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How to choose which TV streaming service is best for you

Netflix, Hulu, Disney Plus, HBO Max, Apple TV Plus, Peacock -- there's a lot to pick from. Here's how to narrow it down.

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You can watch all seasons of Parks and Recreation on NBC's Peacock streaming service, which launched nationwide in July.

NBC

With so many TV and movie streaming services available today, there's really no excuse to say, "There's nothing to watch." You have your established heavy hitters (like Netflix and Hulu), your relatively new-to-streaming powerhouses (such as Disney Plus and HBO Max), your traditional networks getting into the game (like CBS All Access and NBC's Peacock), and your startups and your wild cards (see Quibi). 

Editors' note: CNET is owned by ViacomCBS. 

Choosing a streaming service isn't a one-size-fits all experience, as every viewer's needs and wants are different. Many of us subscribe to multiple services, but may not have thought about which will actually give us access to the shows and movies we want most -- and help us avoid streaming subscription overload

We've gone into detail on seven of the most popular streaming services to help you decide which one will give you the most bang for your buck. 

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I don't have cable, but new episodes of current shows are uploaded to the Hulu platform quickly, so with a Hulu subscription I can still keep up despite having cut the cord. For example, new episodes of Grey's Anatomy air on TV on Thursday nights. If you've subscribed to either the basic ($6 per month) or Premium ($12 per month) Hulu plan, you can watch it the next day. There's also the option of Hulu with Live TV for $55 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 the 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 comes out. Hulu Originals such as Shrill, High Fidelity and the Handmaid's Tale sometimes release either an episode per week or an entire season at once. 

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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.

 

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Netflix

Netflix is a veteran streaming service. Remember when subscribing meant it would mail DVDs to your house? Netflix also introduced us to the modern binge-watch, as it houses iconic shows (old and new) like The Office, That '70s Show, The Andy Griffith Show and The West Wing. It's easy to put on your favorite and let it play, whether you're actively watching or not. 

Netflix has also become known for its Originals -- movies, shows and documentaries, many of which have received both popular and critical acclaim. Think about the hype surrounding The Haunting of Hill House and Stranger Things, the psychological thriller series You or the Oscar-winning film Roma.  

New seasons 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 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 ($13) and Premium ($16) plans.

Read our Netflix review.

 

Gabor Kotschy/A24

If you subscribe to Amazon Prime ($13 a month, $6.49 per month for students) for savings on the e-commerce site, you also get access to Prime Video -- Amazon's streaming service. The service has new movies to rent or buy, like the Oscar-winning film Parasite. Prime users 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. 

If you're a movie fan, Prime Video might be the right choice for you: Amazon's platform has four 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, like HBO's Girls does, you can 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.

 

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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 and The World According to Jeff Goldblum, Disney Plus is also home to Marvel movies and the Star Wars franchise

With continued coronavirus lockdowns restricting access to movie theaters, Disney Plus has become a platform not only for old favorites and new originals but for big-screen releases too. At first, it started streaming already-released movies months earlier than planned, including Star Wars: The Rise of SkywalkerFrozen 2 and Pixar's Onward

Now, Disney is speeding up the streaming releases of brand-new movies too, giving you even more bang for your buck. The film adaptation of young adult novel Artemis Fowl was scheduled to hit theaters in May, but instead premiered on Disney Plus instead in June. And the company's live-action film version of the mega hit musical Hamilton went straight to Disney Plus on July 3, coinciding with the Independence Day holiday weekend in the US -- more than a year earlier than its planned theatrical debut. 

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 $7 a month. There's also an option to bundle Disney Plus with Hulu and ESPN.

Read our Disney Plus review.

 

NBC/Peacock

Peacock, the new 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 which you can 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 ($4.99 a month) or ad-free Premium Plus ($9.99 a month) if you want to to expand the library even more. You'll find shows, movies, news, live sports and skit-style clips, with standouts including Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, The Bourne Identity, Jurassic Park and some Premier League soccer matches. 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. 

One of NBC's most-streamed series, however, The Office, won't be on the service until January 2021 (you can find it on Netflix until then). And you'll only get two episodes of new original series, like Brave New World, unless you upgrade to premium. The same goes for the original Psych movie sequel and the popular series Yellowstone.

At launch, Peacock still lacks a number of features that other premium streaming services have, including compatibility with the popular Roku and Amazon Fire TV devices, profiles for different users, mobile downloads or 4K HDR streaming. Some of these features are on NBC's roadmap for the future, though. And, since you can sign up for free, we're a bit more forgiving.

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, HBO's entry into the streaming wars, 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, and almost every Studio Ghibli film -- making it a solid streaming collection for adults and kids. 

While HBO Max lacks 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. And if you've been clamoring for more of 2017's Justice League, HBO Max will be the home of director Zack Snyder's cut, since he stepped down in the middle of the film's production.

The downside? HBO Max's price is at the high end of the spectrum, at $14.99 a month. Plus, you can't stream in 4K HDR, or on Roku or Amazon Fire devices.

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 last fall. The addition of exclusive, star-studded shows such as The Morning Show, Servant and For All Mankind 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. The Apple TV app doesn't cost anything to download, but there are in-app purchases for content.

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