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Amazon Offers Free Video Streaming for Prime Members

The competitive landscape for watching movies and TV shows via the Internet has just shifted again, with Amazon announcing the addition of free video streaming of some 5,000 movies and TV shows to the Amazon Prime membership program. Videos from Amazon Instant Video are playable on Macs and PCs, along with some set-top boxes. Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, the service is limited to the United States.

Amazon says that there are nearly 200 models of “Internet-connected TVs, Blu-ray players, and set-top boxes” that are compatible with Amazon Instant Video, many of which you won’t have heard of, though the list also includes the popular Roku. Amazon Instant Video offers more than 90,000 commercial-free movies and TV shows to rent or buy, so the 5,000 videos available to Amazon Prime members are a relatively small proportion of the whole.

Previously, Amazon Prime focused on shipping, offering members free two-day shipping for eligible Amazon orders and $3.99 one-day shipping, in exchange for a $79 annual fee. Tonya and I have been Amazon Prime members for several years now, after we tried it for a free month offer before Christmas and forgot to cancel in time. But we found the convenience of faster shipping compelling, especially during those years when Tristan was often being invited to birthday parties on short notice: being able to order from Amazon Prime saved us from what could turn into an afternoon of shopping.

Although Netflix has many more videos available for streaming than Amazon (perhaps as many as 11,542, according to; thanks to Rob Pegoraro of the Washington Post for the link), a streaming-only Netflix account costs $7.99 per month, or $95.88 per year. And adding one physical DVD at a time increases the Netflix bill to $9.99 per month, or $119.88 per year. Given that millions of people have found Amazon Prime’s $79 annual fee worthwhile without the streaming, it seems safe to say that plenty of people won’t feel the need to pay Netflix as well. We have no plans to drop our Netflix membership, but we’ll be checking to see how Amazon’s free selection

Even more in question is Apple’s iTunes Store model, which relies on à la carte rentals and purchases. There have been numerous rumors about Apple coming out with some sort of subscription service for streaming music and video; now might be a good time for Apple to announce such a service as more people move toward streaming in favor of rentals or purchases.

Of course, the real question is if Amazon Prime members will be able to find videos they want to watch. Those who watch a lot of TV and see most movies will likely be disappointed in the selection (not that Netflix is hugely better), but those of us who spend relatively little time watching TV and movies probably will have no trouble finding worthwhile content when we do wish to get in touch with our inner couch potatoes. That’s where iTunes and Hulu and other video services that provide new TV shows and movies will continue to attract customers; freshness can be important.

In our quick testing, the video played fine in a familiar Flash-based player (sorry, iOS device users, though it’s conceivable Amazon could come up with an app, along the lines of the Netflix app). Some videos are available in HD.

So, if you’re already an Amazon Prime member, check out the Prime-eligible movies and TV shows in Amazon Instant Video. And if you’re not already a Prime member, it might be worth adding up your shipping fees over the last year to see if it would be worth joining.

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