Netflix vs. Hulu vs. Apple TV: An Overview

Internet streaming services provide consumers with a wide range of viewing options as well as a viable alternative for people who want to cut the cord from their cable companies. But how do these services stack up against one another?

Netflix (NFLX) and Hulu are direct competitors, but their features appeal to different viewing preferences. Apple TV competes with Netflix and Hulu in specific areas, but also allows viewers to stream content from both service providers.

As the behemoth of the group, Netflix provides a huge library of movies and award-winning original TV series, but viewers have to wait a year to see current network/cable TV shows. Hulu solves that problem by making current TV shows available within 24 hours. The main drawback to Hulu is that it has limited movie offerings and has yet to hit its stride with original programming.

Apple TV offers apps for both Netflix and Hulu along with access to all the movies, TV shows, games, and music in the iTunes library. When compared to cable and bills that can run into hundreds of dollars per month, subscribing to all three services provides two solutions. First, the cost may be a fraction of typical cable bills, and secondly, viewers have access to an immense collection of content that grows in size with each month.

New subscribers can try Netflix and Hulu for free for the first month before canceling or converting to a paid subscription.

Netflix

Netflix is an app-based streaming service that requires an internet connection, either with a Smart TV, a gaming console such as an Xbox, a computer/tablet or smartphone, or a Blu-ray player. If the Netflix app is not already on the device, the user can download it from the web.

Netflix boasts more than 139 million paid subscribers in more than 190 countries. The company was founded in 1997 by Reed Hastings and software executive Marc Randolph as a portal for online movie rentals. In 2007, the company began the streaming services for which it is now famous. The following year, Netflix began partnering with consumer electronics companies. They began to expand beyond the United States in 2010, eventually becoming a worldwide service by 2016.

Netflix went public in 2002 at a price of $15 per share. The company's stock closed at $354.39 on May 24, 2019. In April 2019, Netflix reported its first-quarter earnings with revenue coming in at $4.52 billion, an increase of 22.2% from the same period in the previous year.

The company offers viewers three different streaming plans:

  • The basic plan offers streaming services on one device in standard definition. Viewers on this plan can also download titles onto one phone or tablet.
  • The mid-range standard plan increases the number of devices through which viewers can stream simultaneously to two in high definition. They can also download titles onto two devices.
  • The premium plan—the most expensive—allows streaming on four different devices at the same time in high definition and ultra-high definition. Viewers can download titles onto four different phones or tablets.

In January 2019, the company announced it increased the price of each plan by $1 to $2 to help fund investment into new offerings and technology. The basic plan's new price rose from $7.99 to $8.99, while the standard plan jumped from $10.99 to $12.99. The premium plan price rose from $13.99 to $15.99.

Netflix offers a selection of movies and original television shows. The streaming service is also gaining attention for its award-winning original series, including House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Narcos, and Stranger Things.

Netflix is popular with consumers because its programming has no commercials. For viewers who can wait or who are trying to catch up on a long-running series, the service provides a “binge-watching” solution, but for others who prefer to stay current with their shows, Netflix falls short in this area. Viewers must wait up to a year before the most recent seasons of television shows become available.

Hulu

Hulu is also app-based, and the internet connection options are the same as those available with Netflix. The company launched its service in 2008 and has more than 28 million subscribers. Disney's Direct-to-Consumer and International is a majority stakeholder in the company.

Hulu's services are divided between Hulu and Hulu + Live TV—both of which offer two different plans. Hulu subscribers can pay $5.99 per month for the basic plan, but shows come with advertisements. Viewers who want a commercial-free experience can take Hulu without ads for $7.99 per month. Hulu subscribers can also add live TV to their experience with ads for $44.99 or without commercials for $50.99 per month. The one caveat for the commercial-free plans: Some shows are not included, as Hulu is required to stream them with ads. According to the site, ads will appear before and after the shows, not in between.

The service also allows add-ons to each plan for an additional cost. Viewers can choose to add HBO, Cinemax, Showtime, and/or Starz to their Hulu plans. They may also add other services to the Live TV packages including cloud DVR, unlimited screens, Hulu Espanol, and more.

Hulu’s strong suit is its streaming of current network and cable shows within 24 hours after they air live, including Grey's Anatomy, Homeland, and Modern Family. One disadvantage is that Hulu sometimes offers only the last four or five shows in the current season, which can be frustrating for viewers who want to watch a season from its first episode.

Where Hulu falls short against Netflix is in a comparison of movie selection and original programming. The selection on Hulu is generally divided between older movies and its relatively small collection of Criterion titles, which includes Academy Award-winning films such as Selma as well as art house films directed by Ingmar Bergman, Jean Cocteau, and Federico Fellini. Hulu has some original programming—its most popular being The Handmaid's Tale—but shows such as Deadbeat and The Path have not created the level of viewer interest as the original shows on Netflix.

Apple TV

Apple TV is a different animal than app-based Netflix and Hulu, in that programming, apps, and games run through an Apple (AAPL) set top box that sits between the TV and the internet connection.

There are two prices for the Apple TV hardware: $149 for the 32GB model and $199 for the 64GB box. Both set tops include a newly designed remote control with a touchpad, an app store, and full integration with Apple's Siri voice-recognition for search and device operation.

Apple TV allows viewers full access to the iTunes library, which has the largest amount of content available for any streaming service due to partnerships with most, if not all, movie and TV studios. While some may see access to the iTunes library as direct competition for Netflix and Hulu, Apple TV actually enables streaming for both services. In addition to Netflix and Hulu, this service offers a full slate of online programming, including HBO Go, MLB.TV, and YouTube. Viewers can also listen to or watch content downloaded from iTunes through Apple TV.

The strong suit for Apple TV is the sheer volume of content available through the service. Users can rent or purchase movies, and they often have the option of paying for HD or saving a couple of bucks and watching standard-definition (SD) versions. Television shows are available for purchase by the series or in single episodes. Viewers also have the option of bundling multiple seasons of television shows with a season pass, an option that can be purchased through Apple.

The biggest disadvantage of Apple TV is that it does not offer a subscription service, and purchases made on an a-la-carte basis can add up quickly. But the company promised that this will change. Apple's website teased the introduction of a new streaming service called Apple TV+ ready to be launched in the fall of 2019. The service is expected to be available on the Apple TV app through the App Store. According to the website, the app will feature original content including shows and movies. The Wall Street Journal reported the service would cost anywhere between $30 to $40 per month.

Key Takeaways

  • Netflix, the world's largest streaming service, offers viewers three paid plans with thousands of movies, television shows, and original content.
  • Hulu has four paid subscription plans which offer a smaller selection of films and television shows.
  • Apple TV users can stream shows using the Netflix and Hulu apps, along with content downloaded from iTunes.

Special Considerations

Several other names are entering the streaming service war, notably Disney. The company's Direct-to-Consumer International—the same division that owns a majority stake in Hulu—will launch its own streaming service in November 2019. Disney+ will stream the company's film and television content. While it intends to compete with Netflix and Apple, it will not compete with Hulu, instead, acting like a complimentary service.

The service will include titles from Walt Disney Pictures, Walt Disney Animation Studios, Pixar, Marvel Studios, LucasFilm, 20th Century Fox, and National Geographic. Roughly 7,000 shows and 500 films will be available for streaming and will include original scripted series based on the Marvel and Star Wars franchises. The company will stream content via apps, smart TVs, web browsers, and video game consoles. The initial price for the service is expected to be $6.99 per month or $69.99 annually in the U.S.

As a result of the announcement, Disney will end its agreement with Netflix in 2019, pulling all of its proprietary content from the streaming site.