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What to Look for in a Streaming Service

The whole concept of a streaming service is still relatively new and constantly evolving. It hasn’t been that long since Netflix was the only streaming service around. Watching movies and TV shows over the internet were considered supplemental to cable TV and physical media like DVDs and Blu-rays.

But cord-cutting has increased dramatically in recent years, with people ditching their cable bills in favor of a select lineup of streaming subscriptions. Physical media is also becoming scarcer, more geared toward collectors and cinephiles. If you want to keep up with movies and TV now, you need to subscribe to one or more streaming services.

No single streaming service can offer every popular movie and TV show, but the best services offer a mix of popular, high-profile exclusives and familiar content from existing movie and TV libraries. Sometimes you want to catch up on the latest hit series that everyone’s talking about, but sometimes you just want to binge-watch your favorite show from when you were a kid. It’s not always easy to find that balance in one place.

Your viewing needs and interests may also change over time, depending on your budget and on who else in your household or extended circle may be using the subscription. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to picking a streaming service, and many people subscribe to multiple services at a time.

That said, these are our picks for the best streaming services to cut the cord with.

Best Streaming Service Overall: HBO Max

HBO Max logo on TV
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Pros

  • Diverse, well-curated selection of movies and TV shows
  • Original programming from the prestigious HBO library
  • Warner Bros. theatrical releases to watch at home

Cons

  • High monthly fee
  • Unreliable interface on some devices

HBO Max may be a relatively new player in the streaming wars, but it comes with the backing and history of the HBO cable channel and the entire WarnerMedia content library. That means that it’s the place to watch some of the greatest TV series of all time, including The Sopranos, Sex and the City, Deadwood, The Wire, and Six Feet Under. HBO also has decades’ worth of original series that rival the original content on any other streaming service.

Thanks to its WarnerMedia ownership, HBO Max features content from DC, Cartoon Network, Turner Classic Movies, TBS, The CW, and more. It also has a deep catalog of Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema films, including major blockbusters and timeless classics.

In 2021, every Warner Bros. theatrical release is available on the ad-free tier of HBO Max at the same time it opens in theaters for 30 days. In 2022 and beyond, Warner Bros. theatrical releases will start streaming on HBO Max just 45 days after they open in theaters.

There may not be the sheer volume of content on HBO Max that there is on other services, but that avalanche of options is not always helpful. HBO Max is divided into well-curated branded sections so that TV fans can dive into HBO’s offerings, movie buffs can see what TCM and Criterion have to offer, and comic book fans can binge on DC content. For kids, there are tons of Cartoon Network animated series, and HBO Max is also the home to first-run episodes of Sesame Street.

At $15 per month for the ad-free tier (or $10 with ads and without access to same-day theatrical releases), HBO Max is one of the pricier streaming services, so that it may be less appealing for viewers on a budget. And while the app experience has improved since a buggy launch, some users still complain about glitches and lag on Apple TV and Roku devices.

Still, for its top-notch content and smart presentation, HBO Max stands above all other streaming services.

Best Streaming Service Overall

HBO Max

While no streaming service is one-size-fits-all, HBO Max gets pretty close. A wide selection of content and same-day theatrical releases on the service help it stand above the rest.

Best Live TV Streaming Service: Hulu

Hulu logo on a smart TV
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Pros

  • Competitively priced package with all major cable channels
  • Seven-day free trial
  • Plenty of on-demand programming from cable and broadcast channels

Cons

  • More expensive than so-called skinny live TV bundles

When Hulu was launched in 2008, it was a joint venture among the corporate owners of the major broadcast networks as a streaming home for network TV shows. Hulu has evolved significantly since those early days, but it still carries its legacy as the place to stream many broadcast TV shows right after they air, so moving into the live TV space was a natural progression.

For people who canceled their cable but still want a cable-like experience, Hulu + Live TV streaming service offers plans starting at $65 a month. The price is less than most cable packages and with more than 75 live channels.

That includes almost every familiar network found in typical cable bundles, from MTV to CNN to Bravo to HGTV and many more, plus local channels for ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, and The CW. There’s also a DVR option to record up to 50 hours of programming that can be played back on demand, without the extra equipment required by cable companies.

Since viewers who prefer watching cable and broadcast channels probably still follow programming from those channels, Hulu is the best on-demand service for those customers. Unlike other cable alternatives, Hulu has an entire streaming service in addition to its live TV offerings, and the monthly fee includes access to Hulu’s library, including Hulu originals. If you forget to DVR a show during its live broadcast, there’s a good chance you’ll still be able to watch it on Hulu.

For recreating the cable experience while adding the advantages of a full streaming service, Hulu is the best way to go.

Best Live TV Streaming Service

Hulu + Live TV

Hulu offers a variety of content, as well as a Live TV package for just $65 a month. That will still be less than many cable bills!

Best Streaming Service for Movies: HBO Max

HBO Max in a Popcorn Bowl
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Pros

  • Deep library of Warner Bros. studio movies
  • High-quality selection via TCM and Criterion
  • Warner Bros. theatrical releases to watch at home

Cons

  • Limited slate of original movies

Perhaps the biggest selling point of HBO Max has been its integration within WarnerMedia, so it’s no surprise that a streaming service with one of Hollywood’s oldest and largest studios as a corporate sibling carries a great selection of movies.

HBO Max includes a deep library of titles from Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema, plus the day-and-date debuts of Warner Bros. theatrical releases in 2021 and within 45 days starting in 2022. Those are major studio productions, from blockbusters to awards contenders, across decades of Warner Bros. history.

Thanks to deals made with the HBO cable channel, HBO Max also features many major movies from other studios, including recent releases. This may diminish over time as other media companies decide to hold back their content for their own streaming services. For now, though, many recent theatrical releases will show up on HBO Max for at least a few months.

For movie buffs, HBO Max also collaborates with Turner Classic Movies and the Criterion Collection to offer a carefully selected lineup of vintage films, going all the way back to the dawn of cinema. Old Hollywood, foreign films, and arthouse fare are all well-represented, with offerings chosen by the film experts at TCM and Criterion. The selection isn’t as extensive as what TCM airs on cable or what Criterion has on its own streaming service, but it’s a far greater range than any other major streaming platform.

HBO Max still lags when it comes to original movies, though, with most originals still coming from the HBO cable channel, which favors docudramas and smaller-scale productions. But HBO Max is demonstrating that same commitment to curation with its movie deals, signing prestigious filmmakers like Steven Soderbergh rather than focusing on sheer quantity.

Best Streaming Service for Movies

HBO Max

Whether you want to watch the latest theatrical releases or enjoy a variety of cinema classics, HBO Max has plenty of content to keep any movie-lover busy.

Best Free Streaming Service: Tubi

Tubi

Pros

  • Huge selection, including many familiar titles
  • Hidden gems and random fascinating oddities
  • Completely free

Cons

  • Ads can be intrusive
  • Volume of content can be excessive

Ad-supported video on demand (or AVOD) is a fast-growing streaming sector, and that’s good news for anyone who wants to watch movies and TV series without paying any additional fees. Among the fully free AVOD services, Tubi has become a dominant player, thanks to its massive selection and ease of use.

Tubi has a solid selection of well-known movies and TV series at any given time, from vintage favorites to popular recent hits. This isn’t the place to go for the hottest new releases, but pretty much everyone can find something familiar or enticing with Tubi.

Tubi is owned by Fox, but it features content from a range of movie studios, TV networks, independent producers, and aggregated content from niche streaming services like CONtv and Shout! Factory TV. That’s how Tubi’s massive library features more than 20,000 titles!

While it’s easy to find something recognizable to put on within a few minutes of browsing, Tubi has even more content for adventurous viewers. Thanks to the vagaries of licensing agreements, Tubi is often home to obscure cult classics and forgotten gems that aren’t streaming elsewhere.

And thanks to the relative openness of Tubi’s submissions, the service is also full of strange micro-budget indie films, many of which are fascinating (or terrible). Some are labeled Tubi exclusives or originals, although Tubi doesn’t produce any in-house original content.

There are so many obscurities that navigating Tubi can get a little haphazard once you scroll past the well-known featured selections on the home page. The service has yet to add the instant-gratification linear channels that some other AVOD services have, either.

Of course, you also have to be willing to watch ads that interrupt the programming at inopportune times, although at least Tubi always provides a countdown warning before ad breaks start. Those minor inconveniences are more than worth it for viewers looking for quality content they don’t have to pay for.

Best Free Streaming Service

Tubi

Tubi has a great spread of well-known movies and shows, as well as more obscure hits, all for free.

Best Streaming Service for Original Programming: Netflix

Person pointing a remote towards a TV with the Netflix logo
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Pros

  • Huge selection of original programs
  • Consistent hit movies and TV series

Cons

  • Selection can be daunting
  • Lack of quality control

Netflix remains the juggernaut of streaming services, and a big part of that is because the company spends a massive amount of money on original programming.

Netflix was the first streaming service to invest in its own programming when it seemed like a risky move, and it continues to be the home of the widest variety and greatest quantity of original movies and TV series. When Netflix first started creating original programming, each new premiere was an event, including series like House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black and movies like Beasts of No Nation.

Now, Netflix premieres multiple original movies and shows every week, and many of them get lost in the flood. But that also means that Netflix’s original programming covers a far wider range of genres, formats, and cultures than any other streaming service, and no matter what kind of movies and shows you enjoy, Netflix has something for you.

Netflix is home to some of the most popular shows on TV, including Stranger Things, Bridgerton, and The Queen’s Gambit, which dominate pop-culture coverage and conversations. It’s also home to high-profile movies from major filmmakers, like Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman and Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, which get plenty of attention and accolades from awards shows.

Those are just the titles that reach wider awareness, though. Netflix is also full of original programming of all kinds, from trashy reality shows to highbrow foreign films picked up from film festivals.

The service’s global reach means that it produces original movies and series in various countries around the world in numerous languages. Some of Netflix’s biggest original hit series have come from France (Lupin), Germany (Dark), Spain (Money Heist), Japan (Terrace House), and other territories outside the U.S. You can take a global tour of pop culture just by watching Netflix originals.

There are so many options that it can be tough to know where to start, and Netflix’s vaunted algorithm doesn’t always do the best job of pointing viewers to content they’ll want to see. When it does, it’s just as likely that you’ll end up with a cheaply made genre movie as an award-winning film festival favorite. Still, the good thing about Netflix is that if you turn off an ill-advised selection after a few minutes, there will be no shortage of Netflix originals to watch next.

Best Original Programming

Netflix

When it comes to original shows and movies, no service comes close to Netflix. New original content is released weekly, so you’ll never run out of shows to watch.

Best Streaming Service Catalog Selection: Amazon Prime Video

Amazon Prime Video logo on a TV
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Pros

  • Massive number of third-party movies and series
  • Movie selections from throughout film history
  • Wide range of independent films

Cons

  • Lack of quality control
  • Duplicate and/or low-grade versions of older films

There is plenty of original programming on Amazon Prime and popular recent movie and TV releases. But unlike its most high-profile competitors, Amazon Prime also has a huge library of catalog content, from vintage movies and shows that have fallen into the public domain to micro-budget indie films submitted directly to the service by filmmakers and production companies.

If you’re looking for sheer quantity and range of offerings, Amazon Prime is the clear winner, at a competitive price point ($119 per year) that includes a multitude of other services.

While Netflix actively reduces its number of catalog selections to emphasize its original programming, Amazon Prime has always been open, embracing public domain movies and self-submitted content from indie filmmakers. There are more than 20,000 pieces of content on Amazon Prime, three times the amount that’s available on Netflix.

If you’re looking for movies from the early days of Hollywood, Amazon has you covered. That even includes silent films! If you want to watch your friend’s movie that they made in their backyard for the cost of buying lunch for the cast and crew, there’s a good chance that’s on Amazon, too.

As a hybrid service, Amazon also has the advantage of offering individual rentals for movies and shows that aren’t included with Prime subscriptions. The selection expands to nearly 60,000 pieces of content if you include digital rentals and purchases. But even if you don’t want to spend additional money on specific titles, the selection on Amazon Prime is vast and can provide an education in cinema history as well as a glimpse into the thriving world of weird micro-budget indie films.

That open policy comes with a lack of quality control, though, and for many vintage films, Amazon’s search function will turn up multiple versions of the same title. You won’t know until you click on an older movie whether it’s a pristine restoration or a fuzzy transfer from an old VHS tape.

The low standards for submissions also mean that many of the indie films are barely above the level of YouTube videos, although Amazon has recently cracked down on self-submitted documentaries, many of which were filled with misinformation.

Sometimes you just have to take your chances with Amazon Prime, but there’s a good chance you’ll find something you love.

Best Catalog Selection

Amazon Prime Video

Thanks to Prime Video’s open policy about uploads, this streaming service has a sheer volume of content to watch. The other Amazon perks are a bonus, as well.

Best Streaming Service for Family: Disney+

A kid watching Disney+ on a TV
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Pros

  • Classic Disney animated and live-action movies
  • Content from Pixar, Marvel, the Muppets, and Lucasfilm
  • Disney Channel series and original movies

Cons

  • Nothing that's not Disney-owned
  • Some Disney content missing or removed

The Disney name is synonymous with family entertainment, and Disney+ has been sold largely on that reputation. Disney’s library of animated feature films is unmatched in quality, longevity, and cultural impact, and those films are all available to watch on Disney+. It also includes the live-action remakes of animated classics like Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin.

Of course, Disney’s library extends far beyond those animated classics. There are family-friendly live-action movies from decades of Disney theatrical releases and original movies made for the Disney Channel over the years. Thanks to Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox, there are also family classics like Home Alone that Disney didn’t release originally but now fall under the expansive Disney corporate empire. Disney even now owns the Muppets, whose movies and shows are all available on Disney+.

Disney is also home to Pixar, Marvel, and Lucasfilm, and content from those studios has a home on Disney+. That includes beloved Pixar animated movies like Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles, all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe superhero movies, and every Star Wars movie.

Disney+ also features original Marvel and Star Wars content, including hit series like WandaVision and The Mandalorian, which may be too action-oriented for little kids but are perfect for tweens and teens (and their parents).

If your family’s interest extends beyond Disney’s mighty reach, then Disney+ won’t work for you since the service exclusively features Disney content. As long as you’re a Disney household, though, Disney+ is the best service for family togetherness.

Best Streaming Service for Families

Disney+

Disney is the king of family-friendly content, and Disney+ is the home for all your Disney content, as well as other major franchises the media giant has acquired.

The Best Streaming Devices of 2021 to Watch Netflix and More

Best Streaming Device Overall
Roku Express 4K+ (2021)
Best Budget Streaming Device
Fire TV Stick Lite (2020)
Best Roku Streaming Device
Roku Ultra (2020)
Best Fire TV Device
Fire TV Stick 4K (2018)
Best Android TV Device
NVIDIA SHIELD Pro (2019)
Best Apple TV Device
Apple TV 4K (2021)
Best Google TV Device
Chromecast with Google TV (2020)
Josh Bell Josh Bell
Josh Bell is a freelance writer and movie/TV critic based in Las Vegas. He's the former film editor of Las Vegas Weekly and the former TV comedies guide for About.com. He has written about movies and pop culture for Syfy Wire, Polygon, CBR, Film Racket, Uproxx and more. With comedian Jason Harris, he co-hosts the podcast Awesome Movie Year.
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