As we move into the very futuristic sounding 2021, more people are cutting the cord than ever before, and for a lot of people that means turning to a streaming service to get their TV and movie fix; whether that's using their smart TVs or a streaming stick or box.
Whatever method of hardware streaming you choose, there will be a wealth of streaming platforms to choose from; with the likes of Netflix, Amazon's Prime Video, Apple TV, Hulu and Disney Plus all now major players in the TV space.
But which streaming services are the best, and what should you subscribe to every month? We've got you covered.
Streaming services: What to consider
The world of streaming services is varied, so it's time to ask yourself an honest question: what kind of TV watcher are you? Do you like to veg out in front of the TV and channel surf? Or do you prefer to look through a giant list of shows and movies and try a few things out?
From that, you'll know whether you need an over-the-air streaming service or something a little simpler. Over-the-air services are similar to what you're already familiar with. They're a bundle of TV channels with a bunch of added features, and the whole thing is delivered to you over the internet rather than satellite or cable.
Those simpler streaming services are the new paradigm. These are things like Amazon Prime Video or Netflix, giving you a giant catalogue of original and non-original movies and TV shows to watch. This is also a large area of growth, with Apple and Disney launching their own services in recent times.
Once you narrow down what kind of TV watching you'll be doing, you'll need to consider some features. Most of these streaming services are designed to only be available to certain number of devices, for instance, and sometimes you can't watch two streams at once. Some services help you get around these things with multiple account support, as they realise that not everyone in your family has the same taste in entertainment.
Finally, once you sort through all that you'll need to figure out how much you care about specs. Are you happy with a simple HD stream or do you have a 4K TV and need some sweet, sweet ultra high definition action? Maybe you have an incredible audio setup and need that Dolby Atmos support? Have you even got a spare HDMI port if you go down the streaming stick route?
We've broken it all down for you.
From $8.99 per month, netflix.com
The biggest name in streaming starts at a low price, but that low price is a part of the basic plan β you're not getting HD streams and you can only watch on one device at a time. Upgrading to the $12.99 second tier plans gets you HD streams and up to two devices at a time, while the top $15.99 premium tier gets you ultra HD streams and up to four devices at a time.
On those devices, you'll be able to watch a growing selection of HDR 4K content on compatible TVs. A good amount of Netflix's original shows and movies are in 4K HDR, and that's going to be the company's standard moving forward. For all you A/V nerds out there, Netflix also supports both Dolby Vision and HDR10 standards β plus Dolby Atmos.
Netflix's library is constantly getting refreshed, and has a large, international collection of exclusives you can't get anywhere else. The company keeps investing more and more money into big movies, like the recent Academy Award winner Roma and the big budget book/video game adaptation The Witcher.
In terms of devices, it's hard not to find a device that supports Netflix. It plays on pretty much everything, and if you've got a smart TV of any sort it's a safe bet that it either has a dedicated button on the remote or offers a preinstalled app (or both).
As for the smart assistants, Netflix works well in two ways: On the Fire TV, Alexa can get you into your Netflix account pretty well and search for content. If you've got a Chromecast and Google Home, you can use both in tandem to control Netflix as well.
Amazon Prime Video
From $12.99 per month, amazon.com
Netflix's biggest competitor is Amazon, and it's not difficult to see why. The online giant has splashed a ton of cash in the streaming world β it's got a vast library of content that seems to stay more consistent than Netflix, as well as the rights to the NFL's Thursday Night Football and a smattering of international sports, so you'll get a nice dollop of live sporting entertainment thrown in too.
To go beyond renting and buying digital content to the huge on-demand streaming library, you need an Amazon Prime membership for $12.99 a month or Β£119 a year. Not only does that give you access to a whole bunch of great TV shows and movies to watch, you're also getting Amazon's shipping options as well as a ticket into exclusive online events like Amazon Prime Day.
Plus, you won't have to pay extra for 4K HDR on Amazon Prime Video. However, it does depend on what device you have. 4K HDR is currently supported on most devices that can get Amazon Prime Video, including the Roku 4K, Fire Stick 4K, Samsung Ultra HD TVs, Sony Ultra HD TVs, LG Ultra HD TVs, Vizio Ultra HD TVs and Xbox One S / X / Series X/S.
Read this: The Fire TV missing manual
Amazon Prime Video works the best with Amazon Alexa, and that should be no surprise at all. Amazon's Fire TV β and Fire TV Cube especially β is tightly integrated with Alexa.
Fire TV remotes have an Alexa button, for instance, while the Cube has a built-in Alexa speaker. Alexa is also integrated with the Amazon-owned IMDb, which will help you search for TV shows and movies by actor. If you're looking for the tightest integration between a smart assistant and what you watch, Amazon Prime Video is the winner β hands down.
From $5.99 per month, hulu.com
Previously a joint venture between several media conglomerates, Hulu is coming under the wing of Disney, so watch out for special deals that bundle both this and Disney Plus as an option. Hulu gets stuff up quickly too: while the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime Video receive seasons of TV weeks to months after they're finished, Hulu will put up an episode the day after it's aired.
The big downside to Hulu is that while it starts cheaper than Netflix, it has commercials, and the non-commercial version is $11.99 a month. You're not going to be paying extra for 4K HDR or 5.1 audio, but you will be limited in what you can watch and where. Hulu's 4K library isn't as big as either Netflix or Amazon's either, and isn't available on every device β the Chromecast Ultra, the latest Apple TV, the Xbox One, the Amazon Fire TV devices and selected TVs from LG and Vizio are some of the devices that do support the highest resolutions.
Then there's Hulu with Live TV, an over-the-air TV service that nets you over 60 channels for $54.99 a month, with ads. Available on pretty much every streaming device going, Hulu with Live TV gives you 50 hours of Cloud DVR and unlimited access to Hulu's entire catalogue. You can also watch on two screens at the same time.
There are a couple of add-ons, like 200 hours of Cloud DVR, unlimited screens at the same time, HBO, Showtime and Starz. It's also worth noting that only the more expensive ad-free subscriptions let you download content for offline viewing, which is something to bear in mind if you're headed for a long transatlantic flight you're out of luck. Speaking of the Atlantic, Hulu is only available in the US.
As for support for the smart assistants, if you've got a Fire TV you'll be able to command your way around Hulu with the help of Alexa. If you've got an Android TV or a Chromecast, you'll be able to do the same with Google Assistant. There definitely isn't the amount of variety here as you'd get with Netflix.
From $6.99 per month, disneyplus.com
The big new player in the streaming game, Disney Plus draws on the wealth of content in the Disney stable at the moment β that covers Star Wars, Marvel, Pixar and National Geographic as well as all the standard Disney classics, not forgetting every single episode of The Simpsons, which is available on Disney Plus as well.
Pricing starts at $6.99 per month though you can lower that monthly rate if you sign up for longer. Disney is also bundling ESPN and Hulu (with ads) together with Disney Plus for $12.99 a month β not a bad deal if you want even more to watch (though this bundle isn't available internationally).
The main attractions are the ones we've already mentioned β all the Marvel films, all the Star Wars films, everything the Simpson family has ever done β but Disney Plus is pushing out some originals as well. They include The Mandalorian, set in the Star Wars universe, and The World According to Jeff Goldblum. Various Marvel series are in the works too.
You can watch up to four streams at once with Disney Plus, and 4K HDR is supported β though not by every movie and TV show on the service. Like Netflix, you can set up multiple profiles within your main account, which means you can keep your recommendations separate from the ones being shown for your kids.
An impressive number of devices are supported by Disney Plus, from phones to consoles to smart TVs (and you can just watch it through a web browser too). A Disney Plus app is apparently coming soon to the Nintendo Switch and to Tesla cars as well.
YouTube Premium / TV
From $11.99 per month, youtube.com
YouTube is still the king of online streaming, and besides the free service that everyone can access without paying a penny, there are two subscription services to know about as well. First, there's YouTube Premium, which will allow you to enjoy all current YouTube videos without ads and download videos for offline viewing.
You'll also get YouTube Music for free, which gives you two music services you can use to stream what you want. Both of these music services, naturally, make a great fit on any Google Assistant device you have β and let's not forget those Chromecast devices. There's also a family plan, which will get you up to six screens at once for $6 more a month.
If you're in the US, that's not all though, because you can also sign up separately for YouTube TV β a $49.99 per month over-the-air streaming service. You're going to get more than 70 channels total, which is less than Hulu with Live TV but comes with one big advantage: unlimited Cloud DVR.
You can simply start recording whatever show you want and it'll record. You'll never have to worry about running over on cloud storage or anything like that, because it all just takes care of itself.
YouTube is available on just about every device out there of course, and the situation is improving for YouTube TV, which you can even watch on Fire TV devices these days. As yet, 4K streaming hasn't made it to the YouTube TV service, though you'll find a huge number of videos on YouTube uploaded in 4K and even higher resolutions.
From $4.99 a month, tv.apple.com
After what felt like quite a long run up, Apple's on-demand video streaming service is now live and available for you to sign up for. It's yours for $4.99 a month, though if you buy any Apple hardware (like a MacBook Pro or an iPhone) at the moment, you get a year of Apple TV Plus thrown in for free.
While you can add extra channels to your Apple TV Plus experience β the likes of HBO and Showtime, for example β everything on Apple TV Plus itself is made by Apple. That means the content selection is much more limited when you compare it to something like Netflix, Hulu, or Disney Plus.
Some of the stuff you get includes drama The Morning Show (with Jennifer Aniston, Reece Witherspoon and Steve Carell), historical biography Dickinson (starring Hailee Steinfeld), sci-fi show See (with Aquaman Jason Momoa), and creepy serial Servant (from M. Night Shyamalan of Sixth Sense fame).
New stuff is getting added on a regular basis but don't expect an absolute wealth of content to be available as soon as you sign up. You can at least pause your subscription once you've watched everything there is to watch, and pick it up at a later stage if you need to.
Apple being Apple, this works best on Apple hardware, though you can get an Apple TV Plus app on certain smart TVs and streaming devices (including those made by Amazon and Roku). At a push, you can watch Apple TV Plus on the web on Windows and Android devices, but it's not a fantastic experience.
Google Play Movies & TV
Aside from YouTube and YouTube TV, Google also offers a Play Movies & TV portal, where you can buy or rent movies and television shows in digital form. If you know exactly what you want, it's an alternative to the all-you-can-eat approach offered by Netflix.
There's plenty of good stuff on offer too, from the latest Star Wars films to shows like Game of Thrones and Doctor Who. It seems buy-and-download rights are easier to negotiate than stream-whenever-you-like rights, though really there's not much difference between the two (except for the payment structure).
Another reason to check out Google Play Movies & TV is that it's available just about everywhere β iOS devices, Android devices, the web, many smart streaming devices... it's actually not on the Apple TV in the form of an official app, but you can actually get at your digital purchases through the YouTube app instead.
Some newer content is available in 4K HDR, but plenty of the older material isn't, and you'll also need a compatible device to get the highest resolution: a Chromecast Ultra will do it, as will an Nvidia Shield and some smart TVs, but you can't get 4K playback on mobile devices or the web for the time being.
From $14.99 per month, hbo.com
Don't get confused with HBO Go, which is HBO's app for cable and satellite subscribers. HBO Now is a completely standalone streaming service that's pretty simple. You're getting HBO and all its original TV shows and movies in one place. So yeah, get ready to binge Game Of Thrones for the third time before the final season.
HBO Now is a bit disappointing in a lot of areas. You're not getting any offline viewing, you're not getting 4K or HDR, and you're not getting any big smart assistant integrations either. You will get plenty of HBO shows and movies, but that's about it. Plus, this one is only available in the US.
On paper that means HBO Now lags behind some of the other services here, but it's worth a look if you're keen to get the latest HBO blockbusters as quickly and as easily as possible β plus all its existing material on demand. You can sometimes get HBO as an extra to other streaming services (like Apple TV Plus), so be sure to check out those options too.
From $24.99 per month, sling.com
Sling was one of the first companies to start streaming TV, though it specialised in streaming what was on your cable or satellite box to your phone. Now it's purely an over-the-air streaming service.
Sling is competitive on pricing. There are two intro plans, orange and blue, and both are regularly $30 a month, though they are running deals now that mean you can get them for $20 a month for three months. The orange plan includes ESPN channels and Disney while the blue plan doesn't have ESPN or Disney yet carries Fox, FX and Fox Sports channels (this may change thanks to Disney's acquisition of Fox, though). There's also the $35 a month plan (usually $45 a month), which combines both blue and orange.
In terms of smarts, Sling TV integrates the best with Alexa on Fire TV. Like other options on Amazon's TV streaming stick or box, you'll get to tell Alexa to fast forward, find shows, pause, play and more. The big downside to Sling TV is that a lot of features are an extra $5 a month, like Cloud DVR.
The benefit here is that Sling TV allows you to customize your experience slightly better than the alternatives, which require you to stick to their predefined bundles more rigidly. For instance, you can go with the more adult-oriented blue channel lineup and then add some kids channels to balance it out a bit.
You can get a good number of deals from Sling, which makes up for the fact that it can feel like you're getting nickel and dimed at times. Currently, you can get a free Amazon Fire TV Stick if you prepay two months of Sling TV, for instance. It's also available on pretty much every streaming device you may have.
Originally known as M-Go, the service got a new name after it was purchased by movie company Fandango. Like iTunes or Google Play Movies & TV, FandangoNow doesn't have a monthly subscription and instead offers movies and TV shows on demand, at pretty competitive prices.
However, the fact Fandango is a theater ticketing company means it has some unique advantages. For example, you can earn "points" from going to the movies and then spend those points towards downloads on FandangoNow. This is also the reason FandangoNow scores some movies before other services on this list.
FandangoNow's 4K UHD lineup is decent, too, and actually quite reasonably priced for both purchases and rentals.
Another thing we love about FandangoNow is its movie bundles, which can be bought or rented, and have their own unique themes. For example, there may be a bundle featuring movies with a similar theme, or starring the same actor, or made by the same director.
Where is it lacking? While we actually prefer FandangoNow's categories over Netflix's (they feel more human and less like an algorithm) there's a lot of crap on here, particularly in the cheaper collections. We'd also like a dedicated Apple TV app.
AT&T TV Now
From $65 per month, atttvnow.com
Previously known as DirecTV, AT&T TV Now knows how to do satellite bundles, and its entrance into the world of over-the-top streaming bundles has also been successful. AT&T continues to invest more money into what is already a very popular service, as it tries to draw in even more users.
The latest addition is cloud DVR, which lets you record shows to watch later, and there are various add-ons available covering premium channels and international programming. You can watch a maximum of three streams at once. Where AT&T TV Now really excels though is in the number of channels it offers.
There are a number of packages. There's a $65-a-month basic package that gets you just over 45 channels with HBO included, a $80 package that ups that to over 60 channels, with sports and Cinemax. Then, there are packages that go into the hundreds, adding more live channels plus international and language options.
If you're into Brazilian, Korean or Vietnamese programming, there are also add-on bundles for $30, $30 and $20 respectively. Adding Starz is only $11 as well, and HBO is included (thanks to it also being owned by AT&T).
While AT&T TV Now is the most expensive option on the list, it also comes bundled with HBO, which would save you about $5 compared to getting HBO separately. It also has a lot more ways for you to customize your package, though if you're not careful that can quickly add up and balloon your price even further.
Finally, AT&T TV Now is also not hurting for compatibility. It's available for Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Chromecast, web browsers and both smartphones and tablets. Like several other services, AT&T TV Now is limited to the United States for the time being.