Americans are increasingly choosing streaming services for their home entertainment rather than cable or satellite TV. The reasons for this are twofold.
First, streaming services are considerably cheaper. According to Leichtman Research Group, the average cost of a TV subscription was close to $110 per month in 2019, while most streaming-only services cost $20 per month or less.
Second, streaming TV is a lot more convenient. It lets you watch your favorite shows on your own schedule rather than the network’s, even bingeing a whole season if you want to.
These days, there are more streaming services to choose from than ever before. But, ironically, having so many options can make it difficult to decide which service to pick. If you sign up for all of them, you’ll end up paying as much every month as you would spend on cable, if not more.
Streaming companies know this, so they’re vying against each other to win over viewers. They’re releasing shows and movies ahead of schedule and offering free or discounted trial periods to new subscribers. With so many deals on the table, how can you determine which streaming service will provide the most value?
Top Streaming Video on Demand (SVOD) Services
Every service offers a different selection of content and makes that content available to you in different ways.
Most services provide a library of shows and movies you can access at your convenience. The size of that library and the specific shows it contains, however, vary from one provider to the next. Some streaming services offer live TV as well, such as live sports and up-to-the-minute news coverage.
There are also differences in how you can access this content. It’s important to consider the devices you’ll be able to use with each service. Not every service works with every device. Some manufacturers, for example, offer streaming services of their own, and therefore, may choose to block content from services that compete with theirs.
Finally, streaming services differ in the plans and features they offer. For instance, some services only allow you to play one video at a time, while others let you watch multiple programs on different screens. Also, some enable you to set up multiple accounts so that every member of your family can keep their favorite content on a private playlist. If you want to have the option of downloading shows to view later while you’re offline, there are services with this feature as well.
To figure out which streaming service you’ll get the most value from, evaluate your specific viewing needs. The best service for you is the one that offers your preferred content, viewable at your convenience on your chosen devices, all for the lowest possible price. Here’s a look at how several of the top services stack up.
Hulu’s streaming library includes a vast selection of TV series, including current hits from the biggest broadcast networks, such as NBC’s “This Is Us.” The latest episodes of shows are usually available the day after they air. The site also gives you access to classic series like “The X-Files” and award-winning original series like “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Hulu offers a decent selection of movies for viewing as well, from superhero films to anime, although it can’t compete with its rival Netflix.
You can watch Hulu on most streaming devices. For example, it works with Amazon Fire TV or Fire Stick, Roku, Google Chromecast, and Apple TV. It can also play on Apple and Android devices, Fire tablets, and a variety of game systems and smart TVs.
A full list of supported devices and instructions on setting them up is available on Hulu’s website. You can also stream content from the Hulu library on a Mac or PC browser.
Plans and Costs
Hulu charges $6 per month for a basic subscription, which gives you unlimited access to its streaming library. This standard subscription includes ads, but you can watch ad-free for an additional $6 per month. You can also pay extra for add-ons that let you view content from HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, or Starz. And for $13 a month, you can bundle Hulu with Disney+ and ESPN+ and get access to content from all three.
For $65 per month, or $71 per month without ads, you can upgrade to Hulu + Live TV, which includes over 65 live and on-demand channels as well as the entire streaming library. Additional channels are available as add-ons. This plan comes with 50 hours of cloud DVR storage. For an extra $10 per month, you can upgrade to “Advanced Cloud DVR,” which provides 200 hours of storage and the ability to fast-forward through ads.
When you sign up for Hulu, you get a free trial period that varies in length based on which plan you choose. You can change plans or cancel at any time.
A basic Hulu subscription lets you create up to six personal viewer profiles for your household. You have the option of setting some of these up as kids’ profiles, which can access only child-friendly content.
You can stream content on two screens at a time. If you pay $10 extra per month for the “Unlimited Screens” add-on, you can view content simultaneously on as many screens as you want at home, and up to three at a time while on the go.
And if you subscribe to the ad-free version of the service, you can download shows and movies from Hulu to view offline.
For hardcore TV fans, Hulu is probably the best choice. It gives you the quickest access to the latest TV series and the most extensive range of older shows. However, movie fans may prefer a service with a broader selection.
As its name suggests, Netflix specializes in movies. However, the service also offers several highly acclaimed original series, such as “Stranger Things,” “Orange Is the New Black,” and “The Crown.” It even produces its own feature-length films, including the Oscar-nominated “The Irishman.”
Content on the site changes regularly, so there’s always something new to watch. The downside of this is that old seasons of shows from other networks aren’t available on the site for long. Also, you won’t get access to new episodes for several months or even a year after they air.
Pretty much all smart TVs have the Netflix app built in, although models with the “Netflix Recommended TV” logo make it faster and easier to use. Netflix also works on Apple, Android, and Windows phones, most Web browsers, all the major streaming media players, and several game systems. You can even stream Netflix through a Blu-Ray player or from your set-top box if you’ve decided not to drop your TV subscription yet. A full list of supported devices is available on the Netflix website.
Plans and Costs
Netflix offers several subscription levels. You can stream content on one screen in standard definition with the $9 per month basic plan, two shows at once in HD with the $13 per month standard plan, and up to four screens at once in Ultra-HD with the $16 per month premium plan. You can cancel or change your subscription at any time.
One perk of Netflix is that it’s ad-free, even with the cheapest subscription. It also enables you to download shows or movies and view them offline. You can create profiles for up to four users, and each user can receive personalized recommendations based on their viewing history.
Netflix is the best choice for movie buffs or anyone who’s hooked on one of the service’s original series. However, if what you want is to keep up with your favorite shows from other networks, you’re better off looking elsewhere.
Amazon Prime Video
An Amazon Prime Video subscription gives you access to a large catalog of TV series and movies. Some of its most notable offerings are its original series, such as “Man in the High Castle,” “Good Omens,” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” Although it doesn’t have as many original series as Netflix, their overall quality is as good or better, according to Ben Moore of PCMag. You can also pay extra to subscribe to Prime Video “Channels” that give you access to content from top networks like HBO, Showtime, and Starz.
The Prime Video Catalog represents only a fraction of the titles available on Amazon. There are more than 200,000 others to buy or rent, but you must pay for them separately.
You can watch Amazon Prime Video through your computer’s Web browser and on hundreds of other streaming media devices, including smart TVs, Blu-Ray players, iOS and Android mobile devices, game consoles like Xbox or Playstation, Roku, Apple TV, Chromecast, and Amazon’s Fire TV and Fire TV Stick. Check the Prime Video website for a full list of compatible devices.
Plans and Costs
Amazon Prime Video costs $9 per month on its own. However, it’s free with a subscription to Amazon Prime, which costs either $13 per month or $120 per year. Other benefits of Amazon Prime include fast, free delivery for Amazon shipments, unlimited music streaming, discounts at Whole Foods, and a free subscription to a Twitch channel of your choice.
With Amazon Prime Video, you can choose to either stream your content or download it to watch later. According to the usage rules, Prime Video allows you to stream up to three videos at the same time with a single account. However, you can’t stream the same content on more than two screens. Some Prime Video content is available in HD, but only if you have a device that supports it.
Shows you watch on Amazon Prime Video are never interrupted by ads. There are some ads for Amazon’s own content at the beginning of a show, similar to the trailers before a movie, but these are easy to skip.
If you’re already an Amazon Prime customer, it’s worthwhile to take advantage of Amazon Prime Video. If you’re not a Prime customer but are considering becoming one, the Prime Video perk is a convincing reason to subscribe.
If you don’t want a Prime membership, a stand-alone Prime Video subscription is of more questionable value. The main reason to subscribe is Amazon’s high-quality original content. However, it’s not the best way to view shows from other networks or discover new ones.
A relative newcomer to the streaming field, Disney+ deals exclusively in content owned by Disney and its offspring. That’s a wider selection than you might realize. When it launched in November 2019, Disney+ included over 500 movies and around 7,500 TV episodes, with offerings from Disney, Pixar, Marvel, 21st Century Fox, and National Geographic.
The service offers classic Disney films, series such as “The Simpsons,” and the entire Star Wars franchise, including the new series “The Mandalorian.” However, in terms of original content, Disney+ hasn’t branched out much from its existing franchises.
You can stream content from Disney+ on all major streaming devices, including AppleTV, Amazon Fire TV, Chromecast, and Roku. It plays on iOS, Android, and Amazon Fire mobile devices, Xbox and PlayStation gaming systems, and Web browsers on Windows, MacOS, and ChromeOS computers.
Plans and Costs
The basic Disney+ service costs $7 per month. You can save some money by signing up for a full year at $70. And, as noted above, you can bundle Disney+ with Hulu and ESPN+ for $13 per month.
All content on Disney+ is available for both online viewing and download. Disney+ offers extra features to make its content more accessible, such as closed captions and audio descriptions. Some of its content is available in Ultra HD 4K, and some boasts Dolby Atmos surround sound.
Your account comes with up to seven customizable user profiles. Some of these can be kids’ profiles, which are automatically limited to G-rated content (there’s no way to get more specific about what your children are and aren’t allowed to watch). You can stream up to four videos simultaneously and use GroupWatch to stream concurrently with friends who aren’t in your household — a nice feature for socially distanced viewing parties during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Disney+ is excellent for large families and anyone hooked on Disney content, which is now available exclusively through this service. However, those just looking for the widest variety of shows and films to watch can find better value elsewhere.
With HBO Max, the only TV shows you get access to are the ones created by HBO and its subsidiaries. However, HBO Max includes every show, season, and episode. For example, newer shows like “Westworld” and older ones like “The Wire” are both available. There are also miniseries such as “Band of Brothers,” late-night comedies, kids’ shows such as “Sesame Street,” and sports content.
HBO Max also offers a selection of hit movies in every genre, from family to documentaries to drama, as well as exclusive comedy specials. Most new shows and movies become available on HBO Max as soon as they air on HBO. However, the service does not offer live streaming.
You can watch HBO Max on Apple, Android, and Fire OS mobile devices, some PlayStation and Xbox gaming systems, Samsung smart TVs, and most streaming devices. A complete list of compatible devices is available on the HBO Max help center.
HBO also offers a standalone app that allows you to stream over the Web on Windows, Mac, and Google computers. Sign in to your HBO Max account and go to play.hbonow.com to access HBO content.
Plans and Costs
HBO Max offers only one plan. It costs $15 per month plus tax. If you already subscribe to HBO on cable, you get access to HBO Max at no additional cost.
All content on HBO Max is currently ad-free. You can stream HBO Max on multiple devices at the same time, but HBO warns that “the number of simultaneous streams is limited for security reasons.” If you run several streams at once, you risk getting a “streaming on too many devices” message, which forces everyone in your household to sign out and restart.
Most HBO Max shows are available in HD, but so far, very little is available in 4K video. You can download HBO content for later viewing, but you can only have 30 downloads in your account at once. Downloads expire within 48 hours after you start watching them or 30 days if unwatched.
If the only reason you’re holding onto your TV subscription is that you can’t give up your HBO series, HBO Max is the solution. It’s pricier than some other services but much cheaper than a deluxe cable package.
CBS All Access
Following HBO’s lead, CBS has created its own streaming service to provide exclusive access to its shows. CBS All Access is the only way to stream classic CBS series like “Frasier,” as well as new ones like “Star Trek: Picard.” New episodes become available on CBS All Access as they air, so you’ll never have to worry about spoilers from your friends who still have cable. There are over 20,000 current and past episodes of CBS shows available, plus some live news and sports content.
Currently, CBS All Access offers only a small collection of movies. As of February 2020, there were approximately 50 titles, according to PCMag. You can expand the selection somewhat with a Showtime add-on, but this adds $9 to the monthly subscription price.
CBS All Access streams on the usual assortment of devices. It works with Apple and Android phones, Xbox One and Playstation 4 gaming systems, several brands of smart TVs, and Roku, Chromecast, AppleTV, and Fire TV streaming devices. You can also stream it in a Web browser, and there’s a stand-alone CBS app available for Windows 10.
Plans and Costs
A basic subscription to CBS All Access costs $6 per month or $60 per year and includes limited ads. An ad-free version costs $10 per month or $100 per year — although you’ll still see ads during live streaming. Only the pricier ad-free subscription allows you to download shows for later viewing.
CBS All Access comes with a fairly basic set of perks. It offers closed captioning and audio descriptions. Parental controls can be set to on or off for specific shows, and the system provides a PIN adults can use to access the ones that are off-limits to youngsters. The service offers HD video for on-demand content, but there’s nothing in HDR (High Dynamic Resolution) or 4K.
If you don’t have TV service and want to watch CBS shows as they air, CBS All Access is the best way to do it. However, it probably doesn’t offer enough content, or enough variety, to be your only source of video entertainment.
Hoopla Digital isn’t a paid streaming service. Instead, it’s a service offered by many public libraries that lets you borrow digital content. In addition to movies and TV shows, you can check out music, audiobooks, e-books, and comics.
Hoopla doesn’t offer the latest TV series, but there are a lot of British shows that are hard to find on American TV. Hoopla also provides lots of content for kids. The movie selection doesn’t include many new releases, but you can find classics like “The Sting,” animated films, documentaries, and musicals.
You can stream titles on hoopla through your Web browser or an app that works on iOS, Android, and Fire devices. It also works on all the top dedicated streaming devices: Roku, Chromecast, AppleTV, Fire TV, and Android TV.
Plans and Costs
Hoopla is entirely free, but it’s only available if your library subscribes to it. When you register on the site, it uses your current location to look for participating libraries in your area. Alternatively, you can ask at your local library branch or check its website to see if hoopla is available.
Each library sets its own limit on how many items you can borrow per month. This limit, whatever it is, resets at the start of each month. Unused borrows do not roll over.
All content on hoopla is ad-free. Most movies and TV shows are only available for three days (72 hours) after you check them out, and a few titles are only available for two days. Most music albums are available for one week, and most audiobooks, e-books, and comics are accessible for three weeks.
Hoopla doesn’t have enough content or offer enough borrows per month to be your primary source of entertainment. However, if your local library subscribes to the service, there’s no downside to checking it out.
Live Streaming Services
In addition to the SVOD services, there are other streaming services that give you live access to content. Watching shows through live streaming services is just like watching via cable or satellite, except that you’re using your Internet connection to get a signal.
Top live streaming services include:
- Sling TV. This live service is like a light version of cable TV, with a more limited selection of channels at a lower price. You can choose from Sling Orange, which includes Disney and all the ESPN channels, and Sling Blue, which includes Discovery, Fox News, MSNBC, and Bravo. Each service costs $30 per month, or $45 for both together. Add-ons allow you to customize your service with specialized content like comedy, kids’ shows, sports, and Spanish programs.
- Philo. This service offers both live and on-demand content. Its basic package includes 63 channels, most of which are entertainment and lifestyle channels like BET, HGTV, and Lifetime. There are no sports channels, few news channels, and nothing from the major broadcast networks. Philo also doesn’t run on all devices, such as Chromecast. However, it’s reasonably inexpensive, at just $20 per month for the basic service.
- AT&T TV Now. Formerly known as DirecTV Now, this service also includes both live and on-demand content. It gives you access to over 45 live streaming channels, including the major broadcast networks, entertainment, news, sports, and lifestyle channels. It also offers a library of “thousands of on-demand titles,” though you can’t see what they are without a subscription. However, all this content comes with a fairly high price tag, with plans ranging from $55 to $80 per month — plus an extra fee for premium channels like HBO and Cinemax.
- fuboTV. fuboTV is the ideal service for sports fans. It has more than 100 live channels, offering news, entertainment, and lifestyle content, as well as lots of sports. However, it’s also pricier than most streaming services, at $65 to $80 per month. Spanish speakers can save a bit by choosing the cheaper Spanish-only package, which costs $30 per month
- YouTube TV. From its origins as a forum for users to share their self-made videos, YouTube has expanded into a serious contender in the streaming field. Its live service, YouTube TV, provides access to more than 85 channels, including the big broadcast networks, news, sports, and lifestyle channels. It’s available nationwide, although the lineup varies by location. It’s an excellent substitute for the cable TV experience at $65 per month.
This list includes many of the top streaming services. However, there’s more to explore. For instance, Pluto TV is a 100% free service with hundreds of channels of ad-supported content. There’s also Shudder for horror fans, The Criterion Channel for movie buffs, and BritBox and Acorn TV for aficionados of British shows. Whatever your tastes, there’s likely to be a service that caters to them.
Moreover, contenders are always entering the field. For instance, Variety magazine reported in July 2018 that Walmart was considering launching a new streaming service priced below the $6 to $9 baseline set by Hulu and Netflix. So if you don’t see a streaming service on this list that works for you, a better option may be on the way.