TV

Best Streaming Services of 2021

Paula Novo
Paula Novo September 16, 2021

What is Streaming?

Transforming the way we consume entertainment, streaming is a new method of viewing videos or listening to audio content on internet-connected devices without actually having to download media files. When you stream video or audio content over the internet, the media files are stored by your streaming service provider. Each time you play it on your connected device, those files are transferred a few seconds at a time over the internet.

It’s an increasingly popular alternative to traditional TV service. We break down the differences between top streaming services to help you find the right subscription for you.

Top Video Streaming Services

Hulu

Hulu

  • Basic Subscription starts at $5.99
  • Bundle and add-ons available
Disney+

Disney+

  • Basic Subscription starts at $8.00
  • Deep vault of family classics
ESPN+

ESPN+

  • Basic Subscription starts at $5.99
  • Watch Live Sports + Highlights
Netflix

Netflix

  • Basic Subscription starts at $8.99
  • High-quality original content

How Video Streaming Services Stack Up

ProviderStarting PriceFree Trial AvailableUS Library Size
Netflix$8.99/mo.No5,655
Hulu$5.99/mo.Yes2,444
HBO Max$14.99/mo.No2,600
Prime Video$8.99/mo.Yes12,689
Disney+$7.99/mo.No1,278
ESPN+$5.99/mo.No1,000
ProviderNetflix
Starting Price$8.99/mo.
Free Trial AvailableNo
US Library Size5,655
ProviderHulu
Starting Price$5.99/mo.
Free Trial AvailableYes
US Library Size2,444
ProviderHBO Max
Starting Price$14.99/mo.
Free Trial AvailableNo
US Library Size2,600
ProviderPrime Video
Starting Price$8.99/mo.
Free Trial AvailableYes
US Library Size12,689
ProviderDisney+
Starting Price$7.99/mo.
Free Trial AvailableNo
US Library Size1,278
ProviderESPN+
Starting Price$5.99/mo.
Free Trial AvailableNo
US Library Size1,000

All prices vary and are subject to change at any time. Additional fees and terms may apply. As of 8/4/21

Is Streaming Right for Me?

While streaming is a growing service among U.S. households, it isn’t for everyone. There are dozens of streaming providers with varying subscriptions depending on your preferences. Before choosing a plan, you’ll want to compare pricing and library sizes to make the best decision for you.

If you do decide to go with a streaming platform over traditional TV, get ready to enjoy original content for less than the cost of a Chick-Fil-A meal each month on most plans. Streaming is the most convenient way to watch your favorite TV shows, movies, and sports.

All you need to access content is reliable internet and a connected device. Streaming is best for families with kids, students balling on a budget, or anyone TV show fanatics looking for the latest content to binge.

thumb_upPros

  • check_circleCheaper cost compared to traditional TV
  • check_circleAd-free options available

thumb_downCons

  • cancelLatest news and content not always available
  • cancelLimited to your specific platform’s content library

How Streaming Services Rank

A video streaming service’s success largely depends on what’s in its library. That’s why so many services are racing to create the best original content around. Hits like Netflix’s Stranger Things, HBO’s Game of Thrones, and Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale are just the beginning of a new era of entertainment. To help you choose the right service for you, we found what top streaming providers rank best for.

ESPN+

Best for Exclusive Sports

Specially catered to sports, ESPN+ offers the widest selection of games, highlights, and sports available with 24/7 coverage and access. For only $5.99/mo., you can bring games with you anywhere on the ESPN+ app. Popular features include select MLB, NHL, NBA, and MLS games as well as PGA Golf, Boxing, MMA, Grand Slam tennis. In addition, you can find cricket, rugby, Candian Football League, UEFA Nations League, United Soccer League, and English Football League games.

YouTube TV

Best for TV Channel Lineup

YouTube TV is the closest streaming service to traditional TV in that it offers a similarly large TV channel lineup. While starting at $49.99/mo., YouTube TV lets you stream live, local, and regional sports, news, TV shows, and movies from 85+ channels like Fox, ESPN, and TNT. It also offers ad-free entertainment with coverage in over 98% of U.S. TV households.

Netflix

Best for Original Content

Netflix is the largest streaming service in the U.S., nearly doubling the subscribers of Hulu with over 46 million subscribers. Netflix started off as a mobile DVD business and quickly transitioned with the times to provide streaming service. To maintain its share of the market, Netflix continues to produce high-quality original content users can’t get enough of. With hits like Ozark, Orange is the New Black, and Mindhunter, Netflix has over 5,500 movies and TV shows in its content library. Netflix includes added features like multiple profiles, parental controls, and “watch later” lists that make it great for households with more than one person.

Prime Video

Largest Content Library

Prime Video quickly made a reputation for itself when it combined its streaming service and rental business together. Amazon Prime members have automatic access to Prime Video, with nearly 30,000 free and pay-to-view options at their fingertips. That’s 5x bigger than its closest competitor, Netflix. Prime Video is a great option for users who look for the latest movie releases and enjoy hunting for a good TV show to binge.

Disney+

Best for Families with Kids

If you have a family with kids or simply love Disney classics, then Disney+ might be the one for you. Disney+ is blowing the vault wide open with its exclusive access to Disney original movies as well as Disney franchises including Marvel, Pixar, and Star Wars. You can even enjoy select programming from networks like National Geographic and Fox. No matter what time of year it is, you’re sure to find a show for everyone in the family.

What Factors Slow Down Streaming

Buffering screen tablet

You could have the best streaming subscription available and still experience poor service. Since streaming requires an internet connection, it’s important that you invest in a solid internet plan with speeds fast enough to support all your devices and online activity. A variety of factors play a part in streaming performance both on the network side and user side. 

On the network side:

  • Network Connection: The connection type your provider’s network runs on is very important to your streaming performance. Each connection type, whether it’s satellite, DSL, cable, or fiber, supports different max bandwidths. If you plan on streaming frequently, we recommend finding a cable or fiber internet provider near you.
  • Network Congestion: If there are too many users accessing data on your provider’s network at one time, this can diminish streaming performance. It’s common for this to occur during peak hours between 7:00 PM and 11:00 PM. 
  • Network Latency: A variety of factors affect latency such as your provider’s connection type, where the content users are accessing is stored, and how many users are online at once.

On the user side:

  • Not Enough Bandwidth: To stream a standard-definition (SD) video, you need about 3 Mbps of bandwidth per hour, and to stream a high-definition (HD) video, you need about 5 Mbps of bandwidth per hour. If your streams keep buffering due to low bandwidth, it may be time to upgrade your internet plan.
  • WiFi Problems: Sometimes your internet equipment can be the issue. Modems and routers are like humans in that they need frequent rest to perform at their best. If you are having WiFi trouble, consider restarting your WiFI router, or switching to a hard-wired ethernet connection altogether, to improve your streaming performance.
  • Older Devices: It takes quite a bit of processing power to stream videos. If you’re using an older device that isn’t built to support such activity, your streaming performance can be impacted – or simply impossible.

What Internet Speeds Are Best for Streaming?

While streaming video might seem complicated, you really only need two things: a solid internet connection and a streaming device. We break down exactly what kind you need for each to enjoy your favorite TV shows and movies.

Fast Internet

A smooth streaming experience begins with a fast internet connection. To find the right internet speeds for your online habits, you need to consider how often you stream videos. Here are a few estimates of the minimum speed required to stream different content:

  • Standard-definition (SD) video = 3 Mbps
  • High-definition (HD) video = 5 Mbps
  • Ultra HD or 4K video = 25 Mbps

We recommend looking for an internet provider that offers speeds of at least 50 Mbps to support your heavy internet usage. While the FCC’s definition of high-speed internet is any connection that delivers speeds up to 25 Mbps, we’ve found that households with more than one person or device connected to a home network at once have better experiences on faster speeds.

Streaming Devices

The next thing to consider, of course, is the device you are streaming with. Streaming videos requires a large amount of processing power which your older devices may not be able to support. We list what devices work best for streaming video below and how to check their capabilities.

Smart TV

These are some of the most popular ways to access streaming services today. A smart TV is a television set that can connect to the internet and/or has built-in streaming apps. TVs made in the last decade are generally considered to be smart TVs, however, newer streaming services may not be available on it. If this is the case, you may want to consider upgrading to a newer model.

Smartphone

Unless you’re using a flip phone, you probably have a smartphone already. Using the app stores Apple and Google have created, you can download just about any streaming service app to your smartphone and enjoy your favorite hits at the tips of your fingers.

Gaming Console

Another popular way to stream videos is by using a gaming console. If you can get past the $400+ price tag on most consoles, it’s a great way to have access to all your favorite streaming apps. You can even move it from room to room or bring it on trips to guarantee you always have access from whatever TV you use.

Streaming Device

If you don’t have a smart TV but have an HDMI port handy, you can still enjoy your streaming service by using a streaming device such as a Roku, Amazon Fire Stick, or Apple TV. These devices can store multiple apps at one time and give you access to the latest shows and movies available on your subscription.

How Video Streaming Compares to Traditional TV

The main differences between streaming and traditional TV are delivery and accessibility. While traditional services like cable TV and satellite TV require grounded cable lines or satellites to transmit signals from providers to homes, streaming relies on the internet to work. This allows for far greater accessibility than traditional TV could ever allow.

You no longer have to be at home or inside to enjoy your favorite shows with friends and family. Streaming services offer you the convenience of being anywhere there is an internet connection. Because streaming doesn’t require its own infrastructure or equipment to work, it generally costs less than traditional TV packages and offers larger content libraries to choose from.

Streaming FAQs

How much bandwidth do I need to stream videos?

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To stream a standard-definition (SD) video, you need about 3 Mbps of bandwidth per hour, and to stream a high-definition (HD) video, you need about 5 Mbps of bandwidth per hour. If your streams keep buffering due to low bandwidth, it may be time to upgrade your internet plan.

Can I watch live TV with a streaming subscription?

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Yes. Most streaming services – and broadcast networks for that matter – offer streaming service for Live TV content for an additional cost. Also, streaming platforms like fuboTV only offer live and recorded content like sports and news. A few popular alternatives to cable TV that include live content are Hulu, ESPN+, and YouTube TV.

What internet speed should I get if I stream often?

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If you frequently stream video, we recommend subscribing to an internet plan with a download speed of at least 50 Mbps. While the FCC defines high-speed internet as a connection that delivers speeds up to 25 Mbps, we’ve found that households with more than one person or device connected at once perform better on faster speeds. For the ultimate streaming experience, it’s best to look at cable and fiber internet that support larger bandwidths compared to other connection types.

Does streaming service require a contract?

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This depends on the streaming provider you go with. Some providers such as Netflix and Hulu offer month-to-month payments, while others like AT&T TV may require annual service contracts. If you choose to pay for an entire year upfront, many streaming providers offer discounts that can save you up to $20 in the long run. 

Are there free trials for streaming services?

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Free trials was a popular selling point for streaming providers when streaming first became popular. However, many providers have stopped offering trials on their service in exchange for giving customers a month-to-month payment option. A few providers that still offer free trials up to 7 or 30 days include Hulu, Prime Video, and HBO Max.

For those that don’t offer free services, you can still access free content during special promotional periods. Netflix is a popular service that frequently releases original content for free.