There's a surprisingly large selection of free movies to choose from online, although if you're looking for the collected works of Pixar you're out of luck. If you like short movies by new filmmakers, however, you're spoilt for choice.

The BBC Film Network showcases short films from up-and-coming British filmmakers, while Seattle-based Short Of The Week does the same for global indie films, highlighting the best movies from sprawling sites such as www.dailymotion.com. We'd particularly recommend The Horribly Slow Murderer with the Extremely Inefficient Weapon.

You'll find award-winning shorts at Coffee Shorts too, and while the selection is fairly limited the quality is generally very high. The same can't be said for the enormous Revver.com, which hosts the films that Coffee Shorts displays: as with most 'anyone can upload' video sites, browsing its pages feels like being trapped inside an episode of You've Been Framed.

Vimeo is much more successful, perhaps because users can create their own channels and moderate the content to weed out the really bad stuff. While the site has more than 29,000 movies in its library, finding something interesting doesn't feel like a chore.

Prefer self-improvement to escapism? Videojug hosts thousands of how-to videos ranging from DIY to dating. If comedy's your thing then you'll be happy to hear you can get that online too. YouTube's always a good source of older performance footage, but if you prefer your comedy to be cutting-edge then Will Ferrell's Funny Or Die mixes up material from amateur comedians with clips from established stars.

A voting system is designed "to eliminate all the junk that people have to pick through to find videos". It's often hilarious but every now and again the content is a bit too American, which also applies to The Onion News Network. The video wing of the satirical newspaper misses as often as it hits, but when it's good, it's very good indeed.

Movie magic

Short films are all very well, but what if you prefer entertainment that lasts a bit longer? You can download documentaries of the tinfoil hat variety from www.freedocumentaries.org and hoot at the conspiracies – not all of the films are crazy, though a reasonable proportion are – but if you'd prefer something more interesting, then the Internet Archive has an extraordinary collection at www.archive.org/details/movies.

Internet archive

HISTORICAL INSIGHT: The Internet Archive is a great source of old film footage. It includes newsreels, public info films and movie classics

With an archive including wartime propaganda, videogame footage, newsreels, Night of the Living Dead – the original one, that is – and masses of terrible public information films, it's a site you can end up spending lots of time on. It's got an excellent collection of audio recordings too, including the 1938 broadcast of Orson Welles reading War of the Worlds.

Some of cinema's earliest efforts are now in the public domain, which means they pop up everywhere. Veoh has a decent collection at www.veoh.com/collection/cultclassics that ranges from 1938's STI warning movie Sex Madness to the iconic – and unconnected – Things To Come, although annoyingly you need to install Veoh's player software to watch anything more than a preview. Classic Cinema Online is the place to go for movies such as Dracula, House on Haunted Hill and, er, Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla.

Veoh

JOIN THE CULT: Overall Veoh is a bit of a mixed bag of films and clips, but its Cult Classics section is excellent

The good news is that things are just going to get better for cheapskates. Hulu's coming to the UK, YouTube's expanding into other areas – the recent U2 concert broadcast on the service shows the shape of things to come, with artists offering free footage in exchange for a cut of the ad money – and other free services such as Vevo, a joint venture between Universal Music and YouTube, are preparing to launch.

The increasing amount of free content isn't because firms are feeling generous. It's because they want to make money. Free content does two things: it keeps people away from piracy – why bother with file sharing if you can download something from the iPlayer? – and it can be a gateway 'drug', something to get you hooked on a service that can then tempt you with premium products.

Classic cinema

THE SILVER SCREEN: Classic Cinema Online is heaven for old-movie buffs. It's stuffed with everything from biopics to spaghetti westerns

Converting just a few people into paying customers can be very lucrative. With those customers paying the bills, the rest of us can continue to enjoy something for nothing.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

First published in PC Plus Issue 290

Liked this? Then check out 11 best free movie download services

Sign up for TechRadar's free Weird Week in Tech newsletter
Get the oddest tech stories of the week, plus the most popular news and reviews delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up at http://www.techradar.com/register

Follow TechRadar on Twitter