A look at Amazon, Vudu, iTunes, and Google Play for digital videos

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Back in 2014, I wrote about the various digital video services available that sell or rent digital videos. While Netflix, Hulu, and similar streaming services are convenient, some may still want to either rent or buy TV shows/movies. Yes, DVDs and Blu-Rays are still available, but their popularity and sales are starting to wane in favor of digital formats.

I thought I’d take an updated look at the current state of digital video stores. However, one thing that still hasn’t changed, and likely won’t in the foreseeable future, is the restrictive state of digital rights management (DRM). The “walled garden” nature of various services and continued treatment of high definition as a “premium” feature (at extra cost or only allowed on certain devices) are a few other drawbacks of digital videos.

My criteria

To outline my criteria:

  • My existing devices include: an Android tablet and smartphone; a Roku streaming stick; a Chromebook; and an HP laptop running Xubuntu Linux. Thus, I’ll list how well major services work with all of these devices. I’ll also throw in iOS devices, Apple’s Apple TV, Amazon’s Fire TV, Google’s Chromecast, Macs, and Windows PCs, to cover a decent range of devices.
  • For my purposes, “major services” include Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and Vudu. The first three don’t seem likely to go out of business anytime soon. Meanwhile, Vudu is owned by mega-sized retailer Wal-Mart.
  • HD is assumed to be a given and not a “premium feature,” since it’s 2016.
  • Cross-platform flexibility is also favored, since not everyone only has devices from within one “walled garden/ecosystem.”
  • I’m ignoring buying and ripping DVDs, which most people won’t or don’t know how to do. Otherwise, I’d say it beats all of these services in cross-device and -platform flexibility. I’m also ignoring piracy, since it’s illegal.
  • UltraViolet is a digital video “locker” that (via a code included with DVD/Blu-Ray purchases) lets one store digital videos across various compatible services. Disney films aren’t included with UltraViolet, but Disney offers the similar service Disney Movies Anywhere. The downside of these services are compatibility with digital stores and reports of UltraViolet being finicky and problematic.
  • Larger lists of digital video services are available in this CNET article and on Wikipedia.

iTunes

iTunes is Apple’s media software and digital store service, and as such, works quite well on all Apple devices. However, there’s zero support for Apple’s videos outside of iTunes or Apple devices.

  • Macs: HD available via iTunes.
  • Windows PC: HD available via iTunes.
  • Linux: Not available.
  • Chromebook: Not available.
  • Roku: Not available.
  • Apple TV: HD available.
  • Fire TV: Not available.
  • Chromecast: Not available.
  • Android: Not available.
  • iOS: HD available.
  • Disney Movies Anywhere: Supported.
  • UltraViolet: Not supported.

Best if: You mostly or exclusively own Apple devices.

Avoid if: You mainly or exclusively own non-Apple devices.

Google Play

Google Play Movies screenshot

Google Play Movies and TV works on Google’s various devices, as well as on most major digital video devices. Additionally, Google has a complete list of device compatibility. Non-Chrome browsers may vary in HD support.

  • Macs: HD available in Chrome on MacBooks; standard definition (SD) quality only for desktop Macs.
  • Windows PC: HD available in Chrome.
  • Linux: HD available in Chrome.
  • Chromebook: HD available.
  • Roku: HD available.
  • Apple TV: HD available via AirPlay. The Apple TV YouTube app also should play some Google Play videos, according to some.
  • Fire TV: Not available.
  • Chromecast: HD available.
  • Android: HD available.
  • iOS: HD available for streaming.
  • Disney Movies Anywhere: Supported.
  • UltraViolet: Not supported.

Best if: You use Google/Android devices and services.

Avoid if: You mainly use a Fire TV device.

Amazon Video

Amazon Prime VideoAmazon Video is offered on a variety of devices. Unfortunately, Amazon mainly has their own line of Fire devices in mind. Support for regular Android devices requires sideloading their own Amazon Appstore, then installing the video player from there. Amazon has on their site a full list of compatible devices.

  • Macs: HD available.
  • Windows PC: HD available.
  • Linux: HD available in Chrome.
  • Chromebook: HD available.
  • Roku: HD available.
  • Apple TV: HD available via AirPlay.
  • Fire TV: HD available.
  • Chromecast: HD available (up to 720p) via casting video in Chrome.
  • Android: SD only. Yes, even after all of the above hoop-jumping.
  • iOS: HD available for streaming.
  • Disney Movies Anywhere: Supported.
  • UltraViolet: Not supported.

Best if: You use a lot of Amazon services and devices, including Fire tablets/Fire TV.

Avoid if: You mainly use Android devices.

Vudu

Vudu screenshot

Vudu is owned by Walmart, and so offers a range of video apps across devices. It’s also probably the only major digital video store not from the “Big Five” (Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook) to gain much traction. Some of its features (“HDX” quality video, etc.) are a bit more geared toward home theater enthusiasts.

  • Macs: HD is available on MacBooks. On desktops, HD support seems uncertain (Vudu’s site notes it might not be available depending on HDCP output to external monitors). However, I’d imagine modern desktop Macs/monitors should handle such fine.
  • Windows PC: HD available.
  • Linux: HD available.
  • Chromebook: HD available.
  • Roku: HD available.
  • Apple TV: HD available via AirPlay.
  • Fire TV: Not available.
  • Chromecast: HD available.
  • Android: HD available.
  • iOS: SD only available, as far as I can determine? Vudu’s site and Google searching didn’t seem to make it clear if HD was supported on iPads/iPhones.
  • Disney Movies Anywhere: Supported.
  • UltraViolet: Supported.

Best if: You don’t want a service from any of the big tech companies, really value HD quality, or need UltraViolet support.

Avoid if: You heavily use a Fire TV, want a service backed by a large tech company, or dislike Walmart.

Recommended services

Any of these services will be fine for renting digital videos. For buying videos, my suggestions are more specific.

Google Play / Amazon Video

If you have a mix of devices, are concerned about future-proofing (well, as much as possible with DRMed video files), or might want to change devices in the future, I’d recommend either Google Play or Amazon Video.

Both companies’ services are offered on nearly all major devices (save mostly each other’s), work on multiple operating systems (including Linux), and are popular platforms from major companies. Despite Google’s tendencies, the two services are also unlikely to get shut down in the foreseeable future. That said, Amazon’s probably the more popular of the two, thanks to Amazon Prime, Amazon producing its own programming for Prime, and Amazon’s overall popularity/establishment.

iTunes

iTunes is only recommended if one’s an Apple device loyalist. However, it should be avoided if you mainly use, well, anything else.

Vudu

Vudu has a nice service independent of the tech companies, works with UltraViolet, and has some home theater enthusiast-friendly aspects. However, if one’s concerned about Walmart shutting it down (as has happened with some other smaller or indie digital media services), it’d be better to go with one of the bigger services.

Streaming devices

All of the above is why I suggest Roku as a platform-neutral streaming device. Roku supports everything non-Apple-related, and isn’t owned by one of the above companies. Thus, Roku can offer their devices without pushing a particular platform.

(Updated 10/24/16)


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5 thoughts on “A look at Amazon, Vudu, iTunes, and Google Play for digital videos

  1. Not to be a neg, but the dismissal of VUDU owing to the possibility of it being shutdown by Walmart seems to wholly ignore the fact that VUDU is the *ONLY* digital video service to support both Ultraviolet and Disney Movies Anywhere. If VUDU gets shutdown, you’d only lose any VUDU-only videos you might have purchased — which hopefully would be minimal, ’cause why buy something locked-down to a single provider.

    The article also, puzzlingly, seems to discount the value and efficacy of the Ultraviolet locker service. Do Amazon, Google Play, or iTunes allow you to share your digital library with 5 other users? Do any of these other services allow for select conversion of owned physical discs to digital copies? That Amazon, Google Play and iTunes don’t support Ultraviolet automatically puts them at the bottom of my list, with selective use only for facilitating redemption of Disney titles.

    Also, FandangoNOW (formerly M-go) should be on the menu for future reviews, especially as there are indications that it may become a Disney Movies Anywhere partner, given its recent addition as a Digital Copy Plus alternative.

    • Thanks for responding!

      I limited my look at the largest/most popular services, but the CNET article I linked to mentions smaller services such as M-GO/Fandango.

      While UltraViolet does have its positive aspects (an attempt at offering cross-platform availability), it still doesn’t have Amazon, Apple, or Google on board, which is a concern. I’ve also seen smaller or less popular services shut down before (Target shut down their own digital video service recently), so I want to avoid dealing with that happening as much as possible, especially given not all movies are available via UltraViolet. Ideally, all movies would be available either without DRM, with removable DRM, and/or movable across platforms (via services like UltraViolet, etc.), but since that isn’t the case, I played my suggestions conservatively. That said, I don’t think Vudu will get shut down anytime soon; it’s been around since the 2000s, and is backed by retail giant Wal-Mart.

  2. Your recommendation of Google Play taints any credibility you had for giving advice on this subject.

    Google Play is an atrocious service….putrid. Everything about them is horrible. The picture quality, the selection, the interface.

    Also, Amazon’s video service is a joke. The front end to their service on Roku is flaky and not well thought out. Their “Prime” videos are here today and gone tomorrow. See something you want to watch for free with Prime? Watch it NOW, because tomorrow they will switch it to a pay-for-rental. A lot of TV seasons they will give you one or two seasons for free, then make all the rest pay-for-rentals once they get you hooked.

    Vudu is vastly superior in EVERY aspect to Amazon and Play.

    • Vudu’s a nice service as I said. However, not everything’s available through UltraViolet—some older/smaller films are missing, and from a search, various major TV shows (“The Simpsons,” “Cheers,” etc.) also aren’t available.

      And again, while Vudu probably won’t be shut down anytime soon (it’s been around for awhile), the possibility may be a concern for some customers worried about such, given it’s happened with other similar services not tied to big tech companies. Thus, why I made a conservative recommendation of Amazon. It does point to the flaw of all of these services—their DRM means they’re at the whims of their corporate owners and tied to particular platforms. Customers shouldn’t have to worry about choosing the “wrong” one. (In the DRM respect, ripping DVDs would be the best choice, but that has its own concerns.)

      As for things removed from Prime, it’s a rental service like Netflix, and that’s how they work. The various agreements with the studios means they constantly rotate new/old material in and out each month.

    • One barometer for the market’s view of the competing technologies is the relative grey market value of HBO Digital HD codes for Ultraviolet, iTunes and Google Play… with Google Play codes typically going for 1/2 to 1/3 of Ultraviolet codes, and with iTunes codes around 2/3 to 1/2 of UV.

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