There was a time when you could hop onto Netflix and feel like you had pretty much any movie or show at your fingertips. Those years are long gone. Now consumers have a growing number of streaming providers all clamoring for attention, splitting up the media catalog against dozens of services and making finding the best one a surprisingly difficult task.
In the past year, numerous streaming services have raised prices on subscription tiers. There's been rounds of layoffs at HBO, Netflix and more. Streaming services like Netflix, HBO Max (now simply Max), Disney+ and more that once promised to do away with ad breaks have been hard at work creating ad-based subscriptions. And while bundle prices have also increased, Warner Bros. Discovery decided to combine its HBO Max and Discovery+ platform under one roof. The Walt Disney company now plans to do the same thing with Hulu and Disney+ over the course of 2023.
Now that it's so hard to parse the grand scheme of services, prices, bundles, and who has what content, it's best to become selective about which subscriptions you dive into. With that being said, we've tried to pick and choose what the best service is for different kinds of users, whether you're looking for something cheap or you're a big Star Trek fan. Also, check out our other lists of little-known streaming services and free channels for every streaming device.
What Does Streaming Look Like in 2023
Streaming prices have been increasing across the board, but so have the number of cheaper, ad-based subscription tiers. As some companies have taken hits in recent months, there's a good chance some streaming prices could go even higher. We'll soon see Paramount+ subscription hikes even as it gets ready to merge with Showtime.
The are are few sub-$9.99 subscriptions you can find now, and a good rule of thumb is if it's less than $10, it's probably an ad-based subscription tier. Even though Netflix ad-based subscription service has been slow to see any uptick in subscribers, these tiers have proved to be some of the fastest growing services since they've come on the scene. These ad-based services do offer a way to save, but your mileage may vary heavily depending on how frequent the ad breaks are and just how many promotions you can stomach. Soon, there likely won't be any major streaming service without an ad-based tier. AMC, for instance, just debuted its ad option in April. Hell, even YouTube might be aiming for a new, ad-supported linear streaming service.
There's a number of bundles on offer that help users save. There's the Disney Bundle, making owning basic versions of Hulu, Disney+, and ESPN+ cheaper on the whole, with a $20 premium tier for no ads at all. Hulu is the one streaming service that really gets around, although it's supposedly about to be consolidated into Disney+. There's bundles combining Hulu with Starz and Hulu with Showtime.
No service is getting cheaper any time soon, though some are changing the display quality for different tiers of service. Netflix announced its ad-based subscription would boost its ad-based tier from 720p to 1080p. At the same time, HBO's ‘Max' platform is transferring its 4K/HDR with Dolby Atmos content from its $15.99 plan to its $19.99 one this May.
Considering the constantly shifting nature of streaming services, we've tried to narrow down the top picks in a number of categories, hopefully saving you money and time with a curated streaming selection.
The Best All-Around Streaming Service
Our Pick: Netflix (Starting at $6.99)
It would be pretty old hat to talk about how the first major streaming service to popularize today's subscription model remains the best overall. But in writing this guide—considering every topic this list covers (from documentaries, to anime, to cartoons, and so on)—Netflix is regularly a top contender.
It doesn't have the best UI. A subscription doesn't grant you any bonuses save for a growing selection of mobile games. But as much as people (rightfully) complain about the streaming service's efforts to kill password sharing, Netflix simply has the most varied content selection with quality shows in practically every category. Anime? Check. Documentaries? Check. Premiere drama? Nostalgia? Checkity check.
Netflix is in a tenuous position. It can't subsist on every new season of Stranger Things alone. Subscriber number growth isn't as much a shoo-in as it was just two years ago. The platform has cancelled several beloved shows, and its third-party content is regularly cycled on and off the platform, so users are forced to consider other options once their binging exhausts everything they may want to watch. But for now, Netflix's variety remains its greatest strength.
Best Streaming Bundle
Our Pick: Disney Bundle (Hulu, Disney+, and ESPN+ Starting at $14.99)
For bundles, it really doesn't get much better than Disney's three-in-one “Trio Premium” deal. Hulu already exists in plenty of other bundles, but if you're at all interested in any Disney-owned content, whether that's Star Wars, Marvel, or Pixar, the more the deal does become worth it. Even more so if there's a person in the house who wants to watch live sports, though ESPN+ is going to come with ads.
Disney+ also offers a bounty of extra services, including 4K Ultra HD streaming in Dolby Vision, HDR10, and Dolby Atmos. It also includes unlimited downloads on up to 10 devices. One of Disney's bundles used to cost just $14 for both Disney+ without ads and Hulu with ads, but no longer.
Alternatively, the “Trio Basic” tier offers all three services but with ads. Disney+ with ads is distracting, but manageable. However, Hulu with ads can be a dreadful experience with near constant ad breaks and limited commercials dragging out watch time to absurd degrees. In that way, it's hard to recommend any version of Hulu with ads, unless you have a strong stomach for constant interruptions.
As we noted before, Disney, Hulu, and ESPN will soon combine under one app. The company has not revealed pricing information on its new service, but things will likely change for this bundle in the next few months.
Best Streaming Service for Live TV and Sports
Linear TV is still around, and as streaming services become more expensive, the prospect of old-school television lineups becomes more appealing, though not any less expensive. The Hulu + Live TV package is easily one of the better options out there for giving you both a little bit of streaming content with Hulu and Disney+, and a whole lot of TV depending on your area.
Since the $68.99/month Live TV Only option is just $1 cheaper, there's practically no reason to stick to just watching Hulu's live content. In addition to the base tier that includes Hulu streaming, Disney+, and ESPN+ with ads, there's also the more expensive $82.99/month tier to get it all without ads. If all you're interested in is Live TV, then it's hard to justify the extra $13 a month, though it does become a contender if you want to combine our best bundle with the spontaneity of live content.
Some of the add-ons are relatively cheap. The Español Networks add-on is an extra $5, though you may only get marginal impact from paying $10 for unlimited streams as long as they're connected to your home network.
YouTube TV used to be a strong contender, but the service just recently announced it would increase the price of subscription from $65 to $73 a month. It now costs more than Hulu's service, though YouTube did bring down the price of the 4K add-on.
Also Consider: Pluto TV (Free)
You'll have to deal with ads with Pluto TV, but what you get in return is more than 100 channels on offer. You might not find exactly what you want, but isn't that half of the point of live TV? Where else can one veg out on absolutely free episodes of Star Trek: Voyager without having to worry about what episode they pick and whether they're in the mood for it?
Best Streaming Service for Original Content
Our Pick: Netflix's Standard Plan ($15.49)
As the running battles between the major streaming services settles into a costly cold war, one of the best differentiators between different platforms is the content you can't get anywhere else. You have to take both numbers and quality into account, as well as the variety on offer. At least in those last two points, Netflix has all the widest variety of drama, comedies, animation, and kids content.
No, not all of it is quality, but there are so many solid shows and movies available on the platform that it's honestly hard to compare. No, you can't get Star Wars, but you can't get The Witcher, Stranger Things, Bridgerton, or The Dragon Prince on any other streaming service.
Also Consider: Max (Formerly HBO Max) Starting at $9.99
HBO has a reputation for “prestige” content for a reason, even if the company behind it was recently on a tear cancelling several beloved animated shows and upcoming movies. It doesn't change that shows like The Last of Us and Game of Thrones: House of the Dragon are only available on HBO.
Beyond those big budget shows that defined our last few decades of TV, there's enough exclusive documentaries, films, animated works, and more to wet the beak. Beyond all that, there is enough integration with Studio Ghibli, Crunchyroll, Adult Swim, the DC catalog, Turner Classic Movies, and Cartoon Network to make the steep monthly price a little more worthwhile.
Best Free Streaming Service
Our Pick: FreeVee (free)
What essentially amounts to an advertisement for Prime Video is also one of the best free, ad-supported streaming services available. Most other free services offer a wash of content that truly ranges in quality. FreeVee has a significant selection of both recent and older films, and there's plenty of good ones in there. There are also limited runs of free “Movies of the month,” sporting titles such as the first three John Wick films.
Amazon is starting to change its strategy surrounding its free, ad-based streaming platform. Though it's an awkward name for a platform, FreeVee does offer a good range of major motion pictures and a few TV shows. In May, Amazon announced FreeVee will get access to more than 100 Originals that until now have been exclusive to Prime Video. These shows include the first few episodes of Paper Girls and The Wheel of Time along with the entirety of shows like The Tick and the the movie The Vast of Night. The move is an attempt to get more people to subscribe to Prime Video, but it's truly hard to argue with free.
Also Consider: Pluto TV (free)
The Paramount-owned Pluto TV has one of the biggest subscriber bases of any free streaming service. According to Paramount's May 4 earnings report, the company said Pluto has 80 million monthly actives across the world where it operates. That puts it in league with other major paid services like HBO Max.
There's a good reason why it has such a large userbase. The service is ad-based, but it has a load of CBS content like 60 Minutes and a load of other, older sitcoms like Cheers, Fraser, as well as a good amount of Star Trek content (see below for our favorite pick for trekkies). Like FreeVee, Paramount likes to cross promote its Paramount+ service with a few drops of premium content.
Best Service For Foreign TV
Our Pick for Korean-language Content: Rakuten Viki (starting at $5.99)
Sure, Netflix has Squid Game, Kingdom and a whole host of quality original Korean-language content, but for straight up volume, the Asian-centric Rakuten Viki streaming service can't be beat. If all you want is K-drama after K-drama, then Viki's dizzying collection of shows makes every other service pale in comparison. The standard, $5.99 pass gives you access to Viki's selection of shows, movies, and some originals. The $9.99 Plus subscription also gives users access to Kocowa content to balloon the amount of Korean-language content to obscene proportions.
Our Pick for Spanish-language Content: Netflix (starting at $6.99)
There are plenty of Spanish-language television streamers like FuboTV and YouTubeTV that offer a wide variety of channel options, but for actual on-demand content that's not just several varieties of sports broadcasts, Netflix has its competitors beat. The service boasts 500 shows and movies in Spanish, plus numerous Netflix originals like the recently-released films Kings of the World and Who's a Good Boy?
Best Streaming Service for Art House and Classics
Our Pick: The Criterion Channel ($11)
You've probably heard about the Criterion Collection stock from those DVDs or VHS tapes your parents let gather dust deep in your movie cabinet. Or at least mine did. However, if you have any appreciation for cinema, you really can't go wrong with The Criterion Channel streaming service. If you've struggled looking for classic films like Kenji Mizoguchi's The 47 Ronin or Atom Egoyan's Exotica, you can find them here.
According to Criterion, there's more than 1,000 flicks on offer, with enough foreign titles to tickle the most fickle film snob. There's a 14-day free trial (that still requires you put in your credit card information, of course), and you can peruse content curated by modern auteurs like Guillermo del Toro and Ari Aster. In addition, there's plenty of filmmaker interviews and archived content for those looking to delve more into the cinematic process.
Best Streaming Service for Nerds
Our Pick for Trekkies: Paramount+ Premium ($9.99 a Month)
It's plainly obvious, but Paramount's streaming service is the best, and practically the only, way to watch most of Star Fleet's shenanigans. All the old school series are there plus the most-recent movies. Disappointingly, the site recently removed some of the older films like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. They all seem to be on HBO Max, so subscribers to both networks can watch the full Trek slate. It's a big hole nonetheless.
To its credit, Paramount has been trying to push Trek further with new series like Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Picard, and Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, though some are of course better than others. With the network finally announcing that it's making a “Starfleet Academy” TV series, there's a good reason to keep up with the latest in Trek.
Our Pick for Anime: Crunchyroll ($7.99 a Month)
It's never been a better time to jump into anime streaming. Just a few years ago, friends who weren't into anime would think “Crunchyroll” was some kind of foreign snack. Now the streaming service is showing up as a dedicated button on some remotes. Part of it is because of a buyout by Sony and merger with Funimation. Yes, the platform has gotten more corporate as of late, but it's still the best place for those keeping on top of the latest anime releases.
The baseline “Fan” subscription for $7.99 a month is more than serviceable for watching content without incessant ad breaks. The platform's content airs just an hour after it goes up in Japan, which no other service can claim. Plus, the subscription offers the platform's digital manga. No other service really comes close to offering Crunchyroll's anime slate, though Netflix is still a good option if you want to watch some original content, such as The Way of the Househusband or Beastars.
Best Streaming Service for Documentaries and Video Essays
Our Pick: CuriosityStream/Nebula Bundle ($9.99 a Month)
There's a few content platforms that have managed to knock YouTube off its perch as the only place for video essays. The Nebula streaming service is meant to compliment video creators posting on other platforms, namely YouTube, but its curated selection has become home to some of the best video essayists around. Meanwhile, CuriosityStream is already a solid and relatively cheap place to access historic and other nonfiction documentary content. So, why not combine the two?
Both CuriosityStream and Nebula cost $4.99 a month, so if you want one without the other, you wouldn't go wrong. Still, you can buy a bundle package for $10 that includes both, plus a few other small content services like Tastemade and Topic. It's still cheaper than YouTube Premium's $11.99, and it's a good way to avoid the platform's absurd ad breaks.
Alternately, those who pay for Amazon Prime Video can add CuriosityStream content for an additional $2.99 a month.
Also Consider: Prime Video ($8.99 or $14.99 with a Prime membership)
This may be the best option for a streaming service you're already paying for. Of course, Prime comes with its enormous lexicon of quality movies and shows, and even some pretty great originals. But if all you want are high-quality documentaries, then there's a lot to pick from on Prime. You have the pretty incredible Good Night Oppy or more experimental (even controversial) choices like 2012's The Imposter.
Best Service to Stream Your Own Library
Our Pick: Plex (Free)
Streaming has gotten so big that it's gotten harder and harder to parse which shows are available and where. Smart TV setups are starting to feel like one giant menu bombarding users with recommended content, but then there's also a user's own movies and shows? Plex remains the best platform to offer a one-stop-shop for both streaming content as well as the movies and shows you actually own. With “universal search,” you can access both your own content and trending shows on the major platforms. In January, Plex finally released its long-awaited movie and TV rental service. For more, check out Gizmodo's guide for putting all your streaming services into one place on Plex.
Best Ad-Based Streaming Service
Our Pick: Disney+ Basic With Ads ($7.99)
The original promise of streaming services, that we could finally watch content without worry about constant ad breaks, is no more. What we're left with is a constellation of cheap, ad-based streaming tiers that seem to take as much as they give. Compared to many of its contemporaries, Disney+ is one of the very few ad-based streaming tiers that actually feels like it's giving you a deal.
If only more streaming platforms gave you as much as you get with Disney+'s service. Disney still allows ad-based users to view content in Full HD, HDR10, and 4K Ultra HD. Yes, you can't download content for offline viewing, but you can still have multiple screens streaming the content at once.
Netflix with Ads is $1 cheaper, and there's certainly more titles to choose from, but some shows and movies available on the Basic tier are not available on the cheaper version. It's become more of a standout option now that it supports 1080p, but it's still annoying that it lacks content that really should be there.
Best Plans for Multi-Tier Streaming Networks
While services like Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV+ (which does come prepackaged with an Apple device and with Apple One) don't have multiple subscription tiers, the ones that do can offer a head-spinning number of options that's hard to wrap your head around. For those networks offering two, three, four, or even more subscription tiers, we tried to break down the best ones considering price and what you get.
The Best Plan for Netflix: Netflix's Standard Plan ($15.49)
Netflix's standard subscription, the service's most popular plan, is most people's best bet. The standard plan is great for smaller households—assuming everyone isn't sitting in their rooms trying to stream in isolation—and HD viewing is really all you need for streaming Netflix on a laptop, tablet, phone, and most TVs. Netflix may soon include live streaming, too. Live streaming could be used for unscripted shows like competition series and reality TV reunion episodes, or for adding in audience participation features like in-show voting (think American Idol-style). However, also keep in mind that Netflix is attempting to prevent password sharing. It's maybe Netflix's “just right” plan: a middle-of-the-road price for all the bells and whistles that you need for standard streaming.
The Best Plan for Disney+: Disney+ With Ads ($7.99)
We've already covered the Disney+/Hulu bundle, but for just Disney+, we personally find the $7.99 bundle to be a solid choice for streaming. The ads are not as constant as on other platforms, and you only lose the ability to download videos for offline viewing compared to Disney's $11 a month subscription. Unlike other services, its ad-based tier gives you access to watching on multiple devices at once, plus 4K UHD quality on some titles.
The Best Plan for HBO Max/Max: HBO Max With Ads ($9.99)
HBO Max (soon to be just “Max”) is a good choice if all you're looking for is a few shows and movies you already know are quality. But, inevitably, you will be looking for something lighter, or perhaps a bit schlockier. If you're paying for multiple streaming services, and you have a limited budget, then you have to choose which ones get ads and which ones don't. HBO Max with Ads is a solid choice to save a few bucks a month. The ads are not so constant, so if you can stomach a few interruptions, the “with ads” tier remains the best bang for your buck.
The Best Plan for Hulu: Hulu No Ads ($14.99)
If you don't end up getting Hulu through some other subscription bundle, and you want specific access to a wide swath of content, then your best choice is to do Hulu without ads. It's nearly double the price of the $8 ad-supported plan, but the constant ad breaks in the cheaper tier makes any moderate viewing session stress even the most patient person.