Hulu Plus vs. Netflix: Android Video Streaming Showdown

By Ryan Whitwam

Hulu Plus finally gets its shot on Android.

With little fanfare and no warning, Hulu Plus for Android appeared in the Android Market late Wednesday evening. The app offers subscribers access to Hulu’s catalog of streaming content, but there are a few free videos if you just want to take the app for a spin. Current device support is limited to only six phones: the Nexus One, Nexus S, HTC Inspire 4G, Motorola Droid II, Motorola Droid X, and the Motorola Atrix. Additionally, Hulu is still only for US users only.

This app has a killer UI, and a plenty of useful features. Let’s take a look at Hulu Plus on Android and compare it to the recently arrived Netflix app for Android.

The Interface

When you log into Hulu Plus, you get a list of handy links to various parts of the app. You can choose from TV, Movies, Queue, History, and Search. When browsing for content, you get a really snappy tabbed interface. The tabs for TV, Movies, and Queue area cross the top. By default, the app shows you the featured video in each category. You can change this to sort by popularity and a few other properties if you like.

As you scroll through the list of videos, the app does not slow down at all. There is a screen cap for each entry, and you can tap any entry to jump right into playback. Hitting the arrow on the right will pull up the quick action menu. This lets you add items to your queue or see video info.

The act of browsing through content in the Netflix app is fairly bad by comparison. There is virtually no information about the video, especially for TV episodes. Add to that the fact that it’s very sluggish. Hulu also wins with its ability to sort any category or search result. With Netflix, you basically have to know the exact title to find something, or already have it in your queue.

We’re generally more happy with the feel of the Hulu app. it feels like a real native application, whereas the Nefflix app feels like a web page. For example, if you tap the hardware menu button in Hulu Plus, you get handy links to your account info, history, and subscription. In Netflix, the Menu button does nothing. Similarly, the back button doesn’t go back in all instances within the Netflix UI. It sometimes exits the app when you expect to go back a screen. Hulu handles this properly and only exits when you hit Back from the main screen.

Playback interface and quality

VIdeo blank due to Android SDK limitation

When you decide on a video to watch in Hulu Plus, just tap on it to start playback. The UI here is very similar to the Hulu player elsewhere. Tap anywhere to show the controls. There is a play/pause button in the corner next to the timeline. Skipping around in the timeline is handled very well. You can press and drag to find a certain spot, and you get a small popup above your finger with the time code.

The buffering time seems to be very good, even a little better than Netflix which is actually fairly fast. There is no readout of buffer level like on some other Hulu platforms, but Netflix doesn’t offer that either. Whereas the Netflix app automatically adjusts quality, Hulu Plus has a manual set up. A quality level is chosen when you start a video, but it can be changed with the button in the upper right corner of the playback UI.

We found that Hulu Plus chose medium for all video over 3G even when there was more than enough bandwidth to stream the high setting. At least it can be easily changed. The high setting eats up about 120MB per hour over 3G. The upshot of this system is that you can turn down the quality to stream over 3G and not eat into your cap so much. With Netflix, there is only a universal account-level setting for all streaming. Definitely not as useful. At high quality, video is comparable to Netflix on Android.

Resuming playback on Hulu is a great experience. When you open the app after leaving off in the middle of a video, there will be a popup at the bottom with the video info, progress bar, and resume button. The app even has a screenshot of where you last watched. Netflix has a resume button on the main screen for the last video you watched, but it doesn’t offer any information, and is actually rather unresponsive. The app also maintains your place in the player if you need to jump to another app momentarily. Netflix makes you completely reload when you do this.

On a similar note, playback locations are synced between the Hulu Plus app and other Hulu platforms almost immediately. So with Hulu, you can watch half an episode of something, then immediately jump over to another device and pick it up. With Netflix, it can often take quite a while for your viewing history to sync up everywhere else.

One thing we don’t like as much with Hulu Plus (and this is minor) is that when watching video, the status bar is always hidden. So to see the time or your notifications, you have to back out of the video. In Netflix, the status bar is shown when you bring up the controls.

Commercials, content, and the rest

With Hulu on larger screens, you are often forced to watch multiple commercials in each break. In the app, they have thankfully cut down on ads. We checked the same content on a PS3 and the Android app, finding that commercial breaks were about half as long in the Android app. That doesn’t change the fact that there are commercials on Hulu, and there aren’t any in Netflix.

We know that in general, Netflix has a much deeper streaming catalog than Hulu Plus, but that's only half the problem. When we’re talking specifically about the mobile app, there is even more missing content on Hulu. Some TV shows are not available on your phone, but they are on the computer. So you can watch the first 3 seasons of Eureka on Android, but that fourth season is PC-only. Want to watch some Stargate SG-1? You can only do that on the web as well. To put it succinctly, Hulu’s licensing scheme for mobile is beyond ridiculous.

Netflix and Hulu both charge the same $7.99 monthly fee for unlimited streaming. You get more content with Netflix, but almost none of it is current season programming. That’s the real benefit of Hulu Plus; new shows. But make sure you verify the content you want is available on mobile before you take the plunge. Hulu Plus offers a one week free trial in addition to the free sample material in the app.

Hulu Plus has a great interface, and we love the auto-resume features. The app itself is miles beyond Netflix. Unfortunately, the content is still lacking in Hulu Plus. This situation is exasperated by by the odd mobile content licensing from Hulu. We just wish we could have a Hulu Plus app with Netflix content. Let us know how you like Hulu Plus on Android.