience of the iPad or (less likely) the iPhone.
If you find the Apple Remote cumbersome for typing in search queries, you can control your Apple TV with the Apple Remote app for iOS. It’s free, and allows you to use the virtual keyboard on your iPad or iPhone to type on your Apple TV. It does more than that, but that’s another story…
Hulu and Netflix both offer computer-based viewing. Netflix uses a web-based solution. Hulu has both a web-based video player, and desktop software (Hulu Desktop). Hulu Desktop allows Windows and Mac users to control Hulu with a remote control, such as the Apple Remote.
Hulu Plus offers an innovative feature called Face Match. It recognizes the face of an actor and provides a short bio and link to Wikipedia. While cool, it is limited to a few shows and only works on the desktop versions. It has a future, but at this point it is a gimmick.
I’d have to give Netflix the edge on full computers. I think Silverlight is better than Flash. I think the video quality is better, and it is more stable. Hulu uses Flash, as it enables them to insert interactive ads in their content. Unfortunately, Flash is not stable, which is why Apple refused to include it on iOS. I’d have to agree. My Mac is virtually flawless, apart from Flash occasionally bugging out. Unfortunately, iTunes has crashed on me a few times. Apple doesn’t mind including iTunes on iPads and iPhones! Other than that, it’s a solid machine. Mac OS X is far more solid and stable than Windows. Apps can crash, but it happens rarely. My Mac has never frozen or crashed entirely, which happened at least once a month with Windows.
Hulu’s iPhone, iPad and computer-based offerings are better than their Apple TV app. Hulu’s Apple TV app is quite usable, and I have used it extensively. You will experience occasional video glitches and even a crash once in a while. It’s a relatively new app. In time, it will get better, but it can be frustrating. Overall, Netflix has better app quality. Their Apple TV app, in particular, is virtually flawless and a joy to use.
When you sign up for either service, you can watch on any device you own, for no extra cost. I find this very handy when I am not at home. They both work quite well on my iPhone 4 over a 3G connection.
In addition to better overall app quality, Netflix has more extensive support of subtitles. Hulu Plus offers closed captioning and subtitles where available — content and devices. Unlike Netflix, Hulu Plus for Apple TV, and iOS devices (iPhone, iPod touch, iPad) has no subtitles or closed captioning. Not every program has subtitles or closed captioning. I find this immensely useful when I am watching a program on my iPhone in a noisy environment (public transportation) without headphones.
Overall: Netflix Wins
If you have to pick one, Netflix is probably the better choice. Keep in mind, Netflix does not have the newest episodes of TV shows. You can always download these on iTunes, Amazon, or Google Play. I find it useful to have both Netflix and Hulu Plus. The services are complimentary, with some overlap in programming. The extra $7.99 for Hulu Plus is much less expensive than buying programs a la carte from iTunes or others. It is well worth subscribing to both, particularly if you are cutting the cord and cancelling cable. Sometimes I will put Hulu Plus on hold during the summer and resume when new TV episodes debut in the fall. I think they’re both great services and amazing values, especially considering the high cost of cable or satellite TV.
You can watch a lot of TV episodes and movies on the free Hulu website, without paying for Hulu Plus. This will only work on your computer, with limited access to content. If you want to watch it on your Apple TV, you can use AirPlay screen mirroring in Mountain Lion, or AirParrot, an app for Mac or Windows. I have written a how-to article on setting up a Mac based media system with AirParrot, using Splashtop for a remote. It will work, but the Hulu Plus app on Apple TV is better. Of course, for the Hulu content you can’t watch on Apple TV, this kludge might come in handy.
Is cutting the cord right for you? It is increasingly easy for most people to cut the cord. Even sports fans can subscribe to services and watch live sporting events on Apple TV (or other media streamers), their smart phone, tablet, or computer. I only watch a few hours of TV, usually in the late evening. By that time, cable is mostly junk. It was a big waste of money for me. Cable and satellite on-demand is weak compared to online offerings.
Habits are hard to break, however. Some people love to channel surf and are very attached to the experience of “live” TV. Before you cut the cord, you can try Netflix and Hulu Plus, and see if they are enough to entertain you. Both services offer trial memberships. You can also keep these services and keep your cable/satellite. That’s how I started, but I ended up rarely watching cable TV. Cable just ended up being a huge waste of money. With the money I save, I can buy a new Mac every year!