If any year gave us more content offerings than most of us knew what to do with, it was 2019. There were game streaming products, there were news service launches, and most of all, there were so many streaming services announcing themselves in an already crowded space that it began to feel like maybe—just maybe—we had officially reached the threshold for far too many content opinions.
In November alone, two of the buzziest of these services, Apple TV+ and Disney+, officially muscled their way into the streaming wars to take on long-reigning titan Netflix. Plus, there’s more to come early next year: NBCUniversal’s streaming service Peacock will launch in April of 2020, and HBO Max is slated to release shortly thereafter. But even excluding these forthcoming services, there are more cord-cutting options to choose from than ever before. If looking at the ever-growing list of possibilities makes your headspin, reader, don’t stress. We’ve gone ahead and done the heavy lifting for you.
Best Netflix plan
Our pick: Netflix’s standard plan ($12)
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. Assuming you are purchasing with multi-user streaming in mind, however, the premium plan does allow for streaming 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.
Best all-around streaming service
Our pick: Disney+ bundle ($13)
Identifying the “best” in streaming at present—especially considering the sheer number of services there are to choose from—is largely dependent on what is most important to each individual user, be that selection, streaming and content quality, or price point, among other variables. But in terms of hitting all of these individual metrics and doing so at a modest subscription cost, the clear winner here is the Disney+ bundle (especially considering longtime titan Netflix is losing a number of licenses for high-quality series and franchises to rival services, Disney+ being one of them).
The bundle—which clocks in at a mere $13, rivaling 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.
Beyond the content selection—which taken together across the three individual services is massive—Disney+ offers for free (for now at least) many perks and features that will hike up your subscription cost with 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 assuage the content tastes of everyone under its roof.
Best streaming service for high-quality movies and TV
Our pick: HBO NOW ($15)
In terms of reliably high-quality original programming and a constantly updated library of recent releases and classics, HBO is your safest bet if you’ve got little interest in sifting through a sea of mediocre offerings to find a diamond in the rough. HBO NOW is the cordcutter’s answer to accessing all of HBO’s library without a traditional TV subscription. With NOW, you’ll be able to view not only HBO’s catalog of original programming—Succession, His Dark Materials, Game of Thrones, Watchmen, Big Little Lies, and Insecure, to name just a few—but plenty of excellent documentaries, stand-up, new releases, sports, and content for kids.
Also consider: Apple TV+ ($5)
If you’re looking for a cheaper quality-over-quantity alternative to NOW, Apple TV+ seems to believe its own content offerings can stand up the test. At present, the biggest problem with Apple TV+ is its limited number of original content. But Apple is new to this whole streaming thing, and the company has promised its main objective is quality over quantity. But it shows are solid and the quality of the picture and audio is superb (4K, with Dolby Vision and Atmos are supported). Plus, with so many of its series yet to premiere, there’s still plenty to be excited about. And at just $5 per month, the subscription price is worth the one or two series you might actually enjoy. (It’s also free with a trial or newly purchased Apple product.)
Best streaming service for live TV
Our pick: Hulu + Live TV ($45)
A preference for streaming doesn’t necessarily come independent of an appreciation for live TV viewing, particularly for shows whose viewers would prefer to watch them live with a national audience. If this is you, you may want to consider the Hulu + Live TV package. At $45 per month after a free trial, you’ll get all of Hulu’s library of originals, TV, and movies in addition to more than 60 live and On Demand TV options, including news and sports. Plus, it allows for up to 50 hours of Cloud DVR storage for recorded live television.
Hulu + Live TV also allows for customization. While the package comes standard with simultaneous viewing on up to two screens, an add-on will allow for unlimited screens at home and up to three screens remotely for $10 per month. Additionally, 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 on online and on iOS, Android, Roku, Fire TV and Fire Stick, Apple TV (4th generation and older), Chromecast, Xbox One and Xbox 360, and select Samsung models, select LG TV models, and Nintendo Switch.
Also consider: YouTube TV ($50)
With the unfortunate death of PlayStation Vue arriving with the first week of January (RIP), another anti-cable live television option is YouTube TV. At $50 a month, this one’s slightly more expensive than Hulu’s Live TV option—but it does have a few more perks. It comes with more than 70 channel options, for one, 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.
Best streaming service for live TV sports
Our pick: fuboTV ($55)
If access to live sports is your primary focus and news and network series are more of an afterthought, fuboTV boasts more than 115 channels and more than 130 events in 4K viewing. The $60-per-month family plan allows for streaming on up to three screens at once as well as 500 hours of cloud space. This is probably the best service plan of its kind for a single household, with a little bit of something for everyone.
Also consider: fuboTV Ultra ($75)
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 $75 Ultra packs in even more to watch with 183 channels (including 36 entertainment selections), 23 more sports channels with Sports Plus, and a Showtime package that offers nine on-demand channel options. It’s not a bad option if this is the sole subscription for your family or household and sports are a regular fixture of your at-home entertainment.
Best free streaming service
Our pick: Kanopy (Free)
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, such as for many New Yorkers.
It’s worth noting here some 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. Two of the hottest streaming releases this year, Apple TV+ and Disney+, are also free for time for some users as they both look to beef up their users. 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. If either of these applies to you, congratulations on your free content loophole.
Also consider: IMDb TV and Vudu (Free)
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.
Best streaming service for art-house and classics
Our pick: The Criterion Channel ($11)
The Criterion Channel is the go-to streaming service for the Criterion Collection and bills itself as 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.
Best streaming service for documentaries
Our pick: CuriosityStream ($2)
CuriosityStream is the place to head for quality documentaries and nature content. After a free trial, the service is offered at $20 per year ($2 monthly) for a standard plan or $70 annually ($6 per month) for a 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.
Also consider: YouTube (Free)
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 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.