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Best streaming service of 2021

Find out how Netflix, Disney Plus, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, HBO Max, Paramount Plus and Peacock stack up in terms of shows, movies, features and price.

We're living in the age of the "streaming wars," when it seems like every major network and media company has launched a new streaming service. There's more great TV to watch than ever, but deciding which subscriptions are worth your time and money can be daunting. Your choices likely depend on which original shows and movies you want, how important an older, back catalog of shows is to you, whether you need to consider kids or roommates, and of course your budget. Some of these services offer cheaper options (like Peacock's free tier) and some have a broader selection of older shows.

That's where this list comes in. I've reviewed each of these streaming services individually, and assigned numeric ratings based on content, app design and features and overall value. Certainly, some personal preference regarding content mix influences my decisions, so note that if you love a specific show or style of show, you may have a different favorite.

With that in mind, here's the list, ranked in order starting with the best streaming services first.

Read more: The best streaming service deals

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Best streaming service overall

Netflix

Angela Lang/CNET

There's a reason why Netflix has become shorthand for streaming in general. The veteran service, which launched its DVD-by-mail rentals in 1998, has evolved into the top-tier streaming service that's a must-have in 2021. When big originals like The Queen's Gambit or Stranger Things drop, they grab the attention of millions of viewers along with critical praise and awards, giving us the closest thing to watercooler conversations we have nowadays. 

While Netflix has lost a couple of major back catalog titles to other streamers this past year (specifically The Office to Peacock and Friends to HBO Max), it still offers a wide variety of familiar network shows and more original series, films, documentaries and specials than any of its competitors. New shows and movies arrive each week, and 70 new original movies will arrive on the platform this year alone. Starting at $9 a month, its price is in the middle of the pack, but for the variety you get (and no commercials ever), it's worth it. 

Read the full Netflix review.

 

Angela Lang/CNET

Disney Plus is a phenomenon and Netflix's closest competitor for good reason. It launched just 16 months ago and has already amassed more than 100 million subscribers. It's the only place where you can stream the vast majority of the Disney and Pixar libraries, along with every Star Wars movie, Marvel films and new original TV shows, National Geographic content and 31 seasons of The Simpsons. While it's only had two breakout original series so far -- The Mandalorian and WandaVision -- a lot more Star Wars and Marvel content is coming in the next few years. 

Even after the recent price hike to $8 a month, Disney Plus is still one of the least-expensive ad-free choices and a great value. We consider it a must-have if you have kids or are a fan of any of its other titles (and who isn't a fan of Baby Yoda?). 

Read the full Disney Plus review.

 

Best value for your money

Hulu

Sarah Tew/CNET

For $6 a month (with ads), Hulu is a perfect complement and counterpoint to Netflix. It has a huge variety of familiar shows from networks like ABC, Fox and NBC that you can watch soon after they air (unlike on Netflix), as well as a growing catalog of its own critically acclaimed original series like The Handmaid's Tale and PEN15. If you have $6 per month to spare and don't mind trading a few ads for a wealth of TV options, Hulu is a no-brainer. You've also got the option to upgrade to a no-ads plan for $12 a month, or add on live TV streaming for $65 a month for a full cable replacement.

Read the full Hulu review.

 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Amazon Prime Video features lots of ad-free, high-quality original shows and movies, an impressive back catalog of older favorites (and B-movies you haven't heard of) and NFL on Thursday nights. It lacks the catalogs of Netflix and Hulu, and the star power of Disney, and I found its menus more confusing since there's some paid content mixed in with free content. But for millions of Prime subscribers, Prime Video is already included at no extra cost. If you're interested in checking out any of its originals like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel or The Expanse (or the upcoming Lord of the Rings prequel), or its large movie selection, it may even be worth paying the stand-alone $9 a month fee (if you don't have Amazon Prime). 

Read the full Amazon Prime Video review.

 

Sarah Tew/CNET

HBO Max is a well-designed app full of popular TV shows and movies. It's got HBO's entire catalog, along with favorites such as Friends, Rick and Morty, Sesame Street, the Lord of the Rings movies and almost every Studio Ghibli film. It's also the only streaming service to debut movies on the same day as theaters at no extra cost, including Godzilla vs. Kong, Dune and Matrix 4. It's not Disney Plus, but HBO Max has a solid streaming collection for kids too, with the ability to control ratings on kids' profiles better than most other services. 

Where the service loses points is its price tag: At $15 a month, it's at the higher end of the streaming spectrum. However, a less expensive, ad-supported tier is on the way in June, though we don't know the price tag yet, and you won't be able to stream the newest movies. In general, HBO Max is also a bit light on new originals, but we expect that to change over time. 

Read the full HBO Max review.

 

Sarah Tew/CNET

NBCUniversal's streaming service Peacock has one major advantage over its peers: It has a free, ad-supported tier with about 13,000 hours of shows, movies, news and live sports. You can upgrade to premium for $5 a month (with ads) or premium plus for $10 a month (with no ads) to unlock more content, including every season of fan favorites like The Office and Parks and Recreation, originals like Brave New World, popular series like Yellowstone as well as live Premier League soccer matches and WWE events. Peacock drops in the rankings due to its lack of Amazon Fire TV support, user profiles, mobile downloads for its non-premium plus tiers and 4K HDR streaming, all of which most of its competitors offer. But it doesn't hurt to try out the free version -- all you need to sign up is an email address. 

Read the full Peacock review.

 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Paramount Plus -- the streaming service formerly known as CBS All Access -- brings together live news and sports with on-demand shows and movies, including originals, leaning on parent company ViacomCBS' brands like CBS, MTV, BET, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon and Paramount Network, plus its Paramount Pictures movie studio. 

The service has a ton of content: 30,000 episodes of TV and 2,500 movies, plus 36 original series arriving this year, for either $6 a month (with ads) or $10 a month (ad-free). Two of its biggest draws from its CBS All Access days include the Star Trek catalog and new originals like Star Trek: Discovery and Picard, and the series The Good Fight. Upcoming originals include two Yellowstone spinoffs (though Yellowstone itself is on rival Peacock), a new Star Trek series and a series based on Halo, and new movies like Mission: Impossible 7 arriving 45 days after theaters. But right now, its main value lies in nostalgia: You can watch just about every old Nickelodeon show, Comedy Central stand-up special and popular series ranging from Frasier and Cheers to Spongebob Squarepants and Young Sheldon.

Read the full Paramount Plus review.

 

Sarah Tew/CNET

At $5 a month, Apple TV Plus is the lowest-priced premium, ad-free streaming service available, with high-end features like 4K resolution, HDR and mobile downloads. However, it's also the only service on this list that includes only original content, and no back catalog of shows or movies to explore. While it now has more than 50 exclusive, big-budget shows and movies, only a few have captured widespread attention (looking at you, Ted Lasso and The Morning Show, and potentially Foundation, arriving later this year). And that library is far smaller than any of the others on this list. 

The app is also confusing, since it's housed in the larger Apple TV app with other content. However, Apple TV Plus has one big advantage: There are a lot of ways to get it for free, at least for a while (like when you buy a new Apple device or subscribe to the Apple One bundle) and Apple keeps extending its free trials. 

Read the full Apple TV Plus review.

 

What else do you need to know?

Chances are you're already pretty familiar with most of the names on this list, but it's by no means comprehensive. There are plenty of other ways to stream, and hundreds of other choices out there. As you weigh your streaming choices, keep the following notes in mind.

  • This list is ordered based on the numerical value I assigned to each streaming service in their individual review, which I determined by design (i.e. ease of use across different TV and mobile platforms), features (like 4K HDR, mobile downloads, recommendations, watch lists and number of streams), content (number of shows and quality of originals and back catalogs) and value (price compared to these other factors). Click through to the full reviews for more details.
  • This list includes major on-demand streaming services only. It does not include live TV streaming services for cord-cutters (think Sling TV, YouTube TV, which offer live channels intended to replace cable), free streaming services like Tubi or Crackle or smaller, niche services like ESPN Plus and PBS Kids.
  • To watch any of the services on this list you'll need a solid internet connection, a compatible device (like a Roku, Amazon Fire TV or Apple TV, a smart TV, phone, tablet or computer) and a valid username and password. 
  • This list will be updated periodically as new services become available and are reviewed, and as existing reviews are updated. 

Want more? Check out CNET's Streaming TV Insider for advice on what to watch, the latest streaming news, help, how-to and more.

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