Is Amazon Prime worth the money?

AP

Amazon.com (AMZN) CEO Jeff Bezos was recently crowing about the success of the company’s $79 subscription service, Amazon Prime, saying that it’s won millions of new subscribers in the past year. But do you need to pay the price for Prime?

The answer is likely to hinge on how you shop, view and read online. Those who are willing to do a little extra work, or shop in advance, can easily avoid the subscription cost. It’s only last-minute shoppers and those who want the convenience of having multiple services offered in one place that need to pay for the convenience of Amazon Prime. To understand why, it helps to look at what Prime provides and what those services cost elsewhere.

In a nutshell, Prime provides free two-day shipping for most Amazon purchases, and it gives subscribers access to a Kindle lending library as well as live streaming of about 41,000 movies and television shows.

Free shipping

What’s fast, free shipping worth? That’s tough to calculate, partly because standard shipping is free for most Amazon purchases of $35 or more. The free shipping provided by Prime is only a bargain for shoppers in a hurry or those who regularly make relatively small purchases.

To make the Prime membership pencil out on shipping alone, you’d have to make between seven and 12 last-minute or small purchases that would otherwise cost you between $5 and $15 to ship. Not likely to need that many last-minute gifts? Then read on to see whether a Prime membership can pay in other ways.

Movies and TV shows

If you’re among the 30 million subscribers to Netflix (NFLX) or another premium movie streaming service, you’re probably already paying close to $100 a year for instant access to movies and television programs. If an Amazon Prime membership allowed you to cancel your Netflix account, it would be a bargain and well worth the $79 annual fee.

But, at least at present, some critics contend the Amazon service isn’t robust enough to satisfy a real movie lover. PC Magazine’s Jill Duffy, for example, said the problem with Prime is that the movies and shows she most wanted to watch weren’t free. Amazon has limited titles that are free, and a far more extensive library of movies and shows that will cost anywhere from $1 to $5 to watch. Duffy says that she felt the free service constantly tried to upsell her into a purchase.

Moreover, there are dozens of completely free sites that give you the ability to stream thousands of movies. About.com’s Stacy Fisher recently came up with a compendium of her 13 favorite free movie sites, which offer a far more extensive library of movies and shows when combined. The bottom line: Most of Amazon’s free content can be found for free elsewhere, but perhaps not as conveniently.

Borrowed books

Prime also lets you borrow books from a 350,000-title Kindle lending library. Public libraries, of course, have more titles, but of course most library books are hard-copy, rather than digital.

But there are free digital reading options, such as Freebooksy, that will let you keep free books, not just borrow them.  Sign up for this service and tell it your preferences – fiction, non-fiction, fantasy, sci-fi – and it will email you each day with a dozen books you can download for free. (Ironically, when you hit the button to download the book, it takes you to Amazon's site and gives you a $0 cost purchase price.) Authors authorize these freebies as a way of gaining buzz for their books and getting readers familiar with the larger body of their work.

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