As streaming has taken over the world of movies and TV, most people rely on a subscription service (or two, or more) to supply them with endless binge-worthy content. But what happens when a movie you want to watch isn't on Netflix, or you don't want to subscribe to Disney+ just for that one nostalgia trip? That's where à la carte services like Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google, and others come into play, letting you buy or rent an individual movie for a few bucks. But unlike subscription services, they often have a lot of the same movies—so where's the best place to buy?
The Glue of It All: Movies Anywhere
Before we start talking about different storefronts, let's make one thing clear: If you're buying digital movies and you aren't signed up for Movies Anywhere, you should be.
You've probably heard of the service before, but just in case you aren't familiar, Movies Anywhere allows you to "sync" many of your digital movies across different services. So if you buy a movie on iTunes, you'll also be able to watch that movie on Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, and other participating services. You can also buy and watch movies on the Movies Anywhere app itself, and use it to redeem digital movie codes that come with the physical discs you buy.
This makes where you buy less important, since you can watch many of those movies anywhere—it then becomes more about which service you use to watch those movies, since that can affect the quality of the stream and the platforms on which you can watch. Though getting deals and freebies from certain services can still be a good way to grab cheap movies and sync them to your streaming app of choice.
Just know that there are some caveats. Movies Anywhere doesn't have a deal with every studio under the sun, and there are some movies that you won't be able to sync to other services—so you'll want to buy those on your platform of choice, rather than getting them with deals on a secondary store. In addition, it doesn't work for TV shows or movie rentals, so in those cases, you'll need to watch your content on the service it came from. But as long as you shop with those warnings in mind, it's a great place to manage your movie collection.
Quality: iTunes and Movies Anywhere Offer the Best Picture
If you have a fancy new 4K TV or soundbar and want your movies to look and sound as good as possible, then you'll need to consider the bitrate of the video and audio streams. The bitrate, as the name suggests, describes the amount of data flowing to your devices at any given time. The more data the streaming service pushes, the higher quality your video and audio will be, all other things kept equal. Just because two services boast "4K" doesn't mean they'll look the same—that just determines the number of pixels per frame. The more data allocated to those frames, the less likely you are to get smearing, blocking, or other artifacts. There are other factors, like the different compression algorithms used, but bitrate is a decent indicator out of the gate.
Apple's iTunes Store has earned a reputation for the best video and audio quality, which makes sense given it offers a 25 Mbps bitrate for its 4K streams. It also offers Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos on plenty of supported titles, ensuring it'll look and sound good no matter what gear you have. In my experience, iTunes will even upgrade you to 4K for all available movies, even if you redeemed a standard HD code in Movies Anywhere. Even if you don't use Apple devices, you're likely to get the best streaming quality from movies rented and purchased through iTunes (or transferred to iTunes through Movies Anywhere).
Speaking of which, Movies Anywhere allows you to stream movies right from their website and app, and they offer comparable bitrates to iTunes—though I found not all of my movies necessarily offered Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos through Movies Anywhere, even when they did through iTunes. It's a good secondary option, however.
Amazon Prime, Google Play, and other services tend to have lower quality, though they'll still look decent enough in a pinch, or if you're renting a movie that doesn't require the utmost in picture quality.
App Availability: Check Your Streaming Box and Smart TV
Of course, video and audio quality mean nothing if a given app isn't available on your platform of choice. Thankfully, this isn't as much of an issue as it used to be, especially since Apple started offering their app across non-Apple platforms. You'll find the Apple TV app on Amazon's Fire devices, Google TV, Roku boxes, PlayStation and Xbox consoles, and plenty of smart TVs from the biggest manufacturers. You can see the full list of supported devices here.
The same goes for Movies Anywhere, which is available on the Apple TV, Amazon Fire devices, Roku boxes, Google TV, and many smart TVs. Movies Anywhere does not, however, appear to be available on Xbox or PlayStation game consoles—see their list of supported devices.
Other apps are pretty widely available, though may lag in support for certain devices—Vudu is only just now coming to Amazon Fire TV, and Microsoft's movies app is not available on non-Microsoft platforms (though it is compatible with Movies Anywhere). Google also has a history of, uh, having beef with certain streaming box manufacturers, what with the long-running feud it had with Amazon and its current struggle with Roku—though for now, your Google-purchased movies should be available in the YouTube app on just about any device.
If you're using Apple and Movies Anywhere, these availability holes shouldn't matter too much, since you can always buy a movie on Google Play or Microsoft Movies & TV and watch it through any Movies Anywhere–compatible service. Just make sure, again, that you aren't using that strategy to buy a movie that won't transfer over—you'll want to buy those on the platform you actually use to watch. The same goes for any rentals or TV shows, which you'll have to watch on the service in question.
Prices, Deals, and Freebies: Rack up Credit on Amazon, Google, and Others
You may think it'd be best to just stick to one digital storefront for all your movies—after all, if Apple TV is available on all your streaming boxes, why buy anywhere else? The answer, of course, is deals.
All streaming services have sales and deals here and there, from sales on superhero movies to weekly specials that rotate regularly. But each service also has its own perks as well. Microsoft, for example, recently offered the first seasons of Dragon Ball Super and One Piece to Game Pass subscribers, and Apple is currently giving lots of Apple TV+ subscribers $5 credits thanks to the extension of their free trials.
Google is more flexible with its deals, occasionally offering coupons or Google Play credits through its Chromebook Perks page, the Benefits tab of the Google One app, the Offers tab in the Google Home app, and in the Google Play Store itself. You can also rack up Google Play credits pretty easily with the Google Opinion Rewards app on Android, which I've used for plenty of purchases in the past—even though I rarely watch movies on Google Play itself. (Thanks, Movies Anywhere!)
Amazon Prime subscribers get arguably the best perk, though, thanks to the "No-Rush Shipping" option offered on many orders. While two-day shipping is killer for stuff you want right away, No-Rush shipping gives you credit for Amazon digital purchases every time you eschew two-day shipping at checkout. This can add up to a lot, depending on how much you buy from Amazon, and is a great way to rack up free movie purchases that you can transfer to your preferred service with Movies Anywhere—or rentals you're fine watching on Amazon's own app.
Finally, remember that many of these digital stores offer gift cards, which you can often grab at a discount from certain retailers (keep on eye on WIRED Deals to snag them). Those are great ways to stock up on movies and shows at a discount as well. And of course, none of this includes the plethora of streaming services offering entirely free collections, like the Roku Channel, Crackle, or Pluto TV.
It May Be 2021, but Don't Forget Discs Either
So there you have it: For movies that demand the best picture quality, buy them on iTunes, Movies Anywhere, or a Movies Anywhere–compatible service (if they're from a participating studio). For rentals and studios that don't participate, buy them on the best quality service you can, and when it comes to deals and rentals that don't require the best, grab them wherever's cheapest.
I'd be remiss not to mention one last thing, though: discs aren't dead, and if you really care about quality, they're a better choice than any streaming service out there. 4K Blu-rays have better picture quality than even the best streaming offerings, not to mention lossless audio, special features, and digital access through Movies Anywhere when you want to watch it on a plane. (Oh, and many 4K Blu-rays come with regular Blu-rays as well, which you can turn around and sell or give generously to your friends.) You can buy them on Amazon, rent them at Redbox kiosks, or even get them at your local library—and play them in your next-gen game console. It may not be quite as convenient as clicking "Play," but it's well worth it for the movies you care most about.