It feels like every week a new streaming video service enters the market, and at this point, it’s almost impossible to keep track of them all.
In 2020 alone, a number of major players made their debuts to compete with mainstays like Netflix, Hulu, and Disney+. The frustratingly stubborn mobile-first service Quibi officially launched in April before being killed just six months later, followed by HBO Max in May and NBCUniversal’s Peacock in July. And in 2021, we’ll see at least two more major streaming services with the arrival of Discovery+ and Paramount+.
Also, in a somewhat surprise move, HBO recently announced that Warner Bros.’s entire lineup of 2021 movies will available to stream for free on HBO Max, which includes big-name movies like Dune, The Matrix 4, Space Jam: A New Legacy, and more, not to mention a day-one streaming premiere for Wonder Woman 1984 later this December. That’s likely to be a huge draw for movie buffs, and should make HBO Max an even more compelling service, even with HBO Max having recently killed its limited-time free trials.
In other words, there are more cord-cutting options to choose from than ever before. And if looking at the ever-growing list of possibilities makes your head spin, don’t stress. We’ve gone ahead and done the heavy lifting and picked out the best streaming services available right now.
Our pick: Disney+ bundle (starting at $13)
Identifying the “best” streaming service right now—especially considering the sheer number of services there are to choose from—is dependent on what is most important to each individual user, be that selection, streaming and content quality, live TV, or price point, among other variables. But when it comes to hitting most of these metrics and doing so for a modest subscription fee, the clear winner here is the Disney+ bundle (especially as Netflix loses a number of licenses for popular series and franchises to rival services). Additionally, if Disney+ is a built-in babysitter, Hulu is its more mature counterpart; and with the addition of content from FX, Hulu’s got a pretty good thing going as far as selection goes.
The bundle—which starts at just $13 for ad-supported Hulu, undercutting the price of Netflix’s popular standard plan—comes jam-packed with a massive catalog of originals; beloved and legacy content from franchises like Star Wars, Pixar, and Marvel; all of National Geographic’s documentaries and shows; ad-supported Hulu, which of course hosts a massive library of content; and ESPN+, which comes stuffed with thousands of live events, original series, and fantasy league tools. Bundle tiers also include ad-free Hulu for $19 per month, ad-supported Hulu with live TV for $62 per month, and ad-free Hulu with live TV for $68 per month.* (More on that below.)
Beyond the content selection—which taken together across the three individual services is massive—Disney+ offers a lot of free perks (for now at least) that would increase your subscription fees on other services. For example, high definition streaming comes standard, and the service supports up to 4K Ultra HD streaming in Dolby Vision, HDR10, and Dolby Atmos. In addition, the service allows for up to seven user profiles, simultaneous streaming on up to four devices at once, and unlimited downloads on up to 10 phones or tablets for offline viewing. Basically, this is the bundle that’s great for families or just a household hoping to find a single service to meet the various content tastes of everyone under its roof.
*Hulu’s prices will increase beginning in December 2020. For updated pricing see Hulu’s support page.
Our pick: Hulu + Live TV (starting at $65)
Just because you cut the cord doesn’t mean you don’t appreciate the ease of linear viewing or the thrill of tuning in to a live broadcast. If this is you, you may want to consider the Hulu + Live TV package. Starting at $65 per month after a free trial, you’ll get all of Hulu’s library of originals, TV series, and movies as well as more than 60 live and on-demand TV options, including news and sports. And Hulu got a hell of a lot better with the addition of its FX content haul, a content hub on the platform that comes standard with any Hulu subscription. Plus, the service allows for up to 50 hours of cloud DVR storage for recorded live television.
Hulu + Live TV also supports customization. While the package comes standard with simultaneous viewing on up to two screens, an additional add-on will allow for unlimited screens at home and up to three screens remotely for $10 per month. Plus, premium viewing with HBO, Cinemax, Showtime, and Starz can also be added to the plan for between $9 and $15 per month for each. Live TV can be viewed online and on iOS, Android, Roku, Fire TV and Fire Stick, Apple TV (4th generation and older), Chromecast, select Samsung models, select LG TV models, and most major game consoles.
*Hulu + Live TV currently starts $55 per month but will be subject to a $10 increase starting on Dec. 18 bringing the price up to $65 per month. For updated pricing see Hulu’s support page.
Also consider: YouTube TV ($65) or Pluto (Free)
YouTube TV is another non-cable option to consider and has a few more perks on the live television front, but less of the quality on-demand stuff. YouTube TV has more than 70 channel options and allows for unlimited storage space with recordings stored for up to 9 months. Plus, the service supports up to six individual user accounts and streaming on up to three devices at once.
Both YouTube TV and Hulu + Live TV continue to hike their prices, so service-exclusive features like unlimited DVR storage and greater on-demand selection, rather than price, will likely be determining factors in which you choose to go with.
If you’re interested in merely replicating the channel-surfing experience of traditional over-the-air programming without all the fancy stuff, I’d suggest Pluto TV. You won’t get a lot of the perks that come with a paid subscription, but Pluto TV currently offers hundreds of channel options. And if you’re already subscribed to Netflix or any other number of services, it might be an easy way to round-out your streaming portfolio on the cheap.
Oh, HBO Max. If you’re change-averse, I hate to say that you are probably going to find the newer, super-stuffed version of HBO’s marquee streaming service a frustrating revamp. But even if HBO Max’s brand identity is a bit confusing with so many streaming properties bundled together in one service, this is still where you’re going to find all that great HBO content, Warner Bros.’s stuff, and a slate of newer originals.
In addition to HBO Max’s own exclusives—including documentaries, stand-up, films, sports, and content for kids—the service also features hubs for Studio Ghibli, Crunchyroll, Adult Swim, the DC catalog, Turner Classic Movies, and Cartoon Network, among others, which really makes this a solid choice for the price. Plus, every Warner Bros. film release in 2021 will debut on HBO Max on the same day those movies premiere in theaters, and at no extra cost to subscribers.
NBCUniversal’s Peacock makes a very strong case for itself with its low-cost premium streaming fees and an entry-level tier that costs nothing. With the premium options (which cost $5 with ads and $10 without), you’ll have access to more than 20,000 hours of content in addition to originals. Peacock also includes and live and linear TV, if the over-the-air experience is something you like bundled into your service. You’ll get roughly half of that content and no originals with the free plan, but with a fairly solid collection of movies and shows to stream, Peacock is a very good service at a budget-friendly price.
Our pick: Netflix’s standard plan ($13)
Netflix’s standard subscription, the service’s most popular plan, allows for HD viewing and streaming on up to two devices simultaneously. The standard plan is great for smaller households—assuming everyone isn’t sitting in their rooms trying to stream in isolation—and HD viewing is really all you need for streaming Netflix on a laptop, tablet, phone, and most TVs. In other words, it’s Netflix’s “just right” plan: a middle-of-the-road price for all the bells and whistles that you need for standard streaming.
Also consider: Netflix’s premium plan ($16)
If you’re a person who absolutely must stream in ultra-high definition where available, the premium plan is still an option—though its price tag is quite steep for a single person, or even two people subscribing to multiple services. If you’re purchasing with multi-user streaming in mind, however, the premium plan does allow for simultaneous viewing on up to four devices at once. Most people don’t need UHD or its speed requirements to enjoy Netflix, but if you’re looking to put that 4K TV to good use, this is the plan to consider.
If access to live sports is your primary focus and news and network series are more of an afterthought, fuboTV packs in 112 channels and more than 130 events in 4K. The $65-per-month family plan allows for streaming on up to three screens at once as well as 250 hours of video storage in the cloud. Add-ons offer non-sports channels as well—though not as much variety for customization as, say, Sling TV.
Also consider: fuboTV Elite ($80)
You’re getting quite a lot with the fuboTV family plan in terms of screen-sharing and overall live TV offerings. But if you’re looking for more premium content, the $80 Elite plan offers even more to watch with 159 channels, 47 of which are entertainment-focused, and 1,000 hours of cloud storage. It’s not a bad option if sports is your topmost priority, this is the sole subscription for your household, and you want premium non-sports content as well.
*Pricing is based on promotional offers at the time of this writing and may change over time.
Kanopy—which is free with a user login for a participating library or university—is an ad-free resource for thousands of high-quality films, particularly indies, with new titles added each month. This is where to head for critical darlings such as Lady Bird, Eighth Grade, Leave No Trace, Moonlight, and various documentaries and archived classics. Considering it’s ad-free, the selection is fabulous. The only downside is that access to the platform with a library card is limited for some users, as is the case for New Yorkers (a massive bummer, by the way).
It’s worth noting here a few of the services you may already have free access to and aren’t taking advantage of. If you’re an Amazon Prime subscriber, for example, its streaming service Prime TV offers tons of free movies and series as well as originals. Apple TV+ is free for a year for users who buy a new Apple product, and Disney+ is free for a year for Verizon users. CuriosityStream, which we discuss below, is also free for all Optimum customers. If any of these applies to you, congratulations on your free content loophole.
If you don’t mind ads, you might try either Vudu’s free-to-watch movie selections or IMDb TV. The latter’s selection of films, series, and originals is quite good! Many are older-ish releases, but there are some more recent content and blockbuster successes peppered in as well. Vudu’s free films section can be considerably more touch-and-go in terms of selection. But if you’re looking for an easy watch and don’t mind scrolling a bit, it’s not a bad resource for free content.
Our pick: The Criterion Channel ($11)
The Criterion Channel is the go-to streaming service for the Criterion Collection, and it’s the movie lover’s guide to both classic and contemporary filmmaking. After a free 14-day trial, the service will run you either $11 a month or $100 a year for access to the Criterion Collection’s library of more than 1,000 films. Plus, the service is constantly updating with more art-house, independent, and international selections, among others. The service features content from guest curators like Barry Jenkins, Guillermo del Toro, and Mira Nair, as well. It’s accessible online, with Apple TV, and on select smart TVs.
Our pick: CuriosityStream ($3)
CuriosityStream is the place to head for quality documentaries and nature content. After a free trial, the service is offered at $20 per year ($3 monthly) for the standard plan or $70 annually ($10 per month) for the premium plan. One benefit of the premium over the standard plan is UHD and 4K viewing—but again, these are mostly unnecessary on most devices. If David Attenborough is your jam, this is the service for you. Plus, as mentioned above, CuriosityStream is free for all Optimum customers.
YouTube hosts innumerable resources for free documentary content, be it mini-docs from the Guardian, more from Vice, or Frontline documentaries from PBS. Your options here are pretty much limitless in terms of topic or genre, and the site’s subscription feature will allow you to build up a good catalog of quality publishers. Take advantage of it!
3/13/20: Added updated pricing info and channel lists for various services, included new info on FX content being added to Hulu, and removed Apple TV+ from the best high-quality TV and movies category because it ain’t all that.
7/24/20: Added updated info following the launch of HBO Max and Peacock, along with updating pricing for YouTube TV and a new alternative (Pluto TV) for Best Live Streaming TV.
12/8/20: Added updated pricing information for a number of services, along with new info about WB’s 2021 movies coming to HBO Max and the death of a tragically short-lived service (RIP Quibi).