Whether you're using an Apple TV or an Android tablet, a Mac, PC or a Smart TV, streaming video on demand is better than ever, and you can watch stacks of stuff for very little cash.
If you don't fancy a Sky box or a Virgin TiVo - or you don't fancy paying for the movie channels - services such as Netflix and LoveFilm are just the ticket. But which one's better? We tested the kings of UK streaming to see which one deserves your dough.
Netflix vs Lovefilm: price
Netflix is a streaming-only service, with a flat fee of £5.99 per month. LoveFilm's offer is a bit more complicated: if you just want streaming that's £4.99 per month, but you can also add unlimited DVD, Blu-ray and/or Xbox/PS3/Wii/DS games rental too.
The monthly price for those services depends on how many simultaneous rentals you want: if you want unlimited streaming plus Blu-ray/DVD rental, you'll pay £7.99 for one disc, £9.99 for two and £13.27 for three; if you want to rent games as well as Blu-ray/DVD discs, that's £11.22 for two discs or £14.99 for three.
Netflix vs Lovefilm: devices
In addition to running on PCs and Macs (but not Linux boxes: PC streaming is via Microsoft's Silverlight), you can get both services on a wide range of devices.
Netflix runs on Apple TV, the Wii, Xbox 360 and PS3, Android phones and tablets, Windows Phones, iOS devices, internet-enabled TVs and Blu-ray players, and streaming players from Philips, Roku and Western Digital. The most recent addition to the list is the Kindle Fire HD.
LoveFilm is available for the Kindle Fire HD, iPad, Xbox 360, PS3, internet-enabled TVs and Blu-ray players, Sony's Home Cinema system, Sony's Network Media Player and the Onyx Digital Stream set-top box.
Whatever device you use, you'll need a decent broadband connection: LoveFilm recommends a real speed - not an advertised speed - of 2Mbps for HD streaming and 12Mbps for full HD, while Netflix recommends a 1.5Mbps broadband connection for standard viewing and 3-5Mbps for HD. If you're on a wireless network, you'll need to ensure your Wi-Fi connection achieves those speeds too.
Netflix vs Lovefilm: TV content
But what you really want to know is... do they have Breaking Bad? Well Netflix does, with all five seasons available for your viewing pleasure. LoveFilm doesn't have Breaking Bad in its streaming catalogue, but it does in its DVD section. That's something we often found on LoveFilm, with titles available on DVD but not available for streaming.
Both services have a wide selection of TV programmes, but there are differences between their catalogues: for example, Netflix has Dr Who for streaming and LoveFilm doesn't, while LoveFilm has Absolutely Fabulous and Netflix doesn't.
In both cases you'll find that much of the content is relatively old, so for example Netflix's Doctor Who selection stops when David Tennant regenerates, it doesn't have Top Gear episodes since 2009, Outnumbered is only the first series, the third series of Misfits isn't there yet and some big hits such as Sherlock are absent altogether. It's a similar story with the US selection, with big names such as Desperate Housewives, The Sopranos, Mad Men and Six Feet Under conspicuous by their absence. LoveFilm has Desperate Housewives, but the others are DVD only.
Despite the vintage of some programmes there are some gems, including critically acclaimed programmes such as The Killing (both the original and, on Netflix, the US remake too), Wallander (the original and the Kenneth Branagh version), Nighty Night, and on Netflix, Modern Family and, er, TOWIE.
Netflix also has an interesting selection of stand-up comedy that includes Doug Stanhope, Louis CK, Danny Bhoy and Tommy Tiernan, but if you're looking for John Bishop, Michael McIntyre, Jack Dee, Kevin Bridges or Dylan Moran you'll be disappointed: many big names are absent, and while the latter two comics are in the Netflix catalogue, it's only as a guest on Grumpy Old Men and in the sitcom Black Books respectively. On LoveFilm, the comedians are mainly on DVD.
Netflix vs Lovefilm: movie content
Back in January, we said: "While LoveFilm's movie catalogue contains a better selection of recent films than its rival, neither service is going to delight you if you're after films fresh from the multiplexes: they're more like half-stocked supermarket DVD sections". That's still the case: LoveFilm's movie selection is still better than Netflix's, but it's still worse than our local ASDA.
The reason is release windowing, where studios try to squeeze every last drop of money from one platform before making their films available on another one – so after the cinemas there's pay-per-view, Blu-ray and DVD, with streaming media getting the films a long time after that. If you look at the current UK DVD chart and compare it with the streaming services' offerings, the gaps are obvious: there's no Prometheus, no Taken, no Avengers Assemble... you get the idea.
As a rule of thumb if it's less than a year old it probably isn't available yet, and with some big names you'll have to wait even longer or settle for second best: for example while both services have Disney's The Jungle Book, it's a live-action version (a 1994 one on Netflix and a 1942 one on LoveFilm) rather than the legendary animated classic.
Netflix vs Lovefilm: quality
Both LoveFilm and Netflix promise 1080p full HD streaming, but that depends on three things: the content you want to watch, the device you want to watch it on and the speed of your internet connection.
On LoveFilm, you can stream at 1080p on a PC or Mac; everything else gets 720p, including the PS3. LoveFilm says full HD is coming to the PS3 "very soon".
Netflix's PC/Mac streaming tops out at 720p unless you're on Windows 8, but other devices such as the Apple TV get 1080p. This time around it's the Xbox, not the PS3, that's left out of the full-HD party: Microsoft limits what the Netflix app can do, and for now that means it's 720p only.
Just because a service can deliver 1080p doesn't mean you'll actually get it, of course. You'll need a speedy connection - LoveFilm recommends 12Mbps or better, ideally with an ethernet connection between your PC or Mac and your router - and you'll need to choose content that's actually available in full HD. Older content isn't usually in HD, and kids' cartoons in particular look pretty awful on a big-screen PC or TV. Both services will adjust the streaming on the fly to deliver the best picture possible, but they're only as good as their source material - so don't expect old Inspector Gadget episodes to sparkle like a Pixar Blu-ray.
Netflix vs Lovefilm: verdict
If you've been online long enough to remember the days of RealVideo the fact that Netflix and LoveFilm exist at all seems miraculous, and technically speaking they're superb services. If the source material and your connection are up to the job the streams are great, and even 720p streams are perfectly fine unless you have an enormous TV and like to watch it with your nose against the glass. Both services are easy to browse and to use, and we're particularly impressed by Netflix's Apple TV integration and its Just For Kids section.
Both services have enormous content libraries, but they're also operating in what's known as the post-DVD window: in other words, they don't get the latest movies until well after the DVD release. That'll disappoint anyone who's looking for the very latest blockbusters, and if that's you you'd be better off with iTunes or pay-per-view. For everyone else, you get an enormous amount of content for five or six quid per month.
We think the best way to use the services is as a complement to, rather than a replacement for, pay-per-view services. A Netflix or LoveFilm account plus a few iTunes rentals works out much cheaper than subscribing to a bunch of movie channels, and if TV box sets are your thing then both services will save you a packet.
Which is better? We think Netflix has the better TV selection and device support while LoveFilm has the better film catalogue, but that's purely based on our personal favourites. As both services offer no-strings free trials, we'd recommend trying both.