Movie and TV streaming goes mainstream
Not long ago, streaming movies from the Internet to your living room TV was an idea that was not even on the radar of most families in the U.S. Now, however, more and more consumers are getting at least some entertainment via the Internet. TV streaming is also growing in popularity. You can find streams of most current programs shortly after they originally air, even the next day in many cases. In a handful of locations you can even stream live TV.
Getting streaming movies and streaming TV to your living room screen can be very easy. Many recent-model LCD TVs and plasma TVs are so-called smart TVs that include mobile-phone-like apps for the major and minor/niche providers. Video streaming is also built into many recent Blu-ray players and other Internet-connectible entertainment devices like TiVo digital video recorders (DVRs). If streaming isn't built into the gear you own, inexpensive set-top boxes from Roku and Apple, among others, can add that capability to many existing sets. More information can be found elsewhere in this report, in our discussion of movie streaming hardware.
Unfortunately, getting streaming movies to your set can also be very hard, and ditto for TV streaming. The biggest obstacle is the quality of your Internet connection. For best-quality video, broadband is your best bet. You can get by with DSL service, but it's fair to expect some stuttering, dropouts or temporary freezes as your connection can struggle to keep up with the data being transferred. Some streaming providers like Netflix will even automatically reduce video resolution based on your connection quality to provide as glitch-free a viewing experience as possible. Unfortunately, dial-up Internet users will likely find streaming movies to be more frustrating than enjoyable.
The network inside your home is also a factor. Without a doubt, the surest way to get glitch-free streaming movies and streaming TV is to use an Ethernet connection. If you don't have a hardwired connection available by your set, Wi-Fi can work, and work decently, and most streaming gear has Wi-Fi built in. If you see freezes and dropouts, you can try simple fixes like moving the router to a point in the network that's closer to your TV, or attempt more complex solutions like switching the "channel" your network uses to communicate. About.com offers more information.
Movie streaming and TV streaming providers fall into two broad categories. Subscription-based providers offer unlimited movie streaming and TV streaming for one monthly charge. Undoubtedly, this model offers the best bang-for-the buck. What it doesn't offer is a vast array of recent blockbuster movies; instead, expect classic films and very forgettable low-budget films, but also some high-quality gems that are just a little off the beaten path. Several subscription movie streaming services have signed deals with the Epix cable TV channel to get at least a handful of more recent titles. Current-season TV streaming is also available on a subscription model. Many subscription streaming providers have turned to producing their own original content, and much of that has been very well received -- with Netflix's House of Cards earning 14 nominations and one major Emmy Award in 2013.
Other movie streaming and TV streaming providers use a video-on-demand model. Rather than paying a subscription fee, you rent or "buy" the titles you want to see. Pricing varies by the video quality -- standard definition is, of course, cheapest -- and the age and popularity of the title. Available content includes the latest Hollywood blockbusters, sometimes on the same day as they are released on disc, as well as current- and past-season TV programs. However, if you stream a lot of content, costs can add up in a hurry.
What about free movie streaming? There are indeed a few services that offer free streaming movies. These streaming movie services are 100 percent legal, although content is typically limited to titles from a particular studio or distributor. Free TV streaming, including current-season episodes, is also available, especially if you are willing to watch programs on your computer screen rather than your living room TV.
Which movie streaming or TV streaming service is best for you? The answer depends on what you like to watch and how much you are willing to spend for your entertainment. For many, the best solution might be a combination of services: a video-on-demand service for that blockbuster you just can't miss, a subscription TV streaming service for current TV programming, and a subscription movie streaming service for casual watching.
In this report, we profile the most popular movie streaming and TV streaming providers, looking at what they have to offer, their costs and top alternatives. In naming the best streaming services and streaming sites, we evaluate the catalog of titles as well as other criteria such as hardware support and value. Top reviewers such as CNET, PCMag.com, Tom's Guide and others are consulted.