How does Hulu really stack up to Netflix and Amazon Prime? Let’s break it down.
We live in a world flush with streaming options. Just a few short years ago, Netflix was the only game in town, but now competitors are fighting for your binge-watching dollars, and each major service has its own pros and cons.
Hulu has quietly become one of the best alternatives to Netflix, whether your poison of choice is TV shows, movies, or documentaries. But there are plenty of things you need to know before cutting the cord and subscribing to Hulu. We’ll start with the basics.
What is Hulu?
Hulu was founded in 2007 as a joint venture by companies that included Disney, 21st Century Fox, Comcast, and Time Warner. Originally launched as a way for TV networks to stream TV content on your computer, the service has expanded and is now available on almost every streaming device. Your TV might already be able to stream Hulu. It’s everywhere.
Because of its close relationship to TV networks, Hulu offers more TV programming than any other streaming service, along with access to the film catalogs of many of its partner studios.
How does Hulu work?
If you’ve ever used a streaming service, you’ll be able to quickly pick up Hulu, but learning its quirks might take you a few minutes. Hulu keeps its content separated, so you won’t see movies when you’re looking for TV shows and vice versa. Hulu remembers where you are in each episode, and it creates a list of favorites that appears at the top of your screen whenever you fire up the app.
Using Hulu is a joy. Even with ads, the service aims to give you an ideal experience, often allowing you to watch one long ad at the beginning of an episode instead of several short ones throughout. When you’re done watching something, the service recommendations another show or film based on your viewing habits. However, my personal favorite feature only appears when you close the app while in the middle of a movie or episode. The next time you open Hulu, the service immediately asks if you’d like to pick back up where you left off. If you have a partner who falls asleep during movies regularly, it’s a godsend.
When it comes to searching for content, Hulu works hard to help you discover things, even if you don’t know you want to watch them. The app suggests shows based on your tastes and has deep category options for searching that allow you to browse through content listings by everything from Genre to Release Company. Curious about everything ABC has available? You can look under their category to see shows from their network and shows it’s produced for syndication. It makes for great late-night browsing when you just can’t think of anything to stream.
Hulu has made big strides to keep up with Netflix when it comes to original programming. In addition to a wide range of incredible British shows you can only watch there, most notably Moonboy and The Wrong Mans, Hulu’s made great shows like Aaron Paul’s cultist thriller The Path and an adaptation of Stephen King’s 11/22/63 starring James Franco. My personal favorite show is Difficult People, a pitch-black comedy starring Billy Eichner and Julie Klausner as selfish monsters trying to get ahead in Hollywood. It’s worth a month of paying for Hulu just to watch that one show.
It’s easier than ever to use Hulu. You can stream via Roku, Google Chromecast, select smart TVs (here’s a full list), Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and Kindle Fire, and pretty much any Apple, Windows 8, or Android device you can throw at it, not to mention Nexus Player. Of course, you can always just watch Hulu from your web browser. As for gaming consoles, Hulu supports Xbox One and Xbox 360, Wii and Wii U, and PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4. In November 2017, Hulu also became Nintendo Switch’s first video streaming app. Hulu’s accessibility is definitely one of its strongest selling points.
Hulu plans: How much does Hulu cost?
You may find yourself asking “is Hulu free?” When it started Hulu did indeed offer a free option that allowed you to stream a limited number of shows and episodes on your computer in exchange for watching ads. It was a pretty good system. Sadly, those days are long gone. Instead, the company now offers three levels of Hulu subscription: no commercials, limited commericals, and Hulu with Live TV (which we’ll cover separately shortly).
Hulu with Limited Commercials typically costs $7.99 and gives you access to Hulu’s library of movies, TV shows, originals, and documentaries. This includes a truly staggering amount of content, but it comes with one major downside: ads. For the most part, ads are only going to pop up when you’re watching TV content, so if you’re a movie buff, it’s going to hurt you less. Big hit shows tend to have the most ads, so if you’re a fan of Masterchef Junior, prepare yourself for a lot of commercials. That said, at the moment, Hulu is offering one year of Hulu with Limited Commercials for only $5.99—and that’s after one free month. That’s an incredible deal.
Hulu with No Commercials is $11.99 a month and is exactly what it sounds like. You can watch everything on Hulu, including major network shows, without a single ad messing with your experience. That’s a heavy price for many people, but if you’re a super fan of network TV, it may be a small cost to pay for the convenience of binge-watching How to Get Away With Murder like you do on Netflix.
In May of 2017, Hulu began offering a live TV subscription, which combines their traditional on-demand programming with real-time streams of major channels. Hulu with Live TV provides the same options as a standard basic cable package, with a solid mix of entertainment, news, and sports programming. The service works on iOS, Android, Xbox, Apple TV, and Amazon Fire TV and Fire TV Stick, with support for Roku and Samsung smart TVs coming in the near future.
Binge watch your favorite Food Network, FX, Bravo, Nat Geo, TBS, and Syfy shows, catch up on what’s going on in sports with ESPN, or watch the evening news on Fox or MSNBC. With 50-plus channels, you’ll always have something to watch. Hulu TV even includes a collection of family-friendly options like Cartoon Network, Disney, and Sprout. (Just remember that Cartoon Network becomes Adult Swim at night.)
For sports-loving cord-cutters, Hulu Live is a boon, offering streams of NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, and NCAA. Games are subject to regional availability and blackouts, but any sports fan who watches online has already come to terms with that obnoxious reality. Sadly, due to rights issues, no NFL games can be streamed via Hulu Live on a smartphone.
Beyond Hulu Live’s cable offerings the service offers a range of local channels, though availability will vary around the country. You can see which channels are available in your area by looking at Hulu’s Live TV page.
Using Hulu Live TV costs $39.99 a month for the basic package, which comes with the aforementioned 50-plus channels, 50 hours of Cloud DVR storage, and access to Hulu’s on-demand streaming service with limited commercials. Enhanced Cloud DVR, which gives you 200 hours of storage and the ability to skip commercials in your recordings, is available for an additional $15 a month.
Hulu costs $5.99 a month or $11.99 a month for Hulu with No Commercials, an annual cost of $71.88 and $143.88, respectively. For that cost, you get access to first-run episodes of hit shows like Scandal, New Girl, Masterchef Junior, and The Simpsons. The downside, of course, is you only get those new episodes for a few weeks before they expire in most cases, meaning you’re not getting the same binge-watching abilities you get from Netflix. However, Hulu also has an incredible back catalog of classic TV shows, including exclusives like Seinfeld and The Golden Girls, so even if you can’t check out the whole new season of your favorite show, there’s plenty to watch.
By contrast, Netflix offers three options for streaming: One screen at a time in standard definition for $7.99, two screens at a time in HD for $9.99, or four screens at a time in Ultra HD for 11.99. In addition, users can download videos to their phones and tablets for offline viewing. That adds annually up to $95.88, $119.88, or $143.88, respectively, depending on your package and taxes. However, for that cost, you get one of the biggest streaming libraries of classic content around.
Still, it’s mostly classic or old content. Outside of its great original series, movies, documentaries, and docuseries, Netflix has struggled to keep a steady supply of new movies in its catalog in the past few years. You will still find great movies that were just in theaters, but there’s less to choose from than the glory days a few years ago. Still, Netflix is the industry leader for a reason. Its app is easy to use, feature-rich, and its original catalog has won legions of dedicated fans. If you don’t care about keeping up with current TV shows, Netflix is still pretty much all you need, and the increased number of screens that can watch at one time means that as the cost rises, you can split the package with others to offset the price.
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Hulu vs Amazon Prime
Amazon Prime is another alternative, and at $99 a year in upfront costs, it may seem like the worst deal. However, along with a great streaming service, that $99 also gets you free two-day shipping on all your Amazon purchases. Amazon Prime has greatly improved its app in the last few years for streaming, and it offers one of the largest film libraries of any service. From The Hunger Games to Mission Impossible, there’s plenty of recent multiplex hits to watch. You’ll even find obscure gems like the lost Sasquatch horror film Night of the Demon. The downside is those films are sometimes hard to find due to a frustrating lack of sorting and quality control. If you’re willing to dig there are classic treasures to be found, but not everyone has that sort of time. You can also add on services like HBO and Starz. When it comes to TV shows, Amazon has a few strengths, including all of FX’s drama programming and its original series, but there isn’t a great deal of modern catalog. However, again going back to the deep cuts, it’s the only place to legally stream the original Unsolved Mysteries.
That said, Hulu’s deep movie archive, which includes Disney films, is on par with what you can find on Amazon’s Prime streaming service. In fact, if you have both services you will notice a lot of overlap in which new movies are streaming on each service.
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If you’re weighing a Hulu subscription, you’ll want to consider the service’s original programming. While still lagging behind Netflix and Amazon Prime, Hulu has produced several must-watch shows. Here are the Hulu shows we’d start with.
Hulu upped their game in a serious way with this year’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which adapts Margaret Atwood’s acclaimed 1985 dystopian novel. Set in a future where the United States has given way to a totalitarian Christian theocracy called Gilead, The Handmaid’s Tale follows Offred (Elisabeth Moss), a woman forced to help breed the children of the privileged after a global outbreak of infertility. Presenting a future that seems uncomfortably prescient in 2017, the series has been nominated for 11 Emmys. Our review called it “dark and devastating,” so gear up. —David Wharton
Samantha Morton stars in Harlots as Margaret Wells, a former prostitute-turned-madam of her own brothel in 18th century London. As she struggles to better her station in life, she meets resistance from societal pressures, religious zealots, and her biggest rival—who happens to be her own former madam. With Morton playing against type, Harlots is, as Nico Lang wrote in our review, “a breath of fresh air and a bawdy delight.” —D.W.
Julie Klausner and Billy Eichner (Billy on the Street) star as a pair of disenchanted New York comedians struggling to make it big without strangling anyone in the process. The pair’s shenanigans put them in the path of a rogue’s gallery of hilarious guest stars, including Martin Short, Kate McKinnon, Amy Sedaris, Nathan Lane, and Tina Fey. The show returns for a third season on August 8, with Lucy Liu joining the cast as a successful but “morally corrupt” book editor. —D.W.
Editor’s note: This article is regularly updated for relevance.