The best streaming services
Which streaming services are best? Kim and I have been wrestling with this question for a week now. We've done lots of research and testing to see what we like. We've pencilled out prices. And then I put all of the info into a spreadsheet. (Yay, nerds!)
We learned that there's plenty of choice for cord cutters at the moment — even for folks who want to watch free TV. There might even be too much choice. In fact, whereas I was once hopeful about the future of streaming entertainment, now I'm wary.
I used to envision a world in which big players like Apple gathered all content in a central location, then customers could select what they wanted, like ordering from a restaurant menu. That's what people have been demanding from cable for years, after all, and for a time it seemed that streaming might head that direction.
Unfortunately, now the future seems bleaker. Now it feels like were moving to a de-centralized system in which every major movie studio and television network offers its own subscription service. This may seem similar to the menu metaphor, but it's not. With this system, consumers will probably end up paying more than they would have with traditional cable.
Am I catastrophizing? Possibly. And I'm certainly getting ahead of myself.
Before we talk about the future holds for streaming television and movies, let's look at the present. In this article, I'll share what Kim and I learned as we tried to figure out which streaming services are best for us (and which we can discard). I profile a handful of alternatives to cable TV, a few major premium streaming services, and a smattering of free streaming streaming services that let you watch free TV.
Let's dive in!
Here's what we've learned (and concluded) in the never-ending quest to find cost-effective, quality cable TV replacement in the digital age.
Plus, Disney just announced they're raising the price on their streaming services. (Not by much, though — a buck a month. And since the Disney services are among the cheapest out there right now, this isn't such a big deal.) https://thewaltdisneycompany.com/app/uploads/2020/12/Disney-Investor-Day-2020-Slides-121020.pdf
When I first discovered the wonderful world of cord-cutting back in 2007, life was simple. There weren't a lot of options. I could get DVDs by mail with Netflix, purchase TV shows and movies via Apple's iTunes, and stream some older classic shows on Hulu.
Today, things are more complicated. And they're just getting complicated-er.
Just last week, Warner Bros. announced that its entire slate of 2021 theatrical film releases (plus this Christmas Day's Wonder Woman 1984) will include same-day streaming debuts on HBO Max. This line-up features three films (in addition to WW84) that I would happily pay to see on the big screen: The Matrix 4, Lin-Manuel Miranda's In the Heights, and — especially — Denis Villeneuve's Dune. (I'm more eager for Dune than I have been for a film in a long, long time.)
I don't subscribe to HBO Max. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn't have any desire to do so. But when I do the math, I'm beginning to think it might make sense to subscribe. For each of the four Warner Bros. films I want to see in the next year, it would cost Kim and me ~$25 for tickets plus whatever we spent on refreshments. That's at least $100 total for the four films — and probably twice that when you count beer and popcorn. (And that's assuming the theaters are even open post-pandemic!)
HBO Max costs $15/month (and you can get special deals, such as the current $70 for six month offer). That's $180/year (or $160 for 2021 with the current deal). But do I really need to pay for another streaming service? We have so many already!
To get straight on which video streaming services are best for us, I spent my Saturday sorting through them all. (Okay, maybe not all of them but many of them.) Holy cats! What a can of worms I opened! There are so many options right now. It's all overwhelming.
Here's my personal evaluation of the best streaming services for 2021.
Alternatives to Cable TV
First, we looked at what I'm calling TV replacement services. These are the streaming services that seek to replace your current television source, whether that's cable or satellite (or even over-the-air). These companies offer live broadcasts from cable (and, usually, local) channels. And, generally speaking, they present these channels with a “guide” that's similar to what you're used to with traditional methods.
I have more experience with YouTube TV than the other streaming providers in this section. I've been using it on and off for several years now.
When I first subscribed to YouTube TV, it was a smoking deal. For $40/month, we got all of our local channels, the major sports channels, plus Turner Classic Movies. YouTube TV is a little less appealing nowadays, however. The base price has climbed to $65 per month, which crosses some sort of mental barrier for me. (I think I want a service like this to cost $50 or less.)
There's no question that YouTube TV provides a lot of features, though.
- You get access to 85+ live television channels, including local stations and the major sports channels.
- You can have three active streams per household.
- You're allowed unlimited cloud DVR storage and a relatively sophisticated way to record shows.
- It's super simple to add or cancel a YouTube TV subscription.
I like a lot about YouTube TV. I like that you can re-arrange the order channels are displayed in your live feed. I like the enhanced stats layouts during sporting events. I like the cloud DVR. And YouTube TV integrates well with most modern tech devices, including our iPads and our Apple TV.
That said, YouTube TV is expensive. The current cost is $65 per month, which is more than I'm willing to pay. We are subscribed at the moment, but that's because we wanted to watch election (and post-election) news coverage. We plan to cancel our subscription this month — as soon as I finish writing this article, in fact.
Before we found YouTube TV, we experimented with Sling TV. Sling is a similar service, although its interface and functionality aren't quite as good as YouTube TV. (Note that this might have changed in the past two years.)
Sling TV doesn't offer local stations (except in a few select markets). Sling TV has a rudimentary DVR service, but it's nowhere near as robust as YouTube TV.
One advantage of Sling TV over YouTube TV is that you can customize your channel lineup (and price). Sling offers two primary packages.
- Sling Blue offers 45 channels for $30/month, including the Fox family of stations. It also provides the NFL Network and the NBC Sports Network, plus lots of history programming.
- Sling Orange has 29 channels for $30/month, including CNN, Disney, and ESPN.
- You can combine Sling Orange and Sling Blue to get the complete set of basic channels at a reduced rate. Instead of paying $60, you pay $45. But for most folks, this includes no local programming (as you'd get with YouTube TV).
(Sling also offers a completely free — as in no sign-up or payment required — service with access to 5000+ movies and TV shows: https://www.sling.com/deals/sling-free )
Sling TV is easy to set up and easy to cancel. However, it can be frustrating to find complete pricing information on the site. (I was only able to find complete pricing info after logging into my account and acting as if I were going to re-subscribe.)
Sling allows you to buy all sorts of a la carte add-on channels. You can also purchase “packages” of channels, such as news channels or sports channels or Chinese channels.
Cloud DVR is a $5 add-on
For $20/month, you can add all of the non-foreign “extra” channels that Sling offers. You also get a more robust cloud DVR. This brings your total to $65, the same as YouTube TV.
Service Optimizer tool: https://www.sling.com/service/service-optimizer
While researching this article, I discovered that fuboTV is a competitor to YouTube TV and Sling TV. (Has it always been? I thought it was a soccer-specific or sports-specific service.) It costs about the same ($65/month) and includes both local programming and tons of sports (especially soccer, which I like). Plenty of ass-ons: https://www.fubo.tv/welcome/channels
3 day free trial
Philo is another alternative to cable TV, but Kim and I didn't evaluate it. It doesn't offer anything we want. Sure, it only costs $20 per month and you get 60+ channels — but they're not channels we would ever watch. And there's no sports. Your mileage may vary.
Premium Streaming Services
The evolution of Netflix has been brilliant. First, DVDs by mail. Then, streaming back catalog. Now, quality original content. Of all the streaming services, Netflix seems to create the best original material. It's high quality. Plus, with all of the datamining they've done on customers, they're excellent at creating niche shows that still do well.
Researching this piece made me regret not having invested in Netflix twenty years ago. It makes me think I should buy shares today!
Basic ($9/month): 1 screen at a time, 1 download device, standard def
Standard ($14/month): 2 screens at a time, 2 download devices, high def
Premium ($18/month): 4 screens at a time, 4 download devices, ultra high def
And, if you're like my ex-wife, you can still subscribe to the original “DVD by mail” service that Netflix started with nearly 25 years ago. (Boy, does that number make me feel old!?!)
Note that Netflix does not integrate with the Apple TV app. It'll play on all of your Apple devices (including the Apple TV), but you have to use the Netflix app to access content.
$13/month for Disney+, Hulu, and ESPN+ bundle ($14/month starting 26 March 2021)
$7/month (or $70/year, which is roughly $6/month) for Disney+ alone ($8/month starting 26 March 2021)
Pros: Aggressive content strategy will bring plenty of new shows to the service. Extensive back catalog of classic TV and movies. Low price.
Cons: Honestly? I can't think of any. Disney+ is an amazing service, and it's no wonder they've blown away the business world with their success over the past year. This is how streaming should be done.
Ah, the service that prompted me to write this article. When Game of Thrones was still running (and still good), Kim and I would pay for service one or two months out of the year. Then we'd cancel.
HBO does a terrific job of creating cool shows. Plus, they have an appealing back catalog of film and television. But the service is expensive. It's $15/month.
In the past, I've made a habit of simply being patient until the shows I want are available for purchase on iTunes. It's what I did for most of Game of Thrones. That's what I'm doing with His Dark Materials and Watchmen right now.
The thing is, HBO Max has a lot of high-quality shows. They're doing a terrific job of creating a desirable library. I especially like that HBO Max offers themed hubs.
- There's the Turner Classic Movies hub, which features a rotating library of great films from yesteryear.
- There's the Studio Ghibli hub, with access to some of my favorite animated Japanese films.
- There's the DC Comics hub, if you want to watch the shitty DC movie library. (Seriously, how have they failed so miserably while Marvel has nailed it? Oh yeah: Zach Snyder.)
- There's the Looney Tunes hub, where you can watch classic Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck cartoons.
- There's the Crunchyroll hub, where you can watch Japanese anime.
So, yes, HBO Max has a lot to offer, and it's clear that (like Disney) Warner Media sees streaming as the future, so they're investing heavily into the platform. But when comparing HBO Max vs. Disney+, which is the better value? For my money, it's obvious. HBO Max costs $15/month. Disney+ costs $8.
CBS All Access
For me, the only draw is for the new Star Trek series. I love Discovery and enjoyed Picard and want to watch Lower Decks. But do I want to pay $6/month to have access to these shows? No way.
Limited Commercials: $6/month
Commercial Free (includes ability to download shows): $10/month
A decade ago, I considered Hulu a key weapon in my cord-cutting arsenal. Today, I rarely use the service. There's nothing there that appeals to me. However, as part of a $13 bundle with Disney+ and ESPN+, it's fine.
Okay, I have a pretty good idea of which services will be in my “cord cutting 2021” post. YouTube TV, Sling TV, fuboTV. Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, HBO Max, CBS All Access. Amazon Prime Video (is there a way to get a referral credit on Amazon Prime?), Apple TV+, Crunchyroll, Peacock, and Pluto TV. Just FYI re: affiliates. Hoping to post between tomorrow and the following Monday.
Best Niche Streaming Services
For this project, Kim and I looked mainly at the big players in the streaming video space. We didn't dive deep. Some folks should. If you're passionate about specific topics, a niche streaming service might be right up your alley. These platforms tailor their content around specific themes or audiences. Here are some example:
- Acorn TV features movies and shows from Britain, Ireland, Australia, and behyond. There's a 7-day free trial, then a subscription costs $6/month (or $60/year).
- Britbox is a joint venture from BBC and ITV and looks like the source for British television. There's a 7-day free trial, then a subscription costs $7/month (or $70/year).
- Crunchyroll is a goldmine for fans of Japanese manga and anime. I'm new to this world, but feel like Crunchyroll has everything I'd ever want to watch. You can do so for free, if you're willing to watch commercials. Their ad-free service starts at $8/month with a free 14-day trial.
- Sundance Now provides access to “prestige” indie movies and shows. There's a 7-day free trial, then a subscription costs $7/month (or $60/year).
- The Criterion Channel offers access to the renowned Criterion Collection, which features 2382 classic films from around the world. But it's expensive: $11/month or $100/year (with a 14-day free trial). I'd rather buy these film individually via iTunes, where they're $15 or $20 each (and sometimes less).
- Broadyway HD appeals to me. It offers a big library of stage plays and musicals. At $9/month (or $100/year) after the 7-day free trial, this is an expensive service. But for some folks, it's probably worth every penny. (And I might subscribe for a month or two.)
- Pure Flix is a “faith-forward, family-friendly” streaming service for Christians. There's a 7-day free trial, then a subscription costs $13/month (or $83/year, which is a much better deal).
- Toon Goggles is a unique kid-friendly service that aims to provide a safe experience for children. It doesn't offer any “name-brand” content, but otherwise looks amazing. Free with commercials or $2/month with ads.
There are plenty of other niche services that I haven't covered. Eros Now for Bollywood and Indian shows, Dekkoo for gay men, Shudder for horror fans,
and so on. For a more in-depth evaluation of niche streaming services, check out this extensive run-down from Vox. I found it useful.
Free Streaming Services
Amazon Prime Video
A hideous, hideous interface. Rough discoverability. Tons of crappy content. But, free with Amazon Prime subscription. Also, some interesting Amazon originals.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Pros: Free with Apple hardware purchases, only $5/month otherwise.
Cons: VERY limited library of content. (Originally conceived of orginal-only material but realized quickly that wasn't going to fly. So now playing catch up. Only non-original I know of right now is the Peanuts specials.)
I've been aware of Crunchyroll for a long time, but was never really interested until I spent about six weeks obsessed with Japanese culture earlier this year.
Premium $5 (gives next-day access to current series)
Premium Plus $10 (gives next day access to current series, no ads, downloadable files)
For more detailed info on the free streaming services (including many more that I didn't mention here), check out this Consumer Reports guide to free streaming video services.
While these are the nominal costs for accessing television in the modern age, people have developed workarounds to reduce expenses. Some of these workarounds are more ethical than others. From most honest to least honest, here are some common ways to keep costs low on streaming services.
- Plenty of people still pirate. To me, this crosses a line — but I'll be honest: There are times I use Bittorrent too. But only if I cannot find a legal way to stream the show(s) I want to watch. I don't feel comfortable pirating content that I can afford to buy. That doesn't seem right. (But if I have the cash to buy, say, The Flame Trees of Thika but can't find it on a streaming service, I'll get it by BitTorrent.)
- Lots and lots and lots of folks swap log-ins. My ex-wife is currently using my Disney+ login to watch Hamilton over and over (and, I think, The Mandalorian). For a time, I was using a friend's ESPN login. Again, I'm not especially comfortable with this practice for myself, and I tend to avoid it nowadays.
- Another common practice — especially if there's only one or two shows you want to watch — is to sign up for a service and then binge during the free trial period (which is usually seven days but sometimes thirty). Then, before you're billed, cancel everything. (I know a lot of people did this for Disney+ and Hamilton. Others do it for CBS and their Star Trek shows.)
- The smartest workaround I've heard of — and this came from many people on social media — is what's called “the rotation”. Here's how it works. You subscribe to one streaming platform at a time. Start by choosing one that has several shows you want to watch. Use that service exclusively until you've watched everything of interest, then cancel your subscription and move on to a second platform. Once you've watched everything you want on platform two, cancel and sign up for platform three. And so on.
And, of course, if you're willing to wait a year or three to see the cool shows, you can save big bucks. Why pay HBO an ongoing subscription fee year after year just so you can watch Game of Thrones as it happens? If you wait, you can pay $50 for the complete series — and know enough not to watch the final season.
(And if you're still using DVDs? Your public library is a great way to save money on movies and TV.)
The Bottom Line
Here's the sad truth: After spending hours researching and writing this article, I'm more confused now than when I started.
If I were on my own, I would have two services: Amazon Prime and Apple TV+ — and that's because they're included with other things I pay for already. I would continue to purchase movies and TV shows a la carte from the iTunes store. I wouldn't have Netflix or Hulu or HBO Max.
But I'm not on my own. Plus, Kim watches far more television than I do. (I'm a computer game guy, remember, so much of my screen time is sitting here in front of my computer killing orcs and trolls.)
And for us?
Kim and I have had plenty of time to think about and discuss what it is we actually watch and want to watch. Of the two of us, she spends far more time in front of the television. (My vice is computer games, so that's where I get my screen time.) I was willing to let her opinion count more than mine when deciding which streaming services to keep.
As it turns out, though, we're in perfect agreement on what's right for our household. Here's what we've decided.
- We don't need to pay for a TV replacement service. I watch zero live TV, and Kim watches it so infrequently that it's impossible to justify the cost. We're both willing to continue our current pattern: When there's a reason to want live TV — election coverage, the Olympics and World Cup — then we sign up for a month or two. Any of the three major TV replacement services is a good option for us.
- Kim wants Netflix. Most of her favorite shows are on Netflix, and that's where she goes to browse for new stuff to watch. I could do without it but I'm fine keeping it because I see that she gets $14/month in value from it.
- On the other hand, I want Disney+. Kim likes it but wouldn't notice if it were missing. Disney seems hard-core committed to producing content that's directly targeted at me — Star Wars, Marvel, etc. — so yeah, let's keep it. That said, we both agree that we can cut Hulu and ESPN+ from the Disney package, saving us $6 per month.
So, we plan to pay $22 per month to keep Netflix and Disney+. We'll also have access to Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV+, of course, and our extensive library of purchased shows from the iTunes store. When I want to watch anime, I'll use the free version of Crunchyroll.
One possible complication: I have decided that after this coming season, I'm giving up my season tickets to the Portland Timbers. As part of this decision, I've given myself permission to pay whatever I want to be able to watch Timbers games by TV. If I can find a way to do that via streaming, I'll do it — even if it means paying for an expensive TV-replacement service. (It'll still be cheaper than the tickets.) Because there's no way to watch Timbers games via streaming at the moment, it'll mean heading to local pub for now.
* I don't watch Hulu or ESPN+. I should cut back to basic Disney+, which would save me $6 per month. But Disney+ is here to say. Just the other day, Disney announced aggressive plans for their Marvel Comics and Star Wars content. And since you all know me by now, you know that I'll be keeping my Disney+ subscription for that alone. https://variety.com/2020/tv/news/disney-plus-star-wars-marvel-pixar-series-1234850947/
* I have a vast library of content purchased through Apple's iTunes store. In fact, that film library is better targeted at me than any of the streaming services. I don't need a streaming service for movies. I already have all I need.
* I don't need a TV replacement service except for certain “once every four year” events: the Winter Olympics, the Summer Olympics, the World Cup, and the Presidential election season. There's no need for me to maintain a monthly subscription.
* I do like watching anime on Crunchyroll, but I do that so infrequently that I'm fine watching ads when I do, so that's a free proposition.
With HBO Max offering same-day releases of Warner Brothers theater films for the next year (Wonder Woman, Dune, The Matrix 4, etc.), I'm sorely tempted to sign up. But we've already got YouTube TV, Netflix, Hulu, ESPN+, Disney+, Apple TV+, and I'm sure others that I'm forgetting. (We did CBS at one point to watch Picard.) Cord cutting used to be a way to simplify things. But now? I'm not so sure. What do YOU all do for TV and movies nowadays?