iTunes vs. Amazon: What’s the best video service on the iPad?

Lutaya Shafiq

The future of TV, movies and home entertainment feels like it’s changing by the day, thanks to the impact of the digital revolution. Netflix is the top dog thanks to its $8 subscription streaming service, but your viewing choices are severely limited. For a la carte, pay-as-you-go services, Apple’s iTunes has been the default choice for many when it comes to buying, renting, and viewing videos. Splitting the difference was Amazon’s Instant Video: it offers a diverse library of pay-per-view TV shows and movies, plus a subset of “free” content for subscribers to the company’s $79 per year Amazon Prime service. But until recently, its lack of availability on most mobile platforms has been a drawback.

Now, however, Amazon Instant Video is available on the iPad. That’s in addition to its presence on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Roku, and many other home video and TV products. Now that Amazon Instant is on the world’s most popular tablet, is it a more effective rival to iTunes? There are a number of differences and advantages to each service, but Amazon has definitely closed the gap more than ever before.

Amazon Instant Video on the iPad.

(Credit: Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET)

It’s hard to keep count of how much content lives on various video stores, but Amazon’s Instant Video store has all the major studios and networks just like Apple does. Even so, availability of content is a mixed and mysterious bag, as it is with most online video stores these days. Certain titles appear on iTunes but not on Amazon, and vice versa.

I searched for the films of David Cronenberg and David Lynch (always a test I like to run because their catalogs are hard to come by), and found 9 Cronenberg movies on Amazon Video, and 10 on iTunes. (all were the same except for “Existenz,” which was iTunes-only). I found 5 films directed by David Lynch on both services, but, oddly, one movie was exclusive to each: “Eraserhead” was on iTunes, and “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” was on Amazon.

This is hardly a scientific test, but it’s a small window of how the search for most online video these days, even purchased or rented content, is hit-or-miss at best for back-catalog entertainment.

Meanwhile, TV content on Amazon and iTunes has normalized, for the most part. Most TV shows are available on both services.

Bottom line: Too close to call. Both services offer plenty of movies and shows, but have holes in their back catalogs: check through both yourself to see what’s available and missing.

iTunes doesn’t often have the best prices.

(Credit: Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET)

iTunes: Movies are available to rent or buy, while TV shows can only be purchased. Apple charges up for HD versions: up to $4.99 per rental for movies, and anywhere from $14.99 to $19.99 for HD movie purchases (with occasional sales at $9.99). Selecting the cheaper “SD” (standard definition) version requires an extra click, and isn’t clear or intuitive to the average person. TV episodes work out at about $1.99 an episode for SD and $2.99 for HD, and full-season purchases are offered at a slight discount.

Amazon: So far as we know, TV and movie studios set the prices on their content, so most Apple and Amazon pricing should be identical. But Amazon seems to offer lower prices on many titles, presumably eating the difference as an inducement to get more business. Amazon also only offers movies in HD, so there’s a one-size-fits-all price for rentals or sales. Rentals range from 99 cents to $3.99, and movie purchases tend to range from $9.99 to $14.99, but you’ll occasionally see discounts down to as low as $4.99. Most TV episodes cost the same as they do on iTunes. There’s also, of course, Amazon Prime, a Netflix-like subscription that offers up a package of free streaming movie and TV content for customers of Amazon’s $79-a-year Prime service (which also entitles you to 2-day delivery of goods with free shipping). The amount of “free” Prime content isn’t as large as what you’ll find on Netflix, but there’s more content than you think. And while most of the Prime content is a subset of Netflix’s offering, Amazon has ramped up some exclusives, including many Paramount movies and (for the next few weeks, at least) shows like “Fringe” and “The West Wing.”

Bottom line: Amazon tends to offer less expensive movie rentals and purchases, and it’s hard to beat Amazon Prime’s offerings unless you have Netflix.

iTunes on the iPad: you need to start downloading before you can stream.


123 responses to “iTunes vs. Amazon: What’s the best video service on the iPad?

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