10 best online TV streaming services: which are best for you?

Enjoy the best TV, anywhere, anytime

Smart TV

Within the last few years there's been a new explosion of TV in our lives. Before, we were content to watch television on a schedule dictated by the broadcasters, but things have moved on a long way since then.

We now have a huge range of services that let us get our fix of programmes and movies at any time and through a multitude of devices. No longer are we confined to the living room; the internet lets us watch TV anywhere in the house, while portable media devices like smartphones and tablets keep us entertained on the move – some even with downloads.

Viewing habits haven't quite kept pace with technological advancement, so although the amount of time we spend watching television is increasing every year, we're still a long way from ridding our homes of the big TV.

As the number of services increases, along with the number of ways we can access them, the future of TV becomes ever more muddled and confusing.

Which service do you trust to supply your programmes? Do you really need catch-up TV? Do you buy your movies through your TV provider, or should you stream them online? Do you want to watch TV on a laptop, phone, tablet, or TV? Most importantly, how much should you pay for it all?

Answering these questions isn't an easy task, and the service providers scrapping for world domination don't help either. From Netflix, Amazon and Hulu to YouTube, iTunes and Google, we're here to cut through the jargon and tell you what's worth a second look.

We'll first look at what traditional content providers like Time Warner Cable and Comcast are offering, and what they're doing to keep pace with an ever-evolving industry. We'll also take stock of what the plethora of online services, apps and new platforms like Sling TV are offering to see if they can compete with the big guns – even Intel is coming out with something soon, while Google TV is also gathering pace on a few LG TVs in 2015.

Are you ready to kill off cable and step into the world of streaming? Pick your poison from the list of services below.

1. Netflix

If you're a connoisseur of movies and/or TV, there's only one game in town – Netflix. It is, unequivocally, the biggest streaming service here in the States, despite not always stocking its digital shelves with must-have new movies and TV; that said, this is the staple streamer you need to own if you ever plan on cutting the cord.

Most smart TVs have Netflix apps and finding a streaming box without it is the equivalent of finding a needle in a haystack. The quality of the movies and TV we tried – mostly streamed in 'super HD' – on both TV and on tablets is exquisite.

best online TV streaming services

The problem of content is most pressing for Netflix, which charges new members $8.99 per month for unlimited streaming, but doesn't offer downloads. Trying to find a film you actually want to watch, and that's less than a few years old (and often decades) is tricky, but Netflix is trying hard to bolster its brand – and its reputation for being the place to go for if you're into TV dramas, rather than movies (though it claims 6,000) – by hosting exclusives shows like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black.

House of Cards aired on Netflix alone in early 2013, and the CEO is keen to shake-up the industry. Good luck to him – the availability of the latest content is really the only complaint we have about this otherwise splendid service.

Netflix runs on a PC and Mac, Apple TV, Xbox One, PS4, Amazon Fire TV (and Amazon Fire TV Stick), Android phones and tablets, Windows Phones, iOS devices, internet-enabled TVs and Blu-ray players, and streaming players from Philips, Roku and Western Digital.

Don't forget you can also give Netflix a spin with the 1-month free trial to see if it's worth your money.

Verdict: 4.5/5

2. Amazon Prime Instant Video

Amazon and Netflix, two sides of the same coin. Usually where there's one, there's the other, and saying one is better than the other is kind of like saying jelly is better than jam.

That's not to say they're identical - they most certainly are not - but the differences are few and far between.

First, Prime Instant Video is available for PC and Mac, the Kindle Fire HD, iPad, Xbox One, PS4, internet-enabled TVs and Blu-ray players, Sony's Home Cinema system, Sony's Network Media Player and myriad other minor devices that will go unmentioned.

Like Netflix, Amazon has its own set of original series - Transparent, Alpha House and Mozart in the Jungle among others - but, generally speaking, they don't receive the same fanfare as their Netflix-bred brethren.

Best online TV streaming services

The two big differentiators between the services are the fact that access to Prime Instant Video comes standard with a subscription to Amazon Prime, and Amazon has two proprietary set-top boxes, the Amazon Fire TV and Amazon Fire TV Stick.

The $99/$39 streamers aren't the only connected devices with access to Amazon obviously, but engulfing yourself into the Amazon ecosphere greatly improves your chances of falling in love with Instant Video.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and his crew in white reportedly spent $1.6 billion on the service last year, and while that's far more than any other company on the list - YouTube excluded - it falls just a hair short of the whopping $3.6 billion Netflix soaked into its service in 2014.

As far as its cost, a subscription to Amazon Prime will run you $99 a year - just $3 more than a year's subscription to Netflix, and like Netflix, Prime Instant Video also offers a 30-day free trial so you don't have to pony up any money when you first start.

Verdict: 4/5

3. Hulu and Hulu Plus

If you would've told us back in the '90s that a video streaming service called "Hulu" would be the best way to watch shows like The Simpsons, Saturday Night Live and South Park in the 21st century, we would've thought Y2K succeeded in corrupting the human consciousness.

Yet here we are in 2015 and the Douglas Adams-sounding Hulu is indeed the best way to watch our favorite shows from NBC, FOX and Comedy Central.

Hulu comes in two flavors: the free, ad-supported Hulu and more substantial, but costly, Hulu Plus.

The former works well and is well worth its cost of entry. Sure, there's three minutes of advertising every 10 minutes, but it's nothing you're not used to coming from traditional cable. On the homepage you'll find highlighted shows based on your past visits to the site as well as curated content from Hulu HQ. This includes game trailers, new movie trailers, popular clips from last week's new episodes as well as a few themed playlists.

Best online TV Streaming Services

The problem with Hulu's freemium model is that it only works on desktops and laptops, if you want to access it on the go via a smartphone, tablet or gaming device you're going to need to pony up $7.99 per month for Hulu Plus. Not only will you get access to Hulu on any device, but you'll also gain access to full seasons of shows instead of the last four or five episodes, as well as a plethora of older content.

The biggest problem with Hulu is that it lets users run head first into the paywall, keeping you from the content you're most apt to pay for.

Some call this good business. Some call it extortion. Wherever you stand on the subject the fact that you get so much free content upfront means that the old adage of "you get what you pay for" definitely does not apply here.

Verdict: 4/5

4. YouTube

Ask someone what they think was the biggest internet revolution of the 21st century and they'll probably say it was YouTube. And with good reason - the user-generated video-blogging site has changed the online landscape forever.

It lets anyone, however well known they are (or not), whatever the quality of their content and wherever they hail from, upload their weird and wonderful videos for anyone around the world to watch at their convenience. The beauty of YouTube is that in the blink of an eye it's taken the broadcasting power from the bigwigs and placed it right in our hands.

OK, so it might not have stopped people wanting to watch a high quality, professionally made production in their living room TVs, but it's an insight into how TV might be produced in the future. After all with YouTube you don't need a big budget – or indeed any budget at all – to produce your own TV series and establish a massive following.

best online TV streaming services

YouTube also lets you share high definition content all the way up to the mighty 4K, and the site has even started experimenting with 3D viewing. The service isn't just dedicated to amateur video bloggers and filmmakers either - it also has a section where you can watch TV clips from shows like Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and The Jimmy Fallon Show, as well as a variety of films and live TV events.

Although it's at a disadvantage in terms of the amount of relevant content it can offer through these channels, YouTube's key strength is its ability to find something you're interested in watching quickly and easily. If YouTube's limited TV selection doesn't offer what you're looking for, chances are you'll be able to find it elsewhere on the site - after all, its users upload a staggering eight years' worth of content every day.


YouTube has universal appeal, and it's no surprise that you can access its video-sharing resource almost anywhere, no matter what the device you're using. There are apps available for just about any mobile device, media player and smart TV, but the unique thing about YouTube is the way its content is shared between users.

The site is a social powerhouse, with around 17 million people sharing their videos with an accompanying social network like Facebook or Twitter. Although it might sound like an excuse for one of your friends to annoy you with yet another video of a dog being beaten up by a cat or a dancing parrot, the sentiment is important: if everyone shared the programmes they watched live or via catch-up with their online associates, their viewing figures would no doubt increase dramatically.

The latest HTML5 versions of YouTube apps across all devices allow secure pairing; browse for video on one device (say, a smartphone or tablet), add it to your 'watch later' list and it's instantly available on another device (including a smart TV's YouTube app, the YouTube app on a TiVo box, games console, tablet or smartphone).

Verdict: 4.5/5

5. HBO Go

HBO Go? More like HBO-Do-Not-Pass-Go-Without-a-Cable-Subscription, amiright?

But no, seriously, in order to get into the member-only club that is HBO Go you're really going to need the login info of a paying cable subscriber … at least until HBO finally follows through with its promise of a standalone streaming service.

That said, borrowing mom and dad's account isn't the end of world, and once you do everything from Season 1, Episode 1 of Game of Thrones to the latest episode of Silicon Valley will be at your binge-watching disposal.

Alongside the new shows you'll also find heaps of big-budget films, new and old, and the stable of HBO classics like The Sopranos, Deadwood, Oz, True Blood, Sex in the City, Rome and The Pacific. The service doesn't get as many updates as say, Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon do, but episodes are typically added within hours of them airing on cable.

Best online TV streaming services

HBO is a bit more selective about which device it interfaces with than Netflix and YouTube, but so far you can find it on Amazon Fire TV, Android/iOS, Apple TV, Chromecast, Roku, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Xbox One and the whole line of Samsung Smart TVs. PS4's HBO Go app is still MIA at the moment, but it's not unreasonable to expect next-gen Sony fans to get their TV-MA fix later this year.

Because the service isn't universally available and is completely dependent on having a cable and HBO subscriptions - or know someone who does - it's hard to give it a top rating. It's not that its service quality is sub-par (it's not), but until the world can get its HBO fix without shelling out for the rest of cable we'll just have to watch Daenerys take over the Iron Throne on someone else's dime.

Verdict: 3.5/5