With so many TV and movie streaming services available today, there’s really no excuse to say “there’s nothing to watch.” You have your established heavy hitters (like Netflix and Hulu), your new-to-streaming powerhouses (such as Disney Plus and Apple TV Plus), your traditional networks getting into the game (a la CBS All Access and NBC’s Peacock), and your startups and your wildcards (see the upcoming Quibi).
(Editors’ note: CNET is owned by ViacomCBS.)
Choosing a streaming service isn’t a one-size-fits all experience, as every viewer’s needs and wants are different. Many of us subscribe to multiple services, but may not have thought about which will actually give us access to the shows and movies we want most — and help us avoid.
We’ve broken down five of the most popular streaming services to help you make the decision on which one will give you the most bang for your buck.
Best for keeping up with current shows
I don’t have cable, but with a Hulu subscription, new episodes of current shows are uploaded to the platform quickly, so I can still keep up despite having cut the cord. For example, new episodes of Grey’s Anatomy air on TV on Thursday nights. If you’re subscribed to either the basic ($6 per month) or Premium ($12 per month) Hulu plan, you can watch it the next day. There’s also the option of Hulu with Live TV for $55 per month, which acts as more of a cable replacement and lets you watch your shows in real-time.
A downside to Hulu is that every season of a given show might not be available, so if you’re looking to do some serious catching up, you might have to look elsewhere for past episodes. Other shows, like Bob’s Burgers and Family Guy, have all the seasons available on Hulu.
Other programs, like the BBC’s Killing Eve, drop the entire latest season at once. This is perfect for binging, but if you blow through them all, you’re stuck in a “show hole” until the next season comes out. Hulu Originals such as Shrill, High Fidelity or the Handmaid’s Tale sometimes release an episode per week or an entire season at once.
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While Hulu’s catalog is extensive, it doesn’t include everything. It can be frustrating to search for a movie or show, only to realize that you have to buy an add-on to watch it. Hulu subscribers can tack on HBO, Cinemax, Showtime or Starz for an extra fee.
Best for binging old TV shows
Netflix is a veteran streaming service. Remember when subscribing meant it would mail DVDs to your house? Netflix also introduced us to the modern binge-watch, as it houses iconic shows (old and new) like The Office, That ’70s Show, The Andy Griffith Show, The West Wing and more. It’s easy to put on your favorite and let it play, whether you’re actively watching or not.
Netflix has also become known for its Originals — movies, shows and documentaries, many of which have received both popularity and critical acclaim. Think about the hype surrounding The Haunting of Hill House and Stranger Things, the psychological thriller series You, the Oscar-winning film Roma and more.
New seasons typically come out all at once, and after you blow through them in one afternoon, you have to wait months or even years for the next one. I would keep Netflix for the binge-able shows and those fascinating investigative docuseries such as The Keepers and The Pharmacist. While you’re waiting for your favorite show to come back, Netflix mixes up its content every month, releasing new titles every week.
You can choose between basic ($9 per month), standard ($13) or Premium ($16) plans.
Best for star-studded exclusive content
If you’re subscribed to multiple streaming services, they can all link to your Apple TV (or Roku or other streaming device) so you’ve got a “command central” of sorts. Apple leveled up its Apple TV box and app with the addition of Apple TV Plus last fall. The addition of exclusive, star-studded shows such as The Morning Show, Servant, For All Mankind and more are a significant draw to the service — especially if you’re already an Apple user.
However, unlike Netflix or Hulu, Apple TV Plus doesn’t have a library of licensed shows or movies. It also doesn’t always release full seasons of its shows at once. At launch, it had nine shows, with five more on the way. However, subscribing only costs $5 per month, or $50 annually.
Apple offers a seven-day free trial of Apple TV. Or, if you’ve recently purchased a new iPhone or other iOS device, you get a year of Apple TV Plus for free. The Apple TV app doesn’t cost anything to download, but there are in-app purchases for content.
Read more: Best streaming device of 2020: Roku, Apple TV, Fire Stick, Nvidia Shield and more
Amazon Prime Video
Best for streaming newer movies
If you subscribe to Amazon Prime ($13 a month, $6.49 per month for students) for savings on the e-commerce site, you also get access to Prime Video — Amazon’s streaming service. The service has new movies to rent or buy, like the Oscar-winner Parasite. Prime users can watch a number of movies and shows for free, so long as they have the little “Prime” tag on the corner of the icon.
If you’re a movie fan, Prime Video might be the right choice for you: Amazon’s platform has four times as many movies as Netflix does, one study found. Not all of them are major blockbusters, but it is an extensive catalog.
Like Hulu, you can buy add-on channels for Prime Video like HBO, Starz and others to access more content. You can also find programs by searching a channel like BET or Boomerang. Sometimes, even if a show requires an add-on, like HBO’s Girls, you can watch a season or two for free on Prime. I like Prime Video because it typically has films that are more off the beaten path in addition to mainstream new releases. Plus, there are quality original shows, including The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and The Man in the High Castle, as well as original movies like The Big Sick.
Best for Disney and Marvel movies
If you have young ones or you’re young at heart, the Disney Plus streaming service is packed with content for you. In addition to original shows like The Mandalorian or The World According to Jeff Goldblum, Disney Plus is also home to Marvel movies and the Star Wars franchise.
There’s also the nostalgia factor: My watchlist is almost entirely Disney Channel Original Movies from the late ’90s and early 2000s. Of course, there’s classic Disney content too, from original Mickey Mouse cartoons to vaulted films like Aladdin, The Jungle Book, Cinderella and more.
After the seven-day free trial, Disney Plus costs $7 a month. There’s also an option to bundle Disney Plus with Hulu and ESPN.