best streaming services at a glance
1. HBO Max ($14.99 per month)
2. Netflix ($8.99 per month)
3. Disney Plus ($6.99 per month)
4. Hulu ($5.99 per month)
5. Sling TV ($35 per month)
6. Amazon Prime Video ($119 per year)
7. Fubo TV ($64.99 per month)
8. Crackle (free)
The best streaming services are in a bloody war of acquisitions. The latest rumors suggest that Amazon will acquire MGM, which would make Prime Video a much bigger player in the war. When HBO Max has the might of Warner Pictures behind it, these kinds of moves were inevitable. The only danger, really, is that you might wind up paying for many more services than you’re actually using. So take notes about your monthly payments you have, and stop wasting money now.
There’s enough competition among the best streaming services (which include both live and on-demand services) that it feels like we’ve got a never-ending supply of content. And since they’re billing us monthly, we’ve all got the ability to keep our bills down. If a service is trying to get you to sign up for an annual deal, make sure the savings are good enough to match the number of months you expect you’d normally subscribe for.
All of the best streaming services, whether they offer exclusive original programming, live streaming TV or massive libraries of films and TV shows, let you come and go as you please. And that’s great for when you’ve run out of stuff to watch on Netflix (and when you hear that the big red streaming machine just got a new must-watch).
You won’t find the newly renamed AT&T TV on this list, as its price to channels ratio ($69 per month for more than 65 channels) is not great compared to the likes of Sling and Fubo. We are considering Peacock for this list, but while the addition of WWE live events makes it a must for some, it’s not exactly a well-designed service.
These services are just one half of the streaming equation, though. As the cable box slowly withers away, it’s being replaced by smart TVs and the best streaming devices, which include Rokus and Chromecasts.
And by testing the best streaming services and devices side-by-side, we figure out the best way to build the ultimate streaming setup with the best selection of content and live channels.
What are the best streaming services?
The best streaming service overall was Netflix, but HBO Max just took the title here at Tom’s Guide, riding a stellar wave of successes in 2021 with big-name movies. If you’re confused by the new name, consider the “Max” in HBO Max to be akin to the Plus in Disney Plus (which is more than just Disney movies).
HBO Max packs all the classic HBO shows like The Sopranos and Sex and The City, while adding Friends, Zack Snyder’s Justice League and so much more. Some will flock to the service for the DCEU and Warner films — Wonder Woman 1984 debuted on HBO Max the same day it hits theaters, for no additional charge — and we’re already loving it for the Harley Quinn show and The Flight Attendant.
Not all of us are cancelling our Netflix accounts, though, as the big red streaming machine practically controls the conversation around streaming, with most of the big shows (which it keeps doing, hand over fist, with hit after hit) and routine success making big new series such as Tiger King and Dead to Me. Netflix has also had most of the standard features that competitors took years to realize mattered. and it’s enough content that you’ve got plenty of reasons to sign up.
That said, Netflix’s trail is littered with too-soon cancellations of originals such as Glow (RIP) and Mindhunter (also, RIP). It’s trying to offset those losses by introducing as many shows as possible, with hits including Ginny and Georgia and The Queen’s Gambit.
Disney Plus, a relatively new contender, also merits a look, and it practically demands your attention if you’re a fan of Star Wars or the Marvel movies, of which it has nearly every film (or it will soon, in some cases). It’s also the home of The Mandalorian and critically acclaimed Pixar library. Its price will rise by $1 in the U.S. in March 2021, but the service is hoping its next Marvel shows — The Falcon and The Winter Soldier and Loki — will help retain subscribers.
Sling TV is one of the best streaming services for live TV because of its relatively inexpensive price. While it got a price bump to $35 (from $30) in January, that’s just for new members — and it’s also $30 less than the likes of YouTube TV and Hulu with Live TV. Fubo TV may be as expensive, but its wide array of sports content helps it stand out.
The best streaming services now
HBO Max has everything HBO had, and then some. Both HBO and HBO Max pack current-run shows including Insecure, as well as completed seasons of Westworld, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Veep. But for $14.99 per month, HBO Max adds a lot more to be a compelling competitor to Netflix. Big highlights include Wonder Woman 1984 and The Flight Attendant with Kaley Cuoco. There’s also Friends, the Studio Ghibli library and original shows like Love Life and the Not-Too-Late Show with Elmo.
HBO Max has found a second life, though, as Warner Brothers Pictures’ destination for its biggest movies in 2021. The likes of James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad (which will get an HBO Max spinoff show called The Peacemaker), Dune, Godzilla vs Kong and Space Jam 2 are delivering serious reasons to sign up. Check out our guide to the best HBO Max shows and movies to see what it’s offering. Right now, we’re binge-watching Adventure Time, a show that feels made for streaming with its 15-minute long episodes. HBO Max gives Netflix a run for its money as the best streaming service in our books, and it’s got the throne (for now).
Check our our full HBO Max review.
The great-granddaddy in the market remains the best streaming service. As you probably know, Netflix provides unlimited streaming of TV shows, movies, comedy specials and original programming (including Love Is Blind, Glow and Black Mirror) for one monthly subscription fee. You can even create up to five different profiles on a single account to make sure that your favorite content doesn’t mess up recommendations for your friends and loved ones. Netflix is constantly adding and taking away movies, so you’ll want to check our our what’s new on Netflix guide to see what’s coming soon, and what you should watch before it’s gone. Its latest hit, Emma In Paris, comes from the minds behind Sex and the City, and is already kinda-divisive.
No other service has yet given Netflix an honest-to-goodness run for its money in terms of selection, quality and performance consistency. Recently, it’s been easy to see that Netflix is inching away from its original business model of distributing other studios’ films and shows, in favor of these above originals. Still, though, we see frequent additions of licensed shows, such as Hannibal, Moesha and Community, making Netflix the home for those looking to catch up on beloved shows they missed the first time around. Our Netflix hidden gems guide shows how it’s also got a great library of fantastic shows and movies that have somehow gone under the radar for many audiences. The only real problem is that the standard package just went up by $1 to $13.99 per month, and that the 4K Premium plan is now $2 more expensive, at $17.99 per month.
Entering its second year, Disney Plus has gone from one of the most anticipated streaming services on the market to a dominant player. And why wouldn’t it be? Disney controls a frankly frightening number of properties, from Marvel, to Star Wars, to Disney’s own animated canon, to The Simpsons (all 30 seasons, and counting). At $7 per month, it’s among the cheaper of the best streaming services out there, and a lot of the content is available in 4K resolution with HDR color palettes, too.
Oh, and in big news, Disney Plus is also being turned into a PPV service, or at least the company is testing the waters. Disney’s live-action Mulan cost $30 from Sept. 4 until its December 2020 free release, and Disney will be doing this again with Raya and the Last Dragon. And thankfully, they’re doing the same with Black Widow. The Mandalorian season 2 and WandaVision got rave reviews, and The Falcon and The Winter Soldier is giving folks more reasons to sign up. Fans of Disney, Marvel, Pixar and/or Star Wars have no choice but to subscribe, which makes Disney Plus one of the best streaming services.
Read our full Disney Plus review.
If you want to keep current with the latest TV shows but don’t feel like investing in a cable subscription or an HD antenna, Hulu is the best streaming service for you. This service provides access to most major network shows (aside from CBS’ programs) and a handful of cable shows the day after they air. It also lets subscribers access a show’s current season — or often all of the program’s seasons.
In addition, the service hosts a number of original shows (including joint ventures with the BBC, like The Wrong Mans and season 4 of The Thick of It), a selection of offbeat movies and a surprising amount of classic anime series. Recent Hulu hits include a remake of High Fidelity that brings the record shop to New York, and swaps John Cusack out for Zoe Kravitz (which got cancelled, RIP). Even with a paid subscription, you have to sit through commercials, but far fewer than if you watched the same shows on cable. Hulu’s live TV streaming option is also a solid aspect of its overall package, and that will let you watch CBS too.
Check out our full Hulu with Live TV review.
If you like the idea of a cable subscription but feel it’s just too expensive and offers more content than you want, Sling TV might provide a happy medium for you. On paper, Sling sounds a lot like a traditional cable service: Pay a monthly subscription fee in exchange for about 30 real-time channels. But there’s no contract and no set-top box rental fee. Sling is especially handy for sports fans, as it offers a variety of ESPN channels — and this alone is worth the price for some.
Other popular networks, like NBC, BBC America, CNN, Cartoon Network, TBS and the Food Network, sweeten the deal. Check out our Sling TV guide to packages, channels and more. While most of the popular streaming services start at around $65, Sling stands out with its $35 per month starting price. That price isn’t for existing subscribers, whose $30 per month starting price is locked in until the end of summer 2021. And all this flexibility guarantees Sling a spot as one of the best streaming services.
Read our full Sling TV review.
For those who do most of their shopping online, Amazon Prime is a no-brainer. For $119 per year, you get free two-day shipping on your purchases, a free Kindle book each month, and unlimited access to both Amazon Music and Amazon Prime Video. Like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video is a veritable buffet of movies, television and original programming (the best Amazon shows range from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, The Man in the High Castle, Bosch and Jack Ryan). Amazon Prime Video’s biggest hit is The Boys, which grew its audience tremendously in season 2, and already has its own spinoff announced.
Thanks to a deal with Viacom — which controls Comedy Central, MTV and Nickelodeon — Amazon Prime arguably is the best streaming service when it comes to comedy and children’s programming. The service also offers unlimited access to an extensive collection from HBO’s back catalog of classics such as The Sopranos and The Wire. You can also rent or purchase movies through Amazon Prime Video, but it’s an à la carte service. If you’re trying to master your Amazon streaming device, check out our how to use the Fire Stick walkthrough.
Fubo TV is one of the best streaming services for anyone looking to have access to live sports without an actual cable subscription. Fubo’s standard plan is $64.99 and offers 120-plus channels, including almost every major broadcast and cable network. And unlike other live TV streaming competitors like YouTube TV and Sling TV, Fubo has 4K streaming for select content on demand. The other knock against Fubo, besides its higher price, is the limited Cloud DVR storage.
While Fubo’s channel lineup is the largest among the higher-priced streamers, they just got a major pair of gaps filled, including ABC and ESPN. By adding ESPN, Fubo makes itself the top streaming service for NFL fans, offering all the major broadcast networks, and the NFL Network too. In addition, the lineup includes popular networks like NBC, Fox, AMC, Food Network, MTV and Syfy, as well as a ton of niche sports channels. Its only big sports flaw is TNT, which is a must for NBA playoffs.
Check our our full Fubo TV review.
If you yearn for the halcyon days of cheesy action movies and anime on afternoon cable, Crackle will take you back in time at no cost. The Sony-owned platform broadcasts movies, TV shows and original programming on a rotating basis. There’s no subscription or à la carte fee, although you do have to sit through a fair amount of commercials. While the programming is not usually blockbuster material, it’s stuff you’ve heard of — think Total Recall rather than The Terminator, or Pitch Black rather than Riddick. Some of the original shows are good, too.
Crackle originals include Snatch, an adaptation of the Guy Ritchie film, which stars Rupert Grint (yes, Ron Weasley himself). Adam Brody starred in StartUp, Keegan-Michael Key did voice work in the animated Supermansion, and even Chad Michael Murray showed up for CH:OS:EN. There’s even Rob Riggle’s Ski Master Academy, which bears resemblance to what would happen if you made a real life show out of Archer.
How to choose the best streaming services for you
The good news is that you don’t need to limit yourself to just one. It’s all about picking the number of services that’s right for your budget. And to that matter, all depends on the content you want to consume. While Netflix has a diverse array of content, it’s not appealing to any specific audience — which means it’s probably a service that most people have.
While Netflix is pivoting more to original shows and movies with each passing week, it’s still constantly adding licensed movies and shows. That means it’s not only the place you’ll re-watch The Good Place, but it’s also got its own hits like Glow and Love Is Blind.
Alternatively, do not sleep on HBO Max. Not only does the service get top-tier movies, but it’s continually getting some of the latest and greatest and most prestigious TV shows, such as Watchmen and The Outsider.
How we test streaming services
Testing streaming services is both serious work and good fun. When we test the quality of these platforms, we use them on multiple devices, including game consoles, web browsers and mobile devices. You’d be surprised at how differently Sling TV can look between a Roku, the Apple TV box and Chrome.
We then compare the services based around the number of simultaneous streams they allow, if they throw in 4K streaming for free (or charge extra), and what other special features they allow. We also keep a strong eye on the new channels coming to each service, with articles such as our Sling Orange vs Blue face-off.
And as pricing constantly changes (not in the right way, most of the time), we have to rethink how each competitor sits in the landscape. Sling, for example, has stayed near the low-end of the field, even though it too has gone up over time.
We also spend a fair amount of time keeping up with the latest entrants into the streaming wars. A newer live TV streaming service is Philo TV, which costs just $20 a month for 59 channels.
One of the biggest new names in streaming is NBCU’s Peacock. Its strategy is simple: free ad-supported content you love, but the debate over NBC Peacock Free vs Premium might be an easy question depending on how July’s nation-wide launch goes. Peacock has The Office, SNL and much more, plus it’s the exclusive home for many Premier League soccer games and the WWE Network.
HBO Max arrived with the WarnerMedia library (including Friends), but its biggest feature is that it will get huge blockbuster movies on the same day they arrive in theaters. This started with Wonder Woman 1984.
While Apple TV Plus hasn’t risen to the ranks of the best streaming services, it’s still got Ted Lasso, one of the best shows of the last year (if not the very best). And did you know that AT&T TV isn’t a month-to-month subscription service? It’s a really weird offering that feels like it’s stuck in the past.
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