Compare and Contrast: Best Video-on-Demand Value

best video on demandWatching the Oscars without having seen the nominated movies is a bit like watching a sequel without seeing the original. You don't know who's who or what it's about, and you don't know who to root for.

But you're a college student, not a card-carrying member of the academy, so if you want to see this year's crop of Oscar films, you're going to have to pay up. Fortunately five of the 10 Best Picture nominees (Inception, The Kids Are All Right, The Social Network, Toy Story 3 and Winter's Bone), and seven other films nominated in the biggest categories, are available to watch instantly on your computer, iPhone, iPad, even your TV (provided you have a video game system, TiVo or Apple TV). It's cheaper, easier and all around more convenient than going out to the movies.

But which multi-format video-on-demand provider is award-worthy? We've nominated three of the biggest -- Amazon, Netflix, iTunes -- and judged them on price, how they work and the number of Oscar-nominated films they offer. All the information and prices listed are valid as of Feb. 16 and are subject to change.

Movies available: 34,718
How it works: You can rent or buy movies to stream instantly to your TV, so long as you have a compatible HDTV, set-top box, DVR or Xbox 360. (Click here to see if what you have is compatible). You can also stream movies through your PC or Mac (details here) or download them to your PC to watch, provided you download a free video player first.
Prices: Typically a title can be rented for 48 hours at $3.99 or 24 hours at $2.99. (Opt for download or streaming only; and it's available for viewing within 30 days after purchase and can't be transferred to a portable device). There are some variations; How to Train Your Dragon, a nominee for Best Animated Film, is available for 24 hours at $3.99. Most titles available to rent are also available to own, with purchase prices varying from $9.99 to $14.99. (These can be downloaded to two devices and transferred to a portable device).
Oscar nominees: Eleven of the 12 major Oscar nominees that are on the market as rentals also are available to watch instantly or download. You can browse Amazon's on-demand selection of Oscar nominees here. In general, Amazon seemed to carry several new release movies not yet available on Netflix, such as Life as We Know It.

Movies: A Netflix spokesman wouldn't disclose a specific number, only to say it's "thousands upon thousands, more than you could ever see in a lifetime."
How it works: Netflix allows you to stream as many available movies as you want to your TV (through video game consoles Wii, Xbox 360 and Playstation 3), your computer (Mac and PC compatible), and your iPhones and iPads (after downloading a free app first). You can start and stop a movie whenever you please.
Prices: Unlimited streaming for $7.99 a month. For an extra $2 a month you can rent one DVD at a time.
Oscar nominees: Not really. A noticeable number of new releases aren't available for instant streaming, not to mention that Netflix has struck a deal with studios such as 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers and Universal Pictures to delay making their new releases available until 30 days after they come out. Of the 12 Oscar nominees we sampled, only documentary nominees Exit Through the Gift Shop and Restrepo, and foreign language nominee Dogtooth could be viewed instantly. For $9.99, you could get DVDs for the other nine major Oscar-nominated movies available to rent, but you could only have them one at a time, plus there may be a wait for some titles. (Here's a tip: If there's an available title you want more than anything else, delete everything else off your Netflix queue, and you'll more often than not get that title right away despite the warnings of a wait.)

Service: iTunes
Movies: Over 10,000 movies as of Sept.1.
How it works: You can download movies to watch on your computer, iPhone, iPad, iPod touch or TV (as long as you have Apple TV).
Prices: Most 24-hour rentals cost $3.99 for the standard movie and $4.99 for titles available in HD. (Movies must be watched within 30 days of purchase and are available for 24 hours from the moment you hit play). Standard purchase prices are typically $9.99 or $14.99. Most HD titles cost $19.99 to own (occasionally $12.99).
Oscar nominees: Ten of the 12 nominees were available (Unlike at Amazon, The Town was unavailable, and Best Documentary nominee Gas Land was unavailable for download or instant viewing at any of the three, though it's out on DVD.)

What we think: This is a hard one to make a firm recommendation on, since we're not exactly talking apples to apples in terms of price and features. If you want to go with Netflix, our advice is to assess how much time you have to commit. If you watch only one or two movies a month, you're losing money. And if you are primarily interested in new releases, you'll have to wait a month for some titles before they're available to rent, and even then, many won't be available for instant streaming. And we're definitely disappointed in the low number of Oscar-nominated movies available for streaming. That said, if you're a movie glutton with a lot of time on your hands and don't mind waiting for DVDs of some titles, then you should strongly consider Netflix. Our advice is to browse its offering of instant titles first to see how many of these actually interest you (many of them are TV shows, older movies and more obscure titles). Then if you're still interested, try the free month trial.

We wouldn't completely dismiss Netflix (full disclosure, we're subscribers ourselves). We love movies and watch a lot of them.

If you're supremely busy and are only interested in seeing a small number of new releases, and you want to see them right away, go a la carte with Amazon. Compared with iTunes, it offers more titles, the ability to stream and download (not just download), and you get longer rental periods for the price. And since you pay only for the titles you want, you don't run the risk of paying more for less, which you can do for Netflix, not to mention that Amazon carries most titles soon after they're released, unlike Netflix.

Ultimately, Amazon is our best-value choice as a movies-on-demand provider, although Netflix is a very worthy nominee.

Piet Levy's Compare and Contrast breaks down the prices and perks for products and services that college kids want, and posts them on WalletPop's Money College page every other week. Send suggestions, including items or services that you want written about, to
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