Netflix vs. Hulu: How to choose a streaming service

Netflix gets the edge for movies and has better technology. Hulu has more TV shows, but you can’t watch tonight’s episodes until tomorrow.

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You’ve had it with your cable or satellite TV provider and you’re ready to cut the cord and go full-on streaming. But if you’re like millions of others you’re suddenly faced with the question: How do I continue to watch programs and movies I like while still reducing my monthly video entertainment bills?

You have a multitude of options these days, and over the next few weeks I’ll be reviewing all of the major ones by using them at home. (Yeah, cool job. Getting paid to watch TV.) Let’s start with the two largest and best known services: Netflix and Hulu.

Both are reasonably good and cost about the same, but have different strengths and appeal to somewhat different audiences.

If you really like the current programs you can now find on basic cable or broadcast TV, Hulu is your first choice. Hulu also offers movies, but If you want a larger selection of films and original programing, Netflix’s streaming service is far stronger.

Today’s news tomorrow

Hulu’s lineup of television shows is enormous. But because it is a partnership of the major entertainment companies that control much of the television world, it has features designed to keep it from becoming a cable-killer.

Want to watch the "Daily Show" from Comedy Central? You can, but not until the next day. Some recent episodes are also available, but by no means all. Like the political talk shows on MSNBC? Hulu carries them, but only in an abbreviated format, offering clips, not the full episode.

The movie collection, which is large, is going to get smaller in the fall. Criterion, a film distributor, will pull its movies from Hulu to start its own service with Turner Classic Movies.

Hulu charges $7.99 a month with commercials; $11.99 with no commercials.

If you’re cutting the cord you’re probably used to fast forwarding through commercials via your DVR or other streaming device. But Hulu is engineered to make that impossible, so you’ve got to put up with interruptions. I find them quite annoying and noticed that when the commercials are finished, there’s sometimes a brief wait while the program itself reloads. Losing the ads is well worth $4 a month.

Hulu also offers Showtime’s programing, but that will cost an additional $8.99 a month. You can watch Hulu on a wide variety of devices.

Disappearing films on Netflix

I was watching a film about Ireland one evening, and decided to finish it the next day. Usually when you exit Netflix without finishing a selection, it's queued up for you when you return. It wasn’t there the next night. I did a search of the online catalog. Still not there.

I then called customer service and was told that the film had been removed from the catalog that day. That was a weird coincidence, but it points out an annoying feature of Netflix. Films and TV shows disappear. I think that generally happens because digital rights to the selections have expired.

It’s also worth noting that although streaming is the name of the game for most of us these days, Netflix’s selection of movies on DVD is still much larger than its streaming offerings.

Having said that, Netflix is my first choice for streaming video. It has excellent original shows like "Orange is the New Black," "Narcos," and "House of Cards," to name just two, and complete seasons of many shows.

Netflix has gotten a bit more expensive lately; its standard high-definition streaming plan is $10 a month. You can save $2 a month by opting for a plan that only streams in standard definition and only allows one person at a time to use the service. For $12 a month, you can stream to four screens at the same time and watch programs in UHD --  ultra-high definition.

I’ve found Netflix to be a bit easier to use than Hulu. The technology seems more finished, it presents me with better viewing suggestions, and it’s easier to find features like subtitles without digging through too many menus.

Neither service, though, has a good search interface. Both rely on a maddeningly clunky onscreen keyboard. To use it, you’ve got to click on one letter at a time with your remote to spell out a search term. I find that so inefficient that I’ll sometimes do the search on my laptop and then watch the program on my TV.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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