Most of us have our go-to movie streaming service — the one that’s been solidified into our monthly budget alongside obviously comparable essentials like groceries and rent. But ol’ reliable probably doesn’t have every single film you want to watch, especially when titles are constantly flip-flopping which service they call home.
To understand why, exactly, the “To Watch” list in your Notes app needs to bend to the will of whatever streaming service decides to play home to a particular movie, let’s roll things back to 2018 for a second. That’s the year that Wired marks as the start of the streaming wars, and it’s also the year that the internet had a complete meltdown over Friends potentially leaving Netflix — long before equally panic-stricken stans had to overcome The Office‘s havoc-wreaking departure as well.
Since then, the streaming service market has been an ever-evolving clusterfuck of new streamers rolling out one after the other: Disney+ in 2019, HBO Max and Peacock in 2020, and then the full-fledged metamorphosis of CBS All Access into the far more epic Paramount+ in 2021. (Not to mention a myriad of niche platforms that were also introduced in the past few years.)
But why can’t they all get along and let us have one big, happy streaming service? Well, like everything else, it’s all about the Benjamins, baby.
More and more networks and media conglomerates are deciding that they want the rights to their own stuff rather than letting Netflix and Hulu rake in the subscription fees. Fair enough. But for the viewer, keeping track of which libraries are worth yet another $7 to $15 per month often leads to shamelessly begging an acquaintance for their password. (Although caps on maximum simultaneous streams have made this tactic a lot more difficult to pull off.)
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Until it gets that ^ easy, we’re here to break down the advantages and disadvantages of each app — both generally and for specific fandoms.
What should you look for in a movie streaming service?
Obviously, the number of movies (and whether those movies actually pique your interest) is a given piece of criteria when choosing the right movie streaming site (or sites) for you. A close second to that is its price, of course. However, considering some other key factors can help set similar platforms apart.
Concurrent stream allowance: Despite a few platforms threatening to crack down on password sharing in recent years, pretty much every mainstream streaming service allows at least two streams at once. This means that a handful of people on different devices or in different households can use the same login info and watch at the same time. Large families or friend groups who plan to share an account should probably opt for a service that allows at least three devices streaming at once, or seek a service that offers an “unlimited streams” add-on for an additional cost.
Free trials: It’s always nice to preview a service before you make a monetary commitment. Most movie streaming services offer a free week (or maybe even a month with some more generous platforms) where you can browse the full library, test the 4K or HDR upscaling if you care about that, and get an overall idea of how smooth or laggy the interface runs.
4K and HDR support: People who have gotten used to binge-watching in regular HD on the TV they’ve had since college probably don’t care much about higher resolution viewing. Others can’t focus on anything but the indecipherable blobs. The latter group of people will have to be pickier about the apps they pay for — because while 4K TVs are common nowadays, content available to stream in 4K isn’t yet. For instance, Netflix only unlocks 4K and HDR upscaling if you bump your plan to the most expensive one, and HBO Max only offers it for certain movies. Higher-quality viewing will require a certain internet speed, too.
Compatible devices: No one’s gonna pay for a movie streaming service that’s impossible to access on their smart TV (or on the streaming device they use to access streaming apps on their TV). As new services have launched, some have seen issues playing nicely with streaming devices like Fire TV and Roku for a period of time, but the bugs tend to shake out in a month or so. As it stands now, it should be safe to assume that each movie streaming site we’ve listed below is compatible with the interface of most big brand TVs, the main mobile operating systems (iOS and Android), top streaming media players (Fire TV, Roku, Apple TV), and gaming consoles (Playstation and Xbox).
How do I stream outside the US?
Signing up for a VPN can open the door to a plethora of international shows and films that aren’t available in America. VPNs essentially allow you to make up your own internet rules by carving out a personal security tunnel in which you browse, stream, or game the way you normally would.
That security tunnel paves the way for location spoofing and getting around location-based roadblocks or censors. All decent VPNs offer a wide selection of servers based in multiple geographic locations. Picking one of those essentially tricks your ISP into thinking your device is based there, maneuvering around geoblocks and opening the door to international content, like another country’s Netflix library.
The case against pirated movie websites
VPNs and cybersecurity go hand in hand. When framing cybersecurity around movies, the conversation naturally leads to pirated movie sites. We’ve all used them, and admittedly, they’ve saved all of our asses once or twice when we couldn’t find the movie we wanted anywhere else. But they’re not as instantaneous as we give them credit for — not when you have to “X” out of five pop-up ads before the movie starts, plus any time you need to pause or fast forward. Not only does the experience just suck, but a misdirected click on an infected ad could get you sent to a website with malware waiting in the wings.
Malware spreading is much more likely if you actually download the movie or a whole app rather than watching in a browser, but you still need to take precautions if you go down this slippery slope. Antivirus software is the obvious first line of defense here (and yes, Macs need to be armed with antivirus too), but that doesn’t help with the clunky interface or volatility of these sites. Stuff freezes, audio stops working, and people’s words don’t line up with their mouths. Most pirated movie sites are shut down eventually, too, and frequently have to change their domain name to stay up and running. It’s just not a reliable setup, especially with free apps like Tubi and Documentary+ out there.
What about premium movie channels?
Not keen on just rolling over and letting the biggest streaming platforms — like Netflix and Prime Video — run the streaming game, premium cable channels like HBO, Showtime, STARZ, and EPIX are now offering streaming apps of their own so subscribers don’t need to be tied to a cable contract to access their blockbuster lineups. After all, it’s way easier to control your month-to-month subscription to premium channels when it’s squarely in your hands, not your cable company’s.
They’re all certainly worthy additions to your rotation of movie streaming services. But so far, only HBO Max is creating content — Max Originals — that is exclusive to app subscribers. The others provide all the same movies and shows as you’d get when you sign up with your cable provider (which is nothing to sneeze at!), but no extra content … yet.
Also keep in mind that you can subscribe to many of these premium channels as add-ons via other streaming platforms, like Hulu and Amazon Prime. In most cases, you won’t catch a special discount or anything, but bundling them is incredibly convenient, and it’s definitely something to consider if the thought of juggling a half-dozen (or more) streaming service subscriptions is getting a little overwhelming.
What’s the difference between movie streaming services and live TV services?
We’ve already established that there are a ton of streaming services out there, but cutting the cord with your cable company often requires at least a two-pronged approach to get the shows and movies you love. Many streaming services have a mix of both television series and films, but most really stand out for one more than the other — and only a small handful will hook you up with the live TV you’ve grown so accustomed to through traditional cable.
Platforms like Sling TV, Hulu + Live TV, and YouTube TV offer an assortment of live channels for a costly monthly fee. While these are clutch for catching sports, TV shows, or the news as it airs, a live TV streaming service is probably not a necessary investment for those who are more interested in watching movies. And for you, dear cinephile, we present our roundup of the best movie streaming sites that you should consider adding to your lineup of subscriptions.