Once an afterthought for major networks, TV streaming services are rapidly becoming the most popular way a majority of people consume media. There are more of them available with a broader range of content offerings than ever before.
We checked some of the most popular streaming services out there and picked out our top ten to help you find the perfect way to consume media for 2020.
It should be no surprise to anyone that Netflix’s wildly popular streaming on-demand service tops our list. They were one of the earliest players in the market and still offer one of the best deals for those looking for a robust mix of new content and old favorites.
Why we like it: Netflix started with one of the most extensive back catalogs of popular media, then took it to the next level with its award-winning original content. They’re the only place to watch groundbreaking shows like Bojack Horseman, The Witcher, The Umbrella Academy, Castlevania, and so, so many more. Even better, they don’t currently show ads on their service and haven’t jacked up the price like many of their closest competitors.
Flaws: While Netflix is still a fabulous value for what you get, it’s becoming less so. As more and more streaming options are released, that amazing back catalog we mentioned gets shallower and shallower. Lots of companies are putting out their streaming options using content they had previously licensed to Netflix.
2. Hulu Plus / Hulu Plus Live TV
Hulu is one of the biggest names to come out of the first wave of TV streaming services and has proven itself to be a real contender for best overall. It has a vast and varied catalog of new and classic shows, movies, and animation, plus it now offers a popular option to view live TV and the latest hit shows.
Why we like it: At under $10, Hulu Plus is one of the best streaming deals you’ll find today. They have a ton of hit past and current shows available plus the ability to go up a level and remove commercials. Taking it one step further, the combination of Hulu Plus with popular live TV options is a real winner. You get Hulu’s massive catalog of hit shows and original content plus over half the top 100 channels on TV. You can even bundle Hulu with other popular streaming options like Disney+ and ESPN.
Flaws: The current base DVR option doesn’t allow you to skip through commercials. For many people, that’s an essential perk of recording a show, necessitating a jump to the more expensive pricing tier.
Disney+ is the first attempt by the House of Mouse to provide all their massively successful content together into one easy to access place. It has content from all of the company’s biggest brands, including Marvel, Star Wars, Disney itself, and even classic cartoons and shows from The Disney Channel.
Why we like it: It’s the only place to find effectively every Disney movie, TV show, and animation ever released from every Disney property online. Classic films like Fantasia, Dumbo, and Peter Pan all available next to the best shows and movies from The Disney Channel and modern favorites like Frozen and Moana. If you’ve got kids (or are a kid at heart), you should sign up.
Flaws: It’s honestly hard to find fault with Disney+, as the low price and vast catalog of hit content make it an enticing offer. The only thing we can say, and that only as a ‘so far,’ is that there isn’t nearly as much original content on Disney+ as you’ll find on other top-ranked TV streaming services.
4. YouTube TV
YouTube TV is the latest in a line of enhanced streaming offerings from the company that created the internet video genre. It gives you access to tons of local TV, sporting events, and other live content plus a respectable catalog of other shows.
Why we like it: YouTube TV has the best interface and most channels of any of the live TV replacement streaming options. It includes local coverage from all four of the major networks and gives you easy-to-use DVR that is just as effective as a physical set-top one. If you’re looking for a streaming service that feels a lot like cable, YouTube TV is the way to go.
Flaws: It’s by far the most expensive of the TV replacement streaming options. You get the most channels and content, plus the best DVR, but you pay a noticeable premium for it over very comparable services.
5. HBO Max
HBO was one of the first premium cable networks to come out of the TV fragmentation of the 80’s and 90’s. Their digital services, once included only as part of a cable subscription, is now available on a wide variety of platforms and devices.
Why we like it: HBO, more than just about any channel, has embodied the new Golden Age of television we’re living in. Everyone knows about shows like The Sopranos, True Blood, Game of Thrones, and Westworld. If you want to watch them online you either need a cable package with HBO or you need to subscribe to HBO Max. When you add on the huge catalog of blockbuster movies and a gorgeous app with download support you wind up with one of the best streaming services available today.
Flaws: HBO Max is pricier than competing services and doesn’t offer a catalog as significant. The shows and movies they have are very good, but many other services have much more in-depth or diverse offerings.
6. Amazon Prime Video
Prime Video is an included extra as part of an Amazon Prime subscription. I’m sure most of you know what Prime is, but you may not realize just how much cool stuff is available through Amazon Prime Video. It offers an extensive catalog of shows and movies with an intuitive interface and a ton of supported platforms. It’s one of the best options for those with a more eclectic taste in media.
Why we like it: Let’s face it, almost all of us already have an Amazon Prime account. Prime Video is a great extra benefit with a substantial and growing library of movies, TV shows, and even some groundbreaking original content. Shows like Man in the High Castle and The Boys. They also offer tons of content available for short term rental if you want to watch old movies or major blockbusters.
Flaws: As a standalone service Prime Video falls short. If you don’t already have Amazon Prime for the savings in shipping fees and other benefits this isn’t the extra that’s going to make you get it.
FuboTV started out as a way for fans to watch international soccer from anywhere in the world. It succeeded at that so well it’s expanding into one of the biggest and best digital sports subscription offerings out there. You can find live and past games from some of the biggest sports out there, and do it in one of the slickest and most straightforward to navigate interfaces we’ve seen.
Why we like it: It’s got a lot to offer, way past its original intended sports focus. You can watch local channels live, explore more than 100 different specialized programming channels, and of course watch the best live sports have to offer. It includes live games from massive franchises like the NBA, MLB, NHL, NASCAR, NFL, and more. You can even record your favorite events using the DVR time that comes with every account.
Flaws: Price. FuboTV looks, acts, and is priced like a classic cable package. It’s many times more expensive than your average TV streaming service even for the base plan and is priced above even its priciest competitors.
Funimation has been one of the biggest names in Western anime for decades, bringing such hit shows to American markets as Dragon Ball Z. They’ve since expanded their operations massively and now offer one of the easiest to use and most affordable anime streaming options available.
Why we like it: If you’re an anime nerd looking to watch the newest simulcast shows from this season, Funimation is the way to do it. They consistently offer 5-10 of the hottest shows on the air within 24 hours of their original Japanese broadcast. Even better, they have hundreds of older shows in their back catalog encompassing everything from megahits of years past to niche titles.
Flaws: Heavy focus on dubs. They have some subbed content available, especially in their back catalog, but Funimation’s bread and butter is dubbed anime. If you prefer subtitles, it might not be the best option.
9. Sling TV
Sling TV is an attempt to provide local TV and sport content for the cord-cutter. It lets you tune into many local channels for a small fee and gives you the option to add additional premium content.
Why we like it: Sling offers one of the most affordable options for cord-cutters to get access to live TV. Instead of a single subscription fee they allow you to purchase several levels of access plus the option to add-on different ‘Extra’ channels. It gives you good access to live TV and lets you customize just what you have available.
Flaws: Sling’s subscription model is complicated, to the point of being confusing. The base price is very affordable, but there are multiple membership levels that are compounded by the ‘Extra’ channels you can add on. It’s really easy to reach or exceed your previous cable cost through add-ons without realizing it. Even worse, Sling has zero support for CBS or ABC channels, so if your local affiliates belong to either of those networks they won’t be available through Sling.
VRV is an innovative concept for streaming services we think we’ll probably see a lot more of. It uses curated ‘channels’ that put different kinds of cartoons and animation together. They’ve got Boomerang for classic American cartoons, Crunchyroll for hit Japanese anime, and a host of other channels offering all kinds of weird and wacky international content.
Why we like it: VRV lets you satisfy your craving for different animation genres in one easy to navigate place. The channels we mentioned above offer a variety of classic and modern American cartoons plus anime and international animation. One of their biggest draws is the availability of Crunchyroll’s vast catalog of hit subbed anime, including the newest and most in-demand shows.
Flaws: You never really know what you’re going to get. Channels appear and disappear with zero notice, so you could lose access to some of your favorite shows overnight with no recourse.
Who should subscribe to a TV streaming service?
We’ve reached a point where TV streaming services provide amazing value for most anyone. Still, the groups below can see the most benefit from picking one or a few to enjoy.
People looking to save money on their cable bill – You may have noticed over the past few decades that your cable or satellite bill has shot through the roof while the content you get hasn’t. Streaming services give you an a la carte option for picking the shows, movies, and content you want to watch when you want to view it.
You don’t have to pay for the dozens or even hundreds of channels your cable company ‘bundles’ that you never once watch (1).
People who hate commercials – If you’re anything like we are, nothing breaks the immersion of a beautiful show or movie worse than having a random ad pop up. Many streaming services are available either without commercials entirely or offer a ‘premium’ option that removes them from the regular service.
Urban residents – If you’ve ever lived in a rural area, you know the pain that is finding reasonable internet speeds. Many parts of America and the rest of the world outside major metro areas still suffer from extremely slow and unreliable internet access (2).
Streaming services can definitely still work in rural areas, but they’re a lot easier to use if you’ve got gigabit speeds and fiber connections.
Sports fans – Being a sports fan outside the media zone of your team has always been hard. Channels like ESPN can help, but even then you’re stuck watching only the games they choose to broadcast.
Modern streaming services allow you to watch dozens of different sports and hundreds of different teams. You can even relive magnificent moments in your team’s past wherever and whenever you like.
Movie lovers – If you’re a movie buff there’s no reason you shouldn’t have streaming subscriptions at this point. There are tens of thousands of classics, modern movies, cult films, and even arthouse works available.
How we ranked
We focused on five key metrics while ranking our list. These were catalog, stream quality, price, interface quality and platform support, and offline support.
Catalog – By far the most important factor in ranking streaming services is their catalog of media. The biggest names offer tens of thousands of hit shows and blockbuster movies, while more niche offerings focus on specific genres or mediums.
Stream quality – As screens get bigger and better year by year, some streaming services have lagged. Even worse, many have begun to include stream quality as part of their pricing model, relegating lower tier users to 1080p or even 720p on mobile devices and withholding the best 2k and 4k streams for ‘premium’ users.
The quality of your internet and TV itself affects how much benefit you’ll get from this. For urban dwellers with fiber connections, there’s no reason not to enjoy your favorite shows and movies in the highest quality possible.
Price – One of the most significant benefits of cutting the cord on cable or satellite is your entertainment cost. In the past streaming services were a wildly inexpensive way to view content, but now you really have to watch the price to make sure you’re actually getting a good value.
One important caveat here is that a service with live TV support is always going to be more expensive than those without.
Interface quality and platform support – We’ll just come out and say it: Some streaming services are a nightmare to use. Whether it’s a janky layout or just really poor indexing, it can be a huge problem to find the kinds of shows you’re looking for on many otherwise okay services.
It’s doubly true once things like Xbox and Playstation support are added in. The services on our list offer broad app support across multiple platforms and are at least usable in how their interface works.
Offline support – One of the coolest features to come out in the streaming world over the last few years is offline viewing. Some services allow you to download select shows and movies to watch when cell service is weak or entirely unavailable.
Using these metrics we rated and ranked the most popular streaming services out there. The ones on our list all offer a range of hit shows, movies, or have another focus that puts them at the top of a niche audience.
Q: Do streaming services have local channels?
A: Yes. Many streaming services now offer local channels as part of their package. It depends on where you live and who your local network affiliates are, but there are several major and many more minor services that allow this.
Our top pick for streaming service with live TV support is Hulu Plus Live TV.
Q: What kind of internet do I need for streaming services?
A: The internet speed needed to stream effectively depends on what quality video you want to stream. For basic 360p videos, you need a minimum of 1 Mbps, while streaming at 4K HDR requires at least 18 Mbps. If you live in a rural area or have slower internet speeds, you may not be able to stream higher quality videos nearly as well (3).
Q: Are there free TV streaming services?
A: Yes and no. There are definitely some free streaming services out there, but we’ve reached a point where almost all the best content online is behind a paywall. You can still find the odd ad-supported service with some good shows and movies, but for the most popular shows you need to pay at least a small subscription fee.
Our pick for best free TV streaming service is Sling TV Free. It offers a more limited selection of the services available on their paid platform.
Q: Can I stream live sports online?
A: Yes. All the biggest sporting organizations have been signing on with different streaming services or creating their own. You can now watch live games and the greats from the past online easily, though usually not cheaply.
Our top pick for best streaming service for live sports is FuboTV.
Q: What’s the best tv streaming service for families?
A: Streaming services for families need to combine entertaining content that children will love with stuff that mom and dad won’t be bored to tears by. Most every streaming service has a good library of cartoons and family-friendly movies, but there’s one that stands head and shoulders above the rest.
It offers all of the House of Mouse’s vast catalog of iconic new and classic movies plus a vast library of other awesome content from their subsidiary studios.
Q: What’s the best streaming service for watching anime?
A: We’re truly living in a golden age for anime enthusiasts living outside Japan. There are now multiple streaming services that provide both back catalogs of popular anime and near-simultaneous streams of the hottest new shows fresh from Japan. You’ve got subs, dubs, and all kinds of extras available depending on what you’re looking for.
Our top pick for best streaming service for anime is Funimation.
TV streaming services offer a wider range of shows, movies, and original content than ever before. You’ve got your pick of services that specialize in different genres and even ones that provide you access to local TV and live sporting events.
For Hastings #1 TV streaming service recommendation, click here.