The 9 best free streaming services worthy of downloading

From local news to acclaimed films and TV, these apps can help you cut the cord or at least not add to your bundle

By Justin Pelofsky
Published January 9, 2021 11:00AM (EST)
Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara in "Schitt's Creek" (Pop TV)
Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara in "Schitt's Creek" (Pop TV)

With the glimmer of the New Year quickly fading due to recent, troubling events, you may once again be feeling a need deep within your bones to escape. And while many of us are limited in the routes we can take to achieve this, TV has become a tried, trusted, and fairly accessible — soon to be extremely accessible — method to achieving that occasional, sweet release from the grasp of an unsavory reality.

Streaming has become a popular way to access TV shows and movies over the years, but sometimes the subscription fees can be a bit much when added all together. If only we could watch tons of content but for way less . . .

Oh wait! We can! In fact, we can stream for free!

That's right. Free. Zero dollars. Nothing.

You could watch TV all day long and all it would cost was maybe some ridicule from the people closest to you who just don't get it. But that's it!

. . . Ok and you'll probably have to pay for the device you're streaming it on and the WiFi required to stream it and all that. But that's really it.

There are plenty of free streaming platforms that are easy to find, come at an unmatched price, and could be combined to rival some other paid streaming options. So without further ado, here's a list of some of the most interesting free streaming services around that you may not have known about.

Kanopy
Cost
: Free with a public library card or University ID
Devices: Amazon Fire TV and Fire Tablet, AndroidTV and other Android devices, AppleTV and other Apple devices, Chromecast, Roku, Samsung TV

What it is/What titles it offers: Kanopy promises to both "enrich" and "entertain" its viewers through its selection of thoughtful films and documentaries, geared towards the intellectually curious. The service offers recent critically acclaimed films like "The Farewell" which won Awkwafina a Golden Globe for her dramatic performance as well as a Spirit Award for Best Film, award-winning foreign films like "Bicycle Thieves," "Seven Samurai," and powerful documentaries such as Frontline's "Battle for Hong Kong," and the James Baldwin documentary "I Am Not Your Negro." It also has a decent selection of anime (and previously had Studio Ghibli titles before HBO Max snapped them up).

While the service is a good incentive to join your local library if you haven't already, it's not just a ploy to get you back into a place full of books and more traditional forms of learning. Kanopy is itself an educational resource, beyond just the cultural or cinematic. While it lists its major browsing categories as "Movies" and "Documentaries," it also breaks up categories across academic disciplines, listing others like "Global Studies & Languages," "Sciences," "Business," and "Instructional Films and Lessons." Of course, all of this varies depending on what your library offers, but you can always request titles to your library if they're not readily available.

Pros: Kanopy offers a unique selection of films and lots of helpful educational resources that can't be found on other streaming platforms. The partnership with local libraries and the ability to request different titles provides some flexibility in the service.

Cons: Probably not for you if you're looking for only light entertainment. Not all public libraries and universities participate in Kanopy, and some may have limited selections.

Crackle
Cost
: Free, ad-supported. No account or subscription needed.
Devices: Amazon Fire TV and Fire TV stick, AndroidTV and other Android devices, AppleTV and other Apple devices, Chromecast, LG TV, Roku, Playstation 4, Samsung TV, Vizio TV, Xbox One

What it is/What titles it offers: On nearly the opposite end of the spectrum, Crackle is a streaming service that is all about action, adventure, and comedy. Originally launching on Sony devices like the Playstation 3 in 2011, the service started working with a large audience inclined towards the aesthetics of a "Call of Duty" or "Assassin's Creed" and knew just how to match their pace. Some of their current featured titles are "Total Recall," Vin Diesel's "The Last Witch Hunter," and Don Cheadle's "Traitor."

Crackle makes sure to include an explanation as to why each of its films or shows is on the service by telling us "Why it Crackles." For example, "The Big Short" may seem like an outlier when compared to those other films, but it "Crackles" because it "makes the 2008 financial crash feel like a riveting corporate thriller."

Crackle also offers its own original content as well, featuring some familiar faces, like Martin Freeman who plays a shady FBI agent bent on stopping an equally shady tech company in "StartUp," and "Harry Potter's" Rupert Grint in "Snatch," a show (based on Guy Ritchie's film of the same name) about young hustlers navigating the world of organized crime in London.

Pros: A good number of campy action or comedy films available to watch whenever, as well as their own exclusive content.

Cons: Not the newest selection around. There's kind of a busy user interface where previews play in the background while you're trying to make a selection (at least on the Roku, the computer seemed ok).

PlutoTV
Cost
: Free, ad-supported, no account or subscription needed
Devices: AppleTV and other Apple devices, Amazon firetv and firestick, Android devices, Chromecast, HiSense, Playstation 4, Roku, Samsung TV, Vizio TV

What it is/What it offers: PlutoTV's major selling point — if you can still call it that when it sells for nothing — is that it offers a huge selection of live channels, ranging from major news outlets like CNN to entertaining channels like Comedy Central, sports commentary on Fox Sports, and channels that play shows on repeat, like "Star Trek," Netflix's "Narcos," or "Family Ties."

And if you're really missing out on live concerts and music, they've even got a "Live Music Replay'' channel, which streams concerts from years past. Everyone looks so happy . . . ah pre-COVID memories.

They also offer a few regionally specific channels that focus on news. Channels are kind of a fun feature to be reminded of if you've only been binging on-demand shows for the past few years.

That said, PlutoTV does also offer its own on-demand streaming services as well, touting 2016's "Arrival" starring Amy Adams, "Clueless," and "Shaft" (2000) as some of their most popular films. And while they're not particularly new, they can't be found anywhere else for the same price. The only difficulty is that the service doesn't offer the best search system, making it hard to know if they have a certain title beyond what is on their featured page.

Pros: The channels! So many channels!

Cons: Pluto's on-demand feature isn't as good as its live TV. While there are some good offerings, they aren't particularly recent, and it's a little hard to search for titles.

Tubi
Cost
: Free, ad-supported. Just download the app onto your device or watch from your laptop. No need to set up an account.
Devices: AppleTV and other Apple devices, Amazon firetv, Android TV and other devices, Chromecast, Cox Contour, Playstation 3 & 4, Roku, Samsung TV, TiVo, Vizio TV, Xfinity x1

What it is/What it offers: So here's the thing about Tubi: it's a lot of things. With somewhere around 20,000 movies and TV shows available on-demand, it claims to be the largest ad-supported streaming service out there. Because of its relationship with the Fox Corporation, Tubi gets some stuff that airs on Fox channels pretty early like "Cosmos: Possible Worlds with Neil Degrass Tyson," or "The Masked Singer."

Some of the notable titles in movies include "Fight Club," "Gravity," and "Lion."

Tubi also dips its toe in live news, offering a few national channels like NBC Now, NewsNow from Fox, Bloomberg, Fox Soul, Fubo Sports, financial network Cheddar, and more.

Another interesting feature of Tubi is its British content. And while some of the British streaming services like Britbox or Acorn require a subscription, Tubi lets you watch old seasons of British shows in its "British Invasion" section for free like "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" "QI," and "The Goes Wrong Show," to name a few.

Finally, Tubi also has a "channels" section, which lists programs from networks like Fox, A&E, and Lifetime. This is still an on-demand section, so, with the exception of the live news options, Tubi doesn't have live programming the same way PlutoTV does.

Pros: Lots of interesting content available, including some recently aired shows from Fox-affiliated networks and a fairly impressive British section.

Cons: Sometimes it can feel like maybe there's just a bit too much going on in the app. 

The CW App
Cost
: Free to use. No account needed.
Devices: AppleTV and other Apple devices, Amazon Fire TV and other Amazon Fire devices, Android TV and other devices, Chromecast, Cox Contour, Playstation 3 & 4, Roku, Samsung TV, TiVo, Vizio TV, Xfinity x1

What it is/What it offers: The CW has developed its own signature flair for TV over the years, maybe most famously through soapy series like "Riverdale" and their own collection of DC superhero shows, like "The Flash." With the release of their own app, you can watch many of the shows that air on their channel on-demand. It includes complete seasons of their original shows and DC content, including "Batwoman," "Stargirl," "Swamp Thing" (previously released on DC Universe) and "Tell Me a Story" (brought over from CBS All Access), and also features a selection of episodes of other recently aired content.

The CW also has an interesting section dedicated to magic, with shows like "Masters of Illusion" and "Penn and Teller: Fool Us." That's a pretty niche draw, but definitely one worth mentioning.

Finally, if you're a fan of Netflix's improv specials of "Middleditch and Schwartz," or just have trouble understanding British accents, it may also be worth mentioning The CW app features their own new episodes of the American version of the improvisational "Whose Line Is It Anyway?"

Pros: Plenty of dramatic, imaginative TV shows available to binge. Also magic and improv, who knew? It's a really simple app that makes its complete library very clear.

Cons: Obviously limited to just some content produced by The CW and Warner Bros., so there are relatively fewer titles to pick from compared to some of the other services. I tested the app on a Roku, and it was sometimes a little weird to navigate, jumping past some boxes for no clear reason.

CW Seed
Cost
: Free to watch on a laptop or download the free app for the following devices. No account or subscription required. There will be ads.
Devices: AppleTV and other Apple devices, Amazon Fire TV and other Amazon Fire devices, Android TV and other devices, Chromecast, Roku, Xbox One

What it is/ What it offers: The CW has another streaming service apart from their own eponymous — dare I say, boringly named — app. CW Seed is different not only because it has a cool code name like other streaming services that just rolls off the tongue, but because it offers free, streamable TV shows that are not solely produced by CW. There's a good selection of shows, too, with whole series available to binge. For example, all of the hilarious, Emmy award-winning "Schitt's Creek" is available, as is "Pushing Daisies," "90210," and "Limitless" (yes, a TV series spun off from the Bradley Cooper flick).

Like some of the other services on the list, CW Seed does have a live option, but only if you're on your computer. It's simple enough to understand because, unlike some of the other services that feature many different live TV channels, there's only one way to watch CW Seed live. Click on the "Watch Live" option and it'll bring you to the only CW Seed channel. It looks just like how a normal TV channel would. You can see the titles for whatever programming they've plotted out for the day

Pros: Full seasons of popular shows, easy to use.

Cons: You can only watch live on your computer. The good news is that most of the stuff they air can be watched on-demand anyway.

NewsON
Cost
: Free, ad-supported, download the app, no account or subscription needed
Devices: Can be watched on Roku and is available to download from the Amazon or Apple app stores and Google Play

What it is/What it offers: Alright, so this one isn't the best for escapism, per se, but it is a great free resource regardless. NewsON is a useful service for streaming free, live local news channels. It partners with station groups Berkshire Hathaway, Cox Media Group, Dispatch Broadcast Group, Fort Myers Broadcasting Company, Forum Communications, Graham Media Group, Gray Television, Hearst Television, Heritage Broadcasting Company, Hubbard Broadcasting, McKinnon Broadcasting, Meredith Corporation, Sinclair Broadcast Group, and TEGNA.

In other words, you'll be able to have access to NBC, CBS, and ABC affiliates, to name a few.

The service works nationwide. You can filter through the available channels based on your location, or, if the news isn't on in your area, what's currently airing live elsewhere. NewsON has a cool feature that will show you the range of the closest channels, so if the news isn't live in your city, it may be live just miles away in another. You can also add favorite channels to a list on the home page.

But in a world of on-demand, it'd be silly not to offer such an option on a streaming service. So, NewsON also has pre-recorded airings of local news channels, sometimes just in clips, other times in entire time slots. The on-demand feature also spaces out ads fairly well, letting you know where they'll pop up on the progress bar, and making sure they don't cut in at random points in the recorded broadcast.

Pros: Easy to use, intuitive, fairly comprehensive source for trusted local news stations. If you're still holding onto cable for the local news, you may want to check this one out and reassess cutting the cord.

Cons: It's not available on quite as many devices as some of the other services, but other than that, you pretty much know what you're getting into with this one. You do also have to watch an ad before every stream, which could make tuning into breaking news a little awkward for the first few seconds while you learn about some random dietary supplement.

Xumo
Cost
: Free, ad-supported, no account needed
Devices: Available on a slew of smart TVs, including Hisense, Magnavox, Panasonic, Philips, Sanyo, Sharp, Sony and VIZIO. Also on Roku, Amazon Fire TV, and available for download on iOS and Android.

What it is/What it offers: Xumo is a live TV service that's extremely similar to PlutoTV. It also has lots of the same national news broadcasts that can be found on Tubi. But while the concepts are similar, Xumo does have its own unique channels, curated channels, and on-demand content. While PlutoTV does have a "history" channel, Xumo has the more familiar and iconic "History" channel. There's also comedy channels like "Funny or Die" – with its originals like "Between Two Ferns" and so-called political content like "Jared and Ivanka" and "Best Presidency Ever" – and a few cooking channels like "Tastemade" and "Bon Appétit." And keeping up with the latest in pop music, Xumo has a channel dedicated strictly to covering those defenders of democracy, K-Pop called "NEW K.ID."

Pros: Another service offering cool live channels, particularly cooking ones, and some niche ones like K-Pop.

Cons: It may have the most confusing interface out of all of these. I had trouble using it on both the Roku and my computer. It can be hard to tell where you are in space if you click too far.

PBS
Cost
: Free
Devices: The app is available to download on Amazon Fire TV, Android TV and other Android devices, and Apple TV and other Apple devices, as well as Roku, Chromecast, and Samsung Smart TV

What it is/ What it offers: Finally, rounding out the list, we have a service that needs no introduction: PBS. We all know PBS for its educational content, and now we can access plenty of it for free through the PBS Video app. It includes content like "PBS NewsHour," "Frontline," and episodes from the science-focused documentary series "Nova," as well as episodes from "Masterpiece" including the recent, poignant and powerful "Elizabeth is Missing" to name just a few. Ken Burns' miniseries, "Jazz," which tracks the growth and evolution of the musical genre, is also a notable feature.

Pros: Free PBS content including episodes from their most iconic series.

Cons: Some of the content on the app requires getting the "PBS Nine Passport," which does cost some money. All of the services on this list are completely free.

Streaming apps with free options

All that said, there are also three services that have a free tier with paid upgrades similar to the PBS app's "Nine Passport": NBC's Peacock, Vudu, and Sling. These services are obviously limited in what they can offer for free, but do each have interesting free features. Peacock's free tier actually lets you watch a lot of classic NBC series like "Parks and Recreation" and "30 Rock." Vudu offers a solid selection of free movies through their "Vudu Movies on Us" program, and, if you do consider spending some money on their vast library of content, it's also a good alternative to buying or renting movies from Amazon Prime. Finally, Sling offers their own baseline free service, aptly named Sling Free, which is similar to the other free streaming platforms, but more limited in the number of titles offered when compared to their paid service.


Justin Pelofsky

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