Netflix — commercial-free
Although they're best known for pioneering the rental-by-mail service, Netflix is now branching out into the world of on-demand video. Movie fans with a Netflix account can take advantage of the service's new "Watch Instantly" feature. This service lets you stream an unlimited number of movies to your PC for free. Plans start at $8.99/month for unlimited online viewing (plus 1-at-a-time unlimited DVD rentals) or if you really want to save money, sign up for the $4.99/month plan and get 2 hours of online viewing each month (plus 2 one-at-a-time DVD rentals a month). Either way, you're getting free movies just for being a member. A few things worth noting. The Netflix viewer, which you must download before streaming a movie, is only compatible with Windows and Internet Explorer (no Macs, no Firefox). In addition, not all of Netflix's library is available for instant viewing. Far from it, in fact. At the time of this writing, only 9 of Netflix's 90 Popular New Releases can be viewed online, and of the Netflix Top 100, only 3 titles can be streamed. The numbers are dismal, but on the positive side, we were able to stream and watch an entire movie over Wi-Fi without so much as a hiccup.
Hulu — has commercials
Created by NBC Universal and News Corp., Hulu (which launched last week) offers free, full-length episodes of popular shows like Heroes, The Simpsons, Family Guy, and more. These on-demand videos are streamed via a Web-based player. The site is also offering shows from smaller NBC- and News Corp.-owned networks like Oxygen, National Geographic, and the Style channel. In addition, MGM and Sony are populating the site with movies from their respective studios. The movie selection isn't that impressive (among the titles that caught our eye were Sideways, Ice Age, The Big Lebowski, and The Usual Suspects), but the service is relatively new and Hulu promises to expand its movie catalogue. Check out our initial impressions of the site here.
Joost — has commercials
You won't find any full-length movies on Joost, but this on-demand site does contain an extensive library of TV shows and music videos. You'll need to download and install the Joost player before streaming any content. Sometimes the videos can get choppy, but viewers will be able to keep their wallets in their pocket as everything you find on Joost is free. Big names on Joost include MTV, Comedy Central, CNN, Sony Pictures television, and CBS. Joost also has a modest collection of cartoons, with classics like Transformers, The Mr. Magoo Show, and G.I. Joe. March 20th will mark the introduction of Joost Live, a new feature that will let you stream live NCAA games from your Joost player.
Amazon Unbox — commercial-free
They're not the most affordable option in our roundup, but when it comes to selection, Amazon's Unbox Video Download service has a solid catalogue of movies and TV shows at the ready. Movie rentals go for $3.99 per download (you have 30 days to watch the movie and 24 hours to keep it after you start playing it) whereas TV shows to own are priced at $1.99 per episode. However, we recommend saving your money and browsing through Amazon's catalogue of free downloads, which includes episode recaps of Battlestar Galactica and additional scenes of CBS' How I Met Your Mother, among others.
Xbox Live Video — commercial-free
If it's high-definition titles you're after, owners of Microsoft's Xbox 360 are in luck. In addition to games, Internet-connected Xbox 360s have access to Microsoft's Xbox Live Video, an on-demand service that lets you rent movies and purchase TV shows. Microsoft's online movie catalogue may not satisfy die hard movie fans, but for casual viewers there are more than enough titles to check out. Movie rentals expire 14 days after purchase, or 24 hours after initially viewing them. Most movies are available in both standard- and high-definition (720p) formats with titles from Warner Bros., Paramount, and 20th Century Fox. Microsoft charges via its points system (you'll need to enter your credit card information via your Xbox) and movie rentals cost about $4 (320 points) for standard-def and $6 (480 points) for HD titles. Browsing through titles is very straightforward and each movie/episode is accompanied by a free preview. A sampling of some newer titles includes Michael Clayton, Saw IV, and 3:10 to Yuma.
TV Networks — have commercials
While all three major networks let you stream full, free episodes of select shows on their respective websites, only ABC.com gives you the option of streaming select shows in high-definition. ABC.com's standard videos also look slightly sharper than those from NBC.com and CBS.com. However, NBC.com gets an extra nod from us for giving viewers bonus content online. For instance, viewers can watch deleted scenes, commentary, and even download select shows via NBC Direct Beta (you'll need a Windows-based PC and Windows Media Player to download episodes). Some cable channels, like ComedyCentral.com, also let viewers watch video clips in addition to Web-only digital shorts.
Louis Ramirez is a dealnews features Editor.