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

6. 4OD

Although one of the main terrestrial broadcasters in the UK, Channel 4's on-demand service continues to lag behind. However, unlike many of the terrestrial catch-up TV providers, Channel 4's 4OD service keeps its programmes available online seemingly forever, so you don't have to worry about that annoying seven-day window. It's a growing service, too, with 136 million views in the first quarter of 2012 – a ten percent increase on 2011.

But can a service that still doesn't feature on Sky's on-demand offering (though it does feature on Virgin Media, YouView and Xbox 360) and only launched as an app for Android devices in February 2013 be taken seriously? The latter, which complements an iOS app, only allows streaming of content, with downloading not permitted. A similar app for Windows 8 has just been launched.

A commercial outlook means Channel 4 is more interested in business models than experiments for its catch-up service, and to that end it's busy collecting audience data from its six million registered members. The endgame is demographically-targeted adverts based on age, sex and geographical location, though the 'why register?' only mentions the benefits, such as favourites and reminders.

best online TV streaming services

In terms of usability, 4OD is clear, simple and easy to use, but is blighted by an unacceptable amount of adverts; before a programme starts, no less than six adverts are played – and some include 'touch here for more information' panels that open a related web page while the video content underneath pauses. On Windows 8, the video continues underneath.

However, 4OD goes beyond most catch-up TV services by offering entire series in its archive for free; all eight series of Peep Show, The Inbetweeners and, err, all 27 series of Come Dine With Me (gulp) are freely available. There is a curated Collections area, too, featuring grouping like Jimmy Carr Collection, Two World Wars & Animal Kingdom, though most are vaguely titled and confusing; Star Gazing is unfortunately about Z-list celebs, not the night sky.

There are also links on 4OD's website to 4Seven (a seven-day catch-up hub to keep things simple), More4, 4Music and Film4, the latter of which has a rental section powered by FilmFlex that allows downloads to a laptop for £3.99 for 30 days and a 48-hour watching window.

If you don't mind adverts in exchange for a huge collection of free content, 4OD is great.

Verdict: 4/5

7. Virgin Media

Up to 100MB of fibre optic broadband is available to Virgin subscribers, but it's what the cable operator has done for streaming and 'second screen' TV that we love it most for.

At the core of its streaming-savvy service is TiVo, the most advanced PVR around with three tuners, HD, 3D and either a 500GB or 1TB hard disk, which now comes with a companion app for iPhones and iPads called TV Anywhere. A similar suite of apps for Android is scheduled for 2013.

The catch-up avenue gives you everything from the BBC, ITV, C4 and Demand 5 and puts it through your living room TV for free, so there's no rooting around trying to access different sites for different programmes. You can go backwards on the EPG, too, something that YouView has recently copied. The on-demand side of things lets you watch TV, movies and music – generally for free, with a small charge to rent anything not included as standard – any time you like. Virgin Movies gets the latest films, which cost from £3.99-£6.99 and come in SD, HD and 3D.

best online TV streaming services

Virgin Media has around 160 channels on its books and also includes a selection of Sky channels via an app, so if you're planning to stray from Sky you can still access some of its services (including Sky Sports, for a fee, and even Sky's on-demand content). It's also got a dedicated channel – number 198 – for YouTube, which is here in the latest multi device-friendly HTML5 flavour.

However, the real innovation is TV Anywhere. Fire it up at home on a smartphone or tablet and the app instantly connects to TiVo, identifies what you're currently watching, and gives you options to record it or set a series link, explore (cast, crew, YouTube search links), inspect upcoming scheduled episodes, or share on social media.

It's Guide (EPG) and Browse (by genre and curated collections that comprise links to entire series on BBC iPlayer) options makes it a cinch to set recordings – either at home or remotely while on 3G – while My Shows gives full access to all of your recordings, sound recordings and cities links.

Basically, the app replaces your remote control (there's even a virtual remote and a watch now links on all content pages) and quickly becomes the default way to organise and navigate the TiVo box. Best of all, it's possible to do a free text search of everything the TiVo box knows about, including live and upcoming TV and within all on-demand content and apps.

However, where it makes the leap from an informational app to a proper streaming service is by offering TV several channels to stream live through TV Anywhere. Unfortunately, this is merely an emerging service since it only works over WiFi and doesn't apply to all terrestrial channels (only the Five suite of live channels are included from the big broadcasters), but it's definitely the way forward.

Verdict: 4/5

8. Dave

Once the home of repeats and more repeats, comedy channel Dave has spent the last few years commissioning fresh programmes, with the likes of Dave's One Night Stand, Al Murray's Compete for Meat and the tenth series of Red Dwarf all in its recent past. Add to that US lawyer comedy Suits and you've got a package that's worth dipping into.

Time for its own catch-up app, which arrived in February 2013, though so far only for iOS devices.

Also available as a VoD service online and on BT Vision and Sky On Demand, Dave is the first UKTV channel to get the iPhone/iPad treatment, though we're promised that similar apps will follow for the Yesterday and Really channels.

best online TV streaming services

Dave is likely to be the highlight of that lot, then, and in use it's a great app. A slick design of black, white and red make it feel a bit like a comedy club, programmes are provided to stream only – no downloads – and there's not even any adverts before each play. That's a relief, though programmes don't stay online forever, and you do have to give Dave your email, gender and date of birth to register. Perhaps ads will follow soon, but for now it's impressively slick.

Verdict: 4/5

9. Sky, Sky Go & Now TV

Murdoch's empire knows no bounds, and nothing says this better than Sky TV - the virtual monopoly that's stormed into the homes of millions of UK residents.

There are two reasons for this. Firstly, the Sky dish makes it easy to access a huge range of content. The second and more important factor is the range of programmes available to viewers, including a hefty selection of movie and sports channels.

The company's main focus is its regular TV service, which is where it makes its money, but it's still experimenting elsewhere. One of its most recent advances has been in 3D TV, letting the three million Sky+ HD customers enjoy their favourite programmes with an extra dimension.

All of this video-on-demand was threatening to make pricey subscription TV like Sky rather pointless, so what did the satellite broadcaster do? It started its own Now TV app to take Sky Movies to the masses, then bought-up smart TV movie streaming app Acetrax.

best online TV streaming services

It's also bolstered its Sky Go app for its own subscribers, extending it to allow downloads. This so-called Sky Go Extra service costs at extra £5 per month for existing subscribers, so doesn't come cheap, and only allows you to download the content you already subscribe to. Still, the chance to travel by train or plane and watch movies offline is true Nirvana if you've got a tablet or over-sized smartphone.

Now TV is an interesting one. Aimed at streaming (no downloads) Sky content – primarily its line-up of Hollywood movies – to tablets, smartphones, smart TVs, YouView boxes and the Xbox 360, Now TV is available free for the first 30 days, with Sky charging £8.99 per month for the next three months. It then increases to £15 per month.

A rich man's Netflix and Lovefilm, for sure, but if you can afford it the choice and convenience is hard to argue with. Add live Sky Sports – promised in Spring 2013 – and its cross-platform nature (though it only works on two registered devices at once) could get harder to ignore.

As if to round-up Sky's bolstered offering of on-demand content, don't forget either its catch-up TV-heavy Sky+HD box nor Sky Player on Xbox 360, a mash-up of live TV, and on-demand content including Sky Sports, though it's more of a multiroom/second-home add-on for existing Sky subscribers than a catch-up offering to the world.

Verdict: 4/5

Often painted as a rival to Netflix and Lovefilm, Blinkbox is best thought of as Blockbuster for the digital age, with the Tesco-branded service operating in the same DVD release window as Sky, Now TV, iTunes and Virgin Movies. That means it has the latest titles sooner than both Netflix and Lovefilm.

An a la carte service, Blinkbox eschews monthly subs and instead works on a pay-as-you-watch basis; £3.49 to rent, £6.99 to buy. It's free to join, and the first £1 you deposit gets increased to £5.

best online TV streaming services

Crucially, it's largely about Microsoft Silverlight streaming (Mac users must use Firefox or Safari), not physical downloads (unless you watch on a PC). Available on the PS3 (via the browser) and Xbox 360 (if you have an Xbox Live membership in place) as well as iOS and (since February 2013) Android, Blinkbox is also available as an app on smart TVs from LG, Philips, Samsung and Toshiba.

Since movie rental is prohibited by Apple – lest it threaten their near-identical iTunes service – it's not possible to download films to an iPad. It's also worth noting that Xbox users should create a Blinkbox account using the same email address as used by Xbox Live (which must be of Microsoft origin, typically Hotmail). If not, you'll have make purchases using a computer, though it's then easy enough to access back on the Xbox.

The user interface is excellent, with content arranged logically, but it's easy to browse, too; there's a nice 'watch later' shortlist that stuff can be added to as you browse, something that other such services ignore.

Claiming to have 10,000 titles, Blinkbox has also just picked-up the tights to 23 James Bond titles, including Skyfall, which it has exclusively; Argo is also available, with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey to follow.

If you hate the thought of a contract, Blinkbox is the answer – especially if you're a Tesco Clubcard holder after extra points.

Verdict: 4/5