Introduction

Netflix needs no introduction. It has dominated the subscription streaming video market over the past 6 years, having transitioned from mailing DVDs, and now claims over 48 million subscribers across the globe. Netflix UK was launched in January 2012.

Prime Instant Video is Amazon’s clumsy rebrand of the LoveFilm streaming video service which took place in February 2014. Amazon has closely aligned the service with its Prime premium retail offering, which features free next-day delivery on selected items and access to its Kindle eBook lending library. It’s estimated that 20 million people subscribe to Amazon Prime, although the company has not released official stats.

Both services have released free iPad apps to the App Store and the pricing structure of each is very similar (see below).

Netflix
  • free app
  • 1st month free
  • £6.99 per month
  • HD video on selected content
  • up to 5 simultaneous streams
Amazon Prime Instant Video
  • free app
  • 1st month free
  • £5.99 per month (or £79 per year with Amazon Prime)
  • SD video only
  • up to 2 simultaneous streams
  • Note: one difference is that on web devices Amazon lists paid-for downloads alongside the ‘free’ content which can be confusing, particularly as TV shows and films can switch from one to the other overnight. The Prime Instant Video app only displays content that can be streamed for no additional cost, although you can view purchased content in the Library.

    Recommendations vs Curation

    Netflix offers multiple user profiles on the same account. This means that if you have a guilty taste for romcoms and your wife loves full-on horror movies, then you can both keep your viewing tastes – and any recommendations based on them – completely separate. It works well for me.

    Amazon Prime Instant Video just ties into your Amazon account, although there is a convoluted way to share Prime benefits with other accounts in your household, it’s simply not as elegant as Netflix’s profiles and is inapplicable to the iPad app anyway.

    Netflix recommendations are very much based on your viewing behaviour. The precise recommendation algorithm is supposedly a closely held secret, but it certainly takes into account cast & crew members and genre when making its picks.

    Netflix Screenshot

    Netflix favours recommendations based on your past choices

    We suspect that some of these genres are internal – such as ‘weird ‘n’ quirky Millenial stuff’ – allowing it to link seemingly unrelated films such as The Mighty Boosh and Hard Candy simply because I viewed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

    Amazon Instant Video eschews personal recommendations in favour of a more curated approach – it provide’s editors’ picks for each main category and across the whole service. Generally we found these to be smart, interesting selections that suggest someone with sound taste and a depth of knowledge was behind them.

    For instance, Amazon’s selection of the most interesting items includes genuine cinephile treats such as Oldboy, Tyrannosaur and The Guard alongside the expected nod to blockbuster exclusives like Rush and Men in Black 3.

    Amazon Prime Instant Video screenshot

    Amazon prefers a curated approach – and many of its choices show real cinema knowledge

    By contrast, Netflix list of personalised recommendations never strayed far from the mainstream comforts of recent, well known material.

    Whither Charlie Chaplin?

    Netflix does not acknowledge that Charlie Chaplin exists. While Amazon Prime Instant Video finds only an episode of Blackadder and a short Indian film called Mumbai Charlie when queried about this all-time cinema great. And So anyone hoping for a comprehensive library of movies will be sorely disappointed with either Netflix or Amazon Prime Video.

    These services are most definitely not the video equivalent of Spotify, offering all you can eat back catalogues and new releases for the price of two cups of coffee per month. Think of them both as subscription movie channels which have a schedule of view-on-demand titles that changes on a regular basis. It’s not an ever growing reservoir of content – it’s more like a packed night club operating a ‘one in, one out’ policy. So as new films such as Avengers Assemble appear old favourites such as Fawlty Towers are removed.

    So how big are Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video in the UK? Amazon Prime claims to offer 15,000 titles in its UK library, which is a lot less than the 40,000 available in the US. But even that figure is deceptive – the small print points out that it includes ‘movies and TV episodes‘. So the West Wing, for example, would notch up 133 episodes across its 7 seasons.

    Netflix doesn’t give out official figures on the size of its UK roster, but according to the useful NewOnNetflix site which tracks new additions and removals, there was a total of 2571 titles available on June 1. But unlike Amazon, that figure records multiple series of a TV show as a single item.

    Using the IMDB top 50 rated movies as a plumb line of the 2 services: Netflix notches up a less-than-impressive 9 hits out of the top 50 movies (although it does score the top 2, The Shawshank Redemption and The Godfather). Amazon Instant Prime manages just 6 out of the total. Hardly definitive.

    On a strictly personal perspective, there seems to be a larger range of titles available on Amazon Prime video, but the quality threshold is higher on Netflix. At the end of the day, it will probably come down to which service offers more exclusive titles that appeal to you.

    Netflix UK’s strength lies in supreme quality TV shows like Breaking Bad, House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. Amazon Prime has fewer blockbuster TV shows but does shade it with more popular movies such as Rush, Inception and MIB3.

    During the course of this review, bouncing between the two services daily, I couldn’t call a winner. One week you might, binge-viewing on Breaking Bad, lean towards Netflix. But then you start uncovering hidden gems such as The Guard, Rust and Bone and The Kings of Summer on Amazon and the needle swings back the other way.

    Surprisingly little overlapping content can be found on both services, most of it seems to be TV shows from Fox such as 24 and Prison Break. While this may be good news for the TV and film companies – who can play one service against each other to put a premium on exclusivity – it does mean that punters will rarely if ever find all they want on a single service.

    User interface

    At first glance, the UIs of both apps seem similar, with rows of content, labelled by category, that can be swiped horizontally to see more items. Featured or promoted content is shown with larger thumbnails in the top row on both. But look closer and clear differences start to appear.

    Amazon Prime & Netflix video homepages

    Amazon Prime Instant Video (left) has more space to show stuff because it doesn’t have the Netflix Continue Watching row (right)

    The second row on Netflix is labelled ‘Continue watching…’ and shows which films and TV shows you are in the process of watching. There’s even a little progress bar underneath the thumbnails showing how far you’ve got through each item. This is great in principle but it does get irritating if you stop watching a film you don’t like, only to be constantly prompted with it every time you open the app. There is no way to remove items from a row.

    Tapping on an item offers you a pop-up showing brief summary of the plot, the skimpiest of cast and crew details and the option to start playing or add to a watch list. Facebook friends who have also watched the item will also be displayed. There is a review score out of 5, but now indication as to where this score has been sourced.

    Amazon’s homepage focuses less on what you’ve been watching and more on what they want you to watch. The first three rows are featured content, exclusive content and newly added content. Personally I prefer this approach as I get an instant update on what’s new to watch, but I can easily see how the Netflix layout would appeal to people who dip in and out of content on a regular basis.

    But where Amazon powers ahead is the view you see when you tap on an item of interest. Instead of a tiny pop-up window with a light dusting of info, there is a hefty panel (full-screen in portrait view) with the following:

    • packshot
    • certificate
    • average reader rating
    • IMDB rating
    • Watch Now, Add to Watchlist & View Trailer button
    • Release date, director, duration, studio info
    • Customers also watched items

    Bigger titles also feature another tranche of info including…

    • stats on customer reviews including extracts from the 3 top-rated reviews
    • photos & bios of the key cast members & director
    • movie trivia
    • movie quotes

    Amazon’s ownership of the IMDB reaps real dividends here, giving the Prime Instant Video user a real wealth of information to have at hand while they view the movie.

    Amazon has far more information to hand than Netflix – much of it pulled in from reader reviews and the IMDB

    Video quality

    On paper, this should be a slam dunk for Netflix. For whatever reason, presumably licensing related, Amazon Prime Instant Video only streams SD quality video to the iPad rather than HD. Netflix streams most of its content in 1080p HD – but only when there is bandwidth available.

    So at home, when you are the only user of your broadband’s WiFi – the difference between the video quality of the two systems is clear: at its best, Netflix is far better than Amazon Prime Instant Video.

    But when you’re out on the road and hooking up to less exclusive WiFi you normally get less bandwidth – and neither app allows you to use 3G or 4G networks. When there’s less data available both apps step down the video quality in terms of resolution and frame rate – and step up the compression.

    In these situations the difference between Netflix and Amazon is hard to discern – if anything the Netflix app seems worse because it’s coming down from a higher quality threshold.

    Summary

    Both Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video have their particular strengths and weaknesses. But one flaw they both share is the inability to stream over 3G or 4G mobile networks – which means the apps are useless in situations where WiFi is not available. By contrast, the BBC iPlayer app shows that mobile streaming can work well, assuming you have a plan that provides plenty of data.

    The Netflix service in the UK has some excellent tentpole properties – Breaking Bad, House of Cards, Orange is the New Black – but its supporting library is a little undernourished, particularly when compared with its US counterpart. Every week a handful of new titles appear, but at the same time others disappear, so the overall number of titles increases only marginally.

    For new subscribers, this is probably not that much of a problem. But over time – and following a series of marathon binge viewing sessions – you spend more and more time trying to find things to watch. It’s a complaint shared by many Netflix viewers – especially since the recent £1 price hike. The service needs a big dose of new, quality content to restore it to full health and reduce the churn of disillusioned punters.

    As for the Netflix app, the biggest issue is the that there is no way to edit your viewing history. So every time you open it you’re reminded of films and TV shows which you’ve sampled and rejected. In a similar vein, the ‘Because you watched…’ recommendation rows become increasingly cumbersome the more you watch things, and often it is hard to find the coveted ‘New on Netflix’ material.

    Otherwise the app is elegant and easy to use, though when compared to Amazon Prime Instant Video, the product information provided looks a little skimpy. Though we should note that when fed with a decent WiFi signal, the app’s video quality is unbeatable.

    Amazon Prime Instant Video may lack the tentpole exclusive content of Netflix but does have a more comprehensive back catalogue, although even with 15,000 titles it’s a long, long way from complete. The expert curation is a nice alternative to Netflix’s recommendation approach, and does dig out some nice surprises.

    Amazon’s IMDB ownership help the app provide a wealth of supporting information, particularly on the bigger releases – and we can see this feature become more and more useful as its rolled out across the catalogue.

    Our main issue with Amazon Prime Instant Video is the lack of HD. This may not be too noticeable on the iPad itself, but if you stream to a full sized TV set via Airplay the flaws are magnified accordingly. It’s a curious anomaly and one we can only put down to the vagaries of content licensing.

    So Netflix or Amazon Prime Instant Video? The cop-out answer is to take up the offer of a month’s free subscription and try both. I suspect that once you’ve gorged yourself of Netflix’s plumb content, you’ll find yourself opening the Amazon Instant Prime app more and more often to find something to watch.

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