Netflix, Lovefilm, Blinkbox: where can I watch my favourite TV shows?
20th Aug 2013 | 12:01
It's full stream ahead for Video on Demand, but how do the top online services compare?
Where can I watch my favourite TV shows?
Thanks to huge sprawling story arcs, high production values and more water cooler moments than an Evian convention, it's TV and not movies that have become the biggest draw for booming on-demand video services.
Even Hollywood's biggest blockbusters can't beat the allure of a box-set weekend. But thanks to bewildering licensing deals, it's far from obvious just where those shows you want to catch up with actually reside.
The two titans of subscription TV VOD are Netflix and Amazon-owned Lovefilm Instant. On paper, their proposals look near identical.
Both offer monthly all you can eyeball £5.99 deals, and there's clear crossover in their respective catalogues too. But dig deeper and differences begin to emerge.
Complicating matters is the surging Tesco-owned Blinkbox. Unlike Netflix and Lovefilm Instant, Blinkbox sells shows on a pay as you go basis, both by episode or complete seasons. This list may soon also involve Sky, but we will all have to wait patiently for Sky's Now TV non-contract service to offer television.
It says much about the popularity of the low cost VOD market that Netflix is now aggressively commissioning its own content, remaking House of Cards to great critical acclaim, rebooting Arrested Development and green-lighting shows like Orange is the New Black and Hemlock Grove.
Amazon is trying to follow suit, but doesn't have much to show beyond some rather lackluster pilots. The service's biggest exclusive is new period drama Vikings. It was obviously snapped up to pull in Game of Thrones fans, although it's seriously lacking in the dragons department. Blinkbox competes differently, as it gets access to the same release window as DVD and Blu-ray.
Technically, all three services claim to offer high definition. Indeed Netflix promises Super HD. Using adaptive bit rate technology, picture performance is optimized for the speed of your broadband connection.
However when we compared the trio delivered down a 100Mbps Virgin Media fibre pipe to a 65-inch screen, we found significant differences. Netflix was the clear (literally) winner in terms of image quality. For all intents and purposes it's a match for the HD transmissions seen on network TV.
Lovefilm Instant, however, exhibited less detail and occasional artefacting, plus some motion judder.
Blinkbox HD transpired to be rather good, perhaps just edging ahead of Lovefilm Instant in terms of clarity and stability. SD, though, looks like sludge. The audio quality of both Lovefilm Instant and Blinkbox however was borderline poor. Only Netflix 5.1 impressed us.
Just where you want to watch your streams could dictate what service you opt for. Lovefilm Instant isn't available on iPhone or Android, outside of Amazon's own Kindle Fire slates. Netflix and Blinkbox are more ubiquitous.
So just who has the best TV choice? Check out our guide to Tech Radar's top 10 VOD shows for the full skinny. There's also the added extra of the latest land grabbing from Netflix and Lovefilm Instant - this will be updated with every new announcement in the future…
1. Game of Thrones: Seasons 1- 3
Available on: Blinkbox
This breakout fantasy hit based on George RR Martin's epic books is one of HBO's hottest properties, which means it's not available on either Netflix and Lovefilm Instant. Sky has first dibs, but you can watch Series 3 à la carte on Blinkbox. SD episodes are priced at £1.89, with HD streams at £2.49. You can buy streaming access to the entire season at £17.99 and £23.99 for SD and HD respectively. Only buy SD if you're using on a really small screen.
2. Breaking Bad: Season 1-5
Available on: Netflix, Blinkbox
Inexplicably ignored by terrestrial and satellite channels, despite a rabid fan base, Breaking Bad has rapidly become the poster show for streaming VOD. Netflix 's announcement that it would air Final Season episodes a day after their US broadcast attracted Walter White fans to the platform in droves. Alternatively you can catch the Breaking Bad saga piece meal on Blinkbox. But be warned, it's addictive.
3. Battlestar Galactica: Seasons 1 – 4
Available on: Netflix, Lovefilm Instant, Blinkbox
VOD is a frackin' brilliant way to catch up with arguably the best science fiction show of the past decade. You can gorge on a box set of Cylons via both Netflix and Lovefilm Instant, including the Razer two-part special. The ubiquity of the Netflix service makes it much easier to spin up those FTL drives both on mobile devices and connected devices. Curiously, only Lovefilm Instant also offers the underrated prequel series Caprica.
4. The Walking Dead: Seasons 1 -3 (partial)
Available on: Lovefilm Instant, Blinkbox
AMC's lauded reworking of the (extremely) graphic novel has yet to be fully reanimated On Demand. Lovefilm Instant offers only the first six episodes of Season One, at the time of writing, and it's not on Netflix at all. Blinkbox, however, is slowly serving up Season 3.
5. Dexter: Seasons 1 – 6
Available on: Netflix, Lovefilm Instant
Everyone's favourite serial killer gets a decent showing On Demand, although you'll be waiting some time for the final runs. Both only have blood spattered exploits up to season 6.
6. The Killing: Seasons 1- 3
Available on: Netflix
The US reworking of the Danish police drama Forbrydelsen has proved a compelling hit for Netflix. The platform is exclusively delivering third season episodes the day after they screen in the US, and has both previous arcs on tap. Netflix also offers the first two seasons of the original Nordic noir. In a similar vein, only Netflix offers the gritty French police drama Spiral (three seasons).
7. Arrested Development: Seasons 1- 4
Available on: Netflix, Blinkbox (seasons 1-3)
This cult comedy was brought back from cancellation limbo as a Netflix original production, so don't expect to see it on any other platforms. All three original three tightly written seasons, plus the somewhat baggier new season are available for viewing every which way.
8. Doctor Who: Seasons 1 -7
Available on: Netflix, LoveFilm Instant, Blinkbox
Whovians hoping to travel back in time to relive the Doctor's earliest regenerations will be gravely disappointed, as only the Eccleston onwards time lord is available via Netflix and Lovefilm Instant. Both SVOD services only offer up to season 5, with the appropriate specials, however Blinkbox stretches up to Season 7, inexplicably in SD only.
9. Sons of Anarchy: Seasons 1- 4
Available on: Netflix, Blinkbox, Lovefilm
The convoluted antics of the outlaw motorcycle gang have revved up a huge following over the years, but there's still to catch up with the clan. Both Netflix and Lovefilm Instant offers the first four season in HD, while pay as you play Blinkbox stretches to five, although only in SD.
10. Star Trek TOS, Star Trek Voyager: Seasons 1-3, 1 -7
Available on: Lovefilm Instant
You might be forgiven for thinking that Paramount's huge Trek canon would translate to gold-pressed latinum in the VOD universe, but most shows appears to be lost in space (no, that's not available either). Only Lovefilm Instant supports the Federation, with the original 4:3 series ready to beam down alongside a compete run of Voyager. So, no Next Gen, DS9 or Enterprise for you dear Trekkers. On the bright side, there's a heck of a lot of Seven Of Nine to go around.
The big TV land grab
Lovefilm Instant and Netflix's big TV land grab
Lovefilm Instant and Netflix are playing a fantastic game of oneupmanship at the moment, which is leading to some of the more obscure shows and labels being snapped up by the services.
Here's a rundown of recently announced shows that you will see on each of the platforms.
- A deal has been signed with NBCUniversal, which sees a number of kids' TV shows come to Lovefilm Instant. Pick of the bunch is Rastamouse, Curious George, Barbie: Princess Charm School and The Land Before Time.
- Lovefilm Instant's Original Series content is set to land in 2014, with five new shows announced as being made into fully fledged series.
Two of these are adult comedies. The first is Alpha House, A political comedy John Goodman with Bill Murray cameoing. The second – and following on the Greek alphabet trend – is Betas, a show being dubbed as 'Cheers' for the Silicon Valley.
Three children's shows have been commissioned as well: Annebots, Creative Galaxy and Tumbleaf.
- Another deal signed, sealed and delivered was with BBC Worldwide. Again, the content added to Lovefilm Instant is for kids with the following added: The Story of Tracy Beaker, Teletubbies, The Sarah Jane Adventures and Balamory.
- As part of the BBC Worldwide deal, Lovefilm Instant also landed streaming rights to a number of UK shows. These included: Luther, The Office, Extras, Primeval, Jonathan Creek, Top Gear, Ashes to Ashes, Spooks and Planet Earth.
- And as if there wasn't enough children's shows on Lovefilm Extra, a deal made back in 2012 with DHX Media meant that Mona the Vampire, Paddington Bear, Sonic the Hedgehog, Inspector Gadget and Dennis The Menace can all be enjoyed on Lovefilm Instant.
- The same Twentieth Century Fox deal that saw one of our top 10s come to Lovefilm Instant (Sons of Anarchy) also brought a number of shows to the service, including: all seasons of 24, Prison Break, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off Angel.
- Lovefilm Instant also has a deal in place with Disney UK which means ABC TV on-demand content comes to Lovefilm Instant. Shows include: Desperate Housewives, Happy Endings, Grey's Anatomy, Ghost Whisperer, and every episode of Brothers & Sisters.
- Not content with nabbing the UK rights of Breaking Bad, Netflix has also been busy snapping up television programmes. It has also added a new profile option so what you watch now doesn't have to clash with your better half.
- When it comes to original content, Netflix has tried its hand at a Nordic-flavoured Sopranos, Lillyhammer, gone to jail with Orange is the New Black (which has been renewed for a second season) and added some scare factor with Hemlock Grove. Its most-successful homegrown show, however, was the Kevin Spacey vehicle House Of Cards.
- Given that Netflix has its own dedicated kids' portal, there is a lot of unique content just a stream away.
- Recent additions include a host of Scholastic Media shows. This means The Magic School Bus (seasons 1-4; all 52 episodes) and Goosebumps (seasons 1-4; all 74 episodes) are exclusively available on the service.
- Although Lovefilm Instant has Ricky Gervais' Office and Extras, Netflix will be airing the critically lauded Derek as of 12 September.
- Netflix, in 2014, will also be airing new shows from Kung Fu Panda studio DreamWorks Animation. So far not much is known, other than: "The new shows will be inspired by characters from DreamWorks Animation's hit franchises and upcoming feature films."
- When it comes to US comedy, although Parks and Recreation is infuriatingly missing from both Netflix and Lovefilm Instant you can settle down to all seven seasons of the frankly brilliant It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.