Beginner’s guide to video streaming

Over-the-top (OTT) services stream content through the internet, circumventing broadcast, cable and satellite TV providers. Models include video-on-demand (VOD) services that offer licensed and original movies and series and “skinny” services which provide live streams of commercial and non-commercial channels. 

OTT services democratized television by letting subscribers cancel with ease, choose from a wide range of content and watch almost anywhere. A study in 2019 reported that 64 million households watch TV via OTT services. There are 100+ services in the US alone. Although, many viewers gravitate towards the big three — Amazon Prime Video, Hulu and Netflix.

Is it finally time to cut the cord? 

Most people choose to give video streaming a try for one of two reasons — cost or content offerings. 

Do streaming services lock you into contracts? 

The short answer is “no.” Services like Hulu and Netflix let you cancel on a monthly basis through your account online. This differs from traditional providers who charge early termination fees. 

Do VOD services offer shows I watch? 

Yes. Services like Sling TV stream live broadcasts of national channels similar to cable. Just browse what each service offers before committing. According to Business Insider, original streaming shows outnumbered broadcast, 160 to 146 respectably. 

Is streaming more expensive than traditional TV?

It depends. You can find simple VOD services such as Hulu for as little as $5.99/mo. Niche providers such as NBA TV ($6.99/mo.) and The Criterion Channel ($10.99/mo.) will set you back a bit more. Cable replacement services tend to be a bit more expensive. YouTube TV runs $49.99/mo. while traditional providers like Xfinity TV start at $49.99/mo. and range to $104.99/mo. 

What’s the difference between streaming and cable?  

Streaming lets you watch content pretty much anywhere using data or W-Fi. You can also choose specific episodes to view, and you can stop, rewind and fast forward during movies and shows.  

Before you get started 

Internet connection

Streaming quality for most services is 720p-1080p (HD), so it’s recommended that you have between 5-10 Mbps. But if it’s live 4K you’re after, consider at least 25 Mbps.  

Streaming services

The three major streaming services consist of Hulu, Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. Supplemental services with niche content include DAZN and Sundance Now. Options like fuboTV offer a solid cable alternative. 

Streaming devices

Enjoy streaming with your casting device, game console, tablet, smartphone or smart TV.

Other streaming tips

Keep an eye on add-ons, simultaneous streams with additional users and offline viewing options.  

Choose your streaming device 

Device compatibility varies by service, but video streaming platforms are largely available on: 

Smart TVs

Enjoy built-in features like universal search, visually pleasing interfaces and voice capabilities — just make sure your TV isn’t too far from your router. 

  • TCL ($280) for a 55″ 4K UHD resolution with a Roku operating system.

Streaming Devices

Streaming devices operate as an alternative to smart TVs. Some come in the form of boxes and wires, while others function wirelessly. 

  • Roku Streaming Stick+ ($60) is Roku’s best-valued option. It plugs into the back of your TV and has a remote with voice capabilities. 

Gaming consoles

Streaming services are available across the major consoles: Nintendo, PlayStation and Xbox. 

  • Xbox One S ($249) isn’t relegated to just games. Stream your favorite shows and movies across a variety of apps. 

Popular video streaming services

Amazon Prime VideoHulu (No ads)Netflix BasicDisney+YouTube TV
Price$8.99/mo.$11.99/mo.$8.99/mo.$6.99/mo.$49.99/mo.
Free trial length30 days30 days30 days7 days7 days
Number of titles22,000+85,000+5,800+700+700+
Simultaneous streams32144
Ad-freeYesYesYesYesYes
Live streamingNoNoNoNoNo
Picture quality1080p4K UHDSD4K UHD1080p

Free streaming services 

Of the many free streaming services on the web, there are really only 12 we could recommend—it’s the internet after all. The big three are Crackle, Tubi and Pluto TV. Most offer limited functionality when compared to paid services, so it’s best to concentrate on content when selecting a free service. Pluto TV is great for viewers looking for a nice catalog of classic movies. And Pluto offers an easy-to-use interface and some live sports such as NCAA football, basketball and baseball on its Stadium channel. Best of all it doesn’t require your credit card to get started. Just head to the website to get started. 

What to consider when selecting a streaming service 

The top consideration is you. Decide whether you’re into sports over movies, an affordable monthly, or looking for a cable alternative. 

Best value for Amazon Prime members: Amazon Prime Video

Standout features

As a member, you receive a vast selection of original and licensed content for free, plus revel in its exclusive deals. Non-members can pay $8.99/mo. for just the Amazon Prime Video service.

Drawbacks

Navigating the interface can be confusing, which affects browsing genres and titles. 

What to watch

Have a laugh with The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel or dial in for a slow-burning Cold War

Best value: Hulu

Standout features

Hulu offers an extensive catalog of both original and licensed content for an affordable price. Unlike some of the other services on this list, Hulu gives you the option to upgrade to a plan that includes live TV. That option will set you back $54.99/mo. 

Drawbacks

You have to pay extra to watch most shows and movies without commercial interruptions. 

What to watch

Binge The Handmaid’s Tale or ride the edge of your seat with 11.22.63. Hulu also gives you access to on-demand content from ABC, Fox and NBC.

Best for award-winning originals: Netflix

Standout features

Netflix is infamous for its original movies and series, winning numerous accolades in its short existence. Critically acclaimed and award-winning Netflix originals include Master of None, Orange is the New Black and Stranger Things. 

Drawbacks

Netflix’s catalog includes shows and movies like Icarus, Peaky Blinders, and The Irishman.Because network-owned streaming services are constantly launching, merging and reorganizing, Netflix loses and gains licensed content on a regular basis, making it difficult to keep track of what’s available in its catalog. 

What to watch

Grab a bowl of popcorn and check out Stranger Things or buckle in for Okja.

Best for Marvel and Star Wars fans: Disney+

Standout Features

With Disney+ it’s all about the content. It’s the only place to stream Disney, Marvel, Star Wars and classics. 

Drawbacks

Known for family-friendly content; you won’t find series like True Detective here. 

What to watch

Upgrade to the Disney+, Hulu, ESPN+ bundle for $12.99/mo. if you’re interested in a more diverse viewing experience, including live sports coverage.  

Best free option: Pluto TV

Standout Features

It functions as a free service, providing hundreds of channels and thousands of titles. 

Cons

Its features are bare-bones, but it’s free. 

What to watch

Play MTV Teen or enjoy classics on TV Land Sitcoms

The takeaway

Video streaming services come in all shapes and sizes. If you’re just starting out and want to try a service, try dipping a toe into Hulu. If you’re looking for a free cable alternative, give Pluto TV a try. 

Zack Kulm

Zack Kulm is a writer and contributor of soda.com. He covers a variety of topics from entertainment and gaming technologies to pop culture commentary. Kulm received a degree in English from Penn State University and Film Studies from Pittsburgh Filmmakers Institute. He also produces award-winning documentaries.