The early days of streaming were glorious. Low cost, no ads, fresh and exciting content. Now it's kind of a mess, with over a dozen services competing for your eyeballs (and dollars) and seemingly nonstop mergers, name changes (cough, HBO, cough), content removal, channel disappearances and, of course, price hikes. It's enough to send a person screaming back to basic cable.
OK, maybe things aren't that desperate. But it can definitely be a challenge to figure out the best streaming service for what you want to watch — and what you can afford. Below I've rounded up what I consider the top picks across a variety of categories: best for sports, best for TV junkies, best for free and so on. So don't change the channel; help is at hand.
Why I'm qualified to rate streaming services
I'm an unabashed TV junkie, and have been for most of my 55 years on this planet. (Welcome Back, Kotter was a seminal show for me.) Having cut the cable-TV cord for good back around 2018, I've been bouncing between the various streaming services; I subscribe to nearly all the major ones. Meanwhile I've tested and reviewed tech products and services for over 30 years. So, yeah, I know my way around the dial, so to speak.
How I selected and tested the best streaming services
I evaluated these services based on the most obvious criteria: price, content and ease of use. In most cases it was pretty easy to determine which ones were the standouts in the categories listed below. Best free service? Pluto, hands-down. Best for families? Disney Plus, easy. (On the flipside, choosing the best service for sports was quite challenging; read on to learn why.)
All tests were conducted on a Roku Streambar Pro, my preferred slinger of streaming apps. It's worth noting there can be slight differences between these apps on different platforms. Any complaints I have with an app's user interface (UI) might not apply — or might be even worse — if you're using something else, like an Amazon Fire TV or a Google TV.
Speaking of UI, some streamers really bungle it. It's bad enough that each one is different — different icons, layout, menu options, etc. — but certain aspects seem almost user-hostile. For example, many apps insist on playing previews, with audio, while you're browsing content or just sitting at the home screen. Some seem to bury the all-important "continue watching" carousel or relocate it from one viewing session to the next (looking at you, Netflix).
On the whole I have to give the services a pass for these transgressions, because while they can be annoying, they're not deal-breakers; I'm not going to cancel my Apple TV Plus subscription just because of its surprisingly bad UI. But you can bet I'm going to call out the worst offenders, even if they've earned a spot on the best list.
I'll never understand why anyone chooses to watch horror films; I don't want those images and ideas in my brain. (Real life is horrific enough, am I right?) But if that's your jam, look no further than Shudder. The aptly named service is home to an unparalleled selection of horror movies and TV series.
Just don't subscribe directly; the smarter move is to sign up for AMC Plus, which starts at $5 per month with ads or $7 without. That service includes not only all AMC content, but also full access to Shudder, Sundance Now and IFC Films Unlimited. Shudder all by itself would cost you the same $7 per month.
Although there's plenty of mainstream and cult content here, Shudder's library does seem to be lacking certain classics. Where, for example, is Shawn of the Dead?! Where's The Shining? But my real complaint is with resolution: It's just 720p. Maybe a little graininess suits the material, but at a minimum Shudder should be slinging 1080p.
Large library of horror movies and series
Available for as little as $5 per month
Lacking some genre classics
Most streams are just 720p resolution; some are only 480p
Not to be confused with regular YouTube, Google's live-TV service comes fairly close to replicating, well, regular cable, with over 100 channels (including local ones) and a generous selection of sports. It's expensive, but most of its competitors are as well.
YouTube TV's interface may not look conventional, but it's fairly straightforward, dividing everything into just three sections: Home, Library and Live. Your subscription includes unlimited cloud DVR, so you can record anything and everything you like. There's one oddity, though: When you choose something to record, you automatically get the entire series; there's no option to record just one episode. So when you go to the Library page, it can be a little confusing to figure out what's recorded, what's coming up, and what might be available on-demand.
Although it has nowhere near as many regional sports networks (such as Bally Sports) as Fubo, YouTube TV is the only place to get NFL Sunday Ticket. It costs extra, but should allow you to watch your favorite team(s) no matter where and when the games take place. It also supports a nifty option called Multiview, which lets you watch four games at once. (There's a handful of pre-set Multiview streams available outside of Sunday Ticket as well.)
If you want 4K streams, however, it'll cost you an extra $10 per month — and only some content is available at that resolution. The 4K add-on also lets you watch unlimited simultaneous streams on your home network and download shows to mobile devices for offline viewing.
Extensive channel lineup includes local networks
Unlimited cloud DVR
Lots of add-on options, including NFL Sunday Ticket
Philo flies under most viewers' radar, and that's a shame: The service is arguably the best-kept secret in streaming. For those who miss basic-cable networks like AMC, Comedy Central, History, Hallmark and Nickelodeon, Philo serves them up in all their live-TV glory.
Your $25 monthly subscription includes over 70 well-known channels, plus around 35 specialty ones like Chicken Soup for the Soul, Game Show Central and multiple Vevo music-video channels. If you want sports, however, look elsewhere — and the only notable news channel is BBC News.
The service mixes old-school and new, with unlimited cloud-based DVR for shows you want to keep for later and some 70,000 shows and movies (from the aforementioned networks) available for on-demand viewing. The interface is fairly intuitive, and you can even fast-forward through commercials on some content — though in my experience this feature was a little buggy.
Nevertheless, anyone still clinging to a pricey cable subscription just for, say, The Food Network will find Philo an affordable and comprehensive alternative. More cord-cutters should know about it.
Full disclosure: I use Hulu more than any other streaming service, and not by a small margin. Whether it's new weekly episodes of Bob's Burgers and Shark Tank, a rewatch of The Shield (one of dozens of FX shows exclusive to Hulu) or therecent Justified reboot, Hulu keeps me relentlessly entertained.
The service is largely unrivaled when it comes to current TV programming; many shows can be viewed the day after they air on the broadcast networks. But there's a deep catalog of older shows as well; this is the place to see classics like M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Cheers and more.
Hulu is also home to some splendid original shows, including Devs, Reservation Dogs, The Bear, Welcome to Wrexham and What We Do in the Shadows.
Amazingly, all this starts at just $8 monthly — but if you want commercial-free viewing, the price jumps to $18. There's a live-TV upgrade as well, but it bumps you to a whopping $76 — and doesn't even include the ad-free option. So Hulu may be the best for TV junkies, but be prepared to pay for it.
Prime Video occupies a weird space on this list because it's really three separate entities. First, there's FreeVee (formerly IMDb TV), home to some very good (but ad-supported) streaming content. Never watched Burn Notice or Lost? This is the place. (Oh, and do not sleep on Jury Duty, one of the best shows of 2023.)
Next, there's the considerable library of movies, TV shows and originals included with an Amazon Prime subscription, which costs $15 per month. That price is right in line with the likes of Netflix and Max (though it's soon to increase if you want to continue watching without ads, sigh), making Prime seem like a pretty solid deal considering all the other extras that go with it: fast shipping, free GrubHub+, Prime Music, Prime Reading and so on.
That's all well and good, but I think Amazon is the best bet for the stuff you can't stream with a subscription (either here or elsewhere); the movies and TV shows you need to buy or rent. For starters, few other services even offer this option. And if there's something available for rental or purchase, chances are good Amazon has it. I especially like leveraging the "digital reward" credits I earn from choosing slower shipping on Amazon purchases. A few bucks here and there can add up to a free rental.
My only complaint with all this is that the Prime Video interface mashes all these things together, with little delineation between what's free with ads, what's free as part of your Prime subscription and what needs to be rented or purchased. The overall UI is busy and repetitive, which just adds to the confusion.
Nevertheless, this is definitely my preferred stop for movie rentals.
There's an embarrassment of family-friendly riches in the Disney Plus toy chest, everything from Pixar to Marvel to Star Wars. Every episode of The Simpsons: here. Animated favorites like Cinderella, Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph and The Lion King: here. Even the filmed version of the Broadway legend Hamilton is here.
Indeed, if you have kids or grandkids, or you're just young at heart, Disney Plus offers an unrivaled content library. And if you don't mind ads, it's pretty reasonable at $8 per month. You can bundle in Hulu for just $2 more, and if you want ESPN+ as well, that brings you to $15 — a genuinely decent deal on three major streaming services. (The same bundle without ads costs $25 monthly. It also affords downloads for offline viewing on mobile devices.)
I do have a few quibbles with the interface. When you pause a show, for example, no status bar or anything else pops up onscreen to indicate how much time is left. And the search page is one of the weirdest I've seen: Once you get there, you have to hit "up" on your remote to get to the search bar, but then a keyboard and completely different search field appear near the bottom.
Other than that, Disney Plus hits a home run; it's a must-have for families.
Bursting with family-friendly content
Cheap if you choose the with-ads tier
You can add Hulu for just $2 more
With-ads tier doesn't allow downloads for offline viewing
When I think of some of my favorite originals of the past few years, a lot of them originated on Apple TV Plus. Sure, there are the obvious ones — Severance, Ted Lasso, The Morning Show — but I also adored Bad Sisters, The After Party, CODA, Mythic Quest and Schmigadoon, to name just a few. Still in the queue: Hijack, Silo and Slow Horses.
This being an Apple product, you'd think it would be among the most expensive streaming services. Shocker: Even with a recent price hike, Apple TV Plus is one of the cheaper options out there. And there are no obnoxious tiers to contend with; it's just $10 per month and that's the end of it.
This being an Apple product, you'd also expect it to have a logical, effortless UI — and you'd be wrong again. It's a mess, with a poorly organized "Up Next" menu in place of the traditional watchlist and no easy way to navigate to the main page for a show you're watching. My Watch Now screen also mixes in content and purchases from other services, which is confusing at best. If there's a way to disable that option, I've yet to find it.
That said, no streaming app is easier to sign into, at least if you have an iPhone or iPad: Just scan the onscreen QR code and you're done. I wish every other service operated this way.
For highly bingeable original content, Apple TV Plus is currently edging out the likes of Amazon, Hulu, Max and Netflix. Time will tell if it can hold onto that crown.
Fubo is probably your best bet. The service carries not only most local and league channels, but also EPSN, FS1, FS2 and around three dozen regional sports networks. All told, this affords access to a greater variety of sports than just about any other streamer.
A smattering of that content (think: World Series baseball and Premier League soccer) streams in 4K, but most live TV tops out at 720p. And you don't even get access to 4K unless you upgrade from the Pro base plan ($75 per month) to Elite or Premier ($85 and $95, respectively). Those tiers also buy you more channels, but if you want the likes of TBS and TNT (owned by Warner Bros. Discovery), you'll have to subscribe elsewhere; they're not available in any Fubo plan.
Indeed, Fubo is far from perfect; the same is true of Hulu with Live TV, Sling and YouTube TV. Sports fans may need to do some homework to figure if another streaming service is better for the teams and games they want to watch.
Suffering from subscription fatigue? Pluto serves up a wealth of streaming content that's absolutely free, though you'll have to sit through commercial breaks, just like when you're watching basic cable.
Speaking of which, Pluto's program guide should seem familiar to anyone who owned a cable box. There's a learning curve to both finding and using that guide, but overall the user interface is above average.
For starters, it's categorical: Pluto's hundreds of channels are divided into sections like Movies, Comedy, Classic TV, News, Reality, Kids and Sports. You can also find a good selection of on-demand movies (older titles, mostly, but some decidedly mainstream ones). I especially like the Kids Mode option, which strips away everything but the kid-friendly channels and movies.
Another Pluto strength: dozens of channels devoted to old shows and favorite genres. Trekkies, for example, can tune into the Star Trek channel for round-the-clock episodes, and there are others devoted to I Love Lucy, Baywatch, Matlock and loads more. If it's "comfort" viewing you're after, Pluto has an endless supply.
Dozens of specialty channels not available elsewhere
You may be surprised by a few of the omissions in the above list; I'm honestly a little surprised myself. But when I think about where I spend the bulk of my viewing time, well, some services just didn't rank.
Max: What used to be the service for prestige TV (Barry, Game of Thrones, Succession, etc.) is now called Max; I'm still angry that Warner Bros. Discovery killed the venerable, beloved HBO moniker and pulled a bunch of content more or less overnight. Meanwhile is there even one current Max series that qualifies as must-see? Yes, the service is home to Friends, Turner Classic Movies and, more recently, some live sports — but this last will cost you extra starting next year. Max? To me, it's more like Mess.
Netflix: The pioneer streaming service was once the best streaming service, period, but now I can't figure out what Netflix is good at. Raising prices? Cancelling shows? Cranking out so-so originals? And why do the Continue Watching and My List carousels keep moving to different positions? Make no mistake, there's still a ton of excellent content to be found here, but the tentpoles are fewer and farther between — making the ever-increasing price tag harder to justify.
Paramount Plus: If I were to add a "most improved" category, the winner would be Paramount Plus. The ViacomCBS-owned streamer offers a lot of content not available elsewhere, including all the current-generation Star Trek series (as well as the entire Star Trek back catalog). This is also the place to find every Indiana Jones and Mission: Impossible movie, plus everything available on Showtime (if you choose the Premium subscription tier). But what is Paramount Plus best at? I couldn't come up with an answer.
5 tips for surviving streaming services
Not that I was ever a fan of cable TV, but it certainly was easier: one monthly bill, one program guide, one stop for everything you wanted to watch. With so many different streaming services out there, modern TV life has grown a lot more complicated. Here are five ways you can minimize the madness:
Plan your binges: Is your favorite show coming back for a new season? Wait until all the episodes have dropped, then subscribe to that service for just a month or two — however long it takes you to binge it all. Then cancel the service. Obviously this can take some planning if you want to catch multiple shows across multiple services, but it can work. Might I suggest a spreadsheet?
Consider an annual option: Some services will cut you a deal if you subscribe for a year at a time rather than paying monthly. Disney Plus Premium, for example, costs $14 per month, but it's $140 when paid annually. That amortizes out to $11.66 per month and represents a total savings of $28. Similarly, Apple TV offers a one-year subscription for $99 versus $10 for the month-to-month option. Prepayment savings: $21.
Bundle for the win: If you're interested in Disney Plus, Hulu and/or ESPN Plus, don't pay for them separately; you can save big by bundling them together. Disney Plus with ads, for example, costs $8 monthly, but you can tack on Hulu for just $2 more. Make it a trio, with ESPN, for $15, which works out to just $5 per service per month.
Look to your phone carrier: Some offer free streaming subscriptions with certain plans. T-Mobile, for example, will cover the cost of a Netflix Basic subscription if you have one of its Go5G plans. Verizon Unlimited Plus comes with a Disney/Hulu/ESPN bundle. And if you have at least three unlimited lines with US Mobile, you'll get a service credit covering the cost of Apple TV Plus, Max, Netflix or the aforementioned Disney bundle.
Learn what's streaming where: I'm a big fan of apps like JustWatch and ReelGood, which can quickly tell you where a movie or TV show is available to stream. If you primarily watch content on your phone or tablet, check out Younify, which puts all your active subscriptions under a single app roof so you can quickly return to what you're watching — without having to remember what service it's on.
Do you really need live TV?
I understand the thinking: If you're ditching cable, you need a replacement — Fubo, Hulu, YouTube TV, etc. — so you can continue to watch live TV. But do you really? Those services are expensive, all starting at over $70 per month. I'll make the case that unless you're specifically looking for sports, you may want to rethink a live-TV streaming service.
Consider news, another key driver. Did you know that Pluto (see above) has over a dozen news channels, including CBS, CNN and NBC? It's a totally free service. The Roku Channel offers free news channels as well. All this is to say that if you like to stay informed or just keep the news on in the background throughout your day, you can do so for free.
But what about all your favorite shows? Don't you need a live-TV streaming service so you can record (i.e. DVR) them for later viewing? Actually, the vast majority of modern shows, including those that air on network and cable channels, are available on-demand. That means they don't need to be recorded; you just stream them whenever you want. And as an added bonus, on-demand viewing usually means commercial-free viewing as well.
Example: I'm a huge fan of Bob's Burgers, which airs Sundays on Fox. But I don't need Fubo or YouTube TV; I just watch new episodes on Hulu. Not Hulu with Live TV, by the way, but just "regular" (read: cheap) Hulu. And because I pay extra for an ad-free subscription, I get to watch the show without commercial interruption.
The challenge here, of course, is that different shows you like are probably spread out across different streaming services. So you may end up needing to subscribe to 3-4 of them, and it can get confusing to remember what's streaming where. At that point, it might be more cost-effective — and convenient — to go the live-TV route. But don't just assume that's the only option, or even the best one. I haven't used a live-TV service in years, and I still get to watch everything I want.
One last thing: Depending on where you live, an inexpensive antenna can pull in many, if not most, local affiliate stations. You won't be able to pause or record live broadcasts (not without additional hardware, anyway), but except for the price of the antenna, this is a completely free solution. Here's a list of the best digital TV antennas you can buy right now.
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