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Amazon Prime Just Gained an Advantage Over Netflix

By Sam Mattera - Sep 8, 2015 at 5:00PM

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Offline playback is a unique feature Netflix doesn't plan to offer.

Amazon (AMZN -3.21%) Prime subscribers can now download Prime videos for offline playback. It's a useful feature, and one that rival Netflix (NFLX -3.79%) doesn't offer.

Netflix has managed to build a substantial base of customers without offline playback. Still, it could encourage some to choose Amazon Prime over Netflix.

Save it for later
Overall, the process is fairly straightforward, and even the least technically inclined Prime subscribers should have no problem taking advantage of it. From within the Amazon Video app, Prime subscribers select the video they wish to download as if they planned to play it. Next to the play button is a download button. Clicking it begins the download process. Once finished, the video becomes accessible at any time -- Internet connection or not.

There are some limitations. Currently, it requires an iPhone, iPad, Android device, or one of Amazon's own tablets. That means Prime members can't download the first season of Transparent to their PlayStation 4 or Windows PC. And a periodic connection to the Internet is required in order to keep the video file (the amount of time between check-ins varies depending on the TV show or film).

The advantages are numerous. Perhaps you're about to board a plane and wish to watch Alpha House on your phone. In-flight Wi-Fi is expensive, and providers like Gogo block streaming video altogether. You could download a few episodes to your phone before the flight and binge at 10,000 feet.

Or you want to watch a movie on your tablet at the gym. Unfortunately, your gym doesn't have Wi-Fi, and your tablet doesn't have an LTE connection. Even if it did, you don't want to use up your monthly data allotment. Download the film from the Amazon Video app before you head out, and watch it on the treadmill. 

It may not be a feature every Amazon Prime subscriber uses every day, and it could be more useful to some than others, but it's unquestionably a nice perk.

Netflix isn't interested
At least for the time being, Netflix has no plans to offer it. Netflix's Chief Product Officer, Neil Hunt, told Gizmodo that it wasn't a "very compelling proposition."

"I think it's something that lots of people ask for. We'll see if it's something lots of people will use. Undoubtedly it adds considerable complexity to your life with Amazon Prime -- you have to remember that you want to download this thing. It's not going to be instant, you have to have the right storage on your device, you have to manage it, and I'm just not sure people are actually that compelled to do that, and that it's worth providing that level of complexity."

Hunt brings up several of the feature's limitations, but I don't find his explanation particularly convincing from a user perspective. Those who choose to download dozens of films may run out of storage, but deleting a downloaded film is as easy as pressing a button. In many ways, it's akin to a cable box with a DVR -- it may require some active maintenance, but it's preferable to have.

Hunt brought up interesting alternatives, including working with airlines to install special servers that would make Netflix accessible in-flight. But Hunt didn't offer a firm timetable, or even suggest that such a project was in the works.

Other Netflix officials have made similar comments in the past. Last year, Netflix's Cliff Edwards told techradar that it would "never happen."

Netflix's biggest competition keeps getting better
Amazon's update isn't going to prompt a mass exodus of Netflix subscribers, but it does enhance Prime's value proposition. Combined with Amazon's ever-growing catalog of original series, the online retailer is becoming a more fearsome rival.

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