On-demand streaming services have killed off the local video store. But with more options than ever, how do you choose the right one? This issue of How to Cut the Cord will help you decide.
Flixed is publishing these How to Cut the Cord guides to help cord-cutters navigate the constantly-changing world of streaming video. Our first post discussed the streaming alternatives to expensive cable subscriptions. Over the next few articles, we’ll look at ways to tailor your video feed to match your interests. Towards the end, we’ll review the hardware you need to create a complete cord-cutting solution.
- How to Cut the Cord Part 1 – Picking Your Live TV Streaming Services
- How to Cut the Cord Part 3 – Watching Your Favorite Live Sports
- How to Cut the Cord Part 4 – Exploring Niche Streaming Services
- How to Cut the Cord Part 5 – Managing Your Subscriptions
- How to Cut the Cord Part 6 – Picking A Streaming Device
- How to Cut the Cord Part 7 – Getting Local TV Channels with an Antenna
Free Movie Services
Free is a good thing, but you will have to accept some compromises. The following services make money by inserting ads before — and sometimes during — the movie. In addition, the selection of titles is somewhat out of date. You won’t find many blockbusters or movies less than a couple of years old.
Roku launched its free streaming service, The Roku Channel, in 2017 and has built a strong reputation among cord-cutters for its features and selection of more than 10,000 movies and TV shows. More importantly, its availability isn’t limited to Roku devices. In addition, The Roku Channel isn’t a pure on-demand service. It offers live news streams as well as subscriptions to Showtime, Starz and other premium channels.
Although many of Roku’s devices can support 4K resolution and HDR video, The Roku Channel does not. Streams are limited to 1080p high definition or lower depending on the device you use. Besides Roku’s own devices, The Roku Channel is available through Roku’s iOS and Android apps.
Tubi is a rapidly-growing streaming service based in Silicon Valley. Deals with many of the major studios have dramatically expanded its catalog to more than 12,000 titles. However, even the most recently released titles are a few years old.
The Tubi app will automatically adjust the video stream between high definition and standard definition based on your device and available bandwidth.
Tubi apps are available on Roku, iOS, Apple TV and Android devices as well as Amazon’s Fire TV devices. Game console support extends to the PlayStation and Xbox One platforms. None of the apps support download-and-go viewing.
Even though Sony has a subscription-based live TV streaming service, PlayStation Vue, the media company turned Sony Crackle into an ad-supported way for people to watch Sony Pictures content for free. There is one advantage to this strategy. Since much of the content is Sony’s, you’ll find more big-name films in the catalog compared to other free services.
Sony Crackle is available on the major mobile and desktop platforms. Surprisingly, Sony decided to support the Xbox and not just the PlayStation. Roku, AppleTV and several smart TV platforms are also supported.
Popcornflix is one of the smallest ad-supported options with just over 1,500 titles. A catalog of mostly mainstream titles keeps it off the list of niche streaming services. Having said that, many of the titles are from the 1980s — a good choice if you need some Gen-X nostalgia.
The Popcornflix app is available on iOS, Android, Amazon Fire TV, Roku and Xbox One.
Freedive is a free video-on-demand service provided by the Hollywood reference site IMDb, itself a subsidiary of Amazon. When you go to a movie’s page on the IMDb site, any Freedive-eligible titles will have a “watch for free” link.
As you would expect, the selection of titles does not include blockbusters or recent releases. Most are B-movies from the past four decades.
You can use either the IMDb app or the Prime Video app to watch Freedive content. Both apps are available on most streaming platforms.
À-la-Carte On-Demand Services
Back in the day, the local video store was a regular stop on the way home from school or work. Only one Blockbuster Video store remains open today, but the ability to rent movies lives on thanks to on-demand streaming services.
When you rent a movie, you typically have 30 days to start watching it before the rental expires. Once you start watching a movie, most services give you 48 hours to finish it before ending the rental. These policies are set by the movie distributors, so specific movies may get treated differently.
There is one catch with these rental services when it comes to TV shows. You can’t rent them. Licensing rules imposed by the studios only lets streaming services sell access season by season. For that reason, the à-la-carte options may be best for movies.
Redbox’s bright red DVD rental kiosks used to be a fixture at grocery stores around the country back when Blockbuster was its biggest competitor. The company still rents physical discs, but it also has an à-la-carte streaming service, Redbox On Demand.
Like the kiosks, Redbox On Demand focuses on recently-released titles. The content is available in either high definition or standard definition, depending on the title.
Redbox On Demand lets you register five devices. Any content you own can stream to several devices, but rented content can only stream to one. The app is available on iOS and Android devices, Roku devices, the Apple TV and Smart TV platforms from LG, Samsung and Vizio.
The apps on desktop and mobile platforms support download-and-go viewing. Mac users should be aware that the desktop app uses the Silverlight platform that Microsoft abandoned several years ago.
The iTunes movie library has a solid selection of first-run titles. With some digging, you will also find a large back catalog of movies ranging from black-and-white classics to more recent releases.
Recent titles are usually available in 4K resolution, Dolby Vision high dynamic range (HDR) as well as Dolby Atmos surround sound. Apple does not charge a premium for 4K content. The video will stream at whatever resolution your device supports.
Unsurprisingly, Apple’s device support is pretty limited. The iTunes desktop app is available on both Mac and Windows. Other than that, iTunes is an Apple-only experience on iPhones, iPads and the Apple TV. With the exception of Apple TV, content is available for download-and-go viewing.
Wal-mart’s streaming video service, Vudu, has more than 100,000 titles available to rent or buy. Because of its retail connection, many of the physical DVDs and Blu-rays you can buy in Wal-mart stores are eligible for free digital copies through Vudu’s InstaWatch program.
Video content can stream at 4K resolution with Dolby Vision HDR. Dolby Atmos surround sound is also available. However, Vudu charges a premium for the 4K version.
Movies on Us is a much smaller catalog of free-to-watch titles that include advertising. In addition, the content is limited to 1080p high definition and cannot be downloaded for offline viewing.
Vudu apps are available on iOS, Android, macOS and Windows. Gamers can load Vudu onto the PlayStation 4, Xbox One and NVIDIA Shield. Smart TV’s and Blu-ray players from LG, Samsung and Vizio. Support for set-top boxes is available on Chromecast, Roku and Tivo.
If you’ve used Fandango to buy movie tickets, then you’re already part of Fandango Now. The streaming service claims to have more than 80,000 titles ranging from recent blockbusters to award-winning classics.
Fandango Now content is available in 4K resolution with HDR, but you must pay a premium to rent or buy the content.
Technical issues prevent FandangoNow from streaming at high definition through the Safari and Edge browsers. Download-and-go is only an option with the Fandango Now app on iPads, iPhones and Android devices.
Google Play Movies isn’t just an app store for Android and Chromebooks. Anyone can buy or rent movies through the service. The company offers a decent selection of titles, but the content is only available in high definition.
Google Play apps are available on Android and iOS devices. Streaming to Macs and PCs is also possible, but Google’s Chrome browser will deliver the best performance.
Subscription services are the home of binge TV. For one flat monthly rate, you get to watch as much content as you want. These three services have dominated this part of the industry. The launch of Apple’s new subscription service could be another powerful force.
It’s fair to say that most people don’t mean to subscribe to Amazon Prime Video. They came for the free shipping and got free on-demand streaming as a side benefit. Having said that, Amazon Prime’s annual subscription would be a great deal if streaming was all that it offered.
Amazon’s Prime Video catalog contains “thousands” of movies and TV shows that you can stream at no extra charge. That includes Amazon Originals like The Fabulous Mrs. Maisel In addition, you have access to Amazon’s larger library of titles you can rent or buy. Prime Video Channels let you expand the catalog even further by subscribing to on-demand expansions from HBO, Showtime and other premium services.
Amazon has a lot of content available in 4K and HDR with Prime Videos streamable at no extra charge. Renting 4K/HDR content will cost you extra. The Amazon Prime Video app is available on all major platforms.
Netflix started out as a competitor to Blockbuster and other video stores. Even though its disc-based service is still around, Netflix has made streaming original content the core of its strategy. The company spends billions of dollars every year producing innovative content it can stream globally like Black Mirror and Stranger Things.
Unfortunately, Netflix’s focus on original content also means you’ll find less and less content from other studios. A huge amount of content disappeared from Netflix when its deal with Starz came to an end. And as the Disney service gets closer to watch, more and more Disney content is vanishing.
Netflix offers three subscription levels. Basic ($9/month) only provides standard definition streams to a single device. Standard ($13/month) offers high definition streams to two devices. And Premium ($16/month) unlocks 4K and HDR streams to as many as four devices.
Netflix is available on all major streaming platforms, but only the Windows 10, iOS, Amazon Fire Tablet and Android apps support download-and-go viewing.
Hulu established its reputation by offering on-demand viewing of TV shows right after they aired. That was made possible by the fact that Disney/ABC, NBC, Fox and WarnerMedia co-owned the service. In addition to content from the major broadcast channels, Hulu’s library has shows from popular cable channels like SyFy and USA Network. Hulu also has original content such as the dystopian drama The Handmaid’s Tale.
Access to the on-demand catalog costs $6 per month, but also includes advertising before and during the show. Doubling your subscription to $12 per month removes the ads. All Hulu Originals and some other titles are available in 1080p resolution, but most content will be either 720p resolution or standard definition. Depending on the source of the content, Hulu’s audio will be either stereo or Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 surround sound.
The Hulu app is available on all major platforms. Features do vary by platform. Surround sound, for example, is only available on game consoles, certain Amazon Fire TV devices and the Chromecast.
Channel-Specific Subscription Services
Many TV channels and production studios are creating their own subscription television services. HBO Now and CBS All Access were among the first and most successful at this strategy, but others soon followed. The launch of Disney’s dedicated streaming service will add even more options.
The $15 subscription to HBO Now lets you stream the premium channel’s content on-demand without a cable subscription. This includes HBO Originals like Game of Thrones. HBO Now apps are available on all major platforms, but they do not support 4K resolution or HDR video. Dolby Digital Plus surround sound is available, but only on set-top boxes, certain smart TVs and the Xbox One.
If you have already subscribed to HBO through a live TV streaming service, however, you will need to use the HBO Go app.
CBS has been in the TV business since 1931 and has a 10,000-title back catalog of popular TV shows from I Love Lucy to NCIS. In addition, CBS All Access is the home to original programming like The Good Fight and Star Trek: Discovery. The limited commercial plan costs $6 per month and the ad-free subscription costs $10 per month. Annual subscriptions get a 15% discount. The CBS All Access app is available on all major streaming platforms.
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Picking Your On-Demand Streaming Services
With so many options out there, you’re bound to find an on demand streaming service that can meet your budget and interests. The easiest choice may not be a choice at all: Amazon Prime Video. If you’re already getting the free shipping, then you’re essentially streaming for free.
For people whose interests lie in new TV shows, Hulu is really the only option. All of the other services must wait a year or more before studios give them a new season. Hulu gets each episode right after it’s broadcast.
And when it comes to recently-released movies, the rent-on-demand services don’t require a commitment. You just pay when you want to watch something new.