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.
Best streaming service for live TV
Best budget streaming service for live TV
Best streaming service for kids and families
Amazon Prime Video
Best streaming service for renting and buying movies
Best streaming service for TV junkies
Apple TV Plus
Best streaming service for original content
Best free streaming service
Best streaming service for sports
Best streaming service for horror fans
Read more: The best streaming devices of 2024
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.
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.
Wondering how I chose the best streaming services and which ones missed the cut? Scroll past the reviews to learn all that and more, including whether or not you really need live TV.
Best streaming services for 2024
Streaming services FAQ
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.
Do any streaming services offer local channels
Yes! But it's complicated. You won't find any local channels on the likes of Netflix, Apple TV Plus or Max. Paramount Plus is operated by Paramount Global, which owns CBS and streams my local affiliate station — but only that one. NBC-owned Peacock, for its part, sometimes airs live NBC programming (such as sports), but doesn't carry my local affiliate.
If you want all (or at least most) local channels, you need a live-TV streaming service such as Fubo, Hulu with Live TV, Sling TV or YouTube TV. Just take note that availability can vary in different areas, so be sure to check the local-channel offerings before subscribing to one of these services.
My advice: Investigate the aforementioned antenna option, which may be your best (and definitely cheapest) way to access local channels.
Does 4K make a difference when streaming?
Yes, but also kind of no. For starters, just because you have a 4K TV doesn't mean that everything you view will be at that resolution. Indeed, while most of the streaming services offer at least some of their content in 4K, there's quite a bit that's merely "Full HD," aka 1080p. (Netflix, for example, claims around 1,200 4K titles out of a library that's estimated at 18,000.) And guess what: You probably never noticed.
That's because 1080p is already pretty sharp to the human eye. Yes, 4K represents a substantial jump in resolution, but for casual viewing it's not as noticeable as you might think — especially on medium-size and smaller TVs.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of live TV content is currently streamed at 1080p, not 4K. (Bet you didn't notice that, either.)
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.
Streaming services that just missed the cut
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.
ESPN Plus: Home to live sports, documentaries and some original content, ESPN Plus is definitely worth a look for sports junkies. However, it's lacking in some key areas, mostly notably NFL and NBA games, meaning it's not really a replacement for the ESPN channels you find on cable. The good news is it's relatively cheap at $12 per month, but you can get it bundled practically free with a Disney/Hulu subscription.
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.
Peacock: NBC's streaming service has a good shot at making the best list, as it's home to a considerable library of beloved TV series (The Office, Parks and Rec, etc.), new originals (Mrs. Davis, so good) and exclusive movies. You'll also find some sports here, including NFL playoff games and the upcoming Summer Olympics.
Sling TV: Anyone interested in live TV should definitely check out Sling, though be prepared for a bit of confusion. The service offers two bundles, Blue and Orange, each with a different catalog of channels (including a smattering of local ones). Orange has 32 channels; Blue, 39. But there are about 24 "base" channels that overlap between the two. Um, okaaay? Meanwhile, Orange lets you stream on one device at a time; Blue, on three. The two tiers cost $40 per month apiece, unless you bundle them together for $55; the only logical choice.
Starz: I recently "inherited" a free Starz subscription as part of a Netflix bundle, and I have to tell you: Not much there of interest (to me, anyway). There's some original content, little of it notable, and most of the movies are B-list or worse. I have a hard time seeing Starz ever making the jump to the best-list roster.
Tubi: Another ad-supported service with free movies and TV shows — most of them dreck. For every rare standout (such as Knives Out), there dozens of titles you've never heard of. No harm in browsing the library every now again, but keep your expectations low.
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.