The Best TV Streaming Service
How We Found the Best TV Streaming Service
25 Plans Compared
20 Hours of TV Watched
4 Top Picks
The Best TV Streaming Service
Our goal was to find everything you need to start streaming TV, no matter what kind of content you’re after. We looked for the best in three categories: live cable replacements, on-demand services like Netflix and Hulu, and the devices that let you play them all through your TV. After 130 hours of research (and more TV-watching than we ever dreamed we’d get paid for), we found the best TV streaming service and device for each use case.
In this review, we’ll cover all things TV streaming. If you want to jump to any specific sections, just click the links below.
How We Chose the Best Live TV Streaming Service
Overall channel selection
Companies that stream live TV often promote the raw number of channels in their lineups, but more isn’t necessarily better. Sling advertises 45 channels for $25 a month, which sounds impressive until you realize that you’re paying for a channel assortment which includes such eccentricities as the Cheddar channel (financial news “broadcast live from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange”), the Velocity network (automotive programming for an "upscale male" audience), and the El Rey Network (geared toward grindhouse fans).
Cable subscribers know this dilemma well; it’s easy to wind up paying for 200 channels when you only watch eight. Some “filler” options are inevitable — since Turner owns TNT and TBS, you’ll never be able to get one without the other, for example — but we wanted to give the most weight to the channels that people actually want.
To gauge a channel’s desirability, we used TiVo’s 2017 Q4 Trends Report, which asked over 3,000 American and Canadian adults, “Which channels would you be interested in including in your TV package?” We used those responses to assign a score to each channel: The higher the percentage of viewers who wanted the channel, the higher its score. Then we added up the number of points each package received for the channels it offered.
Availability by location
Big networks like ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC are essential channels for most people who want to stream live TV, but each service’s exact offerings may change depending on where you live. The same goes for regional sports networks, which broadcast your local team’s MLB, NBA, and NHL games. We ran ZIP codes for Seattle, Cleveland, New York, Los Angeles, and Boston and found that Hulu with Live TV, DIRECTV NOW, Playstation Vue, and YouTube TV all had the big four networks in these regions, while our other finalists offered patchier coverage.
Using that information, we gave extra points to the services that had the widest coverage for these local networks. Still, companies are engaged in a streaming arms race right now, each one constantly bidding on the rights to stream local feeds, so coverage is improving every day.
Quality of sports channels
To find the best deal for sports fans, we turned to the Harris Poll’s survey of 2,252 American adults to find out which sports were most beloved. First, we assigned scores to each league — the NFL, MLB, NCAA football, car racing, NBA, NHL, men’s soccer, NCAA basketball, and PGA Golf — based on how many people watched it. The larger the viewership, the higher the score. Then we gave a corresponding amount of points to channels that aired live games for those leagues. Finally, we tallied up the total number of in-demand channels offered by each provider.
While price and channel selection are the most important considerations when choosing a live TV streaming service, it’s also important that you actually be able to play your service. Fortunately, at this point, most of the services we tested work with pretty much any streaming device. The most glaring exception is YouTube TV’s incompatibility with Amazon Fire TV. Due to a long-running feud between Google (YouTube’s owner) and Amazon, the service is still not available on any Amazon devices.
DVR storage and simultaneous streams
Finally, we evaluated the supplemental perks that each live TV streaming service offers. Cloud DVR storage allows you to record any programs on TV and watch them at your own leisure. PlayStation Vue, YouTube TV, and Philo all offer unlimited cloud DVR storage, although YouTube TV is the only one that doesn’t place a time limit on it. Simultaneous streams refers to how many devices you can use to watch the service at the same time, a nice perk for anyone living in a house with diverse TV preferences.
The Best Live TV Streaming Services
Why we chose it
Superb channel list
DIRECTV NOW has the best channel selection for the best price of any live TV streaming service by far. Of the top 20 channels that TiVo’s 3,000 survey respondents said they wanted the most, DIRECTV NOW’s “Live a Little” plan has 18 of them. The only ones missing are HBO (available for an extra $5 a month) and PBS (which doesn’t stream on any live streaming services). No other service was even close: Hulu with Live TV ($39.99) and Playstation Vue Access ($39.99) both came in second with 14.
Cheap premium networks
We also loved DIRECTV NOW’s pricing for premium channels. HBO is only $5 extra, $10 less than every other service we tested. That also gives you access to HBO Go, which has the entire HBO catalog On Demand and costs $15 a month when purchased directly from HBO.
High-value base package
DIRECTV NOW does offer bundles that include more channels, but the $35-per-month “Live a Little” package was our favorite, despite its judgey name. With all four local networks, plus cable classics like Discovery Channel and History, it’s the only internet TV provider that has each of the 10 most desired channels by consumers.
If you upgrade to the $50 package, the biggest names added are The Weather Channel, Travel Channel, IFC, and the MLB Network. For another $10, you add Oxygen and the Golf Channel, and for $10 more you get eight Starz channels, bringing the total to $70 a month. The returns quickly become marginal as you increase your pricing tier. Unless there’s one specific channel you’re looking for, the best value is generally in the cheapest package.
Points to consider
Stingy DVR storage
Out of the seven major live TV streaming services, DIRECTV NOW has one of the weakest cloud DVR features, with only 20 hours of storage (which erases after 30 days). Nearly every competitor tops this number: PlayStation Vue and YouTube TV both have unlimited storage, while Hulu offers 50 hours with no expiration date. DIRECTV NOW was also extremely late to the game with Cloud DVR, only adding it in May 2018 when almost every other provider had included it for years. It’s still officially in Beta, so there is hope that it will improve at some point. But for now, it is a clear blemish on DIRECTV NOW’s otherwise stellar record.
Doesn’t work with gaming consoles
We also weren’t thrilled that DIRECTV NOW doesn’t work with PlayStation, Xbox, or Nintendo Switch, which means that you’ll need either a smart TV or a streaming device to access your channels. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have to make an extra purchase, though. DIRECTV NOW frequently runs promotions for free streaming devices. Right now, if you prepay for four months of service, it’ll throw in a free Apple TV 4K, which retails at $179. If you don’t want to commit to that much money upfront, you can also get a free Roku Streaming Stick if you prepay for one month of service, a $50 value. (Or you can spring for the best streaming device.)
Why we chose it
Nationally televised games
No matter which sports you follow, PlayStation Vue meets or exceeds the coverage of its rivals. The Core package (plus all of PlayStation’s higher pricing tiers) has every channel you’d need to watch live sports from the NFL, MLB, NBA, PGA Golf, and NASCAR. And while it didn’t include every possible channel for NCAA basketball and football (the Pac-12 and ACC networks are missing), it’s still more than any of the competition’s packages.
Regional sports networks
Aside from the NFL, any local teams you follow probably broadcast their games on a regional sports network. Again, PlayStation Vue has you covered. It carries the most extensive lineup of regional sports networks that we saw, so you can still catch your local MLB, NBA, and NHL teams when they’re not on national TV. You should always run your ZIP code through the provider’s website to verify before signing up, but PlayStation Vue had all the regional sports networks we looked for in our test runs.
PlayStation Vue goes above and beyond with the supplemental features it provides in its live TV streaming service. You’ll get unlimited storage with the cloud DVR, something that was only matched by YouTube TV and Philo. In addition, you can stream from five devices at one time — two more than any other provider.
Points to consider
Missing popular channels
While we thought that PlayStation Vue was by far the best option for sports fans, people who want a more all-inclusive streaming experience might find it missing some key channels. The most glaring omissions were History, A&E, Comedy Central, Lifetime, and The Weather Channel, which all landed in the top 25 most desired channels in TiVo’s survey.
How We Chose the Best On Demand TV Streaming Service
Wide audience appeal
While companies like FilmStruck and Acorn provide niche content like art films and British TV, we wanted to focus our search on services with broad appeal. We also didn’t consider network apps like HBO Now and CBS All Access, which can be purchased as stand-alone subscriptions but only provide content from their own networks. For on-demand streaming of movies and shows, we were left with three major players: Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, and Netflix.
Large content budget
One of the appeals of on-demand streaming services is their reputation for high-quality content — both original and licensed. Shows like Stranger Things and Orange Is the New Black have turned into such massive successes that they’ve drawn bigger audiences than traditional cable network programming like The Bachelor. To evaluate our three contenders, we first wanted to find out how committed they were to continuing this trend.
Unfortunately, each streaming service is incredibly cagey about its data. They don’t willingly share ratings, exact library volume (and when it changes), or subscriber numbers. But we do have some idea of how much money they’re investing. And while spending the most money obviously isn’t a guarantee of the best shows and movies, if you’re only going to subscribe to one service, it’s reasonable to pick the one that will reinvest more of your monthly fee back into content.
High-quality original programming
As behemoths like Disney begin to pull their catalogues from streaming services in order to promote their own platforms (essentially going the HBO route), original content will become more and more important for TV streaming providers as a way to attract and keep customers. But we wanted to make sure we weren’t recommending junk. For every Stranger Things, there’s a Girlboss or The Get Down, both cancelled after just one season. So, for every piece of original content that Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu produced, we evaluated the response. We aggregated critic ratings from Rotten Tomatoes, audience ratings from IMDb, and nominations and wins in Golden Globes, Oscars, and Emmys to figure out what kind of quality, on average, each on-demand TV streaming service offered.
The Best On Demand TV Streaming Service
Why we chose it
Investment in content
In the fierce competition for your entertainment budget, Netflix consistently spends more on original and licensed TV shows and movies than Amazon and Hulu. In 2017, Netflix spent $6 billion on content, with $1.5 billion devoted to original programming. By comparison, Amazon’s 2017 content budget was $4.5 billion, with about one billion going towards original. Hulu came in last, spending $2.5 billion total on content in 2017 — how much of that went to original programming is unclear — a number closer to HBO’s $2 billion than Netflix or Amazon’s budgets. Spending the most money obviously isn’t a guarantee of the best shows and movies, but if you’re only going to subscribe to one service, it’s a safe bet that Netflix is going to reinvest more of your monthly fee back into content than Amazon and Hulu.
Commitment to original programs going forward
Netflix seems committed to this impressively expensive approach, too. In 2018, it's increased its budget to $8 billion, with the goal of making half of its library original by the end of the year. Hulu and Amazon are expected to increase their budgets as well, but they haven’t been forthcoming about how much of an increase, or where they’ll be spending that money. As of January 2018, Netflix has produced 488 pieces of original content, compared to 62 for Amazon and 35 for Hulu.
Since each service keeps its ratings extremely close to the vest, it’s impossible to tell which shows are being watched the most. But it’s safe to say that Netflix has dominated the conversation with its original series. Shows like Stranger Things, Narcos, and House of Cards have all been enormous hits, while Hulu and Amazon have struggled to produce anything that’s resonated on the same level. You can see that clearly in the number of awards Netflix has collected: In Emmys for original series, Netflix has racked up 92 nominations and 15 wins since 2013, while Amazon has only received 15 nominations and 4 wins, and Hulu just 7 nominations and 5 wins. 2018 marked a changing of the guard for Emmy nominations, with Netflix knocking HBO from the top spot for the first time in 18 years with 112 nominations.
The ability to have multiple streams going at once was another big mark in Netflix’s favor. With its $10.99 Standard HD plan, you can stream on two devices from one account at the same time, good if you’re watching one show in the living room and your significant other is watching something else in the bedroom. If you upgrade to the Premium plan at $13.99, the number of simultaneous streams jumps to four. Amazon’s Prime Video is also very generous in this regard — you can stream on three separate devices as long as each device is watching different programs — but Hulu only allows one stream per account, regardless of subscription tier.
Points to consider
Fewer network shows
If keeping up with your favorite cable shows is your top priority, you might find Netflix lacking. It doesn’t have much in the way of cable shows, and when it does, it doesn’t put them up until a few months after the season ends. Hulu On Demand has more content from the major networks than either Netflix or Amazon, and it puts them up the day after they’re aired on cable. As it’s owned in equal parts by Disney/ABC, Fox, and NBC (Disney’s recent purchase of Fox notwithstanding), Hulu is essentially the platform of choice for streaming content from major networks. It’s the only on-demand service where you can find hit shows like Empire, Modern Family, and This Is Us.
More expensive than competitors
While we thought it was the best on-demand streaming service by far, you’ll pay a little more for Netflix than Amazon Prime Video or Hulu. It costs $8 per month for standard-definition streaming, but high-definition is a necessity for most viewers these days. (For reference, TV shows stopped airing in SD in 2014.) Netflix in HD runs $11 per month for HD streaming and two simultaneous streams and $14 for 4K streaming and four simultaneous streams. For comparison, Hulu and Amazon start at about $8 and $10 per month for HD, respectively.
How We Chose the Best Streaming Device
Regardless of whether you choose live or on-demand streaming, you’ll need a way to actually get all of your shows and channels onto your TV. If you don’t have a smart TV or gaming console capable of downloading apps, a streaming device is your best bet. They cost around $50 on average, plug into your TV’s HDMI port, and run through your Wi-Fi (and occasionally Ethernet) to give you access to streaming apps.
Dedicated streaming devices
We started with a list of 24 products, all marketed as TV streaming devices. While they can serve as great media streamers, we didn’t include gaming consoles or smart TVs, because you’re paying primarily for other functions when you make those purchases. We were after devices that could be hooked up to any TV with an HDMI input and a wireless internet connection.
Roku dominated our list, occupying seven of our 24 slots, so we skipped a couple of its less popular models. We also eliminated a few products like the Razer Forge TV and Valve Steam Link, which come up in search results for “best streaming device” but are designed for hardcore gamers rather than TV streamers. We also skipped three TiVo boxes that required a monthly subscription. That left us with 14 TV streaming devices to bring in for hands-on testing.
All that was left to do was to start watching TV (and to explain repeatedly to our co-workers that yes, we were actually working). The first thing we looked for was great picture quality on our Vizio P-Series. We used the latest season of Planet Earth on Netflix as our litmus test for 4K Ultra HD streaming: 4K is the top-of-the-line in terms of picture quality, and if you have a 4K TV or are planning to upgrade, your streaming device should be able to handle it. We wanted to make sure our 4K streamers lived up to that claim.
There’s nothing worse than your video glitching in the middle of a big moment, especially if you’re live streaming TV in the middle of a crucial playoff game. We wanted to make sure we were recommending devices that would minimize this as much as possible. While your internet’s download speed is a main contributor, it’s not the only factor. To gauge how reliable each streaming device is, we watched about 20 hours of TV, switching back and forth between live TV streaming services like YouTube TV and on-demand providers like Netflix and Prime Video. The best devices gave us a smooth stream every time, while others consistently left us glaring at a buffering wheel.
Accidentally choose the wrong episode of The Office on Netflix? Want to do some channel surfing on a live TV streaming app? The best streaming devices have processors that let you maneuver around and between apps instantaneously. To be honest, that wasn’t something we were expecting to affect our experience so much. But after getting used to the best ones, it was hard to go back to devices that took the extra beat. In one test, we timed how long it took to open Netflix, search for the movie Jaws, and start rolling. The Amazon Fire TV was the fastest here, only taking 25 seconds, while others took nearly a full minute to play the 1975 classic.
The Best Streaming Device
Why we chose it
Excellent stream quality
As soon as we pressed play on Planet Earth, Komodo dragons and long-haired bats came to life in brilliant and terrifying detail. Granted, our eyes are as subjective as anyone’s, but the Fire TV was a winner in every respect. There was no buffering, no fuzzy warming up — just awe-inspiring video delivered instantaneously. The Google Chromecast Ultra, on the other hand, seemed to barely be streaming in HD, let alone the 4K resolution it promised.
Maneuvering back and forth between apps was delightfully immediate with the Fire TV; we never experienced any pause or lag if we decided to change apps halfway through loading. After getting used to Amazon’s lightning-fast processors, it was pretty annoying to have to go back to something like the Roku Express, which uses 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi instead of the quicker 802.11 ac of the Fire TV. Everything took an extra beat — when we clicked “Top Rated Movies” in Prime Video on the Roku Express, we had to wait a couple of seconds before we could actually see those movies. Admittedly, this is a small bone to pick. But we could see the delay becoming frustrating over time.
We also appreciated the simplicity of the Fire TV’s interface. When you open it up, you’ll see your most recently used apps in the top row, a list that’s constantly updated. This list also includes Amazon Prime content you’ve been watching, a nice time-saver that we wish applied to other apps, too. Below that is a set list of your favorite apps and games, which you can rearrange to your liking with a few easy clicks.
The Fire TV adapted its layout to fit our personal preferences, a considerate feature that we missed in other devices. The Nvidia Shield, for example, seemed to be designed with a very specific user in mind (i.e., not us), with the best real estate at the top of the screen given to a seemingly random mix of sponsored content. (The 2011 comedy The Change Up and a Jason Aldean music video both apparently warranted the space.)
Responsive voice control
The voice control worked flawlessly on the Fire TV. Just hold down the microphone button and give it a command, no matter which app you’re in. When we asked Alexa to “play Jaws,” she immediately opened up the film in Netflix and began playing. We didn’t have as much luck with the Nvidia Shield, which started playing Dave Brubeck videos on YouTube because it thought we wanted to hear some jazz.
Points to consider
The only real quibble we had with the Fire TV? Everything runs through Amazon. You have to open up Netflix or Hulu to access their content, but if you scroll past the top two rows of apps on your Fire TV, you’re basically in Prime Video, with categories like “Amazon Original Series” and “Prime Recommended Movies” quickly popping up. Amazon does make some concessions towards streaming-agnosticism — Hulu and HBO shows are included in its “Golden Globe Winners” category, for instance — but there’s no mistaking that this is an Amazon device. This is the case even if you don’t have an Amazon Prime account; it just swaps Prime Video recommendations for Amazon Instant Video rentals.
When you rent a movie through Fire TV, you also have only one option, because the app blocks competing rental apps like Vudu and iTunes. That said, the rental limitation is unlikely to be a big issue — prices are typically the same for movie rentals, regardless of where you purchase them. (And, if you have an on-demand Netflix subscription, there may not be many movies you need to rent.)
No YouTube app
Google recently pulled YouTube off of Fire TVs in response to Amazon’s refusal to sell products like Chromecast and Google Home on Amazon.com. This doesn’t mean that you’re doomed to no YouTube, though. In a slick workaround, Amazon has added “Youtube.com” as an app on its main page, accessible through Mozilla or Silk browsers. It’s not as user-friendly as the real YouTube app, but that’s hardly a dealbreaker.
Guide to TV Streaming Services
How to find the right TV streaming service for you
Decide which channels you need
Before you start comparing packages, it’s good to have an idea about which channels you want to prioritize. Do you just want to follow your local sports teams without paying a huge cable bill? Make sure the service you choose has your regional sports network, as well as local channels like CBS, Fox, and NBC for NFL games. Don’t care as much about the local networks or sports channels? You can save by going with a skinny bundle like Philo that skips these popular channels. Check out our full review of live TV streaming services for more info.
Check your ZIP code
To avoid surprises, we suggest entering your ZIP code on your provider's website and checking the exact channel lineup offered. Local channels — the ones that are essential to most TV viewers — often have different availability depending on where you live. And many times, they’re only available On Demand, defeating much of the purpose of live TV streaming.
Sign up for free trials
Every live TV streaming service we saw offers a free trial of at least one week, and it’s absolutely worth taking advantage of. Once you’ve narrowed down your list to a few services, take each one out for a test run to see how it feels in your day-to-day life. Many times, little quirks like how a service sets up its channel guide can have a big effect on the overall experience. Of course, you’ll never be locked into a service for longer than a month, but it’s still a good idea to experiment before you break out the wallet.
Invest in a smart TV, gaming console, or streaming device
Once you’ve settled on a streaming service, you’ll still need a way to get the content to your TV. For this, you’ll need two things: a strong internet connection (more on that below) and a way to access the internet through your TV. If you bought your TV in the past few years, chances are it came with some streaming apps pre-loaded, although it might not be compatible with the service you settled on. Gaming consoles like Xbox One and PlayStation Four also have the ability to download streaming apps, although compatibility is, again, fairly limited. The best option for most people is to invest in a dedicated streaming device like a Fire TV or Roku. These typically cost around $50, plug into a TV’s HDMI port, and use a Wi-Fi connection to stream video apps.
TV Streaming Service FAQs
The Best TV Streaming Service: Summed Up
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