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21 October 2020

TV streaming services explained

TV streaming services from Netflix, Amazon and other leading brands give you thousands of TV programmes and films to watch whenever you like. Read on to find out which is best for you.
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The appeal of TV streaming services is obvious - rather than shelling out for a cinema ticket, they offer an 'all-you-can-eat' buffet of content to watch online.

Whether you access these services in your web browser, via an app, directly from a smart TV, or are looking to add an internet TV box to your home cinema setup, we can help.

Read on to find out everything you need to know about TV streaming services, including how Netflix compares with Amazon Prime Video, Disney Plus and Now TV.

To unlock all our TV streaming reviews, try Which? and enjoy all the benefits of being a member. 

Why subscribe to a TV streaming service?

Entertaining yourself and your family while at home has become more important than ever, and sometimes that means sitting down to watch a favourite show or escaping in to a good film. But with more streaming services to choose between than ever, it can be tricky to pick the option that’s right for you.

Whether you lean more towards The Crown, The Sopranos or The Mandalorian, there's a TV streaming service that can offer the content you want to watch, wherever and whenever you want it. Content is king with subscription streaming services - and every provider has its own strengths, such as the latest original dramas, and weaknesses such as dated film selections or confusing interfaces.

While you will have heard of popular services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, there's an increasing number of alternatives on offer with Apple and  Disney plus ITV and the BBC all joining the market.

Where can I use TV streaming services?

Streaming involves playing a video over an internet connection, either using a web browser or an app, on a wide range of devices.  

These can include Android and Apple smartphones and tablets, along with laptops, smart TVs, games consoles and internet TV devices, such as Apple TV and Google Chromecast.

To find out which devices you can use with each service, head through to our individual guides:

Which TV streaming service is best?

Our table provides a quick snapshot of what each service offers and how much it costs. If you have a busy household, it's worth weighing up the number of screens you can stream on simultaneously, while those who are regularly on the move will want to opt for a service that permits downloads.

  Amazon Prime Video Apple TV+ Britbox Disney Plus Netflix

(Standard)
Now TV

Entertainment Pass
TV streaming services compared
Cost (monthly) £5.99 £4.99 £5.99 £5.99 £8.99 £8.99
Max resolution 4K 4K 1080p 4K 1080p 720p
Max # of screens at once 3 6 5 4 2 2
Max # of devices per account unlimited unlimited unlimited unlimited unlimited 6
Max # of devices for downloads 25 unlimited via app 0 10 2 2
Table notes: Amazon Prime Video is £7.99 with a Prime subscription. Netflix also offers Basic and Premium plans, while Now TV also offers Cinema and Kids passes.

Ultimately, the best service for you is likely to come down to content - each streaming service has a slightly different offering, but all offer exclusive content to hook you in. 

Netflix may be the first option that springs to mind, but now Amazon Prime and Now TV also offer widely used services – and they’re all similarly priced. To help you decide, we asked more than 2,000 Which? members how they rated the most popular streaming services - read our full reviews for Amazon Prime Video, Netflix and Now TV to find out more.

Fortunately, most services offer a free trial of at least seven days, allowing you to get a taste for what's on offer. Plus most services use monthly rolling contracts that you can easily cancel if you're not happy - you're not locked in long-term.

What internet speed do I need to stream TV online?

As you'll see in our TV streaming service reviews, you can get away with having a weak broadband speed and still stream the content. However, the video quality might not be the best if you have a poor connection.

We would advise you to have at least 1Mbps (megabits per second) broadband or higher if you're streaming content in standard definition (SD). If you want to watch in high definition (HD), you’ll need a faster connection of at least 5Mbps to enjoy the higher video quality. To find out what speed internet you're getting, use our handy broadband speed checker tool.

Some services, such as Disney+ and Netflix, now offer content to stream in 4K Ultra HD quality, giving you four times the detail of regular HD. For this, however, you may need fast broadband of at least 15Mbps.

Most video on-demand services use 'adaptive streaming' technology – this detects your broadband speed and automatically adjusts the video quality so that you're not hit by buffering (where the video freezes and a little loading wheel spins). The video may start at Full HD 1080p, but if your bandwidth is struggling it may drop down to a lower quality (720p HD or even SD) to keep playing.

If your broadband is particularly slow there may be things you can do to improve it - read our guide on how to speed up slow broadband to learn more.

Do TV streaming services use a lot of data?

They can do. For example, streaming a two-hour Full HD film could gobble up more than 6GB of data (and a huge 14GB if it’s in 4K Ultra HD).

Fortunately, the majority of people are now on 'unlimited' broadband packages, but if you're using your service on your mobile device you'll want to be careful. The risk is you’ll use a huge amount of data and patchy signal coverage could affect the video quality, so it's best to use wi-fi where possible to avoid exceeding your data allowance and having to pay extra. Use our guide on how to keep track of your data and minutes to ensure you're not hit by an unexpected - and unwanted - bill.

Can I download content on streaming services?

Yes, on some, but not all. Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV+, Disney Plus, Netflix and Now TV all allow you to download some TV shows and films onto your device to watch while you don't have an internet connection. It's a great feature for enjoying content when you're offline, such as on holiday or while commuting.

If you're on the hunt for content to watch offline, catch-up TV service BBC iPlayer also offers this feature. You don't directly pay to use iPlayer, but you will need a valid TV licence.

Browse our Best Buy TV streamers to find the cream of the crop.