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The best cheap streaming service might not be the one you expect

Netflix, Disney Plus, Apple TV, HBO Max on a phone
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Trying to find the best cheap streaming service often feels like taking a series of risks. But when Netflix's Standard plan ($15.49 / £10.99 / AU$16.99 per month) just took another price hike, we can't argue with anyone who is looking for a more affordable way to stream great movies and shows at home. 

You might think one of the best free streaming services is the way to go, but none of these options really stand up to even the most affordable entries from our best streaming services list. Which is why I thought it was a good time to wax poetic about one of the most underrated (and most affordable) streaming services on the market.

Of course, your mileage on this topic may vary — which is why I'm going to also mention the other cheap streaming services available to take for a spin. But for my money, Apple TV Plus is the best cheap streaming service. And, yes, I am a little shocked to say that.

Apple TV Plus didn't start out as the best cheap streaming service

When Apple TV Plus ($4.99 / £4.99 / AU$7.99 per month (opens in new tab)) first came out, I didn't really know what to do with it. Its initial batch of shows had two winners among critics in the form of For All Mankind and Dickinson, while See and The Morning Show were more divisive.

And after that point, many would-be viewers sort of took a pause when it came to even considering Apple TV Plus. I certainly found it interesting that Apple wouldn't let me pay for Apple TV Plus, as it extended its free trials for months and months. It didn't seem like a strong sign for the service, but it did signal that Apple internally knew there was something better coming around the pike. 

Jason Sudeikis in Ted Lasso

(Image credit: Apple)

Those better days for Apple TV Plus arrived during the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, right when everyone needed more things to watch — making us increasingly OK with spending more on streaming services. I'd point to Ted LassoBeastie Boys Story and Mythic Quest as some of the stronger earlier pieces of Apple's lineup. Schmigadoon! also attracted interest as well. 

Mythic Quest season 2 improved on the first season, and then Ted Lasso season 2 arrived to mostly positive notes. And while it may not have been as beloved as the first season, it was strong enough to make us eager for Ted Lasso season 3

But then, Apple TV Plus became a great value

Emilia Jones and Marlee Matlin in CODA

(Image credit: Apple TV Plus)

The latter half of 2021 and the start of 2022, though is when Apple TV Plus took the lead. It all started off with CODA, the eventual best picture winner that dropped on August 13, 2021. It's a beautiful drama about being a child of deaf adults (literally what CODA stands for) that wasn't my cup of tea and I put off watching until the hype around it forced my hand. And I loved the movie.

Then, Apple became the exclusive online home of the A24 film The Tragedy of Macbeth (on January 14, 2022). The Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand-led version of The Scottish Play written and directed by Joel Coen may not be for everyone, but it's a huge get for Apple. A brilliant film featuring strong performances from its leads and a great minimalist look, The Tragedy of Macbeth is a sleeper on Apple TV Plus (that I was lucky enough to see in IMAX).

Denzel Washington in The Tragedy of Macbeth

(Image credit: Apple TV+)

Some of Apple's best TV shows arrived shortly thereafter, starting with The Afterparty — a comedy murder mystery where each episode is told in a different style. It all works because the show revolves around the interrogations conducted by the charismatic Detective Danner (Tiffany Haddish) and each of the potential suspects is so charismatic, weird or unique. 

The Afterparty features a solid cast including Sam Richardson (I Think You Should Leave), Zoë Chao (Strangers), Ike Barinholtz (The Mindy Project, Blockers), Ben Schwartz (Parks and Recreation, Sonic), Ilana Glazer (Broad City) and Dave Franco (21 Jump Street). The Afterparty is so good, in fact, that The Afterparty season 2 is already in the works.

Tiffany Haddish as Detective Danner and John Early as Detective Culp in The Afterparty

(Image credit: Apple TV Plus)

Of course, though, I couldn't go further without talking about Severance. The Adam Scott-led drama smelled like Black Mirror from the outside and soon became that new show. You know, how Ted Lasso's antics was the thing on everyone's lips? How Showtime's Yellowjackets took over the conversation? 

Severance's super-weird story of a company that pioneers a disturbing take on the work/life balance that sends part of you to basically work forever is the show that made many reconsider how highly they rank Apple TV Plus.

Adam Scott, Zach Cherry, John Turturro and Britt Lower in Severance

(Image credit: Apple TV Plus)

And, then, in Severance's aftermath, Apple TV Plus dropped a whole lot more. The always-shifting Shining Girls sees Elizabeth Moss star in a mystery series about trauma, Gary Oldman led Slow Horses to rave reviews and the prestigious Pachinko adapted a best-selling novel to a 98% Rotten Tomatoes score (a second series is confirmed). 

Oh, and dinosaur lovers are gushing over Prehistoric Planet, the new series that features amazing visual effects and David Attenborough's narration. 

The other cheap streaming services offer what Apple's missing

Admittedly, all of the above focuses strictly on original and exclusive programming. That's what Apple TV Plus does (apart from also streaming MLB games on Fridays, as the service dabbles with live sports).

And so I have to note that Apple TV Plus doesn't have a licensed films and TV shows library the way that Peacock Premium ($4.99 / £9.99 per month (opens in new tab)) and Paramount Plus ($4.99 / £6.99 / AU$8.99 per month (opens in new tab)) do. 

Rebecca Romijn as Number One, Anson Mount as Captain Christopher Pike and Ethan Peck as Science Officer Spock in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

(Image credit: Paramount via StarTrek.com)

Then again, neither of those services have killed it on originals the way Apple has. They're not particularly bad, but their wins aren't as many if you ask me. Peacock has a fistful of attention-getters (Rutherford Falls, Girls5Eva, We Are Lady Parts, Vigil and Hitmen included), while Paramount Plus rocks 1883, Evil, South Park specials, The Good Fight, the new Star Trek shows and RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars.

Those services are stronger, though, for overall catalogues of content, which is primarily based around stuff they didn't make, based around a study conducted by ReelGood. The service measured how many movies and shows you get for your cash (opens in new tab), and so let's look at how these services stack up (as of April 2022).

ServiceTotal MoviesTotal shows
Apple TV Plus4481
Peacock Premium2,051972
Paramount Plus2,257738

So, if you judge a service by the size of its library, I can understand why we're in disagreement. ReelGood is lumping originals and licensed programming in together with its numbers, and says that when it comes to content with IMDb ratings of 8.0 and above, Paramount Plus (90 movies and 59 shows) and Peacock Premium (104 movies and 77 shows) also beat Apple TV Plus (14 movies and 13 shows). 

But I'd counter that original programming is the true measuring stick for a good streaming service. And if you're not winning on original programming, you're a streaming service that's winning because of a rented library — and those contracts run out. Rare is it that we see a service like Disney Plus gain the Defenders Saga Marvel shows from Netflix, but it does happen.

Peacock and Paramount Plus also offer live sports and news, which Apple's only started to dip a toe into with Friday Night Baseball.

Bottom line

It's also worth noting that you can get Apple TV Plus for even cheaper, though it requires you to be immersed in the Apple ecosystem. Because I use Apple Music and the 2TB iCloud plan for my photos and videos, I would already pay $19.98 each month. By opting for the Apple One Premier bundle ($29.95 / £29.95 / AU$39.95), I get Apple TV Plus (the service I use the most after the above two), Apple Arcade, Apple News Plus and Apple Fitness Plus for $10 more. So, if you're like me and use Apple's services, consider this as a way to save even more by bundling.

Oh, and you know how Paramount Plus and Peacock charge $5 to get rid of ads? Apple doesn't have any ad breaks on its shows — a pleasant perk that's practically designed to go unnoticed.

I admit that Apple TV Plus' focus on originals isn't everything for everyone. But the amount of quality original programming you can get there for $5 per month is great. I'm not saying you should get Apple TV Plus now and then keep it forever. At the very least, it's a great short-term investment.

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Henry is a senior editor at Tom’s Guide covering streaming media, laptops and all things Apple, reviewing devices and services for the past seven years. Prior to joining Tom's Guide, he reviewed software and hardware for TechRadar Pro, and interviewed artists for Patek Philippe International Magazine. He's also covered the wild world of professional wrestling for Cageside Seats, interviewing athletes and other industry veterans.