Do you remember a world before streaming services? When you had to watch TV at a certain time? With commercials? It feels like a distant memory now.
The TV landscape has been changing fast. And that means every major studio in the US is figuring out how to play catch-up when faced with huge competition from the likes of Netflix and Amazon Instant Video.
But that doesn't mean there isn't a place for traditional networks in all of this. For example, a lot of the best TV right now can still be found on cable network FX. But convenience is winning out, and a lot of the best shows are skipping live TV entirely. Viewers have signed up to Netflix and Hulu in droves, and for good reason.
There's never been so much choice when it comes to streaming services, which is great for viewers in some respects but it can be overwhelming and expensive to make the right decision.
You've got the market leader, Netflix, which has become the default streaming service for many. There's also the Amazon Prime Video service that comes as part of an Amazon Prime subscription, HBO Now for shows like Game of Thrones or Westworld, and the likes of Hulu, YouTube TV and Sling for getting live TV without the hefty monthly bills.
More recently, Disney has entered the fray with Disney Plus, which hosts shows and movies from Star Wars, Marvel and more. Apple has also thrown its hat into the ring with Apple TV Plus, which may not be able to compete with the rest when it comes to back catalogue, but has ambitious plans for fresh new programming.
In 2020, at least two more major competitors will join the fray: HBO Max and Peacock, with the latter rumored to be ad-supported. This streaming war is just getting started, and each will have their own original content.
It's an exciting time, but now you have to strategize a little to get the TV you want within the budget you have.
To help you choose from the best TV streaming services out there, we've put together this guide to the essentials.
Best TV streaming service 2020 overview:
- Amazon Prime Video
- Disney Plus
- YouTube TV
- HBO Now and HBO Go
- Sling TV
- iTunes / Google Play Store
Best TV streaming service 2020:
What is the best TV streaming service you can get right now?
The best of the best when it comes to online TV streaming
Compatible devices: Android, Apple, Windows, Roku, PlayStation, Xbox, Google Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV Stick, Apple TV, Smart TVs | Free trial: 1 month | Simultaneous streams: 1-4
If you're a connoisseur of movies and/or TV, there's only one must-have player in town and that's Netflix. It is, unequivocally, the biggest and best streaming service, 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 and surviving without it.
These days, 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 Ultra HD – on both TV and on tablets is exquisite.
Since launching its own content in 2013, Netflix's originals library has swelled to an enormous size, boasting dozens of award-winning shows including Stranger Things, Orange is the New Black, The Crown, Master of None, House of Cards and a bunch of Marvel shows like Luke Cage, Daredevil and Jessica Jones - you can see our pick of the best Netflix series in the US.
The number one threat to Netflix is its licensed content disappearing to newer, competing networks. Friends, for example, will leave the service for HBO Max when it launches in 2020, and The Office will depart for NBC's ad-supported Peacock. Both garnered significant audiences on Netflix in the US. Netflix will have to work hard to make up for those losses.
Subscription costs have gone up by $1-2 a month, with the basic plan at $9, HD plan at $13, and 4K Premium plan at $16. But don't forget you can also give Netflix a spin with the 1-month free trial to see if it's worth your money.
A strong selection of both popular films and TV
Compatible devices: Android, Apple, Windows, Roku, PlayStation, Xbox, Google Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV Stick, Apple TV, Smart TVs | Free trials: 1 month | Simultaneous streams: 3
Amazon and Netflix are two sides of the same coin. That's not to say they're identical – they're not – but the differences are few and far between.
Like Netflix, Amazon Prime video has its own set of original series - Transparent, The Man in the High Castle, and The Boys among others - but, generally speaking, they don't receive the same fanfare as their Netflix-bred brethren.
Although Netflix is as guilty for dud programming as the rest of them, it's worth mentioning Amazon Prime does get some pretty terrible new additions from time to time. So always check out guide to the best Amazon Prime TV shows before you dive in head-first.
The two big differentiators between the services are the fact that access to Amazon's streaming service comes standard with a subscription to Amazon Prime – meaning access to Amazon Music and premium delivery services – and Amazon has its own proprietary set-top box, the $69 Amazon Fire TV.
As far as its cost, a subscription to Amazon Prime will run up around $10.99 per month, just under Netflix's basic plan, though there's also a 30-day free trial so you don't have to pony up any money when you first start.
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.
The go-to for big name TV shows
Compatible devices: Apple, Android, Windows, Roku, PlayStation, Xbox, Nintendo Switch, Google Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV Stick, Apple TV, Smart TVs | Free trials: 1 month | Simultaneous streams: 1
Video streaming service Hulu offers big-name titles like The Simpsons, Saturday Night Live, and South Park alongside a huge number of titles from NBC, FOX and Comedy Central. It's also the only streaming service app on the Nintendo Switch aside from the newly-included Youtube app.
Hulu comes in two flavors: the standard on-demand streaming service you've always known and loved, and the new Hulu with Live TV -to learn more you can read our full Hulu review here.
The former works well and is well worth its cost of entry – especially since Hulu's price cut brought the monthly subscription to only $5.99. Sure, it'll air with a few advertisements, 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. You can sign up for a free trial on its website.
The other option on the table is Hulu with Live TV, a cable alternative that will run you around $40 a month – which is, unfortunately, limited to the US. The service lives up to its name by offering you a bevy of live TV channels and 50 hours cloud DVR service and two simultaneous screens. This is a bit less than the next contender on our list – YouTube TV – which offers more screens and unlimited DVR space.
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.
The new home of Disney shows and movies
Compatible devices: PS4, Xbox One, Samsung and LG devices, Roku players, Amazon Fire TV and Fire tablets, Apple TV, Android TV, Android, iOS, Chrome, Firefox, Edge, Google Chromecast | Free trials: 7 days | Simultaneous streams: 4.
Disney Plus doesn't feel like it's trying to be the main TV streaming offering in your life. Instead, it's a family-friendly option that feels like it lives alongside a Netflix or Amazon Prime Video subscription. It has a very specific selection of content: Disney animated movies, Star Wars, Pixar, Marvel, and National Geographic. Essentially, if Disney owns it and kids can watch it, it's on here.
The app is easy to use, with useful genre listings, and 4K streaming is included as part of the same $6.99 per month package (you can also subscribe for a year at $69.99, and bundle it with ESPN+ and Hulu for $12.99 per month). It's pretty well-priced, then, and as far as classics go, Disney Plus has launched with a whole bunch of fantastic movies. If you can't stream a particular movie on the service, too, a listing page will tell you when you can.
The library isn't nearly as comprehensive as Netflix or Amazon at this stage, then, but Disney Plus benefits from having a very specific angle. On the horizon, too, it has a few impressive exclusive shows in the works from Marvel Studios, and it's launched with The Mandalorian, a fantastic live-action Star Wars show.
5. YouTube TV
Live TV streaming without the hassle
Compatible devices: Apple, Android, Windows, Roku, Xbox, Google Chromecast, Apple TV, Smart TVs | Free trials: 7-30 days | Simultaneous streams: 6
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.
While the free portion of YouTube will always remain the most popular (the latest statistic says that a whopping eight years' worth of content is uploaded each and every day to the site), but if you're looking for quality content, YouTube TV is also an excellent option worth considering.
A subscription to YouTube TV is on the expensive side at $40 a month, but you're treated to a fair amount of content – around 60 channels replete with cloud DVR functionality. The service is available only in the US for now, however, and even here it's only available in around 100 markets around the country. Still, if you're lucky enough to be in one of those areas, it's the best live TV streaming service out there right now.
6. HBO Now and HBO Go
Game of Thrones, The Wire, Silicon Valley - what's not to love?
Compatible devices: Apple, Android, Windows, Roku, Xbox, Google Chromecast, Apple TV, Android TV, Smart TVs | Free trials: 7 days | Simultaneous streams: 3
As a streaming service with ties to more traditional broadcasting models, HBO Go requires you to have a paid cable subscription to access its content. If you've got one of those, subscribing to HBO Go is an absolute no-brainer – it's free for you! Go on, download it right now and put our word to the test.
If borrowing mom and dad's cable account info isn't in the cards and the ominous cable bill is too threatening to even consider, there's HBO Now, a $15 per month service that gives you access to HBO's entire content library.
Alongside the new shows of Game of Thrones, Silicon Valley and West World 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.
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, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One and the whole line of Samsung Smart TVs.
More affordable than YouTube TV but not as good
Compatible devices: Apple, Android, Windows, Roku, Xbox, Google Chromecast, Apple TV, Android TV, Smart TVs | Free trials: 7 days | Simultaneous streams: 3
Sling TV is a kind of cure-all for the cord-cutting generation, something that we knew we needed but no company stepped up to make. That said, it's everything cable's not. It's affordable. It's no-obligation. And there are absolutely zero sales reps trying to stop you from cancelling your contract. Best of all, you won't have to give up some of the perks cable provided in the last few years like the ability to pause live TV or watch something that aired up to 72 hours ago.
We've spoken at length about Sling TV in our review but in case you missed it, here's what you need to know: Sling TV is live TV streaming from DISH whenever and wherever. But unlike traditional cable or satellite, there's no contracts, no equipment and no costly bill at the end of the month.
But let's get down to brass tacks. $20 a month gets you a TON of cable channels - ESPN, ESPN2, TNT, TBS, HGTV, DIY Network, Food Network, Travel Channel, CNN, Cartoon Network, ABC Family, Disney Channel and AMC, and many, many more.
If the included channels aren't enough, Sling TV sells nine add-on packages for $5 a month that add around five channels each and focus on a particular theme (International News, Latino Programming, etc...) . Sling TV makes it in to our best sports streaming sites guide, too.
It's not without limitations, however. The standard Sling TV package, called Sling TV Orange, while available on a plethora of mobile and living room gadgets, will only work on one device at a time and, admittedly, at $20 per month doesn't present the same content-to-dollar ratio that Netflix or Prime Instant Video provide.
A one-stop shop for all of your anime needs
Compatible devices: Apple, Android, Windows, Roku, Xbox, Google Chromecast, Apple TV, Android TV, Smart TVs | Free trials: 7 days | Simultaneous streams: 3-4
Call us crazy but there's something endearing about a streaming service that knows exactly what its audience wants. Crunchyroll is the streaming service any anime, manga or East-Asian cinema fan in your life has always wanted and never knew about.
Founded by Berkeley graduates back in 2006, Crunchyroll started as a bootleg website of sorts where users uploaded their favorite shows without permission of the original owners. Not the humblest of beginnings. Fast-forward to 2015 where the service has over five million community members, 200 series available on tap and is worth, when last checked, $100 million.
While you won't find genre staples like Dragon Ball Z, Digimon or Pokémon around, most of the site's 200-plus series are available to watch for free in SD, typically prefaced with a 20-second advert. Watching any content in full 1080p HD requires a $6.95 monthly subscription to the service, just be sure to check out the 14-day free trial before you begin.
Besides the slick web interface, Crunchyroll is available on iOS, Android, Windows Phone, PS4, Wii U, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita, Xbox 360, Chromecast, Apple TV, Roku, Google TV and Samsung and Panasonic's line of Smart TVs.
Free streaming of game playthroughs, musicians and so much more
Compatible devices: Apple, Android, Windows, Xbox, Google Chromecast, Apple, Nvidia Shield | Free trials: N/A | Simultaneous streams: Unlimited
For a certain crowd, Twitch (formerly known as Justin.tv) is about the best invention since sliced bread. Essentially it's a livestreaming platform that focuses primarily on videogames where you can find everything from world tournament coverage to someone muddling their way through that indie darling you had your eye on buying.
It's not traditional by any means, but you'll find plenty to see and do on Twitch. Best of all the app is free on almost any platform you can think of: iOS, Android, Xbox One, PS4, Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV … you name it, it probably has a Twitch app. You can read more about Twitch here.
Twitch may be limited to a niche audiences of gamers at the moment, but the platform clearly shows promise. Amazon bought the service wholesale in December of last year for a cool $970 million. Whether you count it as real TV programming, however, is another question.
10. iTunes / Google Play Store
Commitment-free streaming of the best TV and movies
Compatible devices: Apple, Android, Windows, Chromecast, Android TV | Free trials: N/A | Simultaneous streams: 10
Second-to-last on our list are iTunes and its Android counterpart, the Google Play Store.
Every other entry on this list has one factor going for it – it's either free or offers a buffet-style, all-you-can-stream option. Apple and Google's primary storefronts don't offer that.
Payment is always done per title – which makes sense when you want to stream, say, the latest movie once per month – but is one of the most illogical ways to consume media if you plan on binge-watching anything.
That said, they're not all bad. In fact, there's no better way to own a digital copy of your favorite film or TV series than to buy it off one of these. Its ability to transfer any movies or TV shows straight to your mobile device makes these two of the slickest staples in the streaming world. Didn't have time to finish that movie on your desktop last night? Save it to your iPad and watch the rest of it on the way to work the following morning. Easy.
iTunes isn't perfect, we'll admit. It's a little bit clunky and slow at times, while Windows aficionados will baulk at the need to install Apple software just to get access to something you want to watch. Conversely, the Google Play Store will have you shelling out $3.99 for an SD version of a film that came out years ago, even if it's available elsewhere for free.
But that's the real Marmite bit of these e-commerce services. You pay to play or you can take your business elsewhere.
A free streaming service with a rotating hit or miss collection of films
Compatible devices: Apple, Android, Windows, Chromecast, Android TV, Amazon Firestick, Google Chromecast, Xbox, Playstation, Blu-ray players | Free trials: N/A | Simultaneous streams: unlimited
While creating this list, we gave some serious thought to leaving Crackle off completely. With a poor selection and even poorer streaming quality you'd be forgiven for never knowing about Sony Pictures Entertainment's unfortunate streaming offshoot.
Crackle offers a rotating selection of a few dozen films from motion picture studios' archives that focus on six categories: action, comedy, crime, drama, horror and sci-fi. One month you might see a kitsch classic like Ghostbusters, while the next you won't be as fortunate and will only find a few throw-away films from the '90s. Warning: Each film is streamed in standard definition, and a tiny ad floats at the bottom of the screen throughout the entirety of your stay.
What helped it make the cut? Its price. Streaming any one of the few dozen movies and TV shows found on Crackle's website is completely free, no strings attached. Keep in mind that advertisements pop up before each movie starts, and expect a few intermittently throughout the film.
Should you choose to endure it, Crackle is available on iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Nook, Kindle, Roku, PlayStation TV, Chromecast, Roku, Amazon Fire TV, most Blu-ray players, smart TVs, game consoles including the PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360 and PlayStation Vita, online and T-Mobile TV.