Earlier this year, we did a quick guide to all the various sources of video entertainment, prioritized by the quality of presentation from worst to best. In light of recent developments, though—the Game of Thrones debacle, the discovery that not all steaming devices deliver the same quality, and the emergence of services like YouTube as providers of exceptional content—we thought it would be a good time to revisit the most common methods of accessing movies and TV shows with an eye toward not just the quality of presentation but also the quality of content they provide. Because those two criteria don’t always align. As the general public recently found out (the hard way, unfortunately), some of the most enticing content is being delivered in less-than-enticing ways.
Cable & Satellite
DELIVERY Really starting to show their age
CONTENT Offer some cutting-edge programming, but without being able to show it to its best advantage
You could argue we’re living in a golden age of television, at least in terms of writing, directing, acting, and cinematography. Game of Thrones (minus the last season or two), Chernobyl, Billions, and American Gods are all beautifully-crafted fare. But the creators of these shows tend to suffer from “Cable Channel Syndrome,” often biting off more than their delivery platforms can chew. As such their efforts can look downright terrible.
Unfortunately, that poor presentation can follow these shows from broadcast to streaming, since so many premium cable networks offer online apps based on technology that’s not quite as outdated as cable and satellite, but close enough. At the very least, they all seem to be stuck in the cable-delivery mentality, mostly broadcasting their shows in HD, not Ultra HD (aka 4K), aside from the rare (and much later) release on UHD Blu-ray and/or Kaleidescape. Simply put, a lot of what’s being created for cable these days deserves a much better presentation than what it’s getting.
DELIVERY Slightly better than satellite or cable
CONTENT Virtually identical to cable or satellite
Services like PlayStation Vue, Sling TV, and DirecTV Now, which attempt to replicate the experience of cable and satellite via the internet, and use cloud servers instead of hard drives for DVR storage, also tend to have the same content as satellite and cable. The delivery quality is generally a little better, although not always, since most of these services rely on outdated compression codecs and generally offer little or no 4K programming.
As for the quality of the content, it’s basically what you’d find on cable or satellite, with the same advantages and disadvantages. Most of these services provide the basics, like TNT, TBS, FX, USA, etc., but also let you add a subscription for HBO, Showtime, and other premium offerings for about the same upcharge you’d see on your monthly cable bill.
Over-the-Air Broadcast TV
DELIVERY Pretty darn good—but we’re talking HD, not 4K
CONTENT What you’d expect from broadcast networks
The tried-and-true TV antenna is making a comeback, especially with cord cutters, and in some markets it gives you access to potentially dozens of free channels offering programming from the major broadcast networks as well as some local shows you can’t get anywhere else.
These broadcasts almost always look better than cable, satellite, or internet TV because they’re less compressed. The quality of content, though, really depends on where you live. But chances are good that no matter your locale, you can access The Good Place—one of the most innovative and intelligent shows you can find—via an antenna of one sort or another.
Standalone Studio Streaming Apps
DELIVERY Good enough HD for now—but the Disney+ service could help change that for the better
CONTENT All over the place—but that should improve, too
The streaming marketplace is growing at an unsustainable rate, with new services popping up on a regular basis, dangling the promise of exclusive content in front of potential viewers for an extra however-many bucks per month. Some of these shows are actually quite good, like Doom Patrol from DC Universe and Star Trek: Discovery from CBS All Access. Unfortunately, for now, such services are mostly limited to HD, with outdated video codecs, and many offer stereo sound at best.
That will change quite a bit when Disney+ launches later this year. With a movie library including Disney Classics, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, and more, this will likely be the No. 1 must-have streaming service for most families. Disney is also developing a ton of new app-exclusive shows for the platform, like The Mandalorian (Star Wars—shown above) and Loki (Marvel), and the company has promised to deliver applicable content in 4K with HDR.
DELIVERY HD at the moment—although they might decide to offer 4K again
CONTENT Some standout original shows like The Handmaid’s Tale
In addition to providing on-demand access to a good number of broadcast and cable TV shows, Hulu actually has some excellent original programming, headlined by The Handmaid’s Tale. But the quality of presentation doesn’t stack up against bigger streaming services like Netflix and Amazon. For about two years, Hulu quietly offered some of their shows (including The Handmaid’s Tale) in 4K, but just as quietly removed all support for 4K last year. There have been some hints they might offer 4K again, but as of now there’s no official timeline for that to happen.
In other words, if you ignore the handful of compelling originals, most people should probably look at Hulu as a replacement for cable or satellite (unless you’re a sports fan). The good news is, the picture and sound are vastly better than what you’re likely to get from Comcast or Dish Network. But that’s a pretty low bar, to be honest.
DELIVERY Can be first-rate—but how many vloggers do you really want to see in 4K HDR?
CONTENT Only as good as the people producing & posting it—but a lot of it is innovative & excellent
Once the bastion of cat videos and puerile vlogs, these days YouTube sort of breaks all molds of content creation and delivery. Yes, you can buy or rent major studio movies and TV shows there, but the real appeal is that anyone can create
content for the site. In any form. At any quality. And as such, it’s a wild and wonderful mixed bag.
You’ll find innovative programming like Critical Role, alongside goofy (but utterly watchable) larks like Jelle’s Marble Runs—stuff the likes of which you just won’t find anywhere else. There’s also wholly entertaining but undeniably educational programming like Smarter Every Day and Physics Girl. And while it’s true that some amateur content creators still upload videos that look like they were shot on a potato, many of the best of them have adopted high-quality prosumer gear that makes their clips look as good as anything you’ll see anywhere else.
Really, only the top-tier streaming platforms like Vudu, Netflix, and Amazon look better than what YouTube is capable of at its best, mostly because the service’s owner, Google, is blazing trails in terms of compression codecs. YouTube is also one of the very few providers already offering up content in 8K-and-greater resolutions. And it’s home to some of the most stunning 4K/HDR AV demos you’ll find anywhere.
Amazon Prime Video
DELIVERY Has a ways to go to catch up with Netflix
CONTENT Has a ways to go to catch up with Netflix
Amazon is, in many ways, playing catch-up to the streaming leader, Netflix. But you could argue that, at least with the quality of their original shows, they’re not far behind. The past couple years have seen an influx of stellar content like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Transparent, and Homecoming. And with a billion-dollar-plus Lord of the Rings-inspired TV series in the works, the company’s commitment to being taken seriously as a major content creator is undeniable.
Unfortunately, Amazon’s support for Dolby Vision and Atmos for its own content is extremely limited, and the Prime Video search engine is atrocious via any device other than Amazon’s own Fire TV. Somebody (who has hopefully been fired) decided it was a good idea to list 4K versions separately from HD, and oftentimes the 4K versions don’t even show up in searches within the app.
In other words, at its best Amazon Prime may look as good as what you’re getting from the average Netflix original these days. But finding new content to watch can be a struggle, and finding it in the best available quality can be a snipe hunt.
DELIVERY Unmatched for a provider of original content
CONTENT Nobody does it better when it comes to fresh takes on existing genres
Netflix is really leading the way when it comes to delivering top-notch video programming with high-quality picture and sound. The service is spending gobs of money to produce some of the most critically-acclaimed movies and series, most of which can’t be viewed anywhere else, like Roma, Our Planet, and Stranger Things, just to name a few. And as we discussed in a recent episode of the Cineluxe Hour podcast, Netflix has also developed a reputation for taking more creative risks than other content creators, which likely plays some role in the buzz that surrounds so many of its originals.
What many people may not realize is that, although Netflix is known for giving writers and directors a long creative leash, the service has some of the most stringent audio and video quality standards around. 4K and HDR (including Dolby Vision) are the norm for any new movies and shows, and the service even offers a decent smattering of titles in Dolby Atmos. What’s more, it recently introduced adaptive studio-quality sound that’s only available to viewers with surround sound or Atmos systems—just one example of the company’s commitment to audiovisual excellence. Granted, the quality of presentation can depend on how you’re accessing the app. But apart from UHD Blu-ray discs or Kaleidescape, Netflix is at the top of the quality mountain for presentation, and arguably for content.
Vudu & iTunes
DELIVERY Consistently excellent
CONTENT No original programming—traditional Hollywood fare instead
Vudu and iTunes don’t create original content—at least not
yet—but they do offer access to a gigantic catalog of movies and TV shows from most of the major studios. Also, unlike most streaming services, they work primarily on an à la carte purchase model, meaning you don’t pay a monthly fee, but rather pick and choose what you buy or rent (an option Amazon also dabbles in).
Both Vudu and iTunes give you the option of downloading movies, but most people simply stream them in real time. If you have a decent-enough internet connection, they can deliver quality on par with Netflix (meaning nearly as good as discs), and both offer tons of movies in 4K/HDR with Dolby Atmos sound.
These services do have a very Hollywood-driven mindset, though, so expect to see very traditional offerings, with the latest Hollywood blockbusters put in front of you on a regular basis. Whether or not that floats your boat is entirely subjective, of course.
UHD Blu-ray & Kaleidescape
CONTENT No original programming, but extremely deep catalogs
While the very best streaming services like Netflix and Vudu may be pushing audio and video quality to the point of diminishing returns, UHD Blu-ray discs (if you have a lot of free shelf space) and Kaleidescape downloads (if you’re done with discs) are still the only way to ensure the absolute best in compromise-free audio and video presentation. Streaming at its best gets close, but for some, “close” just isn’t good enough.
Both Blu-ray and Kaleidescape mostly serve to deliver major-studio content. But Kaleidescape in particular makes it very easy to find the best of this content thanks to its curated collections. Want to buy all of 2019’s Golden Globe nominees? They’re just a single click-and-a-download away. The Kaleidescape store also has nearly 80 of AFI’s Top 100 Movies of all time, and nearly 75 years’ worth of Best Picture Oscar winners. Frankly, none of the streaming services comes anywhere close to that. What’s more, Kaleidescape’s innovative user interface makes it easier than ever to find exactly the right movie to scratch your current itch, even if you’re not sure what that itch is.
—John Higgins & Dennis Burger
Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.