Can you hear that? It’s the sound of traditional broadcast TV slowly dying. When Netflix and Hulu first started offering streaming services, it seemed like a noble experiment doomed to failure. But now, they’re essential elements of our media lives. Both companies offer ways to watch TV shows free of their original networks, and both have advantages and disadvantages.
Obviously you don’t have to choose just one, unless you’re in some kind of weird Saw-style deathtrap and a homicidal maniac is making you, but we thought it would be valuable to put these two streaming media titans up against each other and see who comes out on top. Place your bets and let’s see who wins the hotly contested battle of Netflix vs. Hulu.
It’s worth noting that Hulu Plus recently changed its branding to the simpler (though more confusing) Hulu, so keep that in mind if you’re looking to subscribe to what just about everyone still refers to as Hulu Plus.
How much, how soon?
Netflix has more. Hulu gets content faster. This one might be a walk.
Do you want access to television shows right after they air, or do you want an enormous library of shows and films to choose from? Netflix and Hulu seem similar on the surface, but the kinds of content they specialize in is quite different. While there is some overlap, Netflix offers significantly more TV and movies than Hulu, but Hulu has currently airing television shows the day after they air (in most cases).
If you’re the kind of viewer who needs to keep up with the latest shows to talk about around the water cooler, Hulu is the only choice. The service offers current programming from networks including ABC, Fox, NBC, and the CW, as well as a panoply of cable networks. In many cases, previous seasons are available as well. In addition, Hulu specializes in some areas that Netflix is weak — their anime selection, for example, is much more robust.
One quirk to Hulu’s streaming programming is that, in many cases, currently airing shows are restricted to the past five or so episodes rather the whole season — and sometimes it’s not even in sequential order. That can be frustrating if you just got turned on to a series and want to rewind to the beginning.
Netflix provides a massive library of television shows that have already ended, as well as previous seasons of many currently running shows from a broad variety of networks (except HBO, sorry). One note about Netflix’s streaming offerings is that they can change month to month as licensing agreements expire, so a show you’re watching one day might not be available the next.
Netflix is the clear winner in the original content space, both in terms of volume and quality.
When the streaming services jumped into the content space a few years back, people were pretty skeptical. It was the decision to pay for a fourth season of Arrested Development that made people realize that Netflix was taking the game seriously. Fox’s cult comedy had a huge, devoted following, and even though the online-only fourth season wasn’t particularly stellar (if you disagree, please yell into a piece of paper and throw it into the ocean), it got a lot of attention. They followed it up with the massively successful Orange Is the New Black, and then secured the hearts of nerds everywhere by signing a massive deal with Marvel that has already brought us Daredevil and offers even more stuff in the pipeline.
Not all of Netflix’s original content is as good (they did sign a deal to make movies with Adam Sandler, after all), but their batting average is impressive. They’re also committed to stuff that’s not as blatantly commercial, like the Wachowski’s trippy Sense8 and Canadian stoner comedy Trailer Park Boys.
Hulu’s original content is a bit less impressive. The network dipped its toe into the pool in 2011 with the solid Morgan Spurlock docu-series A Day in the Life, but followed it up with stinky sub-Family Guy animated series The Awesomes, a Kevin Smith show, and a bunch of lousy mockumentaries. Almost everything they make is obviously done on the cheap and not really worth your time.
One bright spot is their confirmation that Fox’s cancelled The Mindy Project will be migrating to Hulu for a fourth season. Although that show was up and down in quality, it attracted some solid critical attention and could revitalize the service. The upcoming The Way, from the team behind NBC’s Parenthood, also looks promising.
Both services are available across a wide number of platforms. Obviously, the most robust is the desktop web browser, but both Hulu and Netflix have presence on mobile devices, game consoles, and set-top boxes.
Both services link to social networks and can optionally share what you have been watching to Facebook, as well as deliver recommendations based on the tastes of your Facebook friends.
If you have a smartphone, a tablet, video game console, or if you’ve bought a TV or Blu-ray player within the last year, the chances are good you have something other than your computer that can watch Hulu and Netflix. The two services are available on iOS, Android, Windows Phone, and Windows RT. If you want to watch on your television, and don’t want to hook up a game console or your computer, there are several companies that have made inexpensive set-top boxes that access these services and others. Roku, Apple TV, Google TV, and the Netgear streaming media players plug into a television and serve you content from the web. If you have an Xbox One, a PlayStation 4, or a Wii U gaming console, you have access to these services as well.
There’s no limit on how much you can watch on either service through the web browser, unless you are rate-limited by your ISP. On mobile devices, consoles, and streaming set-top boxes, however, Hulu limits some of their content. You’ll get messages explaining that the content can only be viewed on a web browser, and unless you connect your laptop to your television there’s no way around it. Netflix does not share those limitations, which is a big plus in their corner.
Remote streaming is a huge part of how some users are taking advantage of Netflix and Hulu, and in this particular avenue Netflix has an undeniable advantage. Netflix and Google have collaborated on a protocol called DIAL, and through it users have the ability to send Netflix content from mobile devices to smart TVs, game consoles, Roku devices, and of course Google’s Chromecast.
Hulu is supported on Chromecast, but none of the other devices with the DIAL protocol allow the same remote streaming and control. The big deal here is that it allows mobile users the ability to use their smartphones and tablets as remote controls, from playback to basic volume control.
If you’re interested in the best quality stream, and you have the hardware to do it, Netflix will offer the best experience. Through the PlayStation 4 and a handful of other supported devices, Netflix will stream in 1080p with surround sound audio. You must have the right hardware, and you’ll only get this higher quality connection if Netflix automatically detects that your internet connection is fast enough to handle it, but in those situations the difference between Netflix and Hulu is clear.
In addition, many observers have noted that Hulu’s streaming protocol requires a much larger allocation of bandwidth than Netflix’s. This can be frustrating if you have multiple devices using your home network, as Hulu can buffer or drop service during these times.
Both Netflix and Hulu work on a flat rate pricing model that lets you stream as much content as you like. Both offer their services for a base rate of $7.99 per month. Netflix offers more expensive tiers that allow you to stream in HD and on multiple devices, topping out at $11.99 a month. You can add in home delivery of rental DVDs (remember, that’s what Netflix started as) for a little bit more.
Hulu allows access to much of their content for free on their desktop computers. This typically includes currently-airing shows and some archival material. However, if you have a cable TV account Hulu will restrict certain content, and require that you connect your cable provider account to Hulu in order to allow you to access that content. Remember: Hulu Plus used to be the branding the company used for the pay services, but in April of 2015 they dropped it to consolidate all of their offerings under the Hulu banner.
One of Hulu’s biggest downsides is their dependency on advertising. Even if you pay for the service, shows are interrupted multiple times for unskippable video advertisements, many of which can repeat over and over during a watching session. These breaks can be as long as two minutes and include up to three ads. There is no way to eliminate them, although many people have said that if there was a slightly more expensive subscription plan that did so they would opt for it.
Netflix does not interrupt any content with ads. However, they have recently started playing trailers for Netflix original programming in the screen after you finish watching a movie or season of a TV show. This is relatively unobtrusive and you can skip them or exit out at will.
Netflix vs. Hulu: The final verdict
At the end of the day, the championship service might really depend on the kind of content that you want to stream.
Netflix is kicking ass on original content and has a massive library for you to binge on. Their tech is solid and ubiquitous across platforms, and only hits snags when demand is huge.
Hulu has one strong advantage, which is currently airing series. There is literally no other streaming media service that offers recent episodes of shows from as many different networks, making it somewhat irreplaceable. However, as media consumption changes and binge-watching becomes more common, that viewing experience might not be as valuable.
It’s also worth noting that there are a few additional players in the streaming media space picking up steam. Amazon Prime has a library rivaling Netflix with the ability to pay to buy or rent movies and shows, along with past seasons on networks Hulu doesn’t cover (like HBO) and original programming (including critical hit Transparent). Yahoo! is also making inroads into the original video space by picking up Community. We’ll wait and see how these efforts pan out.
If the spikes of that deathtrap are closing in on your face and you have to pick just one, we’d go for Netflix, but it’s still not an easy choice.
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