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Amazon Prime: what you need to know

Amazon Prime
The goods of Prime

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?

Shipping costs

There is dough to be saved with Prime

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

Instant Video

All our favorites...

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.