A little more than a decade ago, back when cord-cutting was still considered a new and daring decision — where fed-up television viewers felt forced by increasingly exorbitant cable subscriptions to ditch their oppressive-yet-familiar set-top box and venture out into the sparse wilderness of streaming media — the options were comparably cheap and relatively few. There was Netflix, which had pivoted from the now-quaintly antiquated business of mailing DVDs to people, and then there was Hulu, Roku, and Apple TV.
As Smart TVs took over the market and mobile devices proliferated in the 2010s, more consumers cut the cord and video streaming went mainstream, with particular subscriber growth during the lockdown days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, in a commercially inevitable response to our early aim of cobbling together some cost-effective internet alternatives to cable, there are more streaming services available than you can shake an Amazon Fire Stick at — and we’re paying higher and higher prices for them.
Many point out the irony of viewers shelling out so much for a multitude of à la carte selections as to approximate their old all-inclusive cable bill — and perhaps cable company executives are smugly rubbing their hands together waiting for us to collectively come crawling back. But by and large, streaming still offers better choice, control, and cost than cable — and, as platforms continue to grow their programming libraries and produce more of their own original shows and movies, it arguably offers better content too.
With most people streaming, the majority of them using multiple streaming services, and almost no one planning to cut back, how do you differentiate between the ever-expanding array of platforms and pick the best one? To help you decide what’s right for you, we’ve compiled this handy guide to the best streaming services.
What is the best streaming service?
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Netflix has been the king of the jungle for years now, and it remains the biggest and best streaming service out there. Despite recent troubling news about its subscriber base and stock price, Netflix continues to be the most must-have streaming option for millions of viewers, thanks to its optimized and user-friendly interface, smart recommendation algorithm, enormous selection of programs, multi-device support and impressive original content.
If you’re planning to cut the cord and looking to survive with just one streamer, Netflix would be it. On top of an extensive and wide-ranging collection of popular TV shows and movies, it delivers some of the most critically esteemed originals — from The Crown and House of Cards to Stranger Things and Master of None, from Bo Burnham's Inside and Orange is the New Black to Ozark and Drive to Survive.
Netflix is known for frequently adding and removing content, which can rankle some subscribers, but also offers lots of opportunities for fresh new programs to surface. While the company has lost some of its beloved back-catalogue TV titles to competitors over the past few years (such as The Office to Peacock and Friends to HBO Max), it’s doubled down on producing more of its own prestige content. And Netflix still offers a greater variety of network shows, original series, blockbuster movies, documentaries, comedy specials, kids programs, foreign favorite and more than its competitors.
As we wrote in our Netflix review, "It's got the best library of content, it's super easy to set up and use, it's available on a vast range of different devices (from computers to mobile phones to smart TVs and Blu-ray players) and it still offers truly excellent value for money. What's not to like?"
Let's first acknowledge that it's strange to associate Apple with the word "budget. Apple TV+ debuted in 2019 with The Morning Show, an original series with a big budget and big names (Jennifer Aniston, Steve Carrell and Reese Witherspoon), which actually exemplified the strategic approach the world's largest company has taken in its foray into streaming.
Despite announcing itself as the new kid on the content block that's also the richest kid in town, the key differentiator for Apple TV+ — and the principal reason it's so high up on this list of services — is its incredibly low price. At just $5/£5 a month, Apple TV+ is among the cheapest streaming services available, and that's for ad-free viewing and top-class features like 4K resolution, HDR and more — no hidden costs or up-charges involved.
Over the last couple of years, Apple TV+ was justifiably criticized for having a pretty bare title cupboard, as it contained no back catalog of existing shows or movies. But while the Apple TV+ content bench is comparatively light, its starting lineup — to clumsily use a sports metaphor that would make a certain American-football-turned-British-football-coach smile — has some stunning superstars.
Beyond The Morning Show and Ted Lasso, one of the most adored series in years, Apple TV+ has pumped out other head-turning exclusive programs like Severance, Schmigadoon!, Mythic Quest and more. It's also starting to dip its digital toes into movies.
While it still has a limited number of titles in its library, Apple TV+ is available in more than 100 countries, has an impressive array of supported devices and offers high-priced programs at a low cost. Armed with endless money and universal brand might, Apple TV+ has flexed its muscles, made massive leaps forward and established itself as one of the best streaming services today — and a contender to become perhaps the best tomorrow.
With more than 200 million Amazon Prime members worldwide, the only contender to Netflix in terms of sheer size is Prime Video, which comes free with the e-commerce giant's broader subscription service. But the similarities don't stop at the huge subscriber base.
Prime Video and Netflix are second and third, respectively, among the top 10 major paid streaming services in total number of streaming titles, and both offer impressive original programming that augments their extensive content libraries.
Some of the biggest hits for Prime Video have been The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, The Man in the High Castle, Reacher and The Boys, and the streamer also has the rights to the much-hyped upcoming series The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. While some view it as a repository for lots of lesser-known B-movies, Prime Video does have a sprawling film collection.
The service boasts significant technical capabilities, including 4K HDR streaming and offline downloads, and it supports a solid range of devices. The interface is comparatively good, though it works best on Amazon's own Fire TV Stick. In addition, Amazon has shown an inclination toward innovative expansion into live sports events, such as NFL Thursday Night Football, WNBA, select MLB games and more.
Amazon is still outpaced by Netflix programming, with less-frequent releases and fewer culture-making hits. You might not sign up for Amazon Prime just for the video component, but for the millions who are members anyway, the streaming service is outstanding added value.
Unquestionably and unsurprisingly, Disney+ is the top streaming service for families. It has a seemingly endless library of content from many of the world's best animated production studios that's extremely accessible and relatively affordable.
Simply put, Disney+ is a great option for the whole family, including treasured franchises from Pixar, Marvel, National Geographic, Star Wars and, of course, Disney itself. It delivers a formidable — and ever-expanding — library of high-quality TV shows (more than 7,500 titles) and movies (over 1,000) in a smart, sharp package that is feature-filled but still easy to use.
And although it may be a small world, after all, Disney+ has developed a not-so-small global subscriber base since coming on the streaming stage less than three years ago, ending 2021 with 130 million subscribers worldwide. While two-thirds of those paying Disney fans are in the United States and Canada, the service is available in many other countries, with growing numbers in the UK and a huge presence in India, thanks to its Disney+ Hotstar partnership. When accounting for the Disney Bundle, which is available in the US now and internationally in 2023 and includes ESPN+ and Hulu for a discounted price, the global subscriber total is around 200 million, rivaling Prime Video and Netflix.
Disney+ is accessible on almost every device and operating system you can think of, with intuitive app design, an image-oriented interface and clear menu systems, making programs easy to view, no matter where you are. On mobile apps, users can download content directly to their device to store and watch later. Disney+ also has a robust search function that allows you to look for movies and shows by title, studio, actors or even fictional characters.
Disney+ provides great image and audio quality, including 4K, HDR video (with Dolby Vision) and Dolby Atmos audio quality. As you’d hope and expect, it offers strong parental controls and also features Groupwatch, which enables up to seven people to watch a show or movie together online (and react with emojis).
While it's quickly becoming a major streaming force, Disney+ still doesn't have as comprehensive a content catalog as Netflix or Amazon. Certainly, the family-friendly programming isn't of as much interest to viewers who don't have children or aren't into animated media. At this point, Disney+ is best enjoyed as part of a larger collection of streaming services.
The latest evolution of HBO Go and HBO Now, the newest HBO streamer builds on the previous iterations’ prestige programming and adds loads more content to make it less a specialty service and more of a mainstream competitor.
Obviously, HBO Max boasts exclusive access to HBO’s entire epic catalog, including critically acclaimed, captivating series like Game of Thrones, Westworld, The Sopranos, Entourage, Curb Your Enthusiasm, True Detective and Succession.
But the well-built app is also filled with other popular TV shows and movies, such as Friends, Rick and Morty, South Park, the Lord of the Rings films and DC Universe titles. And despite HBO’s reputation, the service has a good selection of content for kids — for example, Sesame Street and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air — and strong parental controls.
Somewhat confusingly, HBO Max was born while both HBO Go and HBO Now were still available. Go and Now have identical libraries, but Max has much more content and it will essentially replace its predecessors. While it is not currently hosted on Roku or Amazon Fire TV devices, as the streaming service becomes more established and fully replaces HBO Now, expect HBO Max to become available on more platforms.
HBO Max offers a remarkable on-demand library, superb apps that work smoothly, and a less-expensive, ad-supported alternative to its pricier ad-free tier, which supports 4K streaming, offline downloads, multiple profiles and other nice features. At the end of the day, you know what you're paying for and getting with HBO Max: a premium streaming service that offers premium content and a premium experience at a premium cost.
A dependable player with lots of new and classic shows, plus live TV availability on nearly every platform, Hulu is a staple streaming service and one of the top choices for those who cut the cord. However, like HBO Max, it is only available in the US right now.
While perhaps not suitable as a standalone option, Hulu offers very good value and pairs well as a complement to Netflix or another streamer.
Partially owned by Disney and part of the Disney Bundle, Hulu is available in a few forms. One is the standard, on-demand service you likely already know, with ads that you've surely heard people complain about; there's also an upgraded ad-free plan, as well as the Hulu with Live TV version that — for $70 a month — could fully replace your cable subscription.
Hulu provides a vast variety of familiar shows from major networks, such as ABC and FOX, that viewers can watch a day after they air, allowing subscribers to stay mostly up to date on current television, even if they don't have the Live TV package. While not nearly as potent as the original programming from some of its rivals, Hulu has found critical success with some of its own exclusive series, including The Handmaid's Tale, PEN15, The Great and some joint ventures with BBC.
While Hulu's originals don't come out as often as those from Netflix and don't pack quite the same culture-shaking punch as HBO Max, the price is right. With more expensive ad-free and Live TV options, Hulu has an offering for everyone and makes for a worthwhile auxiliary streaming service. And, if you're on a budget and don't mind a few ads, it's one of the best.
Launching in March 2021 as the rebranded CBS All Access, Paramount+ has made a renewed, stronger play to join the streaming wars and challenge some of the established services with a wide-ranging assortment of content.
Through parent company ViacomCBS brands like CBS, MTV, BET, Comedy Central and Nickelodeon, Paramount+ showcases everything from kids and family entertainment to cherished sitcoms and older TV shows, new movies and notable original series to news programs and live sports.
Unfortunately US-only, It's the home to the entire existing (and upcoming) Star Trek catalog, almost every old Nickelodeon show and tons of Comedy Central standup specials, as well as favorites Frasier, Cheers, SpongeBob SquarePants and Young Sheldon.
In its commercials, Paramount+ promises "a mountain of entertainment," and indeed it contains some 30,000 episodes of television, 2,500 movies and dozens of original series. Additionally, the platform streams more than 1,000 live sporting events each year, including the NFL on CBS, The Masters golf tournament and the UEFA Champions League and Europa League soccer competitions.
On top of its content mountain and low cost, Paramount+ delivers other benefits as well, such as the ability to download shows to your personal devices and no ads on its a la carte programming. Whether you're a Trekkie, a nostalgia-seeker, a sports fan, a parent or anyone else, Paramount+ has something for just about everyone at a price reminiscent of the days when many of its most popular shows first aired.
There's one thing Peacock has that its competitors don't: totally free streaming. Offering an ad-supported tier, in addition to its paid version, that lets you sign up and watch for nothing is a significant differentiator for NBC Universal's improving service.
The US-only service houses around 13,000 hours of TV shows, news and sports, possessing many popular NBC network series and a decent collection of movies. Upgrading to Premium costs $5 a month and means fewer ads. Premium Plus gives you ad-free streaming for $10 a month, unlocking access to every season of The Office and Parks and Recreation, hit series like Yellowstone, originals such as Bel-Air and news programs, as well as live WWE events, Premier League soccer matches and the recent Winter Olympics.
Despite launching in April 2020, Peacock has not yet taken off. Its growth has been slower (less than 10 million subscribers at the end of 2021), its app remains clunky and the platform is still waiting for its first big hit original series, leaving Peacock behind many of its streaming competitors. The Channels and Trending pages are a bit confusing, mobile downloads are available only to Premium Plus subscribers and Peacock still doesn't support 4K HDR video.
While it lacks some of the top NBC series, and the paid Premium level remains limited, Peacock has a solid back catalog of content, is one of the top services for exclusive live sports and is worth adding to your streaming bundle, especially considering it's free.
If you're looking to cut the cord and save a few bucks but still want the best of cable television, YouTube TV is the streaming service for you.
YouTube TV provides a top-notch variety of channels, excellent DVR features and very good performance. For those willing to pay higher monthly costs — not quite your cable bill but 4-5 times more than regular streaming services — YouTube TV delivers a great viewing experience.
Its US-only service has 85-plus channels, more than any similar competitor; better cloud DVR, including unlimited storage and nine months to watch recordings; a clean, user-friendly interface and intuitive search functionality; and select on-demand content. For an extra $20 a month, you get 4K livestream and an unlimited number of simultaneous streams, though it's a steep price to pay for the upgrades.
Despite doubling in cost since it launched in 2017, YouTube TV continues to offer a superior live television service than the likes of Hulu Plus Live TV, FuboTV and others. It includes numerous cable stations and all four local broadcast networks (ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX), as well as PBS. Sports fans and news junkies, in particular, can get access to much of their favorite programming.
In addition to all the channels, YouTube TV is smooth, fast and responsive across a range of TV and mobile devices. If you can afford it, YouTube TV is the best of cable television and streaming.
Now known as Now (previously Now TV), the Sky-owned streaming service is one of the best alternatives to paid television in the UK, offering access to a wide range of channels and on-demand content for a no-contract monthly fee.
Essentially, Now is Sky, but requiring no satellite or installation. A Now membership delivers you a certain number of live channels, including live news and or sports, as well as on-demand box sets or films.
There are four Now memberships, and you can purchase one or more. The Sports membership is £33.99 per month and gives you the entire lineup of Sky Sports channels to watch live, including Premier League football, Main Event, Formula 1, Sky Sports News, golf, cricket and more.
The Entertainment package is £14.99 a month and provides live access to Sky's main channels, some kids programming and a few other stations, plus hundreds of box sets on demand, including Sky Originals programming and HBO shows like Succession. The Cinema plan is £14.99 a month and unlocks live and on-demand showings on all of Sky's movie channels. Finally, there's Hayu, which is £4.99 per month and serves up all of the US reality TV shows — catch-up and on-demand — one could want.
Members can register as many as six devices on a single Now account but stream on only one at a time. There is a wide array of TVs, set-top-boxes, game consoles and other devices that support Now. If you're after Sky Sports or News, hot new movies, American reality shows or HBO content in the UK, without a costly contract or commitment, Now is the best streaming service for you.