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- Streaming services provide an alternative to cable TV, offering movies and shows online for a fee.
- There are three main streaming service categories: on-demand, live TV, and channel-specific.
- The best streaming service for your needs will largely come down to your budget and taste in shows.
Viewers now have more places to watch their favorite programs than ever. Choosing the right streaming service for your home entertainment setup will depend on a number of factors, including your budget, which exclusive titles you like the most, how many screens you want to watch on, and more.
We rounded up the best streaming services of 2021. Our picks primarily focus on on-demand streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu, but we’ve also included separate sections for live TV and specialty streaming channels.
Here are the best streaming services:
- Best on-demand streaming services: Netflix, Disney Plus, HBO Max, Hulu, Peacock, Apple TV Plus, Paramount Plus, and Amazon Prime Video
- Best live TV streaming services: Hulu + Live TV, YouTube TV, Sling TV, FuboTV, Philo TV, and AT&T TV
- Best channel-specific streaming services: Showtime, Starz, and ESPN+
With its exclusive shows and incredible 4K quality, Netflix continues to set the streaming standard for the competition.
Pros: Fantastic library of originals, industry-leading video quality, impressive app support, special interface for kids, no commercials
Cons: Slightly more expensive than the competition, movie selection pales in comparison to newer services
Netflix has spent the last few years producing a steadily growing collection of original programming, including exclusive movies, ongoing TV series, documentaries, and comedy specials. Netflix Originals keep subscribers invested when their favorite classic show or movie leaves the platform for another service.
The success of Netflix exclusives, like “Bridgerton,” “Stranger Things,” “The Witcher,” and “Tiger King,” has helped the service justify its slightly higher price, and encouraged streaming competitors to prioritize creating their own original titles to generate more value.
Netflix also has a large library of children’s series and a separate interface designed to let kids choose their own shows without running into adult programming, making it a good choice for families in need of all-ages entertainment.
When it comes to app support, Netflix is available on virtually any streaming device you can think of, including computers, smartphones, Roku, Apple TV, Fire TV, smart TVs, and more. It also offers support for all of the latest video and audio formats, including 4K, HDR, and Dolby Atmos — though it does charge extra for those features.
Thanks to a mix of content and various plans, Hulu remains one of the most affordable streaming options with unmatched choice.
Pros: On-demand library with live TV option, can subscribe to “channels” like HBO, discounted bundle with Disney Plus and ESPN+
Cons: Harder to share due to two-device limit on Basic plan, no HDR, Basic plan includes commercials
Hulu offers two main packages that provide on-demand streaming, including a Basic option with commercials and a Premium plan without commercials. The service also offers upgrade packages that add live TV channels.
Hulu arguably boasts the most impressive TV show library of any on-demand streaming service, with a wider range of new and classic shows than Netflix or Amazon. This includes next-day streaming access to select broadcast series on networks like ABC, FX, and Fox. Hulu also offers a solid selection of original shows, like “The Handmaid’s Tale,” but its slate of exclusives isn’t quite as notable as some of its competitors.
Though Hulu does offer 4K streaming on select devices, its 4K lineup is limited compared to Netflix, Amazon, and Disney Plus. The service also lacks HDR support.
Hulu allows only two devices to stream at the same time in order to prevent groups of people from sharing its accounts. To remove that limit, you need a Hulu + Live TV subscription with a $10 add-on for unlimited screens. Hulu also lets subscribers add other channels like HBO, Showtime, and Starz for an extra monthly price.
You can even bundle Hulu with Disney Plus and ESPN+ for a 30% discount on the monthly price of all three, though you’ll need to sign up through Hulu if you want to upgrade to the ad-free plan.
Amazon Prime Video
Amazon Prime Video is a capable, competitive streaming service that’s more than just a Prime membership perk.
Pros: Included with Amazon Prime, offers extra movie rental and purchase options, lots of international titles, can add streaming channels, 4K HDR support is included in base plan
Cons: The Prime Video library is less impressive than the competition
More than 110 million Amazon Prime members help make Prime Video the second largest on-demand service in terms of subscribers, even if they’re not all streaming video on a regular basis.
Prime Video features a mix of movies and shows that are provided for free with membership, including original titles like “The Boys” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” You can also rent or buy just about any film that’s available on home video for your personal collection and watch with the Prime Video app whenever you like. This is a feature that most subscription streaming apps don’t offer.
Prime Video has launched several award-winning original shows since 2013 and has successfully imported dozens of series from the BBC, as well as Hindi language films from India. The platform offers up to 4K streaming with support for HDR10+ playback on select titles. And, unlike Netflix, it doesn’t charge extra to get the best video and audio quality.
Though Prime Video is included with a Prime Membership, you can subscribe to the service on its own for $9 a month if you prefer.
Disney Plus is the top streaming choice for families and fans of blockbuster franchises like Marvel and ‘Star Wars.’
Pros: Disney’s vault of classic movies and shows, 4K HDR, blockbuster Marvel and “Star Wars” movies
Cons: Lack of mature content limits the platform’s potential, library of original shows is still small compared to the competition
Disney Plus is the fastest growing streaming service on the market, having amassed more than 73 million subscribers since its launch in November 2019. The platform is the sole subscription streaming home of Disney’s classic animated films, as well as franchises like “Star Wars” and “The Simpsons.”
With that in mind, the main draw of the service is its wide catalog of existing Disney, “Star Wars,” Marvel, and Pixar movies and shows. There are some original films and series as well, but the lineup remains small compared to Netflix and Amazon.
It’s also important to note that Disney Plus is designed to be family-oriented, so even Disney’s hit exclusive shows, like “The Mandalorian” and “Loki,” are rated for teen viewers. Movies are also limited to PG-13 so you won’t find any R-rated content here.
That said, at $8 a month with no commercials, Disney Plus might offer the best combination of titles, streaming quality, and value. With an endless supply of family-friendly entertainment, Disney Plus is a popular choice for parents, but adults who didn’t grow up on Disney or “Star Wars” may want to find a second streaming service to fill their palette with more mature shows.
On that note, you can bundle Disney Plus with Hulu and ESPN+ for $14 a month. The bundle saves you about $6 a month compared to signing up for each service separately.
HBO Max is a premium service for fans of prestige television, iconic films, and the latest movie releases.
Pros: Prestige shows and films, day-and-date streaming for Warner Bros. theatrical releases, collections from Adult Swim, TCM, Sesame Street, and more
Cons: More expensive than most competitors, only a few 4K titles so far
HBO Max combines critically acclaimed shows and movies from HBO’s cable network with new originals, additional WarnerMedia films, classic shows like “Friends,” and collections from channels like Adult Swim, TCM, DC Universe, and the anime streaming service Crunchyroll.
Like the cable channel, HBO Max prides itself on having some of the best movies recently released on home video. HBO exclusive shows, like “Lovecraft Country,” “Succession” and “Watchmen,” continue to define prestige television and HBO Max is the best way to catch up on past hits like “The Wire” and “Game of Thrones.”
New episodes of “Sesame Street” are the highlight of HBO Max’s family offerings; there’s not a ton of educational content for young children, but there’s enough to satisfy kids for a few hours on an indoor afternoon.
Perhaps best of all, HBO Max is home to brand-new Warner Bros. movies the same day they premiere in theaters. “Wonder Woman 1984” was the first titled released like this, and the upcoming lineup includes “The Matrix 4,” “Suicide Squad,” and more.
For now, the biggest drawbacks of HBO Max are technology related. Outside of the new Warner releases, HBO Max doesn’t offer much support for 4K or HDR yet, limiting the quality of some movies and shows. For example, “Game of Thrones” is available in 4K on Blu-ray, but HBO Max streams are limited to 1080p.
Paramount Plus is a fantastic destination for classic cable TV shows, with potential for even more value in the future.
Pros: Huge library of classic TV shows, live CBS with Premium plan, new Paramount films 45 days after theater release
Cons: Less exclusive content than the competition
Paramount Plus is ViacomCBS’ new on-demand streaming service, replacing CBS All Access. The platform gives viewers access to the live CBS TV channel (Premium Plan only), along with a large collection of TV shows and movies.
In addition to CBS series, Paramount Plus draws programming from Viacom cable channels like MTV, Comedy Central, and Nickelodeon. Paramount Plus is also home to exclusive content like a reboot of “iCarly” and several “Star Trek” shows.
The streaming service will host newly released Paramount movies 45 days after they hit theaters, starting with “A Quiet Place Part II.” “The Spongebob Movie: Sponge on the Run” was a launch title for Paramount Plus, and “Mission Impossible 7” is due out later this year.
With free and premium streaming options, Peacock is a convenient source for hit TV shows and movie nostalgia.
Pros: Free to watch many shows and movies, live news and sporting events
Cons: Premium plan doesn’t offer many exclusives, movie library lacks newer releases, no 4K or HDR support
Peacock is the free-to-watch streaming home for NBCUniversal shows like “30 Rock,” “Cheers,” and “The Office,” as well as some new original titles. The service also offers a rotating slate of hit movies. Though few of the choices are less than 10-years old, Peacock has dozens of memorable films.
Peacock’s base plan is free but it offers a limited library and it’s ad-supported. If you want access to all of the platform’s content you can pay $5 a month, but this plan still features commercials. To unlock everything with ad-free access, you need to pay $10 a month for the Peacock Premium Plus plan.
Peacock doesn’t stream in 4K resolution, though given the platform’s emphasis on television and older films, the 1080p limit isn’t a huge drawback.
Apple TV Plus
Apple TV Plus has a limited lineup, but its cheap price makes it a solid option for fans of its exclusive shows.
Pros: Affordable price, exclusive shows, movie rental and purchase options, can add streaming channels, 4K HDR support
Cons: The lineup of movies and shows is small compared to other services
Apple TV Plus is one of the most affordable streaming services you can subscribe to. The platform costs just $5 a month for ad-free access to its entire lineup of on-demand movies and shows.
While that’s an attractive price, the Apple TV Plus library is relatively small compared to competing platforms like Netflix, Disney Plus, and Hulu. Most notably, the service lacks a large back catalog of movies and shows from other networks and studios. That said, there are some standout exclusive series like “Ted Lasso,” “The Morning Show,” and the docuseries “The Me You Can’t See.”
Like Prime Video, Apple TV Plus also lets you access a huge library of additional movies and shows that you can pay to rent or purchase. Though it would be great to have more programs included as part of your subscription, being able to order more titles within the Apple TV Plus app is convenient. You can also add extra channels to your subscription, like HBO and Showtime, for an extra fee.
If you’re someone who plans to use other Apple services, you should also consider the Apple One bundle. The base package includes Apple TV Plus, Apple Music, Apple Arcade, and 50GB of iCloud storage for $15 a month.
The best live TV streaming services
Live TV streaming services are marketed as a cheaper alternative to cable or satellite, offering tighter channel packages for potential “cord cutters.” However, prices have gone up in this space, reducing the cost benefit that streaming has over traditional TV.
That said, in many cases you can still save with certain services, but choosing the right package is essential for getting the most out of these platforms, so you’ll want to figure out which TV stations are your must-haves before you choose a provider.
If you plan to use a live TV streaming service to replace cable on multiple TVs in your home, be prepared to pay a bit extra so you can stream simultaneously on separate devices. Also, keep in mind that these TV services have the same commercials and general experience as cable even though they’re broadcast online.
Streaming quality can vary from channel to channel, but they all typically maintain 720p or 1080p resolution. Again, you’ll want to check the specific channel packages and other perks offered by each service to figure out which is best for you.
Here’s a rundown of the leading live TV services available now:
Sling TV – Sling TV offers two different packages, Sling Blue and Sling Orange, for $35 a month each, or for $50 a month bundled together.
Sling Blue offers streaming on up to three devices and more channels, including MSNBC, Fox News, Fox Sports, NBC Sports, and the NFL Network. Sling Orange offers Disney channel and the ESPN family of channels, but only allows one streaming device at a time. You can find a full breakdown of Sling channels here.
Getting the bundle makes the most sense, since you’ll get the full set of channels and features for $15 extra. It’s worth noting that Sling viewers can’t access their local ABC or CBS affiliates, so if you want those channels, you should look to another service.
Hulu + Live TV – Hulu’s Live TV plan costs $65 a month for access to around 75 channels. You need to pay for an upgrade to stream on more than two devices at the same time, however, and it also costs extra if you want more than 50 hours of Cloud DVR storage. On the plus side, Hulu + Live TV includes Hulu’s on-demand service, so you get a bit more value there.
The base bundle includes all the major local networks in most markets, the ESPN family of channels, Fox and NBC Sports channels, and SEC Network. However, the service lacks access to the NFL Network, NBA TV, and the MLB Network, all of which are standard for YouTube TV.
Fubo TV – FuboTV starts at $65 a month for around 115 channels, 250 hours of cloud DVR space, and streaming on up to three devices. Unlike most of its competitors, Fubo charges extra for sports channels like the SEC Network, NBA TV, and the MLB Network. Local channels are included at no additional cost.
YouTube TV – YouTube TV costs $65 a month for more than 80 channels with unlimited cloud DVR storage and streaming on up to three devices at once. YouTubeTV includes more sports channels in its base package than its competitors, including ESPN, Fox Sports, NBC Sports, the NFL Network, NBA TV, and the MLB Network.
YouTubeTV is also the only live TV streaming service currently offering PBS alongside local affiliate networks from CBS, Fox, ABC, and NBC.
AT&T TV – Starting at $70 a month for a no-contract plan, AT&T TV provides a streaming version of the company’s cable service. AT&T offers more pricing and package options than its live TV streaming competitors — the service offers nearly every channel, but like standard cable, it can be hard to get all the channels you want in a cheap bundle.
Because AT&T is HBO Max’s parent company, most of the packages also include an HBO Max subscription, which would cost $15 a month separately.
Philo TV – Philo TV is the most affordable option at $25 a month for 60+ channels. Unfortunately, Philo viewers don’t have access to their local affiliate networks, and the service doesn’t offer many upgrade options for watching sports or cable news. It does offer popular channels like Comedy Central, MTV, and AMC, though, so there’s still plenty to watch.
The best streaming channels
Some streaming services act as an online portal for access to a specific channel. If you want to watch Showtime, for instance, but don’t want to subscribe through a cable provider, you can simply sign up for the network’s standalone streaming option. Some of these channel-specific platforms also include exclusive content you can’t find anywhere else.
In many cases, these types of streaming channels can also be added to existing platforms, like Hulu and Prime Video, while others are exclusive to certain devices and services. Be sure to check if the channel you want is available on your device before signing up.
Here’s a breakdown of some of the best streaming channel services you can subscribe to now:
Showtime – Showtime offers a lineup of critically acclaimed original shows and blockbuster movies from the premium cable channel. Some of Showtime’s most popular hits are “Billions,” “Shameless,” and “Homeland.” You can stream Showtime directly from the official website or app for $11 per month, or sign up through Prime Video or Hulu.
Starz – Like Showtime and HBO, Starz offers on-demand streaming of its original shows and a rotating catalog of movies. Notably, Starz is the exclusive premium network home for Sony films like “Spider-Man” and “Jumanji.” The service costs $9 per month, though new subscribers can get their first three months for $24.
ESPN+ – ESPN’s service is another example of a channel-specific streaming platform, offering live broadcasts of sporting events that aren’t normally aired on cable and exclusive access to niche coverage of sports like UFC and “League of Legends.” With that said, ESPN+ does not actually provide live streaming access to the regular ESPN cable channel. The service costs $6 a month, and you can bundle it with Disney Plus and Hulu for $14 a month.
What we look for in on-demand streaming services
On-demand video services, like Netflix, popularized streaming by providing a larger library of on-demand movies and shows than cable providers could offer, and at a cheaper price. Subscribers gain instant access to thousands of titles rather than paying more for dozens of channels or rental fees for new releases. Many streaming services have also launched their own exclusive programming that you can’t see anywhere else.
Since the goal is entertainment, choosing the best on-demand streaming service for your needs will largely come down to your personal tastes. However, we can judge the different on-demand platforms based on a few common factors, like their library size, selection of critically-acclaimed exclusives, video quality, app functionality, and price.
The best on-demand streaming services have set a standard for 4K video quality, with support for HDR color and contrast on compatible TVs. TV channels rarely broadcast in 4K, so we have lower expectations for live TV streaming services, which still use HD resolutions like 1080p or 720p.
Quality can still vary based on the movie or show being streamed, and you’ll need a strong, stable internet connection to stream consistently at 4K. Even if you don’t have a 4K TV, these services will still deliver the best possible quality for your setup.
We expect app support on iOS, Android, and most home entertainment devices, though the growing number of streaming services has led to slower releases on competitive platforms, like Amazon and Roku. The best on-demand services also give subscribers an option to save select movies for offline viewing while they travel, though an online check-in is still required occasionally.
When comparing catalogs, we try to consider the range of entertainment offered by each streaming service, how much the platform has invested in exclusive programming, and which age ranges are best suited to watch. While most streaming services will have a rotating list of movies, it’s important to pay attention to which series and franchises will remain platform exclusive, like “The Office,” “Star Wars,” and “Stranger Things.”
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