Who here binges TV on a regular basis? I know I do. Never before have we had so many options for watching our favorite shows, especially when you consider how easy it is to stream from anywhere on a mobile device. But sometimes, all that choice gets a little overwhelming. What services are really worth the money? Where should you be investing your Friday-night binges?
We've done the work and compiled what we think are the five best apps for streaming TV right to your phone, so any one of these apps is going to give you hours of entertainment at home or on-the-go. We looked at things like pricing, the number of shows available to stream in the US, and whether or not ads were a factor, among others. All of the info in the following chart pertains to smartphones rather than tablets, so check out the list and we'll delve into the details below.
Table of Contents
- Comparison Chart
- Chart Key
- App 1: Netflix
- App 2: Hulu
- App 3: Amazon Prime Video
- App 4: Apple TV+
- App 5: Disney+
- The Verdict
Key Comparison Points
When it comes to picking a streaming service with the goal of binge-watching TV shows at a decent price, there are quite a few key factors that need to be considered.
- Pricing: We list out the different pricing tiers (if more than one) that each service provides. No service on this list goes above three tiers — Base, Midrange, or Premium. Depending on which tier you choose, you may receive different features and perks. Those will be described below.
- Student Plan: Some services offer student plans, which cut costs for currently enrolled students.
- Free Trial: All of the apps on this list offer a temporary free trial to new users. Some trials run for as long as 30 days, or as short as one week. It simply depends on the service you choose. These lengths do change over time, so that 30-day free trial could turn into a seven-day one.
- Ads: There are different kinds of ads. First, there are the commercials that play throughout a video. Second, there are pre-roll commercials that you can skip for the service you are currently streaming on, like with Amazon. Third, there are pre-roll ads you can't skip. These usually contain the production company or channel the series is from and what day and time that series typically air. These pre-roll ads are found throughout Hulu's tiers, even if you're subscribed to the ad-free one.
- Quantity of Titles: Most of this section needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Apple TV+ and Disney+ have small enough libraries, so we counted them manually. Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon have too many series to count by hand. JustWatch is a great source for keeping track of series counts, especially since Netflix and Hulu release no numbers at all, and their libraries are massive.
- Max Streaming Quality: This will vary from device to device, but these are the maximum stream qualities for each service, provided you have a compatible phone.
- Original TV Series: All five apps on our list produce their own original TV series, but some have a lot more content than others. This is an important feature, as these TV series will likely not disappear from each service since they are homegrown. Everything else can come and go based on distribution agreements.
- Original Series to Total Library: A simple percentage of the number of original series to the total number of series a service offers.
- Same or Next Day Airing: A few services on this list offer TV shows the same day they air or on the following day. The highlight here is Hulu since the service provides next-day airing of current TV shows found on networks such as ABC, NBC, and Comedy Central.
- Ability to Download: If you're taking a trip or on a daily commute where there's no Wi-Fi and cellular service is spotty (or you don't have an unlimited data plan), this is a key feature. Being able to watch a series from your phone's storage is great in these situations. This feature used to be coveted among a few apps, but now all five apps on our list support it.
- Adjust Streaming Quality: This is an important feature for streaming apps to have so you can control the quality of your video, either to preserve data or boost quality manually. Most apps don't let you have any control over the quality, while some let you control the stream from the settings. One in particular wins by letting you control the quality from within the stream itself, but more on that later.
- HDR Support: HDR — High Dynamic Range — delivers better contrast ratio and colors with your TV shows. Services that support HDR won't necessarily display their content in HDR, however — your phone will need to be compatible as well (see below for details).
- Chromecast Support/AirPlay Support: Does the service offer support for Chromecast and AirPlay. AirPlay is exclusive to Apple, so only iPhones will be able to take advantage of the feature.
- Availability: Does the app support Android, iOS, or both?
App 1: Netflix
Is there a more recognizable name in binge-watching? Netflix has held that record for some time now, thanks to its large library of popular TV series, as well as its own original content. While the streaming wars have definitely taken titles from Netflix, the service is still going strong.
There's no way to truly know for sure how many series Netflix currently offers, but as of the last count, it was 1,498. That's a lot of series to watch.
However many series there truly are on Netflix, a whopping 492 of them are originals by our measurements, 33% of all content. That mind-boggling number is a combination of series Netflix produced on their own, as well as series acquired by Netflix after the fact. Regardless, there's no disputing Netflix as the champion of original online content.
What makes this even better is Netflix has zero ads. Every title you select will be instantly streamed. That's a perk not many other streaming services can boast about.
Netflix offers 4K HDR video streaming, but you need to have a compatible device to access it. If you're an iOS user, your iPhone can potentially stream in Dolby Vision. Compatible devices include the iPhone 8, 8 Plus, X and newer. If you're running Android, only the LG G6 can playback Dolby Vision, as most Android devices use the open, non-proprietary HDR10 standard instead. For Netflix, HDR10 devices includes many modern Androids, like OnePlus 7T and Google Pixel 3. Check out Netflix's site for the most up-to-date list.
You can still enjoy 1080p streams on almost any mobile device. While you cannot adjust the video quality while watching a show, Netflix does let users choose the quality they would like to stream in from the settings.
Downloading titles to be played offline is undoutedly a great feature. Whether you're looking to take pressure off your data plan or you need to binge your series without an internet connection, downloading your titles gives you a lot of freedom. However, it should be noted that not every series can be downloaded. If a series is download-compatible, you'll see a download icon when browsing.
Another great aspect is that TV series on Netflix are dumped onto the service in one day, so you can binge-watch an entire series in one or two days if you want. The downside here is that you have to wait until after a season finishes airing before you can watch any new shows.
Netflix plans start as low as $8.99/month, but if you need to watch on more than one device at a time, or you want to watch in HD, consider the higher tiers. The mid-tier plan costs $12.99/month, allows two devices to stream at one time, and upgrades customers' streams to HD. The premium tier costs $15.99/month, offers four simultaneous streams at once, and adds 4K for compatible devices.
New users can get a 30-day free trial, which is plenty of time to check out all the series you can and see if Netflix is worth the cost. You also get over 4,000 movies to stream in the process, in case you ever need to take a break from binge-watching.
Chromecast and AirPlay are both supported here, and, of course, the service is available on Android and iOS.
App 2: Hulu
Hulu is the place to be for up-to-date television series from both cable and over-the-air networks. No other service can match Hulu in this space. Hulu updates its current catalog of series the day after new shows air, meaning you need not subscribe to cable to keep up with all the hottest series.
Hulu truly deserves this second space, even if our chart doesn't reflect that. It's unfortunately misleading since it's difficult to represent Hulu's biggest strength (a huge library of "current" shows and next-day streaming) when compared to other services who don't even offer this. But, seeing as Hulu is the only service on this list that will let you stay almost as current with TV as you can with a traditional cable subscription, we believe Hulu is second best.
According to JustWatch, Hulu has 1,361 series available for streaming, so they definitely have a healthy selection for you to consume. There should be something on here for everyone, and then some.
- Don't Miss: Hulu Tips & Tricks for Your Smartphone
While the number isn't quite as large as Netflix's, Hulu does have 62 original series, 5% of all content, currently available for streaming. The Handmaid's Tale is the most recent popular entry, and while the buzz around it has died down a bit, it is certainly just as fun to binge today.
Hulu's one of the only apps here that give you manual video quality controls while streaming. Most other apps force you to go to the settings to change the video quality, and some don't even give you an option at all. These issues aren't a problem with Hulu. Need to conserve your data? Switch your stream to low quality, all without stopping the show you're watching. Want Hulu to play at full quality, no matter how much it needs to buffer? You can do that, too.
While 4K is finally supported again, the compatible device list is quite short, it gives you up to 1080p on mobile, so you can fight your slow connection to watch your series in the highest resolution possible on supported devices.
In terms of pricing, Hulu gets a bit muddy. For $5.99/month, you get access to Hulu's entire library of series, but you will be subject to a plethora of ads. These ads will display before and during your TV series, so it can get pretty annoying. And you can't skip them.
To avoid this, switch to the $11.99/month plan. You'll lose all the ads, so you can binge without pause. Just note, no matter which plan you choose, Hulu plays a pre-roll before each show, which displays the channel the series belongs to and what day and time the series airs on TV.
Hulu has a student pricing plan, which is actually one of the best deals on this list — for $5 a month, you get not only Hulu, but Spotify and Showtime as well. Whoa.
While the Hulu plan does contain ads, Spotify Premium will not. It's a trade-off I imagine many people would consider making.
Hulu also lets users add premium subscriptions to their Hulu accounts. These include Showtime ($10.99/month), Cinemax ($9.99/month), HBO Now ($14.99/month), STARZ ($8.99/month), Unlimited Screens ($9.99/month), Entertainment ($7.99/month), Español ($4.99/month), and/or Enhanced Cloud DVR ($9.99/month).
If you want to continue watching an episode on the big screen, you can use Chromecast with Hulu, or you can AirPlay your content to an Apple TV. Both these platforms currently support 4K streaming, but only for compatible Hulu titles. Hulu is available on both Android and iOS.
App 3: Amazon Prime Video
Talk about an original programming powerhouse. Amazon has stepped up its game in recent years, creating some of the most talked-about series that aren't Game of Thrones. Transparent and The Man in the High Castle are just a couple of examples of what Amazon can do right.
Amazon is also unique in that it crowd-sources its TV pilots. Subscribers can watch all the pilot episodes Amazon has produced, and vote on which ones they'd like to see turned into full seasons. It's a great idea, and one that makes subscribing to Amazon feel like more of a community than any other service on this list.
As mentioned above, when it comes to hard numbers, it's hard to place Amazon. Their claim of having 5,710 series is reportedly inflated by considering each episode as its own series. Third-party counts point to 1,960 as a more realistic representation of the number of series Amazon actually provides. We do, however, know that Amazon has 136 original series available to watch in the United States. That's 7% of its entire library. Not too shabby.
And just like Netflix, new TV series and seasons are dumped on Amazon Prime Video in one day for ultimate binge-watching delight, so there's no waiting each week for new episodes. Plus, you can download pretty much any series you want to binge-watch on the fly without using data. However, if you're an Amazon Household member and not the paying member of Amazon Prime, you can only download select pilots to watch in the Prime Video app.
Amazon Prime Video alone costs $8.99/month. But for 12.99/month, or $119/year for a slight savings, you get all the perks of Amazon Prime included with your streaming service. Free two-day shipping, anyone?
It's hard to find a compatible device list these days for HDR Prime Video, but we know with the Sony Xperia XZ Premium or Xperia XZ1, Samsung Galaxy Note 8 or 9, or Galaxy S8, S8+, S9 or S9+, you can stream Amazon's content in HDR, when available.
Speaking of the Android app, that's another matter entirely — at least it used to be. Up until the end of August 2017, Amazon forced Android users to download the Amazon Prime Video app via another app, Amazon Underground.
Times have changed. You can now download Amazon Prime Video directly from the Google Play Store. If you want to read up on how Android users used to download Amazon Prime Video, make sure to check out the link below.
An Amazon Prime membership with all the trimmings comes with a 30-day free trial. You can see what it feels like to binge all the shows you want while swimming in free shipping. If you're a student, this trial jumps to six months, and after that, your costs are slashed by 50 percent. Anyone know how to impersonate a student?
- Test It Out: Try Out Amazon Prime Free for 30 Days
While the streaming service does feature ads, they are Amazon-branded. This means they won't be completely irrelevant, and at the same time, they are easily skippable. You'll be able to AirPlay with Prime Video, and the service is finally compatible with Chromecast after years of feuding with Google.
App 4: Apple TV+
Apple TV+ is likely the oddest addition on this list. Apple's foray into streaming is basically brand-new, launching on Nov. 1 of this year. Their approach, as you'll see, is completely unconventional, but with great features and unbeatable pricing, it might just be worth your time.
Apple knew launching a new platform in late 2019 was going to be competitive. That's probably why they priced their service so competitively at $4.99 a month. That's ridiculously low, especially for a non-student plan. Speaking of which, Apple TV+ does have a student plan. Well, technically, it's the Apple Music student plan, which now comes with Apple TV+, all for that same $4.99 a month. Tough to beat that, especially with a seven-day free trial.
Apple TV+ features no ads, which the ad-haters reading here are sure to love. However, reality starts to set in once you realize there are only 11 shows currently available to watch. That's 11 original titles, sure, but 11 nonetheless. Apple has a suite of shows in planned and in production, but don't think you're getting endless entertainment for that low price.
What do you get are shows that stream in 4K. Apple TV+ doesn't feature any live-TV deals, so no next-day airing. However, you can download all titles directly to your device. There are limited quality controls, however, as Apple only lets you choose from "Best Available" or "Good" in the TV app's settings. What does that mean, Apple? We like specificity over here.
Apple TV+ does offer HDR support (remember, compatible on iPhone 8 and newer), and, of course, AirPlay, but no option for Chromecast. Speaking of Google, here's a sore subject — there's also no Android support. How many of you did that alienate? If you have a compatible smart TV or Roku device, you can still watch Apple TV+, but you won't be able to stream on your phone anytime soon.
Would Apple TV+ inspire you Android fans to switch devices? Likely no. That said, Apple is offering one year of Apple TV+ for free with the purchase of a new iOS device. That might not be a reason to switch phones, but if you're in the market for a new one anyway, it's certainly something to
- App Store Link: Apple TV (free)
App 5: Disney+
Disney+ is the newest streaming service on this list, coming in just behind Apple TV+. As such, it's still a nascent platform when compared to some other streaming giants out there. So why does it beat out other services to be on our list? Because, aside from its rocky first-day launch, it does a lot of things right, even if its overall library (especially in the originals department) is a little small at this time.
First of all, when we consider pricing, Disney+ seems pretty fair. You'll pay $6.99 a month at this time, with a two-month discount if opting for an annual plan ($69.99 per year). You can also spring for a $12.99 a month plan, which comes with Hulu (ad plan) and ESPN+. Not a bad deal. There might not be a student plan, but you do get to test out the service for free for seven days.
None of your Disney+ entertainment features ads, so you can watch uninterrupted. As for the amount of entertainment you'll find, it does pale in comparison to names like Netflix and Hulu. At this time, we count 160 TV series currently available to stream on Disney+, 12 of which (7.5%) are original. Disney+ is promising a lot of content on the horizon, but you might find the early titles, like The Mandalorian, to be enticing enough, especially when streaming in crispy 4K.
The deal is better for you Disney fans out there. Those additional 148 titles are Disney classics, Disney Channel Originals, and other Disney properties, including such unexpected things as The Simpsons. If you want to relive your childhood, or just have a convenient place to watch all of your Disney favorites, Disney+ isn't that hard a sell.
Disney+ isn't a Hulu-like service, so you won't see next-day airing of cable shows. You will be able to download your content, however, which is great for on-the-go viewing. Disney+ does offer some user control when it comes to video quality, but it's very limited. You can essentially choose whether to "Save Data" or choose "Automatic" streaming, neither of which clarify any type of resolution. When you are streaming in high quality, however, there is HDR support, and you can stream with both Chromecast and AirPlay (iOS only).
Obviously, based on the order in this article and the chart, Netflix is the supreme winner when it comes to TV series on streaming services for your smartphone. They've got lots of titles, great resolution, no ads, the most original series, and you can download most episodes.
Hulu earned its second-place spot comfortably, mainly because of the vast library and its constantly-updating catalog of new shows on a weekly basis. The rest are all great offerings too, it all just depends on what series you want to watch the most and who has them.
Apple TV+ and Disney+ are both super new. While their merits rightly earn them spots on our list, you'll need to decide for yourself if their initial offerings are worth the subscription. If you're into Apple's original content, then its a no-brainer. If you're interested in Disney+'s original content or its backlog, then go with that.
Honestly, when it comes down to it, the service that's best for you is the one that captures your interest the most. Sure, features are important, but if you're a huge Star Wars fan, and you're not enjoying the shows Netflix or Hulu have to offer, you might be better off with Disney+. Take a look at our chart, then take a look at each service's library. That's how you'll know what to pick.
This article was first produced during Gadget Hacks' annual Movies & TV on Mobile special coverage. Read all of the Movies & TV on Mobile coverage.
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