There are a surprising number of options for those looking to stream movies or stream TV shows without paying one thin dime. Crackle is a commercial-supported but free movie streaming service owned by Sony, with content drawn exclusively from the Sony Pictures Entertainment library. Hardware support is broad, including smart TVs, game consoles, set-top players and more from many manufacturers.
Crackle is certainly small compared to most movie streaming services. The number of titles is limited -- think in the hundreds rather than the thousands of streaming movies available on pay sites -- and is made up of mostly older fare. Ditto when it comes to free TV streaming: There are fewer than 70 series available, all now off the air. Crackle also streams some original content, mostly made-for-Crackle TV webisodes that run 15 minutes or less. Some longer programs, including at least one full-length motion picture, were also available at last look.
Popcornflix is another alternative. Owned by independent film distributor Screen Media Ventures, it doesn't offer too many Hollywood hits, but if you crave the offbeat or the so-bad-it's-good type of movies that fill out the Netflix catalog, there's plenty here to keep you entertained. Free streaming TV programs are limited to a handful of reality TV programs. Hardware support is limited: only Samsung TVs, the Roku set-top box and the Xbox video game console, although it can also stream to almost any mobile device or your computer or laptop.
Most of the streaming services discussed in this report are OTT (over the top) providers, so named because they stream direct to an app on a supported device, bypassing the need for a web browser to see content. Some can also be viewed on the web in your computer or laptop browser. A few providers -- especially those that offer free TV streaming -- are found exclusively on the web. The easiest way to watch these free streaming TV shows is on your computer, as intended, although there are ways to watch this programming on your TV, as well; we discuss these in the section on movie streaming hardware.
We looked at Hulu Plus in the section on subscription TV streaming. Hulu.com is the free, web-based version of that service. It has most but not all of the current-season TV programming of its paid counterpart -- licensing agreements account for the differences -- but at absolutely no cost. You'll also find more classic TV series and a roster of films that includes rotating selections from The Criterion Collection; the whole collection is available on Hulu Plus.
All of the major broadcast networks -- ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and The CW -- offer full episodes of current-season programs on their own websites. Some are available as soon as the next day, while others require a delay of a week or more. All are completely free, at least for now.
It's tougher to find free streaming TV shows from popular cable TV channels. Basic cable channels generally post no more than a handful of episodes, if any, for free. You'll need a subscription to a cable or satellite TV provider to see the rest of the content, or to see any content at all posted by a premium station such as HBO.