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Best free TV streaming services: Roku, Sling TV, IMDb, Pluto TV, Tubi TV, Plex and more

Stuck inside and looking for some free TV to watch? There are more choices than ever nowadays.

Netflix may be the best streaming service, and Hulu the best streaming-TV bargain, but they both still cost you money. In the uncertain financial times of the coronavirus pandemic, you may be looking to cut your streaming costs to, well, free. The good news? As long as you've got internet, you can enjoy a wealth of free TV. 

In response to the boom in streaming, numerous services rolled out freebies and extended trial offers. But as the country has begun to open up again some of those offers have come to an end or morphed over time. There are still plenty available, however, and many of the services listed below will be free for the foreseeable future. How do they do it?

Read more: Budget hack: Replace Netflix and other pricey subscriptions with these free versions

First and foremost, many of these services are ad-supported, so you won't be able to skip commercials. Most have older shows and movies, sort of like basic cable reruns. And some network sites won't let you stream all their shows unless you're a paid cable or satellite subscriber -- but many offer a selection of stuff you can watch without signing in or paying. Let's take a look at some the best free, legal ways to indulge your inner couch potato, which we'll update regularly. (Prefer movies? Check out these 10 free Netflix alternatives.) Note that Showtime, Pluto TV and CBS News, all mentioned below, are owned by CNET's parent company, ViacomCBS.

Read more: The best free stuff while you're stuck at home

Roku

Roku Channel is designed for people who own the company's streaming products, but anyone with a phone or PC browser and a connection to the internet can use it. And now as part of its Home Together initiative, the service is offering 30 day trials for over 20 premium channels. The free channels include Showtime, Epix, Smithsonian, Acorn TV and Hallmark.  

What you can watch: The Roku Channel just added 100 live channels, including a channel guide, to its existing selection of on-demand content. While the linear TV includes live news and lifestyles channels, the on-demand content is heavy on reality TV (Hoarders, Hell's Kitchen) and crime shows (Cold Case). Unfortunately, not every series is complete and the service only offers a single episode in some cases. There's plenty of stuff to watch, however, including a dedicated kids section. There's also a solid array of past older movies including Stand By Me, The Karate Kid and Donnie Darko. Beyond the 30-day freebie above you can subscribe to premium services including HBO, much like you can on Amazon Prime Video channels or the Apple TV app.

Where you can watch: As you might expect, you can get the Roku Channel on Roku devices including streamers and Roku TVs. However, you can also watch the Roku Channel in any browser or via the iOS or Android Roku apps, though it doesn't offer the option to download shows for offline viewing. There's also a Roku Channel app on Samsung Smart TVs.

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IMDb TV/Screenshot by CNET

Launched early last year as FreeDive, this service now bears the venerable branding of the Internet Movie Database, a motherlode of movie lore that's been an Amazon subsidiary since 1998. Amazon happens to be Roku's biggest competitor in streaming hardware with its Fire TV devices, and perhaps for that reason you'll need a Fire TV -- or a computer hooked up to a TV -- to watch IMDb TV on an actual TV.

What you can watch: As you might expect, the service focuses primarily on films, for example Paddington, Spider-Man (the 2002 version) and Elf, but it also has a solid selection of TV series. The selection is similar to Roku's, but also includes five seasons of feel-good pick Schitt's Creek (which is also available on Netflix commercial-free). Other titles include A&E's Cold Case Files, History's The Hunt for the Zodiac Killer and nine seasons of the Gen X classic Little House on the Prairie, starring Michael Landon.

Where you can watch: Any PC or Mac browser or any Amazon Prime Video app on a phone or tablet can stream IMDb TV, but the only actual TV devices that get access are Fire TV streamers and smart TVs that run the Fire TV Edition software. You'll also need an account, although it works seamlessly with any Amazon account.

Screenshot: Ty Pendlebury/CNET

While the Happy Hour Across America promotion has now ended, Sling TV Free still offers free on-demand TV, movies and a number of live TV channels.

What you can watch: Sling TV's free streaming service includes a limited selection of live channels (ABC News Live, The Film Detective) and on-demand selections such as Adventure Time, Dance Moms and Al Jazeera Live. Meanwhile, the paid version of Sling TV is one of CNET's favorite live TV streaming services at $30 a month.

Where you can watch: Sling TV's Free service is supported by the same devices that Sling is -- they use the same app -- and the list is extensive: from streamers to consoles to mobile devices.

Crackle

Crackle is an ad-supported streaming service that offers mostly movies, but also some TV shows -- including original content. It's available on a wide variety of devices and doesn't even require you to set up an account, though doing so enables you to save favorites, get recommendations and resume playback if you switch between devices.

What you can watch: Crackle's commercial-supported selection isn't particularly extensive, with only a little over 100 different shows, and mainly consists of family sitcoms such as All in the FamilyRoseanne and Who's the Boss. As above, not every series is complete. In some cases you might get only one or two seasons, or even just a partial season.

Where you can watch: Crackle's list of devices covers most platforms. The service offers apps for all mobile platforms, game consoles and major streaming devices. It's even baked into many smart TVs. It does not offer the option to download shows for offline viewing.

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

Pluto TV is noteworthy for offering not only on-demand movies, but also live TV channels including CBS News and CNET (note that ViacomCBS is the parent company of Pluto TV and CNET).

What you can watch: Pluto offers an impressive selection of live channels, all of them sorted into categories like news, sports, comedy and movies in a grid format. On-demand TV content consists mostly of crime and reality shows, and it's not organized nearly as well as the live channels. One oddity: If you're watching a live stream, there's no way to pause. You can only mute it.

Where you can watch: Pluto TV works in desktop browsers, but also offers a Windows client. It has apps for Android, iOS and various smart TVs and channels for Apple TV ($179 at Apple), Fire TV and Roku.

Screenshot: Ty Pendlebury/CNET

The name belies the content: Tubi TV offers considerably more movies than it does TV shows, but that's not to say you shouldn't check out its extensive library. Similar to Crackle, this ad-supported network is available on a wide variety of devices and doesn't require an account, though signing up for one enables you to save favorites and resume playback if you switch between devices.

What you can watch: As you'd expect for a free movie serviceTubi TV definitely isn't Hulu. Its TV selection offers some of the reality shows we've come to expect, such as Hell's Kitchen and The Apprentice, plus oddball inclusions such as the Australian drama McLeod's Daughters. There's not a dedicated TV section, just a few TV-specific categories (comedies, dramas, reality and so on) within its much larger content list. 

Where you can watch: Tubi TV's list of devices rivals that of Crackle. The service offers apps for Android and iOS, the major game consoles and streaming devices, and some Samsung TVs. It doesn't offer the option to download content for offline viewing.

Network sites: ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and PBS

Just about every major network lets you stream shows via a web site or mobile app, which seems like great news for cord cutters. So what if you couldn't watch, say, the latest episode of Bob's Burgers? Just fire up the Fox Now app and stream it on demand. At least, that's the idea.

What you can watch: If there's a show that's currently on the air, chances are good you can watch it online at a network site. However, in some cases there's a Catch-22: Many networks require you to have an active service provider (like cable or satellite). Unless you can supply valid sign-in credentials, you can't stream. That's true of networks such as AMC and Syfy, meaning no episodes of The Walking Dead or Deadly Class for you. But CBS, TBS, The CW and a few others will let you watch at least some episodes of some shows without a sign-in. So you'll have to poke around a bit.

Where you can watch: This also varies from one network to another, but in most cases you can watch shows in a browser, on a mobile device or via a media-streamer app. But download options are few and far between, so don't expect to be watching shows offline unless you pay for them. Here's the list of major network sites.

Starting as a way for users to stream content stored on users' computers, Plex has been evolving to incorporate other sources such as OTA broadcastsTidal, and now free streaming TV. You don't even need to install the Plex server on your PC or NAS, you just need to sign up for a Plex account. 

What you can watch: The service's free offering started with a modest slate of ad-supported content, mostly movies, in December, but in May 2020 it entered a partnership with Crackle, offering thousands more TV shows and movies from that service, including Snatch, Kitchen Nightmares, Roseanne and Third Rock from the Sun. Plex also has a couple of programs streaming free, namely: On Point, a basketball docuseries, and Yelawolf: A Slumerican Life, about a Cherokee rapper.

Where you can watch: Plex is offered on a multitude of platforms including browsers, Roku, Apple TV, Android and iOS.

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

Got a library card? Check to see if your library has partnered with Hoopla. This digital-media service allows you to check out all kinds of stuff -- from ebooks to movies to TV shows. When you "borrow" one, you have 72 hours in which to watch it. Your library determines the total number of titles you can borrow each month.

What you can watch: Hoopla's TV selection is something of a hodgepodge, with a smattering of well-known shows mixed in with a lot of self-help, documentary and family fare. For example, you'll find three seasons of the SyFy original Humans, both seasons of The Jim Gaffigan Show and lots of Ken Burns documentaries. Hoopla also has instructional videos from The Great Courses series, various PBS Kids shows and plenty of Acorn TV content that would otherwise require a subscription.

Where you can watch: Hoopla content can be viewed just about anywhere: mobile devices, streaming devices and on your PC in a browser. Surprisingly, the mobile apps offer not only streaming, but also a download option for offline viewing.

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