There are several places to buy or rent movies online, and TV shows too. Apple, Google, and Amazon all have stores to buy movies online for their devices, and there are a few dedicated stores to buy or rent movies online, such as Vudu and M-Go. For the most part, all of these online stores offer the same content at approximately the same prices, but some work better with certain devices or have unique features.
Whether to buy or rent movies online or on disc
Before I get into the details of the different online stores, a few points. Presently, Blu-ray discs offer some advantages over online: the best possible video and audio quality, easier to share with friends, and prices are lower for older titles (especially if bought used). There are some disadvantages, though: new releases are typically available online a week or two earlier, it's cumbersome and technically illegal to transfer from a disc to a computer or mobile device (though some discs do come with a digital version), discs can be scratched or lost, and discs take up physical space.
Where to buy or rent movies & TV online
The online stores have a lot in common. In general, they all offer the same titles. New release movies typically sell for $15-$20 and rent for $5-$6 in HD. TV shows typically sell for $3-$4 per episode in HD. Prices tend to come down weeks or months after release. Pricing may vary by a dollar across services, but usually not more unless there is a sale. Use Can I Stream It to price compare. Past purchases can be rewatched on any authorized device whenever you want.
Although there are many common traits, there are several factors to consider when choosing where to buy or rent movies online.
- What device(s) will you watch on now and in the future?
- Will you be streaming or downloading?
- Do you want the highest possible video and audio quality?
- Are you a bargain hunter?
It is especially important to consider these factors when buying movies or TV online (as opposed to renting), because the content will be tied to an ecosystem of services and devices.
iTunes vs Amazon Instant Video vs Vudu vs Google Play Movies
Apple's iTunes is a popular place to buy movies and TV online. The iTunes Store is integrated into all of Apple's devices and is easy to use. Titles are available in 1080p and 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound, which has been described as 'near blu-ray' quality. Purchases or rentals can be downloaded at any time or streamed on an Apple TV. iTunes runs several pricing promotions: a 99¢ rental of the week, a $5 movie purchase every weekend, and weekly sales on movie and TV purchases. These are featured on the movie and TV storefronts.
The only downside to buying and renting movies online with iTunes is that titles can only be viewed on Apple devices and PCs with iTunes installed. iTunes is also the only way to buy or rent titles on Apple TV without using AirPlay. Keep this in mind when considering where to start building your movie and TV library.
Amazon Instant Video is available for many devices, including Amazon's Fire devices, iPhone, iPad, Android, Roku, game consoles, computers, and many more. Notably absent are Apple TV and Chromecast. It is possible to watch on an Apple TV through AirPlay, but this isn't ideal. Amazon Instant and Amazon Prime work through the same app and interface, so it may be a good fit for Prime users. Downloading titles is also supported through the Amazon Instant Video app on Amazon Fire and Apple devices. Amazon is a good all-around choice with lots of features, and is a good choice if you want your titles to be available on many different devices. The experience isn't constant across devices and can be confusing at times.
Google Play Movies is similar to Amazon. Titles can be accessed through the Google Play Movies app, which is available on Android, iPhone, iPad, Chromecast, or computers. The mobile apps supports downloads. There isn't much to differentiate Google from the pack, so I only recommend it to big Android fans.
VUDU works similarly to the above options, with some unique features. They support 'HDX' 1080p 7.1 surround sound on some devices, and are generally regarded as having slightly better quality than iTunes. Keep in mind you'll need discerning eyes and ears and a serious surround sound system to notice the difference. VUDU also functions as an Ultraviolet locker. This means your movies will still be accessible if you decide to switch to a different Ultraviolet-compatible service or Vudu goes out of business. 'Blu-ray with digital copy' or 'Blu-ray with Ultraviolet HD' discs typically include an Ultraviolet version of the film, and less frequently include an iTunes copy. VUDU supports downloads of purchases on most devices, but not rentals.
Finally, M-Go is another Ultraviolet compatible service with a focus on user interface. It is available on iPhone, iPad, Android, computers, Roku, and several smart TVs. They are the only service I'm aware of that has a rewards program, giving you discounts on future purchases.
The best store to buy or rent movies & TV online
Each of these services will work for different types of users. I have used them all and keep coming back to iTunes. That is primarily due to me owning several Apple devices. I prefer to download movies to avoid any streaming hiccups. I like being able to easily transfer movies to different devices when I travel or want to watch a movie at a friend's house over AirPlay. When watching on my HDTV I won't mistake a 1080p iTunes movie for Blu-ray, but the quality is acceptable.
If the highest possible quality is important to you, then VUDU is probably your best bet. You'll likely be buying some Blu-rays that come with an Ultraviolet copy, and VUDU can be used for occassional online rentals and purchases. Ultraviolet can be cumbersome, but it does work. Amazon Prime users will be comfortable with Amazon Instant Video and likely already have a compatible device. The same can be said for Google Play Movies. You can always try out different services with some rentals before deciding where to build your online video library.