I've long avoided writing this post. Maybe it's because I was hoping for more progress in the streaming video field. Maybe I was just being lazy. I'm actually leaning towards the thought that I didn't want to admit the truth.
The truth is that there is no best streaming service. However, there are best services in a couple of categories. There's also the highly subjective "best service for Dan." Without delay, that service is:
Sorry Netflix. I've been a loyal customer for so long. In fact, I probably watch more content from Netflix than I do from Hulu, but it's all on DVD. The truth is that due to the implementation and catalog I almost never watch anything via Netflix streaming. Hulu is easy, available, and most of all it has loads of high quality content. In the end, no technical measure can make up for that quality of the catalog. The video quality is better on other services, as is the community. I should also mention that I can tolerate commercials, especially in the low dosage and variety that I see on Hulu.
If you prefer the catalog offered by Netflix, it is the superior service. If you can't stand commercials that may tip it the edge. I consider Netflix the winner overall if we ignore content. The combination of online and offline viewing is great. I appreciate the user reviews and recommendation system, both of which help me make up my mind what's the best use of my entertainment time. The Silverlight based player is also superior to most Flash implementations. It's not perfect by any means, but it delivers solid video quality and UI with much less resource utilization. I can watch Netflix content on my 6-year-old Pentium 4 desktop without noticeable degradation in quality or dropped frames. I can't say the same about Hulu.
I have to also mention Amazon's VOD service. It's Flash based, yet they've worked some magic to deliver a superior video experience to just about anyone else in the streaming sector. It's a winner in that respect, but it loses in almost every other. The UI is terrible and confusing. Most importantly, from a value perspective Amazon ranks up there with a trip to Blockbuster (brick & mortar, that is). Most of the VOD offerings are available as rentals for only a small discount over buying a boxed set or renting a DVD. I'd rather use my money on a Netflix subscription and rent the DVDs. I'd recommend Amazon's service as a way to try one of the few series they have before you buy or rent the set, but otherwise I don't think it's worth it now.
As for other services, I've excluded many based on principle alone.
I don't count YouTube because only a small part of its content is longer than 10 minutes. Most of the shows you can watch there are webisodes, or they're illegally posted and broken into 10 minute chunks. No thanks.
I really like Vimeo's player for its UI and video quality, but beyond that is suffers from the same problem as YouTube. It's all user-generated, independent content. Vimeo has a lot of merit, they're kinda the PBS of the web. They host a lot of great shows, but ultimately the stuff there is just for a quick break from work or its all substance with no entertainment value. I'm also not sure of their website at all, I only seem to view their content via the embedded player. I'll have to do a proper review another time.
There's many, many more. I'm not going to bother to review all the different networks, especially since the biggest players simply signed up with Hulu. Viacom hosts a lot of its stuff, but they use a no-frills Flash player and they seem to focus more on making their content short so it can be embedded. This seems to be the way smaller cable networks have gone. They really want you to watch TV instead. Anime sites like CrunchyRoll have serviceable players but nothing great. Aggregator sites like Joost have largely given up on hosting content (beyond ads) and focused on aggregation, so they're not worth a mention. Beyond that, how much is there? I'm sure I'm missing some service but I doubt it would change the top three that I picked.
Hulu it is. I'll give it another year or so and revisit.