The Best On-Demand Streaming Services
How We Found the Best On-Demand Streaming Services
585 original programs evaluated
43 industry awards tallied
3 top picks
The Best On-Demand Streaming Services
Essentially, you have two options when it comes to TV streaming. On-demand services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu offer a combination of original and licensed shows and movies that can be streamed any time, while live streaming services mimic traditional cable TV channels. To find the best on-demand service, we analyzed the critical and audience reception to their original content, while also grading them on their library of licensed shows and movies.
How We Chose the Best On-Demand Streaming Services
Wide audience appeal
We focused on streaming services putting out great programming for a wide audience. This meant skipping niche options like Acorn (British TV) and FilmStruck (art films), as well as standalone network apps like HBO Now, which only provide content from their own networks. Instead, we targeted major players like Netflix and Amazon Prime. Every viewer has different tastes — so the more diverse a streaming service's library, the better the odds it will have something for everyone.
Large budget for acquiring and producing content
The best streaming service should be willing to re-invest a hefty chunk of your monthly fee into improving its library. And when it comes to shelling out for content, Netflix is the clear winner. The company spent $6 billion on content in 2017, compared to $4.5 billion for Amazon, and $2.5 billion for Hulu. It’s that willingness to spend that’s helped Netflix produce the biggest hits of the group — the latest season of The Crown cost an astounding $10 million per episode, for example.
High-quality original programming
As companies like Disney pull content from streaming services to create their own standalone subscriptions, it will become increasingly important for streaming services to produce high-quality original content of their own. To evaluate which provider was succeeding the most in this area, we looked at aggregated critic ratings from Rotten Tomatoes, user reviews from IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes, and nominations and wins in three major award categories: Golden Globes, Oscars, and Emmys. This gave us a good idea of what shows and movies were dominating the cultural conversation.
Wide availability of cable shows
Original content is gaining traction, but cable programming is still important to plenty of people. (The Big Bang Theory garnered 18 million viewers per episode last year in its eleventh season.) With that in mind, we looked for streaming services that provided access to cable shows soon after they aired live. If you’re a cord-cutter who doesn’t care about sports and news, but you still want to keep up with your favorite shows, the best on-demand streaming services offer a great compromise.
The 3 Best On-Demand Streaming Services
Why we chose it
Hefty content budget
Netflix spends more than competitors on both original and licensed content. Last year, it spent a stunning $6 billion overall, with $1.5 devoted entirely to original content. That was significantly more than other streaming services: Amazon came in second at $4.5 billion (with one billion on original content), followed by Hulu at $2.5 billion, and HBO at $2 billion. Netflix shows no signs of slowing down either: It’s projected to spend between $12 and $13 billion in 2018, with over 90% devoted to original programming. If you’re only going to subscribe to one service, Netflix is the most likely to use your money to keep improving its library.
Unlike cable TV, on-demand programming doesn't use Nielsen ratings, so it's hard to quantify how many people are watching, and what constitutes a "hit." But by every measurement, Netflix comes out on top. Shows like Stranger Things, House of Cards, and Narcos have all been immensely popular, with competitors struggling to keep up. You can see this most dramatically in the number of awards Netflix has racked up. As of 2018, the company has 134 Emmy nominations and 23 wins, compared to only 21 nominations and nine wins for Amazon (and 19 nominations and five wins for Hulu).
Netflix makes a number of its shows and movies available for download, which allows you to watch them when you don’t have internet access. This is a crucial feature for travelers (especially if you have kids). You can load up a phone, laptop, or tablet with the latest season of Puffin Rock before your next long drive, avoiding dozens of repetitions of "are we there yet?" from the backseat.
Points to consider
Fewer network shows
Two of the most popular shows on cable, The Good Doctor and This Is Us, are aren't available on Netflix. In fact, when it comes to cable programming, we found Netflix lacking across the board — Hulu is more likely to have shows originally produced on ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC. Even when Netflix does carry cable programming, it waits until the season is over to put all episodes up at once. If keeping up with cable shows as they air is important to you, you're likely to be happier with Hulu. (If you're looking for a specific show, we also liked the site JustWatch for finding which services carry particular programs.)
Netflix pricing is slightly more expensive (and less flexible) than competitors. You'll pay $7.99 a month for standard-definition (SD) viewing — but high-definition is a must for many viewers. The last television to air in SD stopped in 2014, and it’s basically impossible to buy a new SD TV. Netflix in HD will set you back $10.99 a month, and $13.99 for 4K Ultra HD. (Hulu and Amazon start around $8 and $10, respectively.)
Why we chose it
Hulu is owned in equal parts by Disney/ABC, Fox, and NBC, giving it a substantial edge on Netflix and Amazon when it comes to streaming network shows. (How Disney’s recent acquisition of Fox will affect Hulu remains fascinatingly unclear.) It's the exclusive streaming service for some of the most popular shows on TV: This Is Us, The Good Doctor, and The Voice are all on Hulu and nowhere else. If these are the only types of programs keeping you attached to cable, Hulu represents the cheapest way to cut the cord.
Shows available the day after they air
You won’t have to wait around to catch your favorite network shows on Hulu. In general, they’re aired the morning after they’re originally shown in prime time. Depending on the specific contract Hulu has with each production company, it can sometimes take as long as a week, but that’s still the shortest timeframe we found. Hulu's competitors wait until the entire season is finished to add shows to their library, with several months of waiting in-between.
Hulu is the only streaming service to offer a reduced monthly price if you’re willing to put up with some commercials. (Hulu says they show about nine minutes of ads per hour, or roughly two-thirds that of cable TV.) The plan with commercials starts at $7.99, and comes with HD resolution. You can also upgrade to an ad-free version of Hulu for $11.99. We appreciate that Hulu provides options to suit your budget.
Points to consider
Less original content
Hulu’s traditional cable ownership allows it to position itself as a network TV alternative. This means that it places less emphasis on original programming. It's produced only 35 original programs, compared to Amazon’s 62, and Netflix’s 488. Hulu has launched one critical darling in The Handmaid’s Tale, but in general, don't expect a ton of original programming.
One stream at a time
With Hulu, you can only stream on one device at a time, an especially tough blow for families with diverse viewing habits. If parents want to catch up on Modern Family, they’ll have to kick the kids off the service first. If that sounds like chaos to you, you’re better off opting for Netflix or Amazon, which allow two and three simultaneous streams respectively.
Why we chose it
Amazon Prime perks
Amazon Prime Video more than holds its own as a streaming service, but a Prime membership also includes perks like free two-day shipping on all Amazon.com orders, plus unlimited photo storage, access to Prime Music (a lesser version of the Amazon Music Unlimited, which is more akin to Spotify), and one free e-book each month.
Prime membership costs $119 upfront for a full year — which works out to $9.92 per month, a little cheaper than comparable service tiers from Hulu and Netflix (and an even better value if you factor in Prime perks). Students pay only $59 per year. You also have two other options: If you'd rather not make one lump payment, you can pay a monthly fee of $12.99 for access to the same range of perks. If you're not planning to make use of Amazon's free shipping at all, you can also opt to pay just for Prime Video at $8.99 a month.
In terms of original shows and movies, Amazon falls somewhere between Netflix and Hulu. They’ve produced a lot more original content than Hulu (but much less than Netflix), won more Oscars and Golden Globes than either competitor (but fewer Emmys), and received about the same level of reviews from viewers.
Where Prime Video really separates itself is in its critical reception: Its original content has received an average of 87.22 on the Tomatometer, compared to 80.95 for Hulu and 75.97 for Netflix. Amazon has produced fewer original pieces of content, but that includes a number of extremely well-reviewed shows, like Fleabag, Catastrophe, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
Amazon is the only streaming service outside of HBO Now with access to HBO’s catalog of classic TV shows. Even though you won’t get any of the newer shows that are still in production (sorry, Game of Thrones fans), we still think this is a pretty awesome perk. The Wire, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and Sex and the City are all available with a Prime membership — well worth the price of admission for some TV fans.
Points to consider
No new network shows
If you want to watch shows on ABC, CBS, Fox, or NBC without a cable subscription, Prime Video isn't a good option. Unlike Hulu and Netflix, it doesn’t carry any new shows at all from these major networks. If you're looking for this type of content, we think Hulu is your best bet.
Not compatible with Chromecast
Due to Amazon’s longstanding feud with Google, the Prime Video app isn’t compatible with Google’s Chromecast streaming device. If you already own a Chromecast and are committed to keeping it, there are a couple of workarounds involving opening Prime Video. It’s not perfect, but your only other option would be to purchase a new streaming device. You can read our full review of streaming devices to learn more.
Guide to On-Demand Streaming Services
How to choose a streaming service
Focus on the content that’s most important to you
Think about what kind of TV you like to watch. Is it important to keep with your favorite network shows? Do you want to see if Stranger Things lives up to the hype? Or are you just looking for a way to catch the occasional on-demand movie or documentary? Once you’ve prioritized specific titles, we liked the tool JustWatch.com for comparing which streaming services you can find them on.
Sign up for free trials
After you’ve narrowed down which services fit your preferences, test them out! Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon all offer one-month free trials, and they’re worth taking advantage of, especially if there are shows you're curious about but not yet committed to. (Just don't forget to cancel at the end of your month.)
Connect to your TV
To start streaming, you'll need a strong internet connection (more on that below) and a way to access streaming apps on your TV. Most TVs sold in the past few years have the ability to connect to the internet, and often come with apps already downloaded. Gaming consoles like XBox and PlayStation also have the ability to stream Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon. If you have an older TV and no gaming console, your best bet is to purchase a streaming device like a Roku or Amazon Fire TV. If you’d like to learn more about these products, you can check out our full review of streaming devices.
On-Demand Streaming Services FAQ
What is the best free streaming service?
There are a number of streaming services that let you watch movies and shows for free. The selection isn’t quite as good as paid services — if a movie’s available for free, it probably means the big players didn’t think it was worth buying its streaming rights — but you’ll still be able to find something to watch. Here are some of our favorites:
- Kanopy: Kanopy has a collection of foreign language and independent films that is virtually unrivalled in the streaming world. There are plenty of titles you can’t stream anywhere else, paid or free, and serious film buffs could spend years exploring its library. Kanopy even has 50 classic Criterion Collection titles — the only place you can stream them outside of Criterion’s dedicated streaming service, FilmStruck ($11/month). You’ll need an active library card to log in, and you’re limited to about six movies a month (the number varies by library), but it’s well worth checking out. Available on Apple TV, Roku, and Chromecast.
- Sony Crackle: The best free streaming service for most people, Crackle gives you access to the largest selection of popular movies and shows without a subscription fee. It might not have the sheer volume of some other services, but it’s also not weighed down by a lot of garbage — chances are you’ll actually know most of the movies and shows in Crackle’s lineup. Just be prepared for a two to three minute ad break every twenty minutes or so. Available on Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Xbox, PlayStation, and Chromecast.
- Tubi: For a free streaming service, Tubi actually has a surprising number of respectable movies. Critically acclaimed titles like Capote, City of God, and Oldboy sit next to legitimate blockbusters Titanic, School of Rock, and The Blair Witch Project. Unlike Kanopy, Tubi does show ads before and during the stream. It varies depending on what device you’re streaming on, but we experienced a couple of minutes of ads for every half hour of video. Available on Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Xbox, PlayStation, and Chromecast.
- Yahoo View: If you’re looking for a free way to watch NBC shows, Yahoo View is by far your best option. Frankly, we were delighted to find out that you can watch the latest episodes of This Is Us, Saturday Night Live, and The Good Doctor without a cable subscription. You won’t have to wait, either — shows go up on Yahoo View the day after they’re on TV. It’s not very strong on movies, with a little over 50 (mostly obscure) titles, but its offering of popular network shows was unique. Unfortunately, you can currently only stream Yahoo View through web browsers and iOS and Android mobile apps.
- Popcornflix: Our least favorite free streaming service, Popcornflix has all the stars you love in all their movies you’ve probably never heard of (Chris Pratt in 2009’s Deep in the Valley, anyone?). Still, while you might have to wade through a lot of rough, there are diamonds to be found: horror classics like An American Werewolf in London and Suspiria, Oscar darlings Monster and Amistad, and a surprisingly deep roster of stand-up comedy specials. Just be prepared to do some digging to find them. Like Tubi, Popcornflix also runs 15-20 second ads every 15 minutes or so. Available on Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire TV, and XBox.
How much data does video streaming use?
The better your picture quality, the more data you'll use. Netflix estimates standard-definition (SD) streaming eats up around 0.7 GB per hour, while high-definition (HD) uses 3 GB, and 4K Ultra HD requires a whopping 7 GB.
Fortunately, you can take some steps to curb this usage. Netflix allows you to modify your data usage to low, medium, high, or auto, and adjusts your resolution automatically. Amazon doesn’t have a specific setting for data usage, but you can adjust stream quality. Hulu is the only service that doesn’t provide options: you’re stuck streaming with the settings of the plan you sign up for.
What internet speeds do I need for streaming?
Again, this depends on the resolution you’ll be streaming. The FCC recommends about 5-8 Mbps for HD streaming and a full 25 Mbps for 4K Ultra HD. As a rule of thumb, you should double those numbers for every device you’ll be streaming at the same time. If you want to have three 4K streams on three different TVs at the same time, you should aim for 75 Mbps. If you don’t know what kind of speeds you’re getting, we found Ookla’s SpeedTest.net to be a pretty accurate measurement.
Can I still stream on an older TV?
You can, but you’ll need some special equipment. You have two options for making an old TV smart: Purchase an HDMI to AVI converter and plug in a streaming device, or buy a Roku Express+. We think the Roku is the best option, as it also comes with an HDMI port if you ever want to move it to a newer TV, and it retails for a pretty reasonable $35. It’s the only streaming device around that plugs into the yellow, red, and white composite jacks you’ll find on older TVs.
If you already have another streaming device you’d like to use, you can go with a converter. The New York Times recommends a model from Cirago that starts at $70, but we also found some cheaper options on Amazon for around $20. There have been a lot of complaints about these types of converters not functioning properly, so make sure you're familiar with the return policy if you decide to go this route.