04/12/2020

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Hulu review: The best value in streaming if you don’t mind a few ads

Hulu is one of the most popular TV and movie streaming services for good reason. It’s the perfect complement and counterpoint to Netflix, with a huge variety of familiar shows from networks like ABC, Fox and NBC that you can watch soon after they air, as well as a growing catalog of its own critically acclaimed original series. If you have $6 per month to spare and don’t mind trading a few ads for a wealth of TV options, Hulu is a no-brainer.

Like

  • Low monthly fee for base plan.
  • New shows available soon after they air on networks.
  • Excellent selection of familiar TV.
  • Strong slate of original programs.

Don’t Like

  • Fewer original series than Netflix and Amazon Prime.
  • Ad-free experience isn’t as good a value.
  • Complex menus can be confusing.

Netflix has loads more original shows and no commercials, but Hulu has three big advantages over the streaming service giant: 

  • The low $6-per-month cost of its basic plan, which is a tremendous value if you don’t mind watching a few commercials
  • The ability to keep up to date with shows that are currently airing on TV, as opposed to waiting months for the full season to appear
  • The option to add both premium network access and a Hulu Plus Live TV package if you want to fully cut the cord. 

Select streaming services compared

Hulu Netflix Amazon Prime Video Disney Plus
Monthly price Basic $6 with ads, Ad-free for $12, Live TV for $55 Starts at $9 $9 (or included with $120/year Prime membership) $7
Ads Yes No No No
Availability Now Now Now Now
Top titles Handmaid’s Tale, Catch-22, Lost, Bob’s Burgers Stranger Things, The Office, Breaking Bad, 13 Reasons Why Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Hunters, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, The Big Sick The Mandalorian, Avengers Endgame, Toy Story, The Simpsons
Mobile downloads Yes (on Ad-free plan only) Yes Yes Yes
4K available Yes Yes (on Premium plan) Yes Yes
HDR available No Yes (on Premium plan) Yes Yes
Number of streams: 2 (Unlimited with Live TV and a $10 add-on) 1 (2 for Standard, 4 on Premium) 2 4

What is Hulu?

Hulu was founded back in 2007 as a joint venture between News Corporation and NBC Universal. Hulu.com launched a year later as a place to watch ad-supported shows for free. In the years since, Hulu has launched its subscription service Hulu Plus, a commercial-free plan, and a Live TV package.

Hulu began streaming original TV shows and movies in 2011, and in 2017, it became the first streaming service to take home the Outstanding Drama Series Emmy Award for its original series The Handmaid’s Tale. Today, it has a catalog of 85,000 episodes of TV, including original TV shows and movies like Little Fires Everywhere, High Fidelity, Marvel’s Runaways and Shrill. 

The platform is now owned by the Walt Disney Company. As of February, Hulu had 30.7 million paid subscribers (for context, Netflix has 167 million). The Hulu app can run on Android, iOS, Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV ($179 at Apple) (4th generation or later), Android TV (certain models), Chromecast, Echo Show, Xbox One and Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and 4, and the Nintendo Switch. Hulu is only available in the US but Disney plans an international rollout in 2021.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Loads of TV (and movies too) 

Hulu’s library of Originals is not as extensive as those for Netflix or Amazon Prime — at the time of this writing, there were 100 listed. However, it does have critically acclaimed shows like The Handmaid’s Tale, PEN15, The Act, Shrill, High Fidelity and I Love You, America with Sarah Silverman. The service also produced some high-profile documentaries, including Fyre Fraud, Margaret Atwood: A Word After A Word After A Word Is Power, and Hillary. Hulu also picked up shows from other networks, including The Mindy Project and Veronica Mars. 

Hulu’s real strength is the thousands of TV shows, many of which come to the service the day after they air on live TV on networks like ABC, NBC and Comedy Central. While Hulu has most newer episodes of a given show, it doesn’t always have full past seasons — for example, ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy only has its current season available to watch, and none of the past ones. However, some shows do have all seasons and episodes available. And others, like the BBC’s Killing Eve, do drop in full seasons after the whole season has aired. 

Hulu has a wide collection of movies as well. Sometimes it gets new releases that other streaming platforms don’t, such as Portrait of a Lady on Fire and 2020 Best Picture winner Parasite. 

Is paying for ad-free worth it?

The answer largely depends on, well, how much you hate ads.

Hulu offers two main on-demand subscription plans: the basic Hulu for $6 and Hulu (No Ads) for $12.The two offer the same catalog of shows and movies — with the latter, you’re just paying twice as much to not see any commercials. I tried watching a few shows on both to get a sense of the difference.

With basic, ad-supported Hulu the frequency of ads varied quite a bit. In one 22-minute episode of Bob’s Burgers, in fact, there were no ads at all. In a 23-minute episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine there was one 15-second ad. But while watching an hour-long episode of Saturday Night Live, I saw one 15 second ad at the start, followed by eight more ad breaks throughout — six lasted 90 seconds, one for 60 seconds and one for 45 seconds. This was obviously more disruptive, but similar to how it would have been watching it on regular live TV. 

There appear to be fewer ads during Hulu Originals: Before an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, I saw one 30-second ad. The same was true for an episode of Utopia Falls. In an episode of High Fidelity, I saw one 30-second ad in the middle. 

Hulu April 2020

Sarah Tew/CNET

If you use Hulu frequently — or if you’ve really gotten used to Netflix’s no-ads model and can’t stand watching commercials — the extra $6 per month is probably worth it to watch shows uninterrupted. It brings the price up to about that of Netflix’s standard plan ($12 for Hulu vs. $13 for Netflix). 

Another big advantage of the no-ads plan? It’s the only way to download shows to watch offline. Unlike Netflix, you can’t download shows to watch later unless you have the upgraded plan.

But if you’re just checking out a show or movie here or there on your TV — especially a shorter comedy — you can probably spend the extra few seconds watching the ad to save the money. 

Here’s the full breakdown of Hulu’s pricing. 

Hulu pricing plans

Hulu plans Hulu Hulu (No Ads) Hulu Plus Live TV Hulu (No Ads) Plus Live TV
Monthly price $6 $12 $55 $61

For more information about the Live TV plans, which are meant for cord-cutters, check out CNET’s full review. Hulu also offers a bundle with Disney PlusESPN Plus for $13 total — which basically amounts to free ESPN Plus. Sprint Unlimited wireless plans also get free Hulu.

http://www.cnet.com/


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Lots of menu options, slightly harder to navigate

Hulu’s menus on the TV apps give you a lot of ways to find what you want but can be confusing to get around. Open the app, open your profile (if you’ve made one), and you’ll see a personalized home page with several categories across the top: TV, Movies, Hulu Picks, Keep Watching, News Shows and Hulu Originals. Keep scrolling across and you’ll see more categories that differ depending on what the service thinks you’ll like, like Feel Good TV, Family TV, Comedy Cartoons, Award-Winning TV Dramas, Kids, and Newly Added TV and Newly Added Movies. 

Save things you want to watch to your My Stuff folder, which you can access at the top of the screen. Browse by categories like Network, TV shows, Movies, Hulu Originals, FX on Hulu, Kids and other genres, or just search for the show you’re looking for. The Hulu app appears very similarly across my Apple TV, Roku and Amazon Fire TV Stick ($40 at Amazon), both in content and layout. It’s spread out a bit more on my iPhone and Android phone screens for easier navigation, but is generally the same. 

Hulu April 2020

Sarah Tew/CNET

My major complaint about Hulu’s interface on TV apps could very well be what others enjoy most about it: When you click on a show from anywhere on the home page, it automatically jumps into playing an episode, with no context as to where you are in the season or what the last one you watched was (this isn’t the case on the mobile apps). Personally, I prefer the Netflix model, where you click on a show and are taken to its landing page, with a list of episodes to choose from, even if you’re just looking for the next one you’ve been binging. 

Hulu does let you look at that show landing page if you want to, but finding it requires an extra step, depending on which streaming device you’re using: Click and hold on the Apple TV remote, press the star key on the Roku remote, or the hamburger menu button on Amazon Fire TV Stick. Instructions are at the bottom of the screen, but it’s not the most intuitive. 

When you select a show or movie to watch, you have the option to fast forward or rewind (except through ads). You can click the settings gear and choose to add subtitles, change your audio settings or video quality, and toggle Autoplay on or off. The content you choose will also show up in your My Stuff section at the top of your homepage for easier access. 

Yay: Profiles and coming soon 
Boo: Not much 4K (and no HDR)

Hulu April 2020

Sarah Tew/CNET

You can add up to six user profiles to your Hulu account to get personalized recommendations and watch lists for different family members or others on a single account. Give shows and movies a thumbs up or thumbs down to improve the service’s recommendation engine. Hulu also tells you what movies and shows are coming in the next month, and which are expiring, right on its site — something Netflix does not do. 

Video quality on Hulu goes up to 4K and varies based on what you’re watching and what device you use. Quality also adjusts based on your available bandwidth. If you want to avoid having Hulu eat up all of your data, you can take steps laid out on its website to adjust your data usage settings. 

Hulu’s library of 4K Ultra HD content is growing and includes most Hulu Originals, but still falls far short of the 4K libraries of Netflix, Amazon Prime  and Disney Plus. And while those services all stream in 4K with HDR, Hulu currently doesn’t support any high dynamic range format. That’s a shame because in our experience HDR actually delivers a more noticeable picture quality improvement, especially on a good TV, than 4K resolution. Hulu’s 4K stream is available on most major 4K TV streamers from Roku and Amazon Fire TV, as well as the Apple TV 4K, Chromecast Ultra smart TVs from LG, Samsung and Vizio, and the Xbox One.

Should you get Hulu? 

Depending on the plan you choose, Hulu costs between $6 and $12 per month for the streaming service, making it a competitive choice if you’re looking to keep up with new shows and find a solid collection of old and new movies. If you’re curious about trying the streaming service out, you can start a 30-day free trial of Hulu, Hulu (No Ads), or Hulu Plus Live TV.