Best TV streaming service: Compare the top subscription-based video packages
A few years ago, only hardcore techies and television fans were cord-cutting. Today, there are more people watching streaming shows than there are paying for cable or satellite TV.
There are three reasons for this shift. First, the best live TV streaming services now offer pretty much anything you’d ever want from a traditional TV service. Second, even though live TV streaming services costs are catching up with cable, for now, they’re still more affordable. Finally, the video-on-demand (VoD) services, which started the cord-cutting revolution, such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, are now more likely to produce “much watch” TV than their older competitors.
For example, CBS All Access’s Star Trek: Discovery; Disney Plus’s The Mandalorian; and Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit all have huge audiences and are popular with the critics as well. Today, with the exception of HBO, which has its own streaming specific service now, HBO Max, you’re more likely to find the show you want to watch on a streaming service than on antenna, cable, or satellite.
But, which service is right for you? Before describing them, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention there are numerous free VoD services. If money is tight, there’s still a lot of good streaming movies and TV shows out there for you.
What you need to stream
To make use of any of these services you’ll need broadband internet. If you’re living on your own, you may be able to get by with as little as 10 Mbp. If you’re sharing your home with others and/or you want to watch 4K videos, I recommend you have at least a 25 Mbps internet connection. Not sure how fast your connection is? Run the Ookla Speedtest.
These services’ pricing, show lineups, and how many streams you can watch at one time are all subject to change. For the most part, all of these support the most popular streaming devices. For example, no matter which service you subscribe to, an Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV Cube, Roku Express, or Google Chromecast will almost certainly support it. But if you’re using a more obscure streaming gadget, such as an Nvidia Shield TV Pro or Tivo Stream 4K, it might not work with your preferred service. Smart TVs also frequently don’t support newer streaming offerings. The moral of this story is before subscribing make sure the service will work with your hardware.
Fortunately, most of these services give you a free 7-day trial period. Before signing up for a trial though check the fine print. You don’t want to end up paying for a service that you really don’t like.
This service used to have a lot of performance problems. That’s no longer the case. That said, at best, you can only watch shoes in 720p HDTV. You’ll find no 4K or UHD content here. You can, however, stream up to a generous four shows at once.
Acorn TV costs $6 a month or $60 a year. You can either stream it directly or you can subscribe to it via Amazon Prime Video. The advantage to this latter approach is far more streaming devices support Prime Video than Acorn TV.
Amazon Prime Video is far more than just videos. For $119 a year or $13 a month, besides free videos, you get free two-day shipping on most Amazon purchases. If you’re already using Amazon Prime for buying stuff, using its Video service is a no brainer.
The service offers VoD for older movies and TV shows. Many, but far from all, of these require an additional fee to rent or purchase. Lately though, like Netflix, Amazon is getting known for its great original content such as Fleabag, Good Omens, Jack Ryan, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and The Boys. I’ll also always owe a debt of gratitude to Amazon for saving the best science-fiction show of all time, The Expanse.
Many of Amazon’s originals and some newer films are available in 4K and UHD. You can stream up to three shows at once.
Even if I didn’t shop at Amazon, I’d pay for Amazon Prime Video.
I’m not so sure though that I’d pay much more than the $4.99 per month that Apple TV Plus costs. There’s just not a lot there. It has relatively few “free” videos in its library and its original content is, well, minimal.
The closest thing to a hit Apple TV Plus has is probably the drama The Morning Show. The what, you say? Exactly.
It does, on the other hand, have many movies you can watch for additional fees. You can share your subscription with up to six people via Apple’s Family Sharing feature. But that’s not as generous as it sounds. Apple caps simultaneous streams to three for most of its content.
One good point is that the content, when it’s available, can be viewed and heard in 4K, HDR, Dolby Atmos, and Dolby Vision. Just make sure you have the right gear to support it, or all that will go to waste.
Apple TV Plus has promise and it’s handy if you’re already deep into the Apple world. But if you’re not a dyed-in-the-wool Apple fan, this is one service you can skip.
All CBS shows, all the time. You know, that’s just fine.
CBS was the first of the big broadcasters to decide to go into streaming in a big way with CBS All Access. Its biggest selling point is the insanely large CBS catalog of past and new shows as well as live CBS news and sports content. I don’t care what kind of show you like, you’ll find something you want to watch on this service.
One blemish is that even the new Star Trek shows are only available in HDTV. For now, there’s no 4K or HDR content.
The basic CBS All Access plan, with commercials, costs $6 a month. To get rid of ads, you must pay $10-per-month. Annually, the limited-commercial plan is $60 per year, while the no commercials version will cost you $100 annually. But, pay attention, even with the high-end service, you’ll see ads when you watch live TV.
Is it worth it? I think so. You just need to ask yourself, “How much do I love Star Trek and the rest of the CBS TV library?”
Disney Plus is the one new streaming service I can recommend for almost anyone. The reason? I’ll give you four: the Disney, Marvel, Fox Entertainment, and Star Wars movies and TV show library. For popular entertainment, you can’t beat Disney Plus.
Disney Plus is still building up its original content library, but it already has one huge hit, The Mandalorian. Honestly, though, tens-of-millions would still be subscribing even if they didn’t have any original content.
With the pandemic keeping us in our homes, Disney Plus is also exploring pay per view (PPV) for movies like the live-action Mulan. If this plan works out, you’ll see other movies, such as Marvel’s The Black Widow, appearing on Disney Plus screens.
At $7 per month, it’s also one of the cheaper VoD best streaming. Better still, much of its content is available in 4K resolution with HDR color. For streaming, it also currently supports four simultaneous streams.
There are some people out there, somewhere, who might not find something fun to binge-watch on Disney Plus. I just don’t know any of them.
HBO’s new streaming service HBO Max had trouble getting out of the gate. But now that Roku and Amazon Fire are coming on board, its future looks great. That’s because, like Disney Plus, it has a huge library of content people love to watch. Their audiences are different, though, with Disney Plus tending to be younger than the audience for such HBO classics as Deadwood and The Sopranos.
You may be a little confused as to what’s what with HBO streaming. I can’t blame you. I watch a lot of HBO shows and I cover this stuff for a living, and I’ve been puzzled. Here’s how it works. HBO Go is on the way out. It dies on July 31, 2021. If you’re already an HBO Go’s customer, you’ll automatically be moved to HBO Max. HBO Now is still around, at least for now, but it’s been renamed HBO.
So, what’s the difference? With HBO, you get, well HBO. With HBO Max you also get access to some movies and TV series from Warner Bros.; New Line; DC, CNN, TNT, TBS, truTV, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim; Looney Tunes Cartoons; CrunchyRole anime; and some classic movies from TCM. You’ll also be able to watch some new HBO Max exclusive shows.
You can watch these on up to three devices at once. Unfortunately, for now at least, you’ll only be able to watch these shows in HDTV.
If you’re already subscribed to HBO via your cable or satellite provider, you get HBO Max for free. Otherwise, HBO Max will run you $15 a month. That’s not cheap, but you do get a lot to watch for your money.
Hulu‘s big brother, Hulu + Live TV‘s big selling point is it’s the one service which combines both live TV and VoD. It’s a powerful package. Besides great original content, such as exclusive titles like The Handmaid’s Tale, it also has a large catalog of other on-demand shows and movies. On top of that, you get over 65 live and on-demand channels.
But Hulu + Live TV costs $65 a month, while Hulu, the pure VoD play, costs $6 a month or $60 a year with ads or $12 a month without ads. Is it worth it? I think so.
That’s because Hulu comes with a huge library of 21st Century FOX content, that’s too adult for Disney Plus. It also has a good selection of original content. This includes some of my personal favorites such as Harlots, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Veronica Mars.
As for the video itself, Hulu supports two simultaneous streams. Some of its original shows are available in 4K, but most of the content is in HDTV.
All of this comes with a rather complex pricing scheme. At the first tier, $9, you can watch on one screen in SD. Move up to $14 a month, which is what I recommend, and you get HDTV and two simultaneous streams. For $18 per month, you get 4K and four streams.
The only thing I dislike about Netflix, and it’s really not the company’s fault, is its video partners are constantly moving shows and movies on and off the service. There’s a reason why there’s a website called What’s on Netflix, which does nothing but track what’s on and what’s about to leave Netflix.
Still, let’s get real, Netflix is the one essential streaming service.
Following CBS’s lead, NBC launched its own streaming network, Peacock, this summer. It includes a large collection of old and new NBC shows.
Peacock, at this point, is relying on its rich library of classic NBC shows such as Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, and Columbo. The streaming network also has the enormously popular Law & Order and Chicago Fire franchises.
Since Peacock’s parent company owns Universal Pictures, Focus Features, and DreamWorks, we can be sure there will be lots of movies streaming from the service in time. So far, Peacock has little original content. So far, Brave New World and a Saved by the Bell reboot are the most interesting of the shows.
At best, though, you can only watch these shows in HDTV. On the other hand, you can watch up to three streams at once.