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Which TV streaming service subscription is best for you? Here’s how to choose

Which TV streaming service subscription is best for you? Here's how to choose

The streaming wars ramped up last year, with established heavy hitters (like Netflix and Hulu) going up against new powerhouses (such as Disney Plus and HBO Max), traditional networks (Paramount Plus, formerly CBS All Access), NBC’s Peacock and most recently Discovery Plus, and wild cards (see the now-defunct Quibi). 

It’s unlikely that one streaming service will fulfill all of your binge-watching needs, and it’s likely that you’re subscribed to multiple services (or at least have friends who are whose passwords you use). But when was the last time you evaluated which service actually gives you the shows and movies you want most? 

Here are the details on seven of the most popular streaming services to help you decide which one will give you the most bang for your buck. (Make sure you check out our picks for the best streaming services of 2021, too.)

Read more: Best streaming service deals

Sarah Tew/CNET

Last year, I upgraded to Hulu Plus Live TV, and now I watch it more than any other service. The Live TV package also means catching episodes of The Office or Parks and Recreation, despite the shows moving to Peacock.

Even before upgrading, I was happy with how episodes of current shows were uploaded to Hulu quickly, giving folks the opportunity to stay caught up even after cutting the cord.

Read more: Best live TV streaming services for cord-cutters in 2021

If you’ve subscribed to either the basic ($6 per month) or premium ($12 per month) plans, you can watch it the next day. Or, you can upgrade to Hulu Plus Live TV for $65 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. Hulu does have all seasons of some shows, like Bob’s Burgers and Family Guy. 

Other programs, like the BBC’s Killing Eve, come out with an entire 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. Hulu Originals such as Shrill and The Handmaid’s Tale sometimes release either an episode per week or an entire season at once. 

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.

Read our Hulu review.

 

Read more: Best streaming device of 2021: Roku, Apple TV, Fire Stick and others compared

Netflix

Netflix is a veteran streaming service and essentially introduced us to the modern binge-watch, as it houses iconic shows (old and new) like Supernatural, Glee, Gilmore Girls and The West Wing. It’s easy to put on an old favorite and let it play, whether you’re actively watching or not. 

Netflix has also become known for its Originals — movies, shows and multiple documentaries, many of which have received both popular and critical acclaim. Think about the hype surrounding The Queen’s Gambit, Bridgerton, Mindhunter and Stranger Things. Netflix has even won during Oscar season with Roma and My Octopus Teacher. 

New seasons of shows 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-watching and for 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 ($14) and premium ($18) plans.

Read our Netflix review.

 

Gabor Kotschy/A24

If you subscribe to Amazon Prime for savings on the e-commerce site — $13 a month, or $6.49 per month for students — you also get access to Prime Video, Amazon’s streaming service. The service has new movies to rent or buy, and you 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. You can also subscribe to Prime Video without the e-commerce savings for $9 a month. 

If you’re a movie fan, Prime Video might be the right choice for you: Amazon’s platform has three times as many movies as Netflix does, one study found. Not all of them are major blockbusters, but it is an extensive catalog. 

As with Hulu, you can buy add-on channels for Prime Video such as HBO and Starz. You can also find programs by searching a channel like BET or Boomerang. Sometimes, even if a show requires an add-on, you can usually 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.

Read our Amazon Prime Video review.

 

Read more: Best TVs in 2021

Disney Plus

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, Loki, WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Disney Plus is also home to Marvel movies and the Star Wars franchise. 

Disney Plus found a strong foothold during last year’s lockdowns for big-screen releases, too. At first, it started streaming already-released movies months earlier than planned, including Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Frozen 2 and Pixar’s Onward. Later it sped up streaming releases of brand-new movies, like the film adaptation of young adult novel Artemis Fowl and the live-action film version of the mega hit musical Hamilton.

The service has kept it up as well, putting brand new movies on the platform and behind a paywall. The live-action remake of Mulan arrived last year, and was available to stream at the same time it hit theaters for $30 (it’s now available for free). Marvel’s Black Widow is also coming to Disney Plus the same day it hits theaters this month for an extra $30 charge. 

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 and Cinderella. 

After the seven-day free trial, Disney Plus costs $8 a month. There’s also an option to bundle Disney Plus with Hulu and ESPN.

Read our Disney Plus review.

 

NBC/Peacock

Peacock, the streaming service from NBCUniversal, is a bit different from the others on this list. While, like many of the streaming services, it has a tiled interface and a big-name network behind it, it also includes live news and sports, new original series and a large back catalog of TV shows and movies. Many of the titles are available to watch for free, making it somewhat similar to a free streaming service like Tubi or Roku Channels. 

Peacock’s free tier offers tons of ad-supported content, with the option to upgrade to ad-supported premium ($5 a month) or ad-free premium plus ($10 a month) if you want to expand the library even further. You’ll find shows, movies, news, live sports and skit-style clips, with standouts including The Office, Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, some Premier League soccer matches, and more. You’ll also get episodes of current NBC shows like This is Us the week after they air on the free tier, or the day after on the premium tier. 

In addition, for shows like The Office or Parks and Recreation, you’ll only get access to a few episodes. You’ll need to upgrade to premium to get full access. 

Since launch, Peacock has added the few features it was lacking like Roku and Amazon Fire TV support, profiles for different users and some mobile downloads. But it still doesn’t offer mobile downloads for its cheaper tiers or 4K HDR streaming — both of which are available on the paid competition like Netflix and Disney Plus.

Peacock probably won’t replace Netflix or Hulu, at least in the short term. But it’s a nice free option for finding some older movies and shows you might have missed (or want to watch again), and keeping up with current NBC shows, as long as you don’t mind watching a few ads. 

Read our Peacock review.

 

WarnerMedia

HBO Max is a slick app chock-full of popular TV shows and movies. It’s got HBO’s entire catalog, along with favorites such as Friends, Rick and Morty, the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies — making it a solid streaming collection for adults and kids. 

HBO Max still lacks a breakout original series, but seems to be trying to build a base of exclusive content with Max Originals — like Zack Snyder’s Justice League director’s cut and the series The Flight Attendant. The Friends Reunion special also aired on HBO Max. Plus, due to the pandemic, HBO Max is streaming new, theatrically released movies at no extra charge the same day each film hits US theaters, including In the HeightsMatrix 4 and Dune

While HBO Max lacked a breakout original series at launch, it does have a great selection of movies, some new and many older. The service has the full The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings trilogies (though only two of The Hobbit movies), DC movies like Joker and Wonder Woman, classic films like The Wizard of Oz and Casablanca, and newer hits like A Star is Born and Crazy Rich Asians. Not to mention almost the entire catalog of Studio Ghibli anime films that have never been released for streaming in the US before. 

The downside? HBO Max’s price is at the high end of the spectrum, at $15 a month. Fortunately the service now offers a cheaper tier — HBO Max with Ads for $10 a month (but you’ll need to pay the full $15 to get access to those new movies the same day as theaters). 

Read our HBO Max review.

 

Apple

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 Apple TV Plus a couple years ago. The addition of exclusive, star-studded shows such as The Morning Show and Ted Lasso is a significant draw for 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 (though in July, that will change to just three months free). 

Magnolia Network

Discovery Plus tossed its hat into the streaming service ring in January. Cable programmer Discovery launched the service with two tiers — $5 a month with commercials or $7 a month ad-free — after a 7-day free trial. In addition, the service is free with certain Verizon Unlimited and home broadband plans. 

Like Disney Plus, Discovery Plus has a niche content catalog (find every channel and popular shows here). The service’s library contains nature documentaries, A&E true crime, HGTV fixer-upper shows, the Travel Channel, the Food Network, science content and more.

The service supports 4K HDR, but no mobile downloads for offline watching, and you can stream on up to four devices. But either tier you choose, you’re paying less than $10 for over 55,000 episodes from Discovery’s own channels. 

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