best streaming services at a glance
2. HBO GO, HBO NOW
3. Disney Plus
5. Amazon Prime Video
6. Sling TV
7. Fubo TV
The best streaming services make it easier than ever to find something new to watch. These services are more important than ever, as movie theaters have closed, making your home theater (or tablet) the best seat in town. So, we're all in the same boat, booting up our favorite services and devouring the latest programs, both live and on-demand.
Our picks for the top streaming services differ in significant ways. Yes, many offer exclusive original programming, but only one has live streaming TV programming and only a couple came free with another purchase. The best part (at least for your budget) is that each is sold in month-to-month subscriptions, so you can save some cash when one isn't bringing the hits.
These services are just one half of the streaming landscape, though, as the cable box is apparently meeting its demise as we type. In its place come the best streaming devices, which include Rokus and Chromecasts, which help you get these services on your TV.
And by testing these services and devices side-by-side, we figure out the best way to build the ultimate streaming setup.
What are the best streaming services?
The best streaming service overall is Netflix, which offers an excellent selection of TV shows, movies and original programming. First of all, Netflix practically controls the conversation around streaming, with most of the big shows (which it keeps doing, hand over first, with hit after hit) and routine success making big new series such as Tiger King and Dead to Me.
When it isn't impressing with heavy hitters from its originals collection such as Glow or The Witcher or Mindhunter, Netflix is winning with sheer depth and volume. By frequently adding licensed content, with major sitcoms such as Parks and Rec and Community. If Netflix somehow doesn't have a strong selection in the category you care about the most, you can just wait a month, and watch as they fill in the gaps with something new to watch. The horror section just got the utterly creepy The Girl on The Third Floor.
If you need something a little cheaper, Hulu is a worthwhile option, and a few dollars less expensive — if you're willing to sit through some commercials, that is. Hulu's also the place to stream the Academy Award-winning Parasite, by Bong Joon-ho. Other recent big winners for Hulu include Normal People, the High Fidelity TV series remake and Shrill.
Disney Plus, a relatively new contender, also merits a look, and it practically demands your attention if you're a fan of Star Wars or the Marvel movies, of which it has nearly every film (or it will soon, in some cases). It's also the home of the critically acclaimed Pixar library.
The best streaming services now
The best streaming service around
Starting price: $9 per month | Simultaneous streams: 1-4
The great-granddaddy in the market remains the best streaming service. As you probably know, Netflix provides unlimited streaming of TV shows, movies, comedy specials and original programming (including Love Is Blind, Glow and Black Mirror) for one monthly subscription fee. You can even create up to five different profiles on a single account to make sure that your favorite content doesn't mess up recommendations for your friends and loved ones. Netflix is constantly adding and taking away movies, so you'll want to check our our what's new on Netflix guide to see what's coming soon, and what you should watch before it's gone.
No other service has yet given Netflix an honest-to-goodness run for its money in terms of selection, quality and performance consistency. Recently, it's been easy to see that Netflix is inching away from its original business model of distributing other studios' films and shows, in favor of these above originals. But as these shows and films get better and better — and Netflix owns the conversation on social media — their decision to move from the films they're losing as competitors build their own streaming services, is getting proven as a solid plan. Our Netflix hidden gems guide shows how it's also got a great library of fantastic shows and movies that have somehow gone under the radar for many audiences.
Check out our guide to the best Netflix series
2. HBO GO, HBO NOW
The best streaming service for prestige TV
Starting price: $15 per month | Simultaneous streams: 3
HBO, the original premium content channel, now offers two ways to stream: HBO GO (if you have HBO from a cable or satellite package) and HBO NOW (for cord-cutters). Don't worry about any differences, as the service's dual streaming services offer the same top-shelf content you get from the cable channel itself. And it's library isn't just limited to only Game of Thrones, as shows like seasons of Westworld, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Veep are available, too.
For those looking to keep track of current events, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver gives audiences sorely needed laughs — but the network lost Vice News Tonight, which is now back on Viceland. HBO's biggest recent hits are adaptations of Watchmen and The Outsider. At $14.99 per month for HBO NOW, it can be a little pricey.
3. Disney Plus
The best streaming service for families
Starting price: $7 per month | Simultaneous streams: 4
Before its release, Disney Plus was one of the most anticipated streaming services on the market. And why wouldn't it be? Disney controls a frankly frightening number of properties, from Marvel, to Star Wars, to Disney's own animated canon, to The Simpsons (all 30 seasons, and counting). At $7 per month, it's among the cheaper of the best streaming services out there, and a lot of the content is available in 4K resolution with HDR color palettes, too.
If you feel Disney's hegemony on entertainment is crushing pop culture, you might want to steer clear — but if this is the stuff you really want to watch, it's hard to argue that it's one of the best streaming services you can get at its price point. Finished The Mandalorian and debating deleting your account?
Read our full Disney Plus review.
The best streaming service for cord-cutters
Starting price: $6 per month | Simultaneous streams: 2
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 current season — or often all of the program's seasons.
In addition, the service hosts a number of original shows (including joint ventures with the BBC, like The Wrong Mans and season 4 of The Thick of It), a selection of offbeat movies and a surprising amount of classic anime series. Recent Hulu hits include a remake of High Fidelity that brings the record shop to New York, and swaps John Cusack out for Zoe Kravitz. Even with a paid subscription, you have to sit through commercials, but far fewer than if you watched the same shows on cable.
5. Amazon Prime Video
The best streaming service you're already paying for
Starting price: $119 per year | Simultaneous streams: 3
For those who do most of their shopping online, Amazon Prime is a no-brainer. For $119 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 Video is a veritable buffet of movies, television and original programming (the best Amazon shows range from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, The Man in the High Castle, Bosch and Jack Ryan).
Thanks to a deal with Viacom — which controls Comedy Central, MTV and Nickelodeon — Amazon Prime arguably is the best streaming service when it comes to comedy and children's programming. The service also offers unlimited access to an extensive collection from HBO's back catalog of classics such as The Sopranos and The Wire. You can also rent or purchase movies through Amazon Prime Video, but it's an à la carte service. If you're trying to master your Amazon streaming device, check out our how to use the Fire Stick walkthrough.
6. Sling TV
The best live TV streaming service
Starting price: $30 per month | Simultaneous streams: 1-4
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 about 30 real-time channels. But there's no contract and no set-top box rental fee.
Sling is especially handy for sports fans, as it offers a variety of ESPN channels. For cord-cutting sports fans, this alone is worth the price. Other popular networks, like NBC, BBC America, CNN, Cartoon Network, TBS and the Food Network, sweeten the deal. Check out our Sling TV guide to packages, channels and more. While most of the popular streaming services start at around $50, Sling stands out with its $30 per month starting price.
Read our full Sling TV review.
7. Fubo TV
The best streaming service for sports afficionados
Starting price: $55 per month | Simultaneous streams: 2-3
Fubo TV is a good, if somewhat expensive, option for anyone looking to have access to cable channels without an actual cable subscription. Fubo’s standard plan is $54.99 and offers 108 channels, including almost every major broadcast and cable network. And unlike other live TV streaming competitors like YouTube TV and Sling TV, Fubo has 4K streaming for select content on demand. The other knock against Fubo, besides its higher price, is the limited Cloud DVR storage.
While Fubo’s channel lineup is the largest among the higher-priced streamers, it is missing Disney-owned networks like ABC and ESPN. For a service that touts its sports programming, that is a pretty big hole. But the lineup does include popular networks like NBC, Fox, AMC, Food Network, MTV, Syfy and TNT, as well as a ton of niche sports channels.
One of the best free streaming services
Starting price: free | Simultaneous streams: N/A
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.
Crackle originals include Snatch, an adaptation of the Guy Ritchie film, which stars Rupert Grint (yes, Ron Weasley himself). Adam Brody starred in StartUp, Keegan-Michael Key did voice work in the animated Supermansion, and even Chad Michael Murray showed up for CH:OS:EN. There's even Rob Riggle's Ski Master Academy, which bears resemblance to what would happen if you made a real life show out of Archer.
How to choose the best streaming services for you
The good news is that you don't need to limit yourself to just one. It's all about picking the number of services that's right for your budget. And to that matter, all depends on the content you want to consume. While Netflix has a diverse array of content, it's not appealing to any specific audience — which means it's probably a service that most people have.
While Netflix is pivoting more to original shows and movies with each passing week, it's still constantly adding licensed movies and shows. That means it's not only the place you'll re-watch The Good Place, but it's also got its own hits like Glow and Love Is Blind.
Alternatively, do not sleep on HBO Now and HBO Go. Not only does the service get top-tier movies, but it's continually getting some of the latest and greatest and most prestigious TV shows, such as Watchmen and The Outsider.
How we test streaming services
Testing streaming services is both serious work and good fun. When we test the quality of these platforms, we use them on multiple devices, including game consoles, web browsers and mobile devices. You'd be surprised at how differently Sling TV can look between a Roku, the Apple TV box and Chrome.
We then compare the services based around the number of simultaneous streams they allow, if they throw in 4K streaming for free (or charge extra), and what other special features they allow. We also keep a strong eye on the new channels coming to each service, with articles such as our Sling Orange vs Blue face-off.
And as pricing constantly changes (not in the right way, most of the time), we have to rethink how each competitor sits in the landscape. Sling, for example, has stayed near the low-end of the field, even though it too has gone up over time.
We also spend a fair amount of time keeping up with the latest entrants into the streaming wars. A newer live TV streaming service is Philo TV, which costs just $20 a month for 59 channels. One of the biggest new names in streaming is NBCU's Peacock. Its strategy is simple: free ad-supported content you love, but the debate over NBC Peacock Free vs Premium might be an easy question depending on how July's nation-wide launch goes. HBO Max is coming this month, and we'll get to that when it arrives.
While Apple TV Plus hasn't risen to the ranks of the best streaming services, we just found out some of the top Apple TV Plus shows are free right now, to give people a taste. And did you know that AT&T TV isn't a month-to-month subscription service? It's a really weird offering that feels like it's stuck in the past.
And there are even more challengers coming this spring: HBO Max will house the WarnerMedia library (including Friends), while NBC's Peacock will have The Office, SNL and more. Plus, there's Quibi (starting at $5 per month), which launches in April and will feature celebrity-driven, high-budget, short-form content developed just for smart phones, shot in both landscape and portrait orientations.