Amazon's Prime service started off as a way to get everything from soap to furniture shipped to your door faster and cheaper.
Over the years Amazon's company strategy changed, and the e-tailer shifted its gears from being the world's internet warehouse to a digital storefront in the vein of iTunes and the Google Play Store. With that, Prime added free access to its virtual library, which includes movies, TV and books.
On the surface, Prime seems to offer a lot for a yearly fee of $79. But what do you really get for that money, and do the costs even out in the end?
If you're curious about Prime and considering signing up, we've put together a full rundown of what you expect out of the service, if it's worth the fee and if it's right for you, plus how it stacks up to competing offerings.
What is Amazon Prime?
Amazon Prime lets you order practically anything from its gigantic Web warehouse and have it shipped within two days for free.
It doesn't matter what the item is or its size - screwdrivers, a fancy new DSLR camera, power tools, or a big HDTV - your order will get to you in 48 hours without an additional charge. If you need it overnight, just pay $4 more and it lands on your doorstep while you snooze.
A membership will also give you free, unlimited access to 41,000 streaming movies and TV shows via Prime Instant videos. Kindle owners meanwhile receive the added bonus of borrowing one of 350,000 books from Amazon Kindle's Lending Library. Unlike an actual library, there aren't any due dates.
How do I get it?
Getting an Amazon Prime membership requires a simple sign up process and an annual $79 membership fee. If you're on the fence about putting down almost $80 on something you wished you could just try out first, you can. There's a 30-day trial period that offers a test run that's absolutely free.
How does it save me money?
Sure, just about any purchase you make on Amazon for $25 or more comes with free shipping, but if you want it any sooner it can cost a real chunk of change. Especially if you buy something big like a Weber barbeque grill, which will hit you with nearly $41 in shipping alone. Meanwhile, buying smaller stuff like new Blu-rays costs about $4 to $9 in shipping per disk.
Prime is great if you buy a ton of stuff online, and the service could end up paying for itself in the end. In some cases, your $79 may pay for itself with a single purchase if you buy something particularly big and heavy.
That said, if you're not a big Amazon or online shopper, you may want to skip a $79 fee that will only add to your bills.
The early bird gets same-day delivery
If you really need what you buy ASAP, Local Express Delivery will get your package to you within hours on the same day or the next. Unlike Amazon's other delivery methods, there's a much smaller pool of stuff you can order for same-day delivery.
Local Express Delivery is only available in certain eligible cities, which include Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Indianapolis, Las Vegas, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Bernardino, Calif., Seattle and Washington D.C. You'll also have to get your orders in by a certain time depending on which city you live in, for same-day delivery. In New York the cutoff is 8:30 a.m., whereas other locations have an 11 a.m. limit.
As a Prime member, you can save with Local Express Delivery. Without the service, you would be paying both the regular shipping cost on top of a $4 to $9 fee. Prime membership reduces this to a flat $4 charge per item.
Internet TV and movies
Shipping fast and cheap is kind of an old hat trick for Amazon by now. So with Prime, you can stream movies and television show episodes like Downtown Abbey, The Avengers and The Hunger Games. While it's not the newest slate of streaming entertainment, it is a nice pile of media with stuff you'll likely want to watch.
That said, the library of free content Prime viewers can see is tiny compared to dedicated streaming services like Hulu+ and Netflix. Plus, you still have to pay to see big titles like The Walking Dead or classic films such as The Untouchables.
The real problem with viewing Instant Streaming video is that it doesn't work with every device out there. There's an Amazon Instant Video app for most Apple iDevices, media apps for the Xbox and PS3 as well as the Roku, but surprisingly - or not - there's no support for most Android devices other than Kindle Fires.
Free books! (If you have a Kindle)
The free library of borrowing books that Kindle or Kindle Fire owners can access with Prime is similar to Instant Streaming in that it has big titles like the Harry Potter series, but it's mostly filled with older or indie titles. So you might be hard pressed to find something you actually want to read.
What's even more limiting is the Lending Library is only accessible through a Kindle device; which means borrowing books won't work if you just have the Kindle app on any old device you want.
Amazon Student and Mom
Amazon also runs a slightly discounted Amazon Prime account specifically for students, called Amazon Student. For $39 per year, undergraduates can renew their half-off Amazon Prime membership for up to four years of full-membership perks.
Moms, meanwhile, get a slightly less full-featured service that comes with three months of free two-day Amazon Prime shipping. New and expecting moms can also subscribe to a 20% off diaper delivery service.
Is there anything like Amazon Prime?
When it comes to getting stuff to your door through an online ordering service, Amazon isn't the only way to live a completely digital life, though it's probably the broadest.
San Francisco Bay Area residents can sign up for two Amazon Prime-like services.
Instacart provides local express delivery on groceries from markets like Trader Joe's, Costco, Walgreens and Whole Foods. It's soft of like the grocery store version of Seamless that lets you order $35 worth of cheese and bread online and have it sent directly to your house for $3.99 per shipment.
Google Shopping Express, on the other hand, is an experimental free six-month membership for unlimited same-day delivery of your groceries plus toys, coffee, and office supplies - everything you need to get you through your work day.
Outside of the San Francisco, there are always your local supermarket deliveries. But Amazon Prime is still the only service that ships nationally with same-day delivery in more cities.
Is Amazon Prime right for me?
Amazon Prime's most attractive bonus is still the loads you could save on express shipping, which in turn makes impulsive buying online an easy trap to fall into. If you're strictly looking for something to deliver digital entertainment to your living room though, you would probably be better served with a streaming service like Hulu+ or Netflix.
Kindle owners, meanwhile, get the full breadth of advantages that Amazon Prime provides, complete with mobile access to the Instant Video streaming and free monthly books.
Putting it all together, the combination of shipping, unlimited streaming and free Kindle books makes Amazon Prime a tantalizing buffet of physical and digital stuff all packed into a single subscription. But ultimately, it's all up to you to decide if it's really worth your yearly $79.
- Feel like learning more about Amazon's products? Check out one we're expecting any day now.