Amazon Instant Video gives entertainment-seekers a hefty amount of television and movie content that can be downloaded and streamed to Windows PCs, compatible TVs, mobile devices, game consoles, Blu-ray players, DVRs, or set-top boxes—and in some cases, at 1080p resolution. With wallet-friendly prices, a nice programming variety, and years of steady improvements, Amazon's streaming service is finally on par with iTunes, Hulu, and Netflix, especially if you're an Amazon Prime subscriber looking to cut the cord.
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Amazon gives you plenty of ways to dive into its deep content pool of more than 100,000 television shows and movies. You search for programming by keying a title into the search box, or use product categories that let you view movies and TV shows based on genre, release date, channel, and more. The layout has become easier to navigate; each piece of content is displayed as a big, conspicuous box.
Clicking a movie or TV show link opens a page showing the user rating, runtime, release date, and other pertinent information. If you're on a TV show page, you can click the Preview button to watch a snippet; movie pages let you watch a trailer. Both are viewable in full-screen mode.
The Amazon Instant Video Experience
Individual standard-definition TV episodes are available for 99 cents (Bones, Glee), $1.99 (House, The Walking Dead), and sometimes as high as $2.99 each. You can find high-definition episodes of the same shows (when available) in the same price range, but we found many HD versions cost a bit more than their SD counterparts. Amazon lets you purchase entire seasons (The Legend of Korra Season 4 HD, for example, is a reasonable $29.99) or a TV Pass. TV Passes grant access to current TV seasons with videos posting shortly after they've aired live—often at a discounted price. Hannibal Season 3, for example, can be purchased starting at $1.99 per episode, but with a TV pass, you can purchase the entire season for $22.99 (1.77 per episode). Unfortunately, not all shows in the catalog have a TV Passes, and the TV passes only valid for the current television season.
For $99 a year, Amazon Prime subscribers get an extra feature: More than 40,000 commercial-free streaming videos at no additional cost. You can watch Amazon Instant Video content on a number of compatible TVs, Blu-ray players, DVRs, game consoles, Chromecast-compatible mobile devices, and set-top boxes that come with the software installed. These videos include selections from HBO like The Wire, plenty of cartoons for the kids, and Amazon's growing library of promising original content like the Golden Globe award-winning series Transparent.
In terms of sheer numbers, Amazon Instant Video boasts the deepest collection of movies and television shows. However, most of those videos need to be purchased regardless of whether or not you're an Amazon Prime subscriber. Rivals like Hulu and our Editors' Choice Netflix offer considerable libraries for a flat monthly subscription fee. While an Amazon Prime subscription gets you much more than just a video streaming service (faster Amazon shipping options are pretty nice), its annual fee is the most expensive of all three.
Amazon Instant Video limits you to just one viewing method for rented videos (which are typically priced at $2.99 or $3.99—the equivalent of iTunes) at the time of purchase: Watch Now, Watch Later, or Download for offline viewing. Once you choose a method, you're unable to transfer that rented video to another device. Rented videos expire within the time frame advertised—typically within 24 or 48 hours. You have 30 days to begin watching before the rental expires.
Purchasing or renting a video is as simple as clicking the Buy button and selecting a credit/debit card you have associated with your Amazon account. When we purchased the infamous Rick James Chappelle's Show episode, it was saved to the Video Library, Amazon's online, central repository for all of your videos.
Purchased videos are ad-free and can be downloaded to a PC, TiVo, and two portable devices, like an Amazon Fire tablet. But these days you could be forgiven for not knowing that downloading was even an option, since streaming is emphasized so heavily.
This isn't a bad thing. Pretty much every device with an app store features an Amazon Instant Video app, and if you discover your connection is unusably slow after purchasing a video, Amazon will actually refund your money without you even needing to ask. Streaming is also the only option on Mac, which is strange since a wide variety of devices from iPads to an LG televisions can download videos for offline viewing.
The Standard definition streaming video quality is what you'd expect; passable when viewed on a relatively small screen like an iPhone and problematic on a larger screen like an iPad. That said, the streaming HD 1080p video looks spectacular—much better than Hulu's 720p content. HD videos also now dominate the service, an excellent improvement since a few years ago they were few and far between.
There is a dark side, however. Some movies that are freshly released to the home market are unavailable for viewing or downloading for an unspecified period of time due to licensing restrictions. This isn't an Amazon-specific problem; it applies to pretty much all video-on-demand services. Fortunately, you're notified of such before Amazon completes your order.
Should You Tune Into Amazon Instant Video?
If you're an Amazon heavyweight, this is the video service for you; especially if you're a Prime subscriber who can enjoy the ad-free streaming shortly after it becomes available. While the flat subscription of other services is nice, like our Editors' Choice Netflix, when you're looking for that specific movie or show, and are willing to buy or rent it directly, Amazon Instant Video is your best—and sometimes your only—choice.