Review: Amazon Instant Video on PS3 Could Be a Netflix-Killer

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Sony just became the first and currently only set-top games console to offer access to Amazon’s streaming video service, which includes both movies and TV shows. Amazon Instant Video can now be accessed by downloading the latest system update, then cursoring over to the “TV/Video Services” column on the PS3’s XMB menu, where a green squarish icon now sits just below the red squarish Netflix one. Click on it, and you’ll download the small 19MB app itself.

Is it worth your time to? As usual, that depends. If you’re a standard Amazon user, paying nothing extra for special deals or services, you’ll have access to rent or purchase either “more than 100,000” or “more than 120,000” movies and television shows (the Amazon Instant Video icon and PS3’s scrolling informational ticker seem to disagree on the figure). Either way, it’s a substantial number. I can’t find official figures on Netflix’s current catalogue totals, but several unofficial tallies suggest Amazon has the edge catalogue-wise at this point.

(MORE: Netflix Expects Amazon to Spin Off ‘Prime’ Video as Standalone Service)

Then again, raw numbers are meaningless when estimating aesthetic appeal, as anyone who’s browsed Hulu’s less-than-inspiring video catalogue could tell you. The only way to gauge Amazon’s appeal to you is going to be to visit the company’s website and browse their selection. I’ll say that with Amazon’s far better recent movie and TV show support, as well as the availability of HBO series like Game of Thrones, Deadwood, Boardwalk Empire, Treme, The Walking Dead and True Blood (Netflix doesn’t do HBO streaming), FX shows like Justified and American Horror Story (nada on Netflix), Showtime fare like Dexter and Homeland (also nada on Netflix), Fox’s Fringe, movies like Lars von Trier’s Melancholia and Alexander Payne’s The Descendants as well as the most recent seasons of shows like AMC’s Breaking Bad and FX’s Sons of Anarchy (Netflix currently stops at season three for both) it’s a lot more appealing to someone like me.

The catch, of course, is that you have to pay for several of those shows. If you’re an Amazon Prime member — that is, you pay $79 a year for services like free two-day shipping — you have access to around 17,000 Prime Instant Videos. Scanning through Amazon’s catalogue here on my system for totally free content, I’m seeing all six seasons of the BBC’s Doctor Who reboot, the first season of Downton Abbey, a ton of Nickelodeon content, the first seven seasons of Grey’s Anatomy, the first three seasons of Sons of Anarchy, all six seasons of Lost, and so forth. The trend seems to be that if it’s slightly older, Prime members get it free, but the most recent movies and shows are going to cost you. Even in the latter case, Amazon’s occasionally giving away the first few episodes of a show free (like The Killing‘s season two double-header, which just aired last weekend) or offering special featurettes gratis (three for the first season of Game of Thrones, including a “making of” piece). If you’re not a Prime member, Amazon offers a free, no commitment 30-day trial. I’ve been a member for years, and the savings alone in shipping (I buy a lot) cover the $79 annual fee in just a couple of months.

If you want to purchase an episode, prices range from $1.99 for the standard definition version to $3.99 for high-def. Full season prices vary according to number of episodes as well, I’m assuming, as some bean counter’s “appeal” algorithm. The 10-episode first season of Game of Thrones costs $28.99 (SD) or $38.99 (HD), for instance, while the longer 13-episode second season of The Walking Dead costs $22.99 (SD) or $33.99 (HD).

Instead of having to cursor-type your username and password with a gamepad or remote upon initial launch, as with Netflix, Amazon simply has you register your device by entering a code through its web page (in a computer browser) supplied by your PS3. It’s a trivial difference in one respect, but there’s no “logout” screen here (Amazon instead has you use a five-digit pin code to confirm purchases), and overall, Amazon/Sony’s approach seems a little user-friendlier.

(MORE: Netflix: Who Could Take the Streaming Video Crown)

Interface-wise, Amazon’s achieved a leaner, higher-tech look than Netflix’s barrage of “this is what we think you’d like” movie face-outs, and you navigate without the latter’s awkward frozen-in-place selection window. Instead, you have a large featured-selection splash on the left (it takes up about one-third of the screen) and five smaller subcategories to the right, with room for a sixth. These include your personal video library — a list of your past purchases — along with stuff like “popular TV” and “best of Prime” and “first free episodes.”

Along the top of the screen, there’s a simple four-option menu: “Home,” “Prime Instant Videos,” “Movies” and “TV Shows.” If you want to search, you do so with the PS3’s triangle button, and once you’ve entered two or more letters, the application brings up a list of videos (both pictures of as well as “best guess” text-string matches) to choose from. Everything either responds instantly or with less than a second pause when loading, and I can’t say enough how elegant and easy to use the interface is. Amazon’s really hit a home run here.

Again, whether any of this is your bag depends heavily on subjective factors: How much do you watch TV? Recent or older shows? How about movies? Recent or older ones? How about shows on standalone channels like HBO? Do you want to own what you watch? Do you care that, at present, Amazon Instant Video’s list of supported playback devices is notably shorter than Netflix’s, say you want to watch something away from your PS3? I can’t speak for you, but I will speak for myself: While I’ve had access to Amazon Instant Video through my laptop since it launched, the browser interface (I use Safari) never really grabbed me. But I’m impressed enough with the PS3’s take at this point that I’m thinking seriously about ditching my Netflix subscription altogether.

MORE: Amazon-Owned Netflix Rival to Launch Streaming Service in U.S.?