After years of studios, networks, content distributors and tech companies all peacefully coexisting along the streaming video landscape, we are firmly in the middle of the streaming wars. In the 18 months alone, we’ve seen Apple TV+, Peacock and Paramount Plus enter the fray, joining streaming heavyweights such as Netflix, HBO Max, Disney Plus and Amazon Prime Video in the battle to claim subscriptions and eyeballs. But with so many different services offering their own unique content, it can be hard to suss out what the best streaming service really is.
When choosing the best streaming services for your home entertainment system, there are really just two factors to consider: which streaming apps have the most content you enjoy, and which streaming services fit into your budget? Essentially, streamers want the most for their buck. And it’s hard to blame them. Between YouTube and social media, there’s plenty of entertainment floating around for free anyway. But when it comes to flat-out, binge-worthy entertainment, you’re going to want one (or all) of the top streaming services.
Unfortunately, trying to determine the best streaming service is next to impossible. The truth is that the best service for any individual person depends not only on which service has the newest and hottest shows and any given moment, but also what that person likes to watch. Netflix, for instance, is excellent if you are into their original programming. But if you are looking for recent shows and movies from other networks and studios, you might find it to be lacking. Furthermore, we’ve reached a point where a single service is not enough if you’re cutting the cord.
Once upon a time, many people had a fantasy of services like Netflix coming in and providing a vast library of on-demand content at a drastically lower cost than what you’d be charged by a cable provider. And while cord-cutting has lowered the cost of television content for some, this isn’t really the case for many. Instead, the great benefit of the best streaming services is that they give you a whole lot of control over what content you pay for, how you watch that content and when you watch it.
How to Build Your Streaming Bundle in 2021
As such, if you are looking to go all streaming, all the time, you shouldn’t be for the best single streaming service, but rather the best combination of streaming services. When choosing the best streaming services for your home entertainment system, there are really just two factors to consider: which streaming services have the most content you enjoy, and how many of them fit into your budget?
This is why we’ve put these services together into 5 groups:
- Must-have streaming services: These are the platforms with killer content that we think everyone should be subscribing to in 2021.
- Nice-to-have streaming services: These are services with some pretty solid TV shows and movies, but ones that you can ultimately live without if they don’t fit your budget.
- Niche streaming services: Many people won’t have any interest in these streaming services, but for those who do, they’re absolutely essential.
- Live TV streaming services: If you still love the passive experience of channel surfing, these services give you the experience of cable TV and the freedom and flexibility of the best streaming video services.
- Free streaming services: There are a surprising number of services that offer a large selection of titles at no cost. The usual trade off is that the shows and movies are older and there will be ads involved, but you can find some entertaining gems here.
Below are our recommendations for the best streaming services to enjoy in 2021:
The Must-Have Streaming Services
BEST ORIGINAL CONTENT
Netflix is so ubiquitous at this point that when you ask someone if they’ve seen whatever show you’re currently obsessed with on Netflix, you don’t even question whether they have Netflix. That’s because it’s rare when someone doesn’t. But like any service, Netflix can have content lulls, and if you canceled your subscription for awhile, it might be time to revisit the service, because Netflix originals such as Russian Doll, Dear White People and Atypical are slated for 2021 releases. But that’s just scratching the surface, and no other streaming service can match the amount of original content that Netflix boasts. The streaming giant has signed huge deals with the world’s biggest comedians including Dave Chappelle and Jerry Seinfeld and has plenty of smash original hits such as Stranger Things and Ozark.
Netflix is available starting at $8.99 for the basic plan which includes HD streaming for one user on one device. The standard plan is $12.99 and two users can stream on separate devices. The Premium Plan is $17.99 a month and includes up to four devices as well as the ability to stream content in 4K HDR (and if you’re also shopping for a new 65-inch TV, you’re going to want to upgrade to the premium tier).
Great for Watching: Netflix Originals (Stranger Things, Queer Eye, Army of the Dead), Award-Winning Movies, Classic TV Shows, Documentaries
BEST FOR NEW MOVIES
HBO Max started with a little bit of an identity problem, launching alongside HBO Go and HBO Now. Unless you were fully tapped into the streaming landscape, it was impossible to tell one from the other. who’s who? But, HBO Go and HBO Now have gone away, leaving HBO Max as the lone HBO streaming service. Like Netflix, it has a truly massive selection of titles from from WarnerMedia, DC universe, Turner Classic Movies, Looney Tunes, Studio Ghibli, and even the entire South Park library. On top of that, you can enjoy all of your favorite HBO content like Barry, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Game of Thrones.
But unlike Netflix, the biggest selling point for HBO Max is the fact that every new Warner Bros. movie that was planned for release in theaters in 2021 is instead premiering on HBO Max. While this created plenty of controversy throughout Hollywood, it’s hard to argue that this isn’t a massive win for viewers in the short term. And with movie theaters starting to reopen, we doubt this will spill over into 2022, so you’d be wise to enjoy this while you can.
HBO Max is $14.99 a month, making it more expensive than the standard tier of Netflix (standard) or the Disney Plus Bundle. There are also no cheaper options with ads, like Hulu offers. But the sheer volume of blockbuster content you get with your monthly subscription still makes HBO Max an incredible value.
Great For Watching: Classic HBO Series (The Sopranos, Game of Thrones), New Movies (Godzilla vs Kong, Mortal Kombat), DC Superhero Movies, Turner Classic Movies
BEST FOR MARVEL AND STAR WARS FANATICS
The Disney Plus Bundle, which includes Hulu and ESPN Plus, offers a whole lot of content for the money. But that value might be lost on people who still pay for cable or simply aren’t into sports. The one part of the bundle that is absolutely essential to anyone who is a film or TV junkie is main Disney Plus streaming service. In addition to serving as the home for all of Disney’s kid-oriented movies and TV shows, Disney Plus is the destination for all the new movies and TV shows from Pixar, Star Wars and the Marvel cinematic universe. This includes blockbuster movies such as The Avengers, fan-favorite anthology series such as The Mandalorian, recent hits such as Wandavision and new/upcoming shows like The Bad Bunch (Star Wars) and Loki (Marvel). If there’s not something here that piques your interest, we may need to check you for a pulse.
And while Disney Plus on its own may not have the sheer volume of content that HBO Max and Netflix have, what makes this service so essential is that there’s always a regular supply of excellent content and it only costs $7.99 when its not part of a bundle.
Great for Watching: Star Wars Trilogies, The Mandalorian, Marvel Movies, Pixar, Classic Disney Movies
The Nice-To-Have Streaming Services
Amazon Prime Video
Prime Video has been losing shows as other streaming services have launched (you used to be able to stream The Sopranos on Prime), and Prime’s access to third-party content is dwindling, but the convenience and features available on Prime are still fantastic. For instance, you can stream in 4K and HDR (we’re looking at you HBO), and download content to your device so you can watch when you don’t have Internet. Plus, renting and buying shows on-demand through Prime is super convenient. On its own, the huge amount of on-demand content available for cheap rentals would make Prime Video one of the best streaming services, but Amazon has a lot more to offer.
Prime also has award-winning original content such as Fleabag, and Jack Ryan, and it’s starting to approach Netflix and HBO MAX by releasing movies such as Coming 2 America and Borat 2. While Amazon costs $8.99 a month for access to the video service, you can also pay $12.99 and get a full Amazon Prime subscription which includes all the perks of Prime Video as well as free shipping on all your Amazon orders, free Whole Foods Market and Amazon Fresh deliveries, free eBooks and music from Kindle and Amazon Music and a free Twitch Prime subscription to use on your favorite streamer.
Great for Watching: A24 Independent Movies (Midsommar, Hereditary), Prime Video Originals, Documentaries, Classic TV Shows
Showtime has spent its entire existence living in the shadow of HBO, which is a shame because it has been responsible for some great TV shows over the years. But it seems like every time the premium cable network starts to catch up to HBO, HBO takes a huge leap ahead and leaves Showtime eating its dust. Case in point: Showtime has spent years building up its original programming portfolio and building out its streaming app in an effort to remain relevant. But now that HBO Max is dropping Blockbuster movies every other week, the Showtime Now app feels a little, well, quaint.
Still, this is a good streaming service with excellent shows such as Billions, starring Paul Giamatti, Shameless, starring William H. Macy and the Jim Carrey dark comedy, Kidding. While $10.99 a month isn’t horrible for what you get on Showtime Now, we’re not sure why Viacom opted against packaging this network to boost the appeal of its other big streaming service, Paramount Plus.
Great for Watching: Classic Movies, Billions, Shameless, New-Release Movies
The Disney Plus, Hulu and ESPN Plus Bundle
We’ve already sung the praises of Disney Plus above, but if you don’t have cable and/or you want as much sports content as possible, the Disney Plus Bundle is an excellent value for you. Hulu is essentially the mature version of Disney Plus, offering up movies and on-demand TV shows from your favorite networks, along with its own original programming (this includes the new season of The Handmaid’s Tale). ESPN plus, of course, is home to all the 30 for 30s, UFC fights and live games. You could pay for all of them separately, but bundling all three of these services together is essentially the same price as paying for any two of them, so you might as well go for the glory and enjoy all the home entertainment you could ever want.
Great for Watching: Pretty Much Everything (Movies, TV and Live Sports), UFC Fights
Paramount Plus launched in 2021 as a “new streaming service,” but if we’re being honest, it’s mostly just the existing CBS All-Access service with a new name. While this rebrand may be a show of renewed interest from parent company Viacom, this service still has some work to do before it can truly be considered essential. That said, what’s offered by this $5.99 a month service isn’t completely terrible. For starters, you get access to CBS’ live broadcasts, which includes the NFL and UEFA Champions League for those who like either kind of football. It also includes the entire archive of Star Trek content, including the original 1960s series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the J.J. Abrams-produced movies.
Great for Watching: Live Sports, Star Trek, Select Shows from MTV and Nickelodeon, Paramount Pictures Movies
The Niche Streaming Services
If you love classic films, foreign films, experimental films, indie films, or just movies in general, the Criterion Channel should be right up there with Netflix and HBO Max on your list of essential streaming services. This streaming service is home to some of the greatest movies ever made, and while it might have minimal appeal to casual movie fans, there’s an impressive level of thought and care that goes into not only the presentation of the films themselves, but also the bonus content, the interviews and the curation of themed playlists. So whether you’re into the French New Wave, Italian Neorealism or Japanese Horror, there’s something for every type of film nerd on the Criterion Channel.
Great for Watching: Foreign Films, Award-Winning Films, Cult Classics
For anyone whose TV consumption primarily revolves around sports, there are few networks more enticing than the $65/month Fubo TV. In addition to essential sports networks such as ESPN and Bally Sports, but also regional and international networks such as MSG, SNY, BEIN Sport, Tennis Channel and more. The one network missing from Fubo TV is TNT, which is a crucial omission if you’re a big NBA fan. But otherwise, everything else you could ever want when it comes to sports is available through Fubo TV.
Great for Watching: Baseball, Basketball, Football, Tennis, Soccer
Much like the Criterion Channel, Mubi caters to cinephiles with a selection of films from all over the world that you would typically label as classic, indie, art house, foreign or avant garde. And while Mubi used to focus itself around a tightly curated selection of 30 films every month, it expanded its offering in 2020, and now gives subscribers access to hundreds of films featuring the greatest directors and actors of our time. But for those who like a little serendipity, Mubi still premieres a new film every single day. At $10.99 a month, Mubi is a little on the pricey side as a standalone niche service, but the quality of its content justifies the cost. And for those who want to test the waters first, there’s a livestreamed Mubi channel that you can watch free of charge.
Great for Watching: Classic Films, Foreign Films, Art House Films,
Over the last 15 years, AMC has transformed itself from a cable network that strictly aired classic films, and into the only TV network that could truly go blow-for-blow with HBO when it came to the best slate of TV shows. Whether we’re talking classics such as Mad Men, Breaking Bad or The Walking Dead, more recent successes such as Better Call Saul, Halt and Catch Fire or The Little Drummer Girl, and new series such as Kevin Can Go F**k Himself, this network has no shortage of quality content. And for $8.99 a month you can stream it all.
But in addition to AMCs offerings, you also get access to all of the independent shows and movies offered from IFC Network and Sundance Network, a smattering of horror flicks from Shudder and the UK’s finest offerings from BBC America (which includes Killing Eve). That’s not bad when you’re talking about getting the most bang for your buck.
Great for Watching: Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Better Call Saul
Like most animation, Japanese anime has been unfairly relegated by many into the category of children’s content. But some of the best film and TV to come out of Japan over the last 5 decades has been anime, and the genre has finally started to get its due for its complex storytelling, striking visuals and experimental techniques. The streaming service leading the pack for anime content in the U.S. is Crunchyroll, and it’s here that you can find many of the biggest anime series that are coming straight from Japanese airwaves. This includes recent series such as Darling In The Franxx, Demon Hunter and Attack on Titan (which is currently in the midst of Season 4). But what makes Crunchyroll one of the best streaming services is that new episodes from shows appear on the site the same day that they air in Japan, which means that there’s no lengthy wait to stay up on your favorite series.
Great for Watching: Japanese TV, Anime
When you buy a new Apple product, such as the iPhone SE, you get a year of Apple TV+ for free. If you’re not in the market for a new Apple device, the streaming service is only $4.99 a month. With that, you get nothing but original content. And don’t get us wrong, there are some great shows like Defending Jacob and the popular documentary Boys State and powerhouse talent like Tom Hanks, Jennifer Anniston and M. Night Shyamalan heading that original content. So far, it only has one true hit show, the impossibly delightful Ted Lasso. However, a streaming platform needs more one hit show to lean on, and so Apple TV+ has struggled to compete with the best streaming services.
Great for Watching: Ted Lasso, Ted Lasso and Ted Lasso, again
Funimation is easily the biggest rival to Crunchyroll when it comes to Anime content, and while it may not be the more essential service for the average anime fan, it still has a number of cult classics, such as Darling in the Franxx. But there’s a bigger reason why many people will want to spend $5.99 a month on a Funimation subscription: It’s the only place where you can stream Dragon Ball Z, which was a staple show of more childhoods that anyone could fathomably count.
Great for Watching: Dragon Ball Z, Darling in the Franxx, Attack on Titan, Assasination Classroom, My Hero Academia
Featuring some of the most beloved cartoons from the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, Boomerang is the destination to revisit shows such as Looney Toons and Scooby Doo. And whether you’re subscribing to expose your kid to the classics, or just want to dive into a pool of nostalgia, many of the series offered here hold up pretty well. Plus, if you sign up for an annual subscription, it only costs $39.99 ($3.33/month) which makes it an excellent affordable addition to your core streaming services.
Great for Watching: Looney Toons, Scooby Doo,The Smurfs, Johnny Quest, Tom and Jerry
If you love British television and are looking for more than just BBC’s offerings, the logical next step is to sign up for BritBox. Gathering together the libraries from the UK’s biggest broadcasters (which includes BBC, iTV, Channel 4 and Channel 5), this $6.99/month service is like having a little slice of London in your living room thanks to shows such as Doctor Who, Mr. Bean, EastEnders, MI-5 and Prime Minister’s Questions.
Great for Watching: Doctor Who, Mr. Bean, EastEnders, MI-5, Prime Minister’s Questions
The Best Live TV Streaming Services
If live TV is your jam, but dealing with cable providers isn’t, YouTube TV exists as a viable alternative. Unlike Netflix, or Disney+ which provides original content and large libraries of movies and shows, YouTube TV provides live TV from major networks like FOX, NBC, ABC and even ESPN. There’s also a handful of entertainment available courtesy of TNT, FX and Food Network to name a few. YouTube TV also features unlimited DVR storage and the ability to save recordings for up to nine months. At $64.99, it’s compared to the best streaming services, but it will likely still cost you less than a traditional cable plan would.
While YouTube TV is a great alternative to cable TV, it’s not a great alternative to the best streaming services, as it won’t give you access to much original content or new-release movies.
FIRST MONTH JUST $10!
Sling TV is another alternative to cable TV, but it still has more flexibility with pricing plans than YouTube TV. Now, Sling Blue is $35 a month and allows you to stream on three devices. Sling Orange is also $35 a month but only allows on a single device. Why would anyone choose the Orange plan then? Depends on the channels you want to watch. Sling Orange has far more sports and family-oriented channels like ESPN and Nick Jr., while Sling Blue is more for entertainment and news, including MSNBC and FX.
Sling is also running a special deal for new subscribers where the first month is only $10. So if you were considering giving an app-based live TV service a try, now just might be the time.
BEST BUDGET LIVE TV
Philo is the service for people who have no interest in on-demand services, but refuse to pay more than $30 for live TV. For only $20 a month, Philo offers 62 TV channels including BBC, BET, Comedy Central, Discovery Channel, Food Network, AMC and others. Seeing that its only a few channels less than YouTube TV, and less than half the price, it might seem like a no-brainer for everyone, but there are a few caveats. Local news and live sports are virtually non-existent on on Philo. So, if you’re a looking to cut the cord for a sports-centric streaming service, you’ll definitely want to look elsewhere.
The Best Free Streaming Services
BEST BANG FOR THE BUCK
Unfortunately, the best streaming services aren’t completely free, but there are a handful of free streaming services. However, only one of them is really worth adding to your smart TV: Peacock. Named after NBC’s iconic logo, the broadcaster’s new streaming service is one of the more recent ones to enter the streaming wars. To it’s credit, Peacock has actually hit some high notes in the process. By offering a no-strings-attached free streaming tier where the only limitation is the amount of content that’s offered, Peacock is pretty unique in the streaming landscape. This free content includes 13,000 hours of content pulled from NBC’s content vault which includes classics such as 30 Rock, Parks and Recs, Battlestar Galactica, This Is Us and the first two seasons of The Office. But it’s when you take the step up to the Peacock Premium tier that this service starts to shine.
For $4.99 a month, you get an ad-supported experience that gives you access to every episode of the Office, as well as access to live NBC sports content, such as the English Premier League. On top of that, NBC recently worked out a deal that offers the WWE Network to subscribers at no additional costs. And that includes every Pay-Per-View event, including Wrestlemania and SummerSlam. While there are a few services on this list that have a varied catalog, few are as good for comedy lovers. Peacock is the best way to stream classic NBC comedies like 30 Rock, Parks and Rec and The Office.
Great for Watching: The Office, Law & Order, Sports, Professional Wrestling
One of the secret gems among streaming services is Pluto TV, a CBS-owned streaming platform that specializes in streaming legacy content and making it feel like you’re watching cable without having to pay $100 a month. What you get are a number of “channels” that are streaming content 24/7, and you can flip through these channels just like you were watching TV. This includes various movie channels based around specific themes or genres, entire channels dedicated to reruns of classic shows, and a handful of live news broadcasts. But most of what you can watch on Pluto’s channels is also available on-demand, which offers a nice balance between viewing experiences. And while Pluto TV might not be flush with blockbuster content, being able to tune into re-runs of Unsolved Mysteries episodes from the ’90s is extremely underrated.
Best Streaming Services FAQ
Netflix and HBO Max (tie). Picking the best streaming service is largely a matter of preference, but these two services have more of the content most people are in search of when it comes to new movies and original series.
If you want the widest selection of channels, YouTube TV is your best bet with more than 85 channels for $65 a month. If you want the best value, Sling TV costs as little as $35 a month for more than 30 top channels.
HBO Max. In addition to having a top-shelf selection of blockbuster films, HBO Max will also premiere all new Warner Bros. films in 2021.
Crunchyroll. With the widest selection of the hottest anime series such as Attack on Titan and the ability to simulcast new episodes in the US as soon as they air in Japan, Crunchyroll is the easy pick for best anime streaming service.
ESPN Plus is the best streaming service for sports. For $5.99 a month you will get live games and events from all the major pro and college sports including baseball (MLB), basketball (NBA), MMA (UFC), tennis (ATP and WTA), soccer (Premier League, Serie A and Bundesliga), football and more.
On both the Roku and Amazon Fire TV platforms you can find NBC's Peacock service, which has shows such as The Office, and PlutoTV which has hundreds of "channels" streaming of free TV shows and movies 24/7.