A six-week search for the best place to watch TV online in 2015

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I finally gave up my cable subscription in 2007. By that time, the culture was already awash in stellar serial narratives, and I had begun to think of TV the way I thought of reading fiction — all I really needed to keep me happy was one good story at a time. Thanks to Netflix DVDs, I worked my way through Battlestar Galactica, The Office, and The Wire. Fast-forward to today, and the problem feels way more complicated. We’re drowning in good TV, renting DVDs has fallen out of fashion, and shows are fragmented across a growing number of streaming services. How are any of us supposed to keep up?

Many bit players have come and gone, and some — such as Sony’s Hulu clone, Crackle — inexplicably hang on. But if you want to evaluate the best options for TV streaming, you quickly narrow the list to four: Amazon, HBO Now, Hulu, and Netflix.

Netflix helped bring streaming to the center of popular culture with the medium’s first water-cooler serial, House of Cards. (It quickly replicated the feat with Orange Is The New Black.) Amazon followed with the critically acclaimed Transparent, and more recently won over comedy fans with Catastrophe. The launch of HBO Go and, this year, HBO Now made the it’s-not-TV network more widely accessible and affordable than it ever had been before. And Hulu, which helped to kickstart the cord-cutting movement when it launched its next-day TV service in 2007, somehow now has 19 original series on the air.

Big streaming services are now pouring unprecedented amounts of money into developing exclusive series and movies. But a TV streaming service is about more than the quality of the shows it produces or has acquired. It’s about curatorial sense, and the ease of discovering entertaining shows to watch. It’s about the ads, or lack thereof. It’s about performance across different platforms and different levels of Wi-Fi connectivity.

Most people won’t subscribe to all four of the big services. Depending on your budget, you may not want to subscribe to more than one. (Use our Cord Cutter Calculator to see just how much ditching cable will cost you.) So we asked ourselves — which one would we recommend?

So, over the past six weeks, I took a deeper dive into each of these services, binge-watching back-catalog shows and sampling originals in an effort to crown the king of streaming.

Before “Netflix and chill” was a social media euphemism for hooking up, it was just a cool, nice thing to do once you got home from work. But from the day I first subscribed in 2007 on a three-DVDs-at-a-time plan, Netflix was always giving me just a bit more than I could handle. When I finally canceled my DVD plan last year to go streaming only, I still hadn’t gotten around to watching the Beasts of the Southern Wild DVD that had been sitting on my dresser for the better part of the year. I still haven’t!

In its earliest days of streaming, my primary experience with Netflix was to open it, browse its collection of middling movies and TV shows for 20 minutes or so, and then shut it off, defeated, and go to bed. That changed in 2013 with the release of House of Cards, which began a steady drip of good-to-great original series that finally made good on CEO Reed Hastings’ pledge to “become HBO faster than HBO can become Netflix.”

Today, Netflix feels central to pop culture in a way it never has before, thanks to a slate of original series that picked up 34 Emmy nominations this year. As Hollywood movies have begun disappearing from the service, its acquisition of TV series seems to have accelerated, and now I can’t remember the last time I visited Netflix and didn’t have a handful of shows queued up to work my way through. (Currently: Scandal season 4, and the original series Narcos.)

Netflix’s software is generally fast and reliable across an enormous variety of platforms. Its support for HTML5 means you no longer need to use Microsoft’s balky, forever-in-need-of-updating Silverlight plug-in to watch your shows. A thoughtful “who’s watching” feature makes sharing an account with family members or roommates easier than any of its rivals. And at $8.99 a month for new members, Netflix is downright cheap compared to cable.

If I have a criticism, it’s that Netflix can still feel impossible to browse: the too-cute categories (“Critically Acclaimed Cerebral Documentaries”), the Hollywood movies appearing and disappearing from the service seemingly without rhyme or reason. And all those original series, but no way to browse them all in one place. For all its investment in personalized recommendations, Netflix still wants to show you its entire universe of content every time you sign in.

It’s time to put the “chill” back into Netflix and chill.

I came to Amazon Prime relatively late — about two and a half years ago, when I had begun doing more of my shopping online and free two-day shipping had developed incredible appeal. But part of my interest was Amazon’s still young video streaming service, which had gradually developed into a serious Netflix competitor. It hasn’t caught up to the streaming pioneer just yet — but it’s improving rapidly, and Amazon’s skill in signing exclusive deals has made it a valuable addition to the cord-cutter’s lineup.

You’ll find Amazon Video at a URL so complicated that I still Google it every time I want to watch something on my laptop. (It’s easier to find on my iPad and on my PlayStation 4.) Suggestion for Amazon: buy Prime.com! It’s not even a website right now, and just redirects to a page advertising a free credit report. Anyway, you’re welcome.

Visually, Amazon is Netflix dressed up in white: side-scrolling carousels of TV shows and movies for your perusal. The categories of content are similar, though somehow more baffling: “Recommended Movies in Prime Instant Video” (Recommended by whom? Why?); categories representing both the “best of” Prime Video and “editor’s picks,” which … you’d think would be the same thing?

Most amusingly, scroll down to the bottom of the Amazon Video page, and you’ll find recommendations to buy things on Amazon.com, because of course there are recommendations to buy things on Amazon.com. Right beneath those editor’s picks, I find a set of figures from Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, a stainless steel malt or milkshake cup, a knife sharpener, a lemon squeezer, a fish turner, a smart fryer, and a fruit juicer — all of which are better picks than Amazon’s first movie recommendation for me, the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

But credit where it’s due: Amazon has at least two very good original shows to its name, in Transparent and Catastrophe. And it has some excellent exclusive deals on TV shows you should probably watch at some point, including The Good Wife, Orphan Black, The Americans, and RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Best of all, though, Amazon rolled out a feature this month letting you download entire movies and episodes of TV shows to your phone or tablet. Having a few TV shows queued up and ready to play is an excellent way to pass the time on a long flight, and it’s a privilege that used to cost real money. With your Prime subscription, it’s now gratis.

Now in its eighth year, Hulu is the product of an uneasy alliance between NBC, ABC, Fox, CW, and some of their affiliated cable networks. Hulu was perhaps the first service to make cord-cutting feel not just possible but fun. Questions about Hulu’s future persist — its owners have considered selling it more than once. But for now, anyway, the uneasy alliance is doing a good job putting shows on the air, holding prices steady, and coming up with new reasons to tune in.

Of all the streaming services, Hulu is the only one to offer a free, ad-supported version. (For $7.99 a month, you get access to entire seasons of shows, plus some that aren’t available under the free plan.) If you have a basic cable plan (or none at all) and missed the most recent episode of Empire, Hulu is the place you can catch up for free — as long as you’re willing to put up with six or so commercial breaks during a standard hour-long drama. I’ve never really minded the number of commercials on Hulu, but I’ve hated the relative lack of variety — it feels like their ad sales team sells only three commercials at a time across the site, so if you’re binge-watching something, expect to see the same ad 30 times or more.

Hulu’s current look illustrates the degree to which streaming services are converging on a single design: splashy new releases at the top of the page, followed by a bunch of side-scrolling carousels. There’s the usual “shows you watch” and “top picks for you,” with unique Hulu categories like “watch the latest season” and TV seasons recently added to Hulu. (There are movies, too, but anyone who expects to catch up on recent or even decent old movies is destined for heartbreak. Hulu.com/movies is a wasteland.)

In the face of heightened competition from Netflix and Amazon, Hulu has stepped up its efforts to lock up exclusives. It’s the only place you can catch the full run of Seinfeld and marvel at how poorly that show, with all its distracting laugh tracks and bad denim, is aging. Or you can see more recent critical hits: Fargo, The Mindy Project, Adventure Time.

After seeing an interview with M. Night Shyamalan on The Verge, I decided to give his Wayward Pines, produced by Fox, a shot. Matt Dillon plays a Secret Service agent sent to a small town to find his missing partners. When he gets there, one is dead, and the other is pretending to be someone else, and a trip to the edge of town finds that it’s actually a high-tech prison. That was all I needed to curl up on the couch, watch 10 episodes over two days, and memorize the ad for the upcoming season of Gotham along the way. Ads aside, this is Hulu at its best — it could be years before this show ever makes it to Netflix or Amazon.

If Hulu has fallen behind its peers, it’s in the service’s original offerings. I checked in with Difficult People, a sour comedy from comedians Julie Klausner and Billy Eichner, playing meaner and less successful versions of themselves. It’s not really fair to judge a comedy on a single episode, but it’s also hard for me to imagine Netflix or Amazon picking up an embittered, self-indulgent showbiz satire like this one. (The other Hulu originals looked so bad I couldn’t bring myself to try them. But points to the service for organizing them all at a single URL.)

Hulu’s best move this year came this month when it introduced an ad-free version of the service for an extra $4 a month. After just a few weeks of using Hulu without ads, I can’t imagine ever going back. I can finally scrub to any part of the show I want without triggering another ad break, and gone is the constant buffering as Hulu reloads the Gotham ad for the 41st time.

The youngest of the TV streaming services, HBO Now came online in the United States in March and is modeled on five-year-old HBO Go, which is more or less identical, but requires a cable subscription to HBO. HBO Go was a godsend to anyone who couldn’t imagine buying a cable package but whose roommate’s parents, or ex-sister-in-law, or former accountant somehow did. If anyone asks, don’t say you pirated HBO Go. Say you were simply beta-testing HBO Now.

HBO offers the sleekest-looking interface of the streaming services, a rich black canvas accented with bold white text. The web version of HBO Now leads with a full-bleed image of its top recommendations, which you cycle through by clicking arrows on either side. Below you find the simplest and most plainspoken list of categories of any service: series, movies, comedy, sports, and documentaries.

There is less to watch on HBO than its rivals, but this is a blessing in disguise: it’s the only service whose new offerings can be browsed in a minute or two, and what’s there is reliably top-notch. On HBO right now, you’ll find Oscar winners like Birdman, blockbusters like the final installment of The Hobbit, and the best documentaries of any service. Seriously, the documentaries on HBO this year have been mind-blowingly good. Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, Going Clear, and the incredibly unsettling The Jinx are each brilliant in their own way, and you’ll only find them here.

And that’s to say nothing of HBO’s series, the best of which continue to outpace the offerings of all its rivals. (Between The Sopranos and The Wire, it has the best back catalog of any network.) My household organizes its year around each 10-episode season of Game of Thrones. When it’s on, we gather each Sunday and press “play” the second a new episode goes live. When it’s off, we ask each other when Game of Thrones is coming back on. But some of the lesser-known series make me nearly as happy: Getting On, a delirious farce set in an assisted-living facility; Enlightened, the unusually soulful workplace comedy starring Laura Dern; and Hello Ladies, Stephen Merchant’s under-watched romantic comedy, will bring joy to any weekend spent on the couch.

But there I go again focusing on content. The software, which was built by the team behind the Major League Baseball apps, is simple and performs well across every platform I’ve tried it on. It’s a no-frills design, but it feels expensive, like the thoughtfully curated library of a well-to-do uncle.

A great streaming service should offer you a wealth of content and reliable, easy-to-use software for a low monthly price. Individually, each of these services is a bargain compared to most cable plans, but some are better than others. At $15 a month, HBO Now is a service many people will still be borrowing friends’ passwords to watch. At $12, Hulu isn’t much cheaper — and doesn’t come close to matching the quality of programming you find on HBO.

Amazon Video, which comes as a part of Amazon’s broader Prime offering, is a bit cheaper at $8.25 a month, and includes free two-day shipping, tons of cloud storage, and some free music, among other perks. But its indifferent design and shorter track record with developing premium original series makes it feel like a work in progress.

The fact is that all of these services are chasing Netflix in one way or another. It’s cheap at $8.99 per month; it has a strong and growing catalog of high-quality original series; it’s gradually doing a better job of surfacing personalized recommendations. With 65 million global subscribers, Netflix is the biggest of all the streaming services. And at this point in 2015, the biggest streaming service is also the best.

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