People used to complain that their cable package had 300 channels but nothing good to watch. Today, the more common complaint is that there's an embarrassment of riches, with simply too many "must-see" shows to keep up with on all the different streaming services out there.
How many streaming services are on the market now? Honestly, we've kind of lost track. Two major streaming services rolled out in late 2019 (Disney+ and Apple TV+) while HBO Max (which is different than HBO Now and HBO Go) went live on May 27, and NBCUniversal's Peacock launched on July 15. The streaming services Netflix and Hulu are still growing and pumping out high-quality programming, and a host of smaller niche players like ESPN+, Criterion, Philo, Crackle, Shudder, Boomerang, and Pluto TV compete for attention.
Then there are the so-called "cable alternatives," like YouTube TV and Sling TV, which provide multiple channels of live TV not from your cable company or via a satellite dish but streaming over your internet connection. Some of these services even include local network channels.
What's the best streaming service for you? The answer, of course, depends on who "you" are, what you like to watch, whether you're a cord-cutter or still have a cable package, and how much you're willing to spend. We've broken down the options and given "best" streaming service awards based on different interests and budgetary considerations.
Best Streaming Services
• Netflix: Best Selection and Original Content
• Disney Plus: Best for Kids and Family
• Hulu: Best Streaming Service Value
• Sling TV: Best Live TV Streaming Value
• YouTube TV: Best Live TV Streaming Service Overall
• Amazon Prime: Best Service You Probably Already Have
• Vudu: Best Free Streaming TV Service
Before looking further into the details and deciding which streaming subscription is worth paying for, you'll want to understand how these services work. And you'll want to know how you can work them to maximize the selection of content and get the best value. Here are the strategies you need to know about:
• Sign up for free trials. For a long time, most streaming services offered a free trial, typically lasting 7 days, but sometimes a full month. But in 2020, several services began getting rid of their free trials. If there's no free trial, there may be an introductory membership discount. Either way, the smartest strategy is to sign up when you know you'll have plenty of time on your hands to binge shows and test the service out. (The coronavirus quarantine has been probably the best time ever to try out streaming providers.) Just remember that if you decide you don't want to become a paying subscriber, you must cancel before the free trial ends. Miss the deadline, and you'll be charged automatically.
• Mix and match subscriptions. While one service may be enough if you're a casual streamer, many people wind up subscribing to multiple streaming sites at the same time so they don't miss out. Every service has its exclusives — "The Mandalorian" and "Hamilton" on Disney Plus, "Tiger King" on Netflix, "Game of Thrones" on HBO — as well as movies and shows you can find in several different places. The trick is to subscribe to the services that have the perfect mix of programming to keep everyone in your household entertained, without going overboard to the point where you're paying more per month than a traditional cable bundle.
• Binge and cancel. Cancelling a traditional cable subscription is a chore: You typically have to call, navigate an automated phone directory, wait on hold, convince a customer service agent and the manager that, yes, you really do want to cancel even after they offer a discounted rate, and then return the rented equipment to get your money back. There's sometimes an early termination fee too, especially with satellite-TV providers. But you can cancel a streaming service subscription, or put it on hold, with a few quick clicks online. To get the best bang for your buck, then, you might want to periodically cancel one or more of the subscriptions you have. The idea is to hop around from service to service and binge what's most interesting on the subscription you happen to be paying for that month. You'll eventually realize which services feel like they're really worth the money because you watch them all the time — and which ones you barely miss when you don't have them.
• Sift through plans carefully. Many services have multiple pricing tiers. The cheapest Netflix plan, for example, costs $8.99 per month, but with this subscription you can only stream on one screen at a time, in standard definition. At the high end, you'll pay $17.99 (after an October 2020 price hike) to view Netflix in HD or ultra HD, on up to four screens simultaneously. Similarly, live TV streaming services have limits on how many devices can use a subscription at the same time: YouTube TV allows viewing on three screens, while Hulu + Live TV allows two screens, or unlimited screens for an extra $10 a month. Again, the key is to figure out what kind of level of service you want and feel is a good value, without paying extra for capability you don't use.
• Get "smart." Yes, you can stream video on your phone or an iPad. But for optimal viewing, you'll want to make it easy to stream through your TV, by way of a smart TV or through a streaming device, like a Roku, Amazon Fire TV Stick, or Google Chromecast. Just be sure that your systems are compatible; HBO Max does not work with Roku or Amazon Fire, for example.
• Take advantage of free content. Remember old-fashioned, over-the-air broadcast TV? Even if you don't have cable, you can still watch local affiliates for networks like ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, and PBS totally for free by hooking up a digital antenna to your TV. A highly-rated digital HDTV antenna will only cost about $30. You can also sign up for free streaming services like Vudu and the Roku Channel (see below), which have huge libraries of online movies and shows — and much of the content is totally free. You can even stream select news channels, such as NBC News and Sky News, live via the youTube app included on many smart TVs and streaming devices.
Naturally, what you can watch on TV or stream totally for free through your preferred device is limited. For the best and newest content, you'll have to pony up for one or more of the big streaming services. Here are the best options to consider.
Best for Streaming Sports: How to Watch NBA, NFL, MLB, and NHL Games Without Cable
After a long hiatus due to the coronavirus, major sports came back in the summer of 2020. There may not be fans watching the games in person, but there are many ways to stream the games on TV or to your preferred device.
Unfortunately, live-streaming sports is annoyingly complicated: You have to first figure out what channel the game you want to watch is on — there are many different possibilities for each sport — and then figure out if that channel is available on your streaming service. Things are more complicated than usual this year because some games have been cancelled due to coronavirus outbreaks, and it's fairly likely that more games will have to be cancelled and rescheduled in the weeks and months to come.
Each league also has stand-alone services — NBA League Pass, NHL.TV, MLB.TV — that allow qualified paying subscribers to stream most games. However, there are usually some games blacked out with these sport-specific subscriber packages, and, depending on where you live and whether the game is airing on a national network, other channels will also be broadcasting the game you want to watch. (See? We said it was complicated.) Below is a breakdown of where and how to stream NBA, MLB, and NHL games (most of them anyway) during the summer of 2020.
How to Stream NBA Games
To watch the NBA online, tune in to your local sports network — whichever channel has rights to air your regional team's games — or one of the national networks broadcasting pro basketball. The NBA broadcast schedule shows that many games are airing on TNT, NBA TV, ESPN, and occasionally on plain old free local ABC stations, in addition to regional sports networks.
How to Stream NFL Games
The 2020 NFL schedule kicked off Thursday, September 10, with the Houston Texans vs. Kansas City Chiefs, broadcast nationally on NBC stations. Other NFL games this season are airing on a variety of channels, including CBS and Fox on Sunday afternoons and ESPN for "Monday Night Football." Several NFL subscription packages and apps are available for streaming games live all over the country, and Amazon Prime is streaming some "Thursday Night Football" games as well.
How to Stream MLB Games
If you want to watch your local pro baseball team's games in 2020, you'll generally have to subscribe to a TV or streaming service that includes the regional sports network that has rights to broadcast the games. However, if you simply want to watch non-local MLB games from time to time, you have more options. Many MLB games are being broadcast nationally on ESPN or ESPN+, and some are airing on local Fox stations for free around the country.
How to Stream NHL Games
The remaining 2020 NHL schedule is being broadcast on a variety of channels, including the NHL Network, NBCSN, USA, and regional sports networks. If you're a fan of hockey and soccer, take note that NBCSN also has broadcast rights to many English Premier League matches.
Now, what streaming services have the channels airing the games you want to watch? Here are the key sports channels included in the base packages of different live-streaming TV services. Bear in mind that you can often upgrade your service and pay extra for additional channels.
• AT&T Now: ESPN, FS1, NBCSN, TNT, USA
• FuboTV: ESPN, FS1, FS2, MLB Network, NBA TV, NBCSN, NFL Network, NHL Network, USA
• Hulu + Live TV: ESPN, FS1, FS2, NBCSN, TNT, USA
• Sling TV (Orange package): ESPN, TNT
• YouTube TV: ESPN, FS1, FS2, MLB Network, NBCSN, NFL Network, TNT, USA
Netflix: Best Streaming Service for Selection and Original Content
What on-demand streaming service has the best variety of shows and movies? It's a highly subjective matter. But Netflix is the biggest streaming service, by far, with over 180 million subscribers worldwide. And the reason it's remained on top, despite significantly increased competition, is its vast selection and the quality of the content. Netflix won 27 Emmy Awards in 2019 and received 24 Oscar nominations in 2020. It's sometimes easy to forget that a string of its original shows — "House of Cards," "Orange Is the New Black," "Stranger Things," and most recently, "Tiger King" — were not just hits but legitimate cultural phenomena when they were released.
Honorable Mention: HBO Max, $14.99 per month to stream network originals like "Game of Thrones," "Curb Your Enthusiasm," and "Insecure," plus "Friends," "Sesame Street," "South Park," D.C. and Warner Bros. movies, and more. Like several other services, HBO Max no longer offers free trials.
Disney Plus: Best Streaming Service for Kids and Family
Baby Yoda. Need we say more? OK: Every "Star Wars" movie and show (including the Disney Plus original "The Mandalorian," where Baby Yoda made his debut in 2019), plus every episode of "The Simpsons" and basically every Marvel, Pixar, and Disney production ever made. Oh, and as of July 3, the movie version of the monster Broadway hit "Hamilton." They're all readily available to stream with a Disney Plus (or Disney+) subscription, which is surprisingly affordable at the family-friendly price of just $7 a month — or less if you go for the annual rate. One bummer: Like most streaming services, Disney+ originally had a free seven-day trial, but in late June 2020 it cancelled its free trial program. So you can't sign up and binge "The Mandalorian" or catch the film version of "Hamilton" (live as of July 3) without having to pay up first.
Disney Plus Price: $6.99 per month or $69.99 per year.
Hulu: Best Streaming Service for Value
At just $5.99 per month, with a solid mix of originals ("The Handmaid's Tale," "The Great") and thousands of old and new TV shows and movies, Hulu is an outstanding value. Bear in mind that at this cheap price, you have to put up with ads, which can be annoying if you've already gotten used to bingeing without commercial breaks. You can opt for the ad-free version of Hulu, but it's double the price ($11.99). Perhaps the best value of all is the streaming bundle that includes Hulu, Disney Plus, and ESPN+ for $12.99 a month.
Hulu Price: From $5.99 per month, after 30-day free trial.
Sling TV: Best Live TV Streaming Service for Value
Netflix, HBO Max, Disney Plus, and the original Hulu are all strictly on-demand streaming services — meaning you can watch programming whenever you want. But none of them have live TV channels like ESPN, AMC, CNN, Comedy Central, TNT, Fox News, or other networks included in a traditional cable TV bundle. If what you really want is the streaming equivalent of a cable or satellite TV package, then you should look into live TV streaming services. Sling TV is the easiest entry point in the category, because its packages come with a good mix of live TV channels at a low monthly price.
Sling charges $30 per month to stream the roughly 30 channels in Orange bundle, including three ESPN channels, Cartoon Network, Disney Channel, and the History Channel. Or, for that same rate, you can get the Sling TV Blue bundle, which has a 50+-channel lineup with TNT, TBS, and multiple Fox stations (sports and news) but no ESPN.
In July, Sling announced that it would guarantee base bundle prices would remain at $30 per month for at least a year for all customers who'd signed up by August 1. The service also introduced a free 3-day trial for new subscribers.
Be aware that local channels are more scarce on Sling than some other live-TV services, though, which means you're likely to need a digital antenna (as noted above) to receive those if you've cut the cord on your cable or satellite service.
Sling TV Price: $30 per month, after 3-day free trial.
Honorable Mention: Philo, $20 per month, after 7-day free trial, for 59 channels (but almost no news or sports).
YouTube TV: Best Live TV Streaming Service Overall
The basic YouTube TV package is as good as any standard cable bundle and probably costs a lot less — even after the service raised monthly prices from $49.99 to $64.99, as of July 1. YouTube TV comes with over 70 channels, including tons of sports — four ESPN stations, three Fox Sports channels, NBCSN, NBA TV, MLB Network, even the Golf Channel — and pay TV standards such as AMC, Bravo, CNN, Disney Channel, TLC, TNT, and USA. Depending on where you live, YouTube TV might also come with your regional sports network (they often have rights to game broadcasts for local teams). All subscriptions come with local network TV too, so you don't have to worry about using a digital antenna for tuning in ABC, NBC, PBS, or other free over-the-air-broadcast networks.
YouTube TV Price: $64.99 per month, after 7-day free trial.
Honorable Mention: AT&T Now, $55 per month after 7-day free trial, for 45+ channels.
Honorable Mention: Hulu + Live TV, $54.99 per month after 7-day trial, for 65+ channels.
Amazon Prime: Best Streaming Service You Probably Already Have Free
There are over 100 million Amazon Prime subscribers in the U.S. All Prime members can take advantage of a bunch of perks, including fast free delivery on most Amazon purchases and unlimited free streaming from Amazon Prime Video. The free library has thousands of movies and TV shows, as well as acclaimed originals like "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" and "Jack Ryan." Amazon Prime has also extended its partnership with the NFL, and will be streaming "Thursday Night Football" games in the 2020 season.
Prime Video also allows you access, at extra cost, to some Prime Video Channels that partner with Amazon, including both major (HBO, Cinemax, Starz) and niche (Britbox, Acorn) services. You can then access these partner channels from Prime Video, rather than switching to a standalone app, and add their titles to your Prime Video Watchlist. (It's no cheaper to subscribe in this way, however, and may even cost more than prepaying a one-year subscription to a partner channel.)
Amazon Prime Price: $12.99 per month or $119 per year (or $8.99 per month just for Prime Video), after 30-day free trial.
Honorable Mention: Apple TV+, $4.99 per month but free for one year with Apple device purchase.
Vudu: Best Free Streaming TV Service
Vudu, a streaming service owned by Walmart, lets you rent or buy new movies, and it has a huge amount of free online movies and TV shows available too. Bear in mind, however, that most programs come with ads interrupting your viewing experience, and that the free content is mostly of the vintage variety — "Get Shorty," "Good Morning Vietnam," "Rain Man," "The Royal Tannenbaums," "The Usual Suspects," and so on. But hey, it's free, and you can generally find something worth watching.
Vudu Price: Hundreds of movies and TV shows are free, with ads.
Honorable Mention: Peacock, free ad-supported version live as of July 15 offers shows like "30 Rock," "Friday Night Lights," and "Parks and Recreation," as well as hundreds of movies like "The Bourne Identity."
Honorable Mention: The Roku Channel, free TV shows and movies like "The Waterboy" and "You've Got Mail," plus options to subscribe to premium services like HBO and Showtime.
Honorable Mention: Pluto TV, free streaming of 250+ channels and thousands of older movies and shows — titles like "MTV Cribs," "Platoon," and "Good Burger."