The days of having to tune in live or buy expensive discs in order to watch your favorite shows and movies are gone. Online streaming makes it possible to watch everything from live news and sports to classic movies to modern TV favorites on your own time, and on any device you choose.
There are a ton of streaming services out there, and no two are alike. YouTube is probably the best place to start, but there's a whole Web full of content beyond the ubiquitous streaming site, ranging from movies to TV shows to music videos and more. To help you get the most out of your smart TV, game console, set-top box, tablet, smartphone or computer, Tom's Guide has broken down our favorite streaming media services. Whatever you like to watch, there's a service with your tastes in mind, and in your price range.
Netflix: Best Overall Streaming Service
The great-granddaddy of streaming services remains the best. Netflix provides unlimited streaming of TV shows, movies, comedy specials and original programming (including Orange Is the New Black, House of Cards and Fuller House) for one monthly subscription fee. No other service has yet given Netflix an honest-to-goodness run for its money in terms of selection, quality and performance consistency. You can even create up to five profiles on a single account to make sure that your favorite content doesn't mess up recommendations for your friends and loved ones.
MORE: Best Shows to Watch on Netflix Now
Hulu: Best Streaming Service for Network TV
If you want to keep current with the latest TV shows but don't feel like investing in a cable subscription or an HD antenna, Hulu is the best solution. This service provides access to most major network shows (aside from CBS' programs) and a handful of cable shows the day after they air. It also lets subscribers access a show's entire current season — or often all of the program's seasons. Hulu is the best place to get BBC content in the United States. In addition, the service hosts a number of original shows (such as Casual), exclusives (Seinfeld), a selection of offbeat movies (Jerry Maguire) and a surprising amount of classic anime series. Even with a paid subscription, you have to sit through commercials, but far fewer than if you watched the same shows on cable.
Amazon Prime Instant Video: Best Streaming Service for Families
For those who do most of their shopping online, Amazon Prime is a no-brainer. For $99 per year, you get free two-day shipping on your purchases, a free Kindle book each month, and unlimited access to both Amazon Music and Amazon Prime Video. Like Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video is a veritable buffet of movies, television and original programming, like Alpha House, Transparent and Mozart in the Jungle. Thanks to a deal with Viacom — which controls Comedy Central, MTV and Nickelodeon — Amazon Prime arguably has a better selection of comedy and children's programming than its competitors. The service also offers unlimited access to an extensive collection from HBO's back catalog of classics such as The Sopranos and The Wire. The separate Amazon Video provides easy access to current movies, but it's an à la carte service.
Sling.TV: Best Cable TV Replacement
If you like the idea of a cable subscription but feel it's just too expensive and offers more content than you want, Sling TV might provide a happy medium for you. On paper, Sling sounds a lot like a traditional cable service: Pay a monthly subscription fee in exchange for 23 real-time channels, with extra channel packages available for $5 more per month. Channel package extensions include HBO or a world news channels (France 24, News 18 India, HLN, etc). There's no contract and no set-top box rental fee. Sling is especially handy for sports fans, as it offers both ESPN and ESPN2 and is the only place to watch ESPN without cable or satellite TV. For cord-cutting sports fans, this alone is worth the price. Other popular networks, like CNN, Cartoon Network, TBS and the Food Network, sweeten the deal.
PlayStation Vue: Best for PlayStation Owners
PlayStation Vue is about as close as you can get to a cable subscription without actually getting a cable company involved. The service, which is available on PlayStation consoles, Sony smart TVs and iPads, is Sony's first foray into delivering live TV to its customers. Choose from three packages: Access ($50 per month for 50-plus channels), Core ($60 per month for 60-plus channels, including sports), and Elite ($65 per month for 85-plus channels, including Epix and other niche programming). Although the service is expensive, it lets you record your favorite shows. Right now, PlayStation Vue is available only in New York, Chicago, Dallas, Miami, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Los Angeles, but Sony promises a wider release is coming soon.
Crackle: Best Streaming Service for Vegging Out
If you yearn for the halcyon days of cheesy action movies and anime on afternoon cable, Crackle will take you back in time at no cost. The Sony-owned platform broadcasts movies, TV shows and original programming on a rotating basis. There's no subscription or à la carte fee, although you do have to sit through a fair amount of commercials. While the programming is not usually blockbuster material, it's stuff you've heard of — think Total Recall rather than The Terminator, or Pitch Black rather than Riddick. Some of the original shows are good, too, like Jerry Seinfeld's Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.
Funny or Die: Best Streaming Service for Comedy Fans
Funny or Die started life as a platform for sharing chuckle-worthy videos online, but in the last few years, it's expanded to become one of the premier comedy sites on the Web. Funny or Die hosts one-off videos, ongoing series and a rotating cast of celebrity guest stars, from Bill Nye to Jennifer Lawrence to Samuel L. Jackson. With offbeat hits such as Drunk History, Donald Trump's The Art of the Deal and Gay of Thrones (a decidedly LGBT-friendly take on the popular George R.R. Martin mythos), Funny or Die will not fuel your latest streaming marathon session, but it might have you in stitches a few times per day.
Twitch: Best Streaming Service for Gamers
Back in the day, watching video games was reserved for the unfortunate player without his or her own controller, but now it's a pastime on par with gaming itself. Twitch is the most popular game-broadcasting service out there, and you can find thousands of streams at any given time. Whether you want to watch live eSports broadcasts of League of Legends or casual playthroughs of single-player adventures, Twitch should be your first stop. You can even find gaming talk shows with expert commentators, and follow famous Let's Play personalities as they game in real time.
Vevo: Best Streaming Service for Music Fans
MTV gave up on music videos years ago, but that doesn't mean the days of music videos, filmed concerts and band documentaries are gone forever. Vevo is every bit the spiritual successor to the music-centric networks of the '80s and '90s. Not only can you look up music videos for all of your favorite bands, but you can also follow ongoing documentary series, check out up-and-coming artists and even watch a live stream of curated music videos that runs 24/7. The service skews a bit heavy on pop and hip-hop, but then again, doesn't all music television?
What to Stream
Picking a streaming service is just the first step. The real nitty gritty is deciding what to watch. We've scoured the options on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO Now and Showtime Anytime to bring you the best shows to binge watch. We'll tell you which service has each show and exactly how long it will take for you to watch every episode.
Cord cutters should also check out our best HDTV Antennas page to make sure they never miss local sports and weather.