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Best video-on-demand streaming services in 2021: Expert picks


When I started cord-cutting, only hardcore techies and television fans were doing it. It was really difficult to do. Today, there are more people watching streaming shows than there are paying for cable or satellite TV and anyone can do it with any high-quality streaming device and a decent broadband connection. 

There are three reasons for this shift. First, the best live TV streaming services now offer pretty much anything you’d ever want from a traditional TV cable or satellite service and more. Streaming TV is just better than old-school TV today. Second, even though live TV streaming services prices are catching up with cable, for now, streaming services are still more affordable. Finally, the video-on-demand (VoD) services, which started the cord-cutting revolution, such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, produce more “must watch” TV than their older competitors. 

For example, Paramount+’s Star Trek: Discovery; Disney Plus’s The Mandalorian; and Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit all have huge audiences and are popular with critics as well. Today, except for HBO, which has its own streaming-specific service now, HBO Max, you’re more likely to find the show you want to watch on a streaming service than on antenna, cable, or satellite.

But, which service is right for you? Before jumping into them, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention there are numerous free VoD services. If money is tight, there’s still a lot of good streaming movies and TV shows out there for you.

Since everyone’s tastes vary, and these services’ video offerings change every month, rather than try to list them in a “best to worst” order, I’ve listed them in alphabetical order.


If you want to watch English-language TV from outside the US, you’ll love Acorn TV

Acorn TV

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If you’re a British and international English TV fan like I am, then Acorn TV is for you. On it, I can get my fill of shows like Agatha Raisin, Doc Martin, Lovejoy, and Midsomer Murders, including the new season 22. It also includes other shows such as the Australian hits Ms Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, starring the incomparable Esse Davis, and A Place to Call Home

If it strikes you that’s a lot of mysteries, you’re right, it is. Acorn focuses on mysteries from around the English-speaking TV world. Its rival, BritBox, has a larger library, but it primarily shows only shows from the United Kingdom’s BBC and ITV. So, for example, Australian-based Ms Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries is only available on Acorn.

This service used to have a lot of performance problems. That’s no longer the case. That said, at best, you can only watch shows in 720p HDTV. You’ll find no 4K or UHD content here. You can, however, stream up to a generous four shows at once. 

Acorn TV costs $6 a month or $60 a year. You can either stream up to four streams directly or subscribe to it via Amazon Prime Video. The advantage to this latter approach is far more streaming devices support Prime Video than Acorn TV.  

Pros:

  • Great selection of non-American English language mysteries.
  • Good price.

Con

  • Currently only has shows in HDTV.
  • Could have a wider selection of British TV programs.


$6 at Acorn TV


Free two-day Amazon shipping and great videos, what’s not to like?

Amazon Prime Video

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Amazon Prime Video is far more than just videos. For $119 a year or $13 a month, besides free videos, you get free two-day shipping on most Amazon purchases. a free monthly Kindle book download and free music streaming via Amazon Music. If you’re already using Amazon Prime for buying stuff, using its Amazon Prime Video is a no-brainer. 

If Amazon Prime doesn’t interest you, Prime Video is also available as a $9 a month subscription. For new users, it also comes with a 30-day free trial.

The service offers VoD for older movies and TV shows. Many, but far from all, of these, require an additional fee to rent or purchase. Lately though, like Netflix, Amazon is getting known for its great original content such as Good Omens, Jack Ryan, The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, and The Boys. I’ll also always owe a debt of gratitude to Amazon for saving the best science-fiction show of all time, The Expanse. Amazon is also readying a new Prime Video Lord of the Rings series. Rumor has it that the last will be the most expensive TV series ever produced. 

Many of Amazon’s originals and some newer films are available in 4K and UHD. Prime Video also bundled in some live sporting events. You can stream up to three shows at once. 

You can also subscribe to many other VoD channels through Amazon Prime. These include well-known ones such as HBO Max, Showtime, and MLB TV to more obscure ones such as Docurama, Best Westerns Ever, and Shout! Factory TV. All of these channels cost the same on Prime Video as they would if you subscribed to them directly. This can be handy because you can get to multiple streaming services using the single Prime Video interface. Each service comes with its own seven-day free trial.

Put it all together and, even if I didn’t shop at Amazon, I’d pay for Amazon Prime Video.

Pros:

  • Excellent selection of movies and TV shows.
  • Great interface to multiple, more obscure VoD networks.

Con

  • Some non-free offerings, which require additional costs.


View Now at Amazon Prime Video


Someday Apple TV+ will be for everyone, today’s it’s really just for Apple users.

Apple TV+

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I wouldn’t I’d pay more than Apple TV+’s $4.99 per month. There’s just not a lot there. It has few “free” videos in its library, and its original content is, well, minimal. On the other hand, you can get this streaming service for free with the purchase of a new iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, Mac, or even an iPod. Students can also get it for free with an Apple Music subscription, or you can get Apple+ as part of an Apple One bundle.

Of course, to each their own, when it comes to what you enjoy watching, except for the science-fiction alternative history, For all Mankind, and the drama The Morning Show, I really don’t see many interesting shows.

The service does, however, have many newer movies you can watch for additional fees. Unlike most other VoD services, it doesn’t really have a video library to watch old favorites. On the plus side, you can share your subscription with up to six people via Apple’s Family Sharing feature. 

One good point is that the content, when it’s available, can be viewed and heard in 4K, HDR, Dolby Atmos, and Dolby Vision. Just make sure you have the right gear to support those higher-end video and audio technologies, or all that will go to waste.

Apple’s naming conventions are confusing. The Apple TV is Apple’s streaming device. With it, you can watch not only the Apple TV+ streaming service but other services such as Hulu and Netflix. You can also watch Apple TV+ on Roku, newer Amazon Fire devices, and some smart TVs. There’s also an Apple TV app. This lets you watch some other streaming services,  which, ala Amazon Prime Video, you can also subscribe to via Apple; Apple TV+ streams; and rent or purchase TV shows and movies. This app does not, to no one’s surprise, run on Android devices.

Apple TV Plus has promise, and it’s handy if you’re already deep into the Apple world. But if you’re not a dyed-in-the-wool Apple fan, you can skip this service. 

Pros

  • Works well with Apple-based equipment.
  • Supports high-end video streams in a variety of formats. 

Cons:

  • Very limited “free” video library.
  • Few original shows.


View Now at Apple TV Plus


Even more British TV.

BritBox

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The BBC and ITV got together and created BritBox to bring their offerings, both old and new, to viewers in Canada and the States. Its competition, Acorn TV, doesn’t have as many shows, but it focuses more on mysteries from around the English-language TV world. 

On BritBox, you’ll find old favorites such as Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes, my favorite take on the 221B Baker St. detective, Sharpe, and Fawlty Towers. It also has an excellent selection of United Kingdom soaps such as Coronation Street, EastEnders, and Emmerdale.

One plus BritBox has over Acorn TV is you can download your favorite shows on iOS and Android smartphones and tablets. With Acorn TV you must have an active internet connection. BritBox also supports up to five simultaneous streams.

You can get BritBox for a monthly fee of $7 or, for the more affordable annual fee of $70. 

Pros

  • The closest thing you’ll get to the BBC and ITV on this side of the pond.
  • Can download videos for later watching.

Cons:

  • Acorn and BritBox are almost the same, but the differences are great enough that, if you really love English, as in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand TV, you really need both.  


$7 at BritBox


Classic and contemporary art-house and independent films.

The Criterion Channel

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Is the first thing you do when you check out a streaming TV network such as Sling TV or  YouTubeTV is see if they have Turner Classic Movies (TCM) because you love classic movies? If that’s you, you may want to consider adding The Criterion Channel to your streaming device.

Like all hardcore classic, independent, and art-film move fans know, the Criterion Collection puts out the definitive copies of the best of the best of these kinds of movies. So if your best directors list includes Kurosawa, Truffaut, and  Kieślowski, instead of Lucas, Nolan, and Tarantino, chances are you already have Criterion Blu-Ray and DVDs in your cinema collections. Oh, and you refer to movies as cinema. 

Besides the movies themselves, The Criterion Channel also features documentaries on film, interviews with directors, and commentaries on movies. My only caveat, and I am a serious movie fan, is that not every film from the Criterion Collection can be streamed. Darn it! 

It’s not for everyone, but for people who really love movies, it’s essential. You can try it out with a 14-day free trial. After that, if you like it, the channel will cost you $11 a month or $100 a year.

Pros

  • Excellent selection of classic movies.

Cons:

  • Not all Criterion Collection movies are available for streaming. 


$11 at The Criterion Channel


Disney+ includes content from Disney, Marvel, Fox Entertainment, and Star Wars.

Disney+

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Disney+ is the one new streaming service I can recommend for almost anyone. The reason? I’ll give you four reasons: the Disney, Marvel, Fox Entertainment, and Star Wars movies and TV show library. For popular entertainment, you can’t beat Disney Plus. 

Disney+ is still building up its original content library, but it already has one huge hit, The Mandalorian. Honestly, though, tens-of-millions would still be subscribing even if they didn’t have any original content.

With the pandemic keeping us in our homes, Disney Plus is also exploring pay-per-view (PPV) for movies like the live-action Mulan. In addition, other new movies, such as Marvel’s The Black Widow, will also be appearing on Disney+ screens. 

At $7 per month, it’s also one of the cheapest VoD streaming services. Better still, much of its content is available in 4K resolution with HDR color. For streaming, it also currently supports four simultaneous streams. 

There are some people out there, somewhere, who might not find something fun to binge-watch on Disney+. But, unfortunately, I just don’t know any of them.

Pros:

  • Disney, Marvel, Star Wars, do I need to say more?
  • Excellent price.
  • Support for high-end video formats.

Cons:

  • Honestly, I can’t think of any. If you’re into any of its content, you can’t beat it, especially for $7 a month.


View Now at Disney +


If you love HBO, you’ll love HBO Max.

HBO Max

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HBO’s new streaming service HBO Max had trouble getting out of the gate. But now that Roku and Amazon Fire are on board, its future looks great. That’s because, like Disney+, it has a huge library of content people love to watch. Their audiences are different, though, with Disney+ tending to be younger than the audience for such HBO classics as Deadwood and The Sopranos

You may be a little confused as to what’s what with HBO streaming. I can’t blame you. I watch a lot of HBO shows, and I cover this stuff for a living, and I’ve been puzzled. So here’s how it works: HBO Go is on the way out. It dies on July 31, 2021. So if you’re already an HBO Go’s customer, you’ll automatically be moved to HBO Max. HBO Now is still around, at least for now, but it’s been renamed HBO. 

So, what’s the difference? With HBO, you get, well, HBO. With HBO Max, you also get access to some movies and TV series from Warner Brothers; New Line; DC, CNN, TNT, TBS, truTV, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim; Looney Tunes Cartoons; CrunchyRole anime; and some classic movies from TCM. You’ll also be able to watch some new HBO Max exclusive shows. 

In particular, as we slowly start going back to movie theaters, Warner Brothers is releasing its new movies both in theaters and on HBO Max. If you’re not comfortable going out yet or just prefer watching movies at home, HBO Max is worth the money. These movies, such as Wonder Woman 1984, In the Heights, and the forthcoming Matrix 4 (Yes, with Keanu Reeves) for no additional fee. You can watch these on up to three devices at once.

If you’re already subscribed to HBO via your cable or satellite provider, you get HBO Max for free. Otherwise, HBO Max will run you $15 a month. That’s not cheap, but you do get a lot to watch for your money.

HBO Max is releasing a cheaper, ad-supported tier. This version will cost $10 monthly. But, it doesn’t come with all the $15 edition’s bells and whistles. For example, it doesn’t support 4K video, you can only stream one movie or show at a time, and you won’t get free access to the new Warner Brothers movies. 

Is the ad version worth it? Well, if you’re really tight on money, it may be. However, I recommend you pay the full freight. Just going out with your partner to see Denis Villeneuve’s soon-to-be-released take on Dune alone at a high-end theater will cost as much as the money you’d save from not subscribing to the $15 a month HBO Max. 

Pro:

  • Great collection of recent movies.,
  • Exceptional original content.
  • First release Warner Brothers movies included.

Con:

  • It’s on the expensive side. 


$15 at HBO Max


Hulu offers a worthwhile collection of TV episodes and movies.

Hulu

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Hulu’s big brother, Hulu + Live TV‘s big selling point is it’s the one service that combines both live TV and VoD. It’s a powerful package. Besides great original content, such as exclusive titles like The Handmaid’s Tale, it also has a large catalog of other on-demand shows and movies. On top of that, you get over 65 live and on-demand channels. 

But Hulu + Live TV costs $65 a month, while Hulu, the pure VoD play, costs $6 a month or $60 a year with ads or $12 a month without ads. Is it worth it? I think so.

That’s because Hulu comes with a huge library of 21st Century Fox content, that’s too adult for Disney Plus. It also has a good selection of original content. This includes some of my personal favorites such as Harlots and Veronica Mars

As for the video itself, Hulu only supports one stream at a time. Hulu + Live TV ups that to two streams. Some of its original shows are available in 4K, but most of the content is in HDTV.

Pros

  • Good TV and movie library.
  • Good value with its live TV streaming combination.
  • Cheap if you can live with ads.

Cons:

  • The base service only supports one stream at a time.


$6 at Hulu


Netflix’s still the best streaming service around thanks to its wealth of great original content.

Netflix

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The 800-pound gorilla of streaming is Netflix. It has a great older TV show and movie content. But what most of us watch on Netflix is its ever-growing collection of original programs.

Shows such as Glow, Emily in Paris, The Queen’s Gambit, and Black Mirror set the standard in great streaming TV, but I doubt very much you know exactly how many original shows Netflix produces. In 2019 alone, Netflix released more originals in 2019 than the entire TV industry did in 2005. Netflix released more than one new video a day, and the numbers are going to go up. Trust me, no matter what kind of video entertainment you like, you’ll find something not only to watch but love, on Netflix. 

All of this comes with a rather complex pricing scheme. At the first tier, $9, you can watch on one screen in SD. Move up to $14 a month, which is what I recommend, and you get HDTV and two simultaneous streams. For $18 per month, you get 4K and four streams.

The only thing I dislike about Netflix, and it’s really not the company’s fault, is its video partners are constantly moving shows and movies on and off the service. There’s a reason why there’s a website called What’s on Netflix, which does nothing but track what’s on and what’s about to leave Netflix. 

Still, let’s get real, Netflix remains the one essential streaming service. 

Pros:

  • Great movie and TV library.
  • Great original content. 

Cons:

  • It’s getting more expensive as the years roll by.
  • It’s hard to keep track of what’s on and what’s off the service at any given moment. 


View Now at Netflix


All CBS shows, all the time, and more.

Paramount Plus

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CBS was the first of the big broadcast networks to decide to go into streaming in a big way with CBS All Access. Its biggest selling point is the insanely large CBS catalog of past and new shows as well as live CBS news and sports content. That hasn’t changed since the service has been rebranded Paramount Plus.

In addition, it includes shows from MTV, BET, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, The Smithsonian Channel, and, of course, Paramount. I don’t care what kind of show you like; you’ll find something you want to watch on this service.

What it doesn’t have is a lot of original content. What new shows it does have, such as Star Trek: Picard, The Good Fight, and The Twilight Zone, I like. But they may not be for you. That’s changing rapidly, with the networks adding 36 original series in 2021.

Unlike Warner Brothers and HBO Max, Paramount won’t be releasing new movies to the streaming service at the time they appear in theaters. However, some, but not all their releases, will make it to Paramount Plus  30 to 90 days after their premiere. This will include films like A Quiet Place Part II and Mission: Impossible 7, but not Transformers 7 nor Top Gun: Maverick.

One blemish is that even the new Star Trek shows are only available in HDTV. For now, there’s no 4K or HDR content.

Paramount Plus currently costs $10-per-month for one stream at a time. Very soon, however, there will be a cheaper $4.99 a month plan, which will include ads and without all the main service’s content.

Is it worth it? I think so. You just need to ask yourself, “How much do I love Star Trek and the rest of the CBS TV library?”

Pros:

  • Wonderful and deep TV library.
  • A broad selection of content.

Con:

Paramount movies won’t be released on the service at the same time as they appear in theaters.

  • A trifle on the expensive side.


$10 at Paramount Plus


With many great old NBC shows, Peacock is worth watching.

Peacock

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Following CBS’s lead, NBC launched its own streaming network, Peacock. It includes a large collection of old and new NBC shows. 

Peacock, at this point, is relying on its rich library of classic NBC shows such as Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, and Columbo. The streaming network also has the enormously popular Law & Order and Chicago Fire franchises. What it doesn’t have though is its most popular recent comedies: Friends and Seinfeld. Ross, Rachel etc. only appear now on HBO Max, while Jerry and his crew recently left Hulu and it will show up this fall on Netflix. 

Since Peacock’s parent company owns Universal Pictures, Focus Features, and DreamWorks, we can be sure there will be lots of movies streaming from the service in time. So far, Peacock has little original content. So far, Brave New World and a Saved by the Bell reboot are the most interesting of the shows. 

At best, though, you can only watch these shows in HDTV. Still, you can watch up to three streams at once. 

This network has three price tiers. The first is free. You must put up with a few commercials, but you can watch a lot of NBC shows. Peacock Premium costs $5 per month or $50 per year. For it, you get access to more of the NBC library and Peacock originals. But, you’re still stuck with commercials. If you want to watch without ads, you must upgrade to the Peacock Premium Plus ad-free plan for $10 per month or $100 annually. Still, with only five minutes of commercial, Peacock promises, at most, you may not want to pay for Premium Plus.

As a free service, Peacock’s great. If you find yourself, as I did, watching more and more NBC programs, you may find yourself spending the 50 bucks to watch even more shows.

Pros

  • Good selection of “Must See TV.” 
  • Decent free tier.

Cons

  • No 4K or other high-end video options.
  • Two of “NBC’s” biggest name shows aren’t available.


View Now at Peacock

Which video services are right for you?

That’s a decision only you can make, but I can give you some guidance.

Do you have kids? Love Star Wars? The Marvel Cinematic Universe? Your choice is obvious: Get Disney Plus.

Are you addicted to British TV? BritBox is for you. If you’ve really got a bad case–and I do–you can get both Acorn TV and BritBox for less money than HBO Max. 

Movies! Movies! Movies! OK, OK, you’ll want Netflix and HBO Max. And, if, in addition, you enjoy the French New Wave or Japanese Noir, you’ll want The Criterion Channel. 

Are there particular shows that you must watch over and over again? Find the streaming services that offer your favorites and get them. But, buyer beware, TV shows in particular move around a lot from one service to another. For example, if you fall asleep to Friends every night, for now, all the seasons are only available on HBO Max. 

Will cutting the cable cord save you money?

Back in 2009, when I first cut the cable cord, I saved over $100 a month and still got to watch all my shows. Now, 12 years later, my internet video streaming bills are closing in on cable TV-level bills. Why? Internet streaming is copying the tired, old cable business models. As a result, almost all the live TV services saw price increases in 2020, and they’ll only go up higher in 2021.

So, be picky about what services you get. I subscribe to pretty much all of them, but then I get paid to keep an eye on them. Chances are, you’re not so lucky. 

You should also check to see if your video needs can be met by one or more of the excellent free video-streaming services. In addition, some services, such as Peacock, offer a free tier with advertising. 

How much internet speed do you need for streaming?

To make use of any of these services, you’ll need broadband internet. If you’re living on your own, you may be able to get by with as little as 10Mbp. However, if you’re sharing your home with others and/or you want to watch 4K videos, I recommend you get at least a 25Mbps internet connection. 

Not sure how fast your connection is? Try one of these Internet speed tests.

What gear do you need for streaming?

You might think, “What do I need a streaming device for? Can’t I get all the streaming services I want from my smart TV? But, actually, no, no, you can’t.

I wish you could, but today smart TVs are still a poor choice. That’s because, generally speaking, TV manufacturers do a lousy job of supporting streaming services. For example, in 2019, older smart TVs from Samsung and Vizio stopped supporting Netflix. If they can do that to Netflix, the most popular of all subscription-based video streaming services, you know they’ll neglect other services as well.  

Besides, some smart TVs also don’t support newer channels. So, for example, if your kids are demanding Frozen 2 on Disney+ and you have a non-supported Vizio Smartcast TV, you’ll have to explain to your five-year-old that they can’t watch Anna, Else, and Olaf after all. Good luck with that.

There are a lot of streaming devices out there. Personally, I recommend any of the Roku devices. They don’t cost much, they support pretty much all services, and they’re easy to use. If you’re looking for the best possible one, I recommend the Roku Ultra for $69. If you want to save your pennies, get a Roku Express 4K Plus for $30,

Finally, to make the most of these services, you need a television that’s up to managing 4K and high dynamic range (HDR) movies and TV shows. If you’re a home theater nerd like me and you’ve been saving up your bucks, get an LG OLEDG1P series. The 65″ model lists for $2,800. If you want OLED goodness without a premium price, check out the LG OLEDCXP series. This line’s 65″ screen TV costs $1,900. For the best pairing of price and quality, check out the TCL 6-Series. Here, the 65″ model costs $1,100. Finally, you don’t have to pay a ton of money to get a great TV. The TCL 4-Series works well, and its 65″ version only costs $650. No, it’s not as good as the others, but it’s more than good enough for streaming Sweet Tooth, Leverage: Redemption, or Underground Railroad 

How do we choose which streaming services to recommend?

I watch a lot of TV. I always have. My dad had his own TV sales and repair shop. So I literally grew up with an oscilloscope probe in one hand and a soldering iron in the other. I spent my summers climbing up and building TV towers in rural West Virginia, where the only way you were going to watch a TV show was with an antenna 50 to 100 feet in the air. 

Since then, I’ve been streaming since before most of you knew what streaming was, and you thought the best thing about Netflix was its DVD delivery service. 

With that in my background, it shouldn’t surprise you to know that I watch and subscribe to pretty much every major streaming service out there. Although those I don’t subscribe to, I at least sample every now and again. So, when I tell you about the services I recommend, it’s because I know them well and I really like them.  



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