In the world of online video streaming, your options are pretty much endless. It’s the domain YouTube ruled for years (and still does) while newcomers like Facebook Video have jostled for a mere slice of the pie.
But in the category of legitimate cable replacement services, your options dwindle down to just a few key players - even fewer of which are free.
That’s the niche pocket where Pluto TV - an ad-supported streaming service from Viacom, the owners of MTV, Nickelodeon and more - feels it can change the game.
Instead of ditching traditional cable channels for internet streams or vice-versa, Pluto TV mashes them together - giving you hundreds of channels of content you can flip through without having to drop a single dime of your own money. Better yet, Pluto TV even gives you access to a number of on-demand movies and some major news networks, perfect for throwing on in the background of your home office.
The problem with this setup? Well, you’ll have to contend with ads, obviously, and miss out on local channels that you’d get from a paid service like Sling TV or YouTube TV. Moreover you’ll have to contend with periodic performance issues and a library of channels that tends to skew more niche than it does appeal to the general public.
All said, if you can live with all that and you can pry yourself away from Netflix’s arsenal of original content for two minutes, Pluto TV is well worth checking out - even if it’s just for an afternoon.
Pluto TV release date and availability
Pluto TV began as a service back in 2014 and has grown immensely over the years. Originally it was just available in the US, but starting in September 2019, it became available on mobile platforms in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, too. Content is likely to be different in those countries (our review was written using the US catalogue) but it’s fair to expect comparable features, device support and bugs across the board.
Pluto TV: Which devices support it? How does it work?
One of the best things Pluto TV has going for it is its platform agnosticism - it’s a service that works on pretty much every major smart TV and streaming device, including game consoles, mobile devices and, when all else fails, web browsers as well.
Here’s the complete list of supported devices from Pluto TV’s support website:
- iOS mobile & tablet
- Android mobile & tablet
- Android TV (various)
- Google Chromecast
- Chrome Web App
- Amazon Kindle/Fire Tablets
- Amazon Fire TV + Fire TV Stick
- Roku Devices + Roku TV
- Apple TV (4th Generation)
- Xbox One
To get started with it, download the Pluto TV app on whichever device you’d like and you can begin streaming without needing to register - a huge perk of the service.
What you’ll find at the top of the 250+ channel listings are the channels Pluto TV is currently pushing. At the time of writing, that includes a 007 Channel that shows James Bond films 24 hours a day, the NFL Network, Movie Channel, Animals, VH1 Reality and Investiga, a Spanish language investigation network with crime dramas. Scroll down and you’ll find 240 more channels to choose from, some of which we’ll talk about in more detail below.
The one benefit to signing up for the service is that it allows you to save your favorite channels at the top - which is great if you plan on using the service daily and know you want to see ABC News and don’t want to scroll through 50 channels to get to it.
Pluto TV channels: what’s included?
Over the last six years since Pluto TV first started streaming, the service has made a number of lucrative deals with some of the biggest content providers in Hollywood and beyond. First and foremost, that includes a huge swath of the CBSViacom library of content - namely MTV, BET, Spike, Comedy Central plus Nickelodeon. Pluto TV also has a number of breakout channels from some of the top shows from those networks. Tosh.0 has its own channel, for example, as does Crank Yankers, Degrassi and Dora the Explorer.
On top of that, you’ll have a number of great news and sports channels from CNN, NBC, CBS, Bloomberg, Sky and FOX. The catch here is that these networks aren’t always live - in fact every time we’ve tuned into them they’ve been showing content from earlier in the day. That’s all well and good if you’re just trying to get a general idea of what’s happening in the world, but it probably won’t suffice if you need up-to-the-minute information about a situation. The same is true for the sports channels that, more often that not, are showing games from last year - and in some cases several years prior.
While Pluto TV is clearly not the go-to place for news and sports, it does have a lot of entertainment content, particularly for niche audiences. In its Tech + Geek section you’ll find an IGN channel that cobbles together let’s play-style videos and reviews, as well a straight-up Naruto channel that only shows episodes of Naruto... which is actually pretty cool.
At any point in your TV watching experience you can switch over to the On Demand tab of the Pluto TV player where you’ll find a number of on-demand movies and series. As a caveat, you probably shouldn’t go in expecting world-class cinema here - what’s on offer is more or less the schlock that either went straight-to-DVD or didn’t do super well at the box office, but there are a few gems here like the Bond movies that are currently getting featured. Otherwise expect to see films like Aeon Flux, Paranormal Activity 4 and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot with Tina Fey, all of which have some level of name recognition, but probably not enough that you’d pay to see them. It’s a similar story for the TV show selection with a few notable exceptions like One Punch Man, Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and Hell’s Kitchen that are more akin to what you’d see on a paid service like Netflix surrounded by a bunch of content that you may or may not want to watch.
According to the most recent numbers from Viacom, Pluto TV has about 22 million average monthly viewers. That pales in comparison to Netflix’s 167 million paying subscribers - many of whom use the service every month - but it’s still a surprising amount.
We float that number out there because it’s important to provide context for the service’s performance that starts out in a low resolution and slowly ramps up. There's a single channel that's available in 4K (conveniently called 4K TV) but don’t expect to see 4K or even Full HD resolution throughout the service anytime soon. As it stands now, the service peaks somewhere around HD quality.
Like traditional cable you can expect commercials every eight minutes or so and expect them to last between 30 seconds and two minutes. It feels like the commercials stay on longer the more you watch - which would make sense logistically - but we’ll need to collect more data before we can say that with any certainty.
Commercials are expected, but the playback issues we experienced weren’t. While this often takes the form of downgraded resolution and artifacting, the service can also experience more catastrophic failures like showing you the same part of a film three times before cutting to a commercial… which was really awful. The streaming portion of the website performs slightly better than the on-demand section, weirdly, but neither live up to the high bar set by other services like YouTube and Netflix.
At the end of the day it can be tough to categorize Pluto TV. On one hand, it’s not exactly a live TV service in the same way that YouTube TV and Sling TV are. On the other, it’s not just the kind of content you’d find on YouTube, either. It’s an ambitious blend between the two formats that’s made available to the public free of charge. And that’s really respectable.
The downside here is that the channels aren’t always live and do skew towards niche genres and B-movies. There’s not a ton of flagship content available, and Pluto TV doesn’t have any original series that you can’t find somewhere else. Tack on the occasional performance issue and you’re left a middling service that works for a very specific user.
But hey, you get what you pay for.
- Looking for a better way to cut the cord? Here's our list of the best streaming services