THE MAIN CASUALTY of the streaming wars so far has been your wallet. Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, CBS, HBO, Apple, Disney; they all demand a monthly tithe. Toss in a live service like YouTube TV, the music app of your choice, and whatever gaming concoction suits your needs, and you’re suddenly ringing up a pretty grim bill. But wait! The proliferation of streaming services has also yielded a bumper crop of free options. They’re the perfect cure for subscription fatigue.
The adage “you get what you pay for” does apply here to some extent. The selections generally aren’t huge, and most make you watch a few ads along the way. But they’re also better than you might expect, and continuing to improve. Just this week, Amazon promised to infuse its recently rebranded IMDb TV streaming service with “thousands” of new titles in the coming months, according to Variety. And just a few months ago, Roku added free streaming of Roku Channel content to its app, which means there’s a good chance you’ve already got it on your smartphone.
In other words, while you shouldn’t expect any of the following to replace Netflix from your streaming regimen, you shouldn’t count them out, either. Each almost certainly offers at least something that you want to watch. And it won’t cost you an arm and a leg—or anything at all—to take advantage.
We just talked about this! No need to belabor it, other than to note that to access its library you’ll need to create an account, or use your existing Amazon credentials. Your current options are decent but not great; the most popular movie appears to be Drive, although bonus points for also carrying Paddington. Your best bet for a binge is probably sci-fi series Fringe, and not just because it rhymes. And even though it’s getting a deluge of new content, it’s probably unlikely that IMDb TV will ever catch up to its Prime Video sibling, so manage those expectations accordingly.
he Roku Channel
OK, this could potentially be confusing, since Roku comprises thousands of “channels,” including the majors like Hulu and HBO Now. But it also operates the Roku Channel, which offers a smorgasbord of classics like Die Hard and Clue, slightly more recent fare like, well, Gods of Egypt but also Spotlight, so that probably evens out.
The more interesting reason to take a look at the Roku Channel is that it also offers free live streaming, including news reports from ABC and indie movies and classic TV from Filmrise. During a Friday afternoon check-in, the latter was playing a black and white episode of Lost in Space. Fun! You can also subscribe to other streaming services—HBO, Showtime, Acorn TV, and so on—through the Roku Channel, which should save you some navigational clicks.
And again, if you already have the Roku app on your smartphone, the Roku Channel is right there waiting for you. Or you can get it—and everything else on this list—through your Roku device.
Do you have a library card? Then you have Kanopy! Well, sort of. You still have to sign up for a separate Kanopy account, but once you have, you can connect it to your public library, assuming you’re a member, which you should be because libraries are great! Individual libraries set their own limits; mine allows for 10 movies a month, with three days to watch from the time you press play. Your credits refresh on the first of each month, and there are apps available for Android, iOS, Apple TV, Fire TV, Roku, and so on. The selection here leans toward indies, but it includes lots of Criterion Collection flicks like The 400 Blows and Rashomon, making it a cinephile’s dream. Also? No ads. Libraries!
Hoopla is another library-connected service that has a great selection but no Criterion. On the plus side, you can also manage your library ebooks, comics, and other media through it, while Kanopy is strictly video. So do with that what you will.
Tubi lacks the name recognition of some of its peers, but its library outpaces most of them, with thousands of ad-supported TV and movie titles. You don’t even need to register an account to watch. It also arranges its haul into helpful categories—including a “Not on Netflix” collection to help you better appreciate what you’re not paying for. There’s still a lot of junk to sift through on Tubi, but it doesn’t take long to turn up rewatchable classics like Ronin, art house hits like Melancholia, and under-appreciated gems like The Host.
Most of the streaming services on this list specialize in on-demand content. Not so the Viacom-owned Pluto TV, which replicates the traditional cable TV menu, but with specialized channels serving up nonstop Dr. Who, Antiques Roadshow, and even The Hills. It also has traditional networks, like CNN and Fox Sports. There are hundreds of channels to surf through in all, as well as a slightly anemic on-demand selection of movies and TV shows. Basically if you’re tired of decision fatigue—of wasting an hour scrolling through Netflix before you actually watch anything—Pluto is the elixir you’re looking for.
Did you know that Sony Crackle has been around in one form or another since 2004? That’s three years before Netflix started streaming. That head start may not have won it a massive following, but Crackle does house some gems, particularly in the realm of cult and classic TV. You can binge the entirety of News Radio and Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, and early seasons of All in the Family and Bewitched. Relatively rare for a free streaming service, Crackle also has original shows like Rob Riggle’s Ski Master Academy and the very much less ridiculous The Oath. There are plenty of movies here, too, spanning decades but with a heavy concentration of ’90s pulp like Fight Club and Starship Troopers. You don’t need an account to watch, and the content gets updated pretty regularly.
You already know Vudu as the Walmart movie rental service you never use. But Vudu is also a Walmart movie and TV free streaming service you never use! The selection isn’t great, or at least not appreciably better than your other options here. (You can get your Snakes on a Plane fix, at least). But keep an eye on Vudu; it’s investing in original programming, which includes sci-fi drama called Albedo, starring Evangeline Lilly and directed by Brad Peyton, who has directed The Rock in three feature films. Impossible to say if it’ll be any good. But at least it’ll be free.