Streaming services started as an add-on to DVD and digital download offerings with a trickle of second-run movies and TV shows. But speedier internet connections, an abundance of dedicated streaming video devices, and an explosion of mobile video has allowed services like Netflix and Amazon to bulk up streaming libraries, invest millions in original content, and give traditional pay TV providers a run for their money.
Telecom giants are not blind to the threat; they’ve tried their own solutions with mixed results, from Comcast’s Xfinity Stream TV service and Watchable online TV appto Verizon’s go90 and AT&T’s DirecTV Now. This comes as networks that were once only available with a pay TV subscription—HBO, Showtime, and Starz—introduce only-online alternatives.
Differentiation is the name of the game when it comes to streaming success. Netflix is the leader in original programming, from the binge hit Stranger Things to the award-winning The Crown. But rivals are catching up; Amazon has Man in the High Castle and Mozart in the Jungle, while Hulu just won an Emmy for The Handmaid’s Tale. Netflix and Hulu have also saved previously dead broadcast shows.
Amazon went one step further in taking on Netflix last year by offering Prime Video as a standalone service for $8.99 a month. It’s an especially canny move for Amazon because longtime Netflix customers had their $7.99 subscriptions bumped up to $9.99 in 2016; top-tier plans got a price hike this year, too.
Smaller and sometimes cheaper options abound. Crackle, for example, is still a reliable spot to find a movie or TV show to watch, particularly since content is refreshed weekly. Mubi also has an avid fan base of film buffs who are disappointed by the selection on rival services. There are also niche options, like these anime-streaming sites.
But if you want to cut the cord, these are the most popular services. Which one is best for you? Here’s our rundown of what you can expect from each.
Netflix (from $7.99 per month)
Netflix is the standard-bearer of streaming. There’s a solid selection at all times, with new titles exchanged for older ones monthly. And there’s Netflix original programming to take into account, too. It’s the only place to get your fix of shows like Orange is the New Black, Stranger Things, and Jessica Jones.
The $7.99-per-month plan is for one standard-definition stream. For two concurrent HD streams (two people watching from the same account at the same time), it’s now $10.99. For $13.99, you can get up to four concurrent streams and support for 4K content. Netflix is available on a variety of devices, from your PC and tablet to the Chromecast and game consoles. And you can now download content for offline viewing. The company’s DVD service still exists if you want newer releases, but Netflix has long said that streaming is its primary focus going forward.
Amazon Video (from $8.99 per month)
Standalone Amazon Video will set you back $8.99 per month, but if you plan to stick with it for more than a year, you might as well swing for Amazon Prime. which includes Amazon Video—not to mention Amazon Photos, Amazon Music, and a number of other Amazon-centric perks—for $99 per year.
Amazon has about 40,000 titles to stream, but only a fraction of those are included with Prime streaming. Look for the “Prime” banner atop selections that stream for free. Everything else is available to purchase or rent (for Prime and non-Prime members).
In 2015, Amazon also launched the Streaming Partners Program, which lets you add networks like Showtime and Starz to your Prime account, sometimes for a slight discount (save $2 per month on Showtime via Amazon vs. buying on its own, for example).
Amazon Video does not work with Google’s Chromecast, but it’s available on Roku, as well as Amazon’s own Fire TV devices, smart TVs, and more. At WWDC, Apple announced it will soon arrive on Apple TV, too. Prime Video supports two concurrent streams, as long as you’re watching different videos.
DirecTV Now (from $35 per month)
The DirectTV Now streaming service offers dozens of channels of live TV without installing a satellite dish or running cables. The service features excellent picture quality and plenty of connectivity options, and subscriptions start at $35 per month. You won’t find DVR or rewind features, but you can get premium channels like HBO for just $5 extra per month.
There four plan tiers: Live a Little, Just Right, Go Big, and Gotta Have It.
- Live a Little offers more than 60 channels for $35 per month, covering the big networks you’d get in a standard cable package.
- Just Right is $50 per month and includes 80+ channels, adding more niche and spin-off networks.
- Go Big costs $60 per month, but is available at a promotional price of $35 during DirecTV Now’s opening months, and brings the total number of channels past 100 by adding networks like BBC World News, Discovery Family, Logo, Oxygen, Sprout, and Sundance TV.
- The $70 monthly Gotta Have It package gives you more than 120 channels, adding Boomerang, Chiller, El Rey, Univision Deportes, and eight Starz channels.
You can add HBO or Cinemax to any package for $5 each, which includes all live HBO or Cinemax channels and access to the respective networks’ on-demand library. Local affiliates include ABC, Fox, and NBC, and their availability depends on your location. CBS and The CW, meanwhile, aren’t available on the service.
fuboTV (from $39.99 per month)
fuboTV is a great option for any cord-cutting sports fans. This “sports-first, but not sports-only” service offers extensive live sports and entertainment content for all your devices. Whether you want to watch NFL games on Sunday, catch up an MLB game that aired during the day, or even stream a movie on-demand, fuboTV has you covered.
Its flagship subscription plan, fubo Premier, does cost $39.99 per month, but it grants you access to 82 television channels to enjoy. For the national sports events, there’s NBC, CBS, FOX, NFL Network and NBA.TV. For international sports, you get channels from the beIN network and Univision. And if you’re ever not in the mood for sports, fuboTV offers a wide variety of other channels such as The Food Network, CNBC, FX, USA, SYFY, and National Geographic, just to name a few. You not only get to watch live events and programs from these channels, but also a ton of on-demand shows and movies.
fuboTV also offers some cheaper plans aimed at international markets, including fubo Latino for $14.99 per month and fubo Portugues for $19.99 per month. You can also supplement any of these base plans with add-on content, including an $8.99 per month Sports Plus option.
To top it all off, fuboTV offers excellent DVR capabilities and Lookback, a feature that lets you watch anything you may have missed up to 72 hours after it first aired. Enjoy solid streaming performance via its web interface or dedicated apps for Android, iOS, Apple TV, Roku, and Fire OS devices.
Hulu (from $7.99 per month)
Unlike Netflix and Amazon, which typically get new TV series months or even a year after their TV debuts, Hulu gets content almost immediately after airing on TV thanks to its big studio backers. One of the drawbacks, however, is that Hulu still includes ads. An ad-free tier costs $11.99 per month, though some popular shows will have 15-second pre-roll and 30-second post-roll ads.
If you’re on the fence, you can get Showtime for $8.99 per month with a Hulu bundle and save $2 per month. You can also add HBO or Showtime to your Hulu account for $14.99 and $9.99 per month, respectively, but that won’t save you any money; it’s just convenient to not have to switch apps.
Hulu supports a variety of gadgets, but you can only stream to one device at a time. You can’t yet download content for offline viewing, though that is reportedly in the works. Make sure to check out Hulu’s latest redesign across all of its platforms; it features elegant navigation menus and a glossy overall aesthetic.