If the high price of streaming has got you feeling low, here’s a reason to rejoice: You don’t have to pay a single digital dime to get access to thousands of hours of movies and TV shows, served up on-demand or via virtual channels. This magical solution to subscription fatigue is something folks in TV land call FAST — free, ad-supported television. Basically, FAST platforms offer a mash-up of the endless variety offered by cable TV and the “free” part of over-the-air broadcast networks such NBC or ABC. Wanna watch old episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation or a so-so J. Lo movie from 10 years ago? You can probably find it via FAST, and the only catch is, you’ll have to put up with some annoying commercials (but a lot fewer than you’ll find on regular TV).
Of course, as with just about everything in the streaming age, there’s an abundance of choice in the free streaming space, and the difference between all the various platforms isn’t always obvious. To make sure you’re not left feeling furious figuring out which FAST is right for you, Streamliner has sorted through all the different options to come up with a guide to the biggest and best free streamers out there. We first focused on the biggest, broadest players in the marketplace right now—the general interest platforms which aggregate content from dozens of sources; are available on most TV sets and streaming devices; and aren’t there to upsell you. The second part of our guide is devoted to services which, while perfectly fine sources of free TV, come with caveats attached, such as a more narrow programming focus or limited availability. There’s a lot out there, so if we missed anything, let us know. We’ll be updating this list regularly as the free streaming world continues to evolve.
Thanks to its pioneering linear interface, Pluto does the best job of recreating the experience of flipping through a cable program guide. Content is well-curated, with more than a dozen categories (Home+DIY, Anime, Classic TV, Movies) housing 250+ virtual channels devoted to interests both broad (‘90s movies) and incredibly narrow (one channel runs nothing but the Bob Barker-hosted episodes of The Price is Right). And because it’s owned by ViacomCBS, there’s a ton of recognizable content from brands such as MTV and Comedy Central, plus local news stations programmed by CBS affiliates in big cities such as New York, LA, Dallas, and Denver. While Pluto plays up its lean-back linear experience, it also has a deep library of movies and shows available to stream on-demand.
Pros: Easiest free streamer to use; an almost overwhelming assortment of content; themed channels unavailable elsewhere.
Cons: Almost too many channels of live TV.
The Roku Channel
Originally geared toward users of Roku streaming devices, the platform is now available as an app on multiple platforms, meaning just about anyone with an internet connection can use it. The user experience emphasizes on-demand viewing, with a library boasting over 40,000 movies and TV show episodes. Because it’s not part of a bigger conglomerate, Roku has invested heavily in content from almost every major studio that will sell to it, so you’re just as likely to see a classic TV show from Sony (say, The Facts of Life) as a movie from the libraries of Fox/Disney (The Day After Tomorrow) or Warner Bros. (The Fugitive). The service is also in the process of building its own roster of exclusive, original content: Roku snatched up the entire Quibi catalogue, is making new episodes of This Old House and has done a deal to become the streaming home for new movies produced by Saban Films.
Pros: Nicely integrated into the Roku platform for those who use that device; the only place to get your Quibi on.
Cons: The user interface can be clunky, especially if you’re watching live channels.
While the Amazon-owned free streamer offers a smattering of linear channels, the heart of the service is a wide selection of what it calls “premium” on-demand TV shows and movies, not unlike what you’d find on older sibling Prime Video. (Indeed, titles sometimes migrate between the two platforms—which can be a bummer for Prime subscribers who were once able to enjoy certain content ad-free.) Also like Prime, IMDb TV is aggressively moving into the originals business. It’s already launched the action-oriented Alex Rider and coming soon are spinoffs of Prime’s Bosch and USA Network’s Leverage; a home design show from Jeff Lewis; a half-hour coming-of-age dramedy written by Clea Duvall; and a new, possibly daily courtroom show built around Judge Judy Sheindlin. While the unfortunately-named IMDb TV is built into the Prime Video app and the Fire TV platform, it is also available as a stand-alone service on most major third-party streaming apps and devices, with one major exception: Apple iOS.
Pros: Most impressive roster of current and future original programming; strong movie and TV library.
Cons: Like Prime Video, it’s not the easiest to navigate; a number of shows which used to be ad-free on Prime are now only available with ads here.
Since being acquired by Fox in 2020, Tubi’s on-demand content library has nearly doubled, from a reported 15,000 titles at the end of 2019 to more than 30,000 by mid-2021. While most of the movies are several years old, most months there’s a good selection of films you’ve at least heard of, as well as legit blockbusters and classics (think American Hustle, The Truman Show, or Kung Fu Panda). And while there’s also a really solid selection of older TV shows, the association with Fox means Tubi now gets access to multiple Fox-produced unscripted shows still in production, including the top-rated The Masked Singer (as well as the Mexican remake ¿Quién es la Máscara?). Tubi largely sticks to on-demand offerings, except in the case of news: It has more than three dozen linear channels filled with local news programming, as well as several of the big streaming news networks, including NBC News Now, Cheddar, and Newsy.
Pros: Programming from the Fox network; great and easy-to-use selection of local news channels.
Cons: No live channels, except for news.
While Redbox does offer free streaming of TV shows and movies, it mainly exists to sell digital copies of those shows and movies to you. As a result, rental and purchase options are front and center in their respective apps, and their overall offerings are nothing special. The service makes its free content available on-demand or via live channels.
Pros: Offers live channel experience, if you’re into that.
Cons: The free library is hit or miss, while most of the great stuff you’ll have to pay for.
Like Redbox above, the Fandango-owned Vudu also houses a sizable selection of free shows and movies while also existing primarily so that you’ll end up paying up for most titles you might actually want to watch. However, the platform only lets you watch things on-demand, with no live channel option.
Pros: Thanks to the Fandango connection, avid theatergoers can get free rentals every now and then through their rewards.
Cons: No live channels, and most of the good stuff is gated.
If you’ve cut the cord and are missing the joys of local TV — the 11 p.m. news, syndicated talk shows, Steve Harvey on Family Feud — this streamer does a very good job of recreating the experience for the digital age. It’s operated by Sinclair, the broadcasting behemoth with nearly 200 stations in over 100 cities, which gives it access to more local newscasts than any general entertainment streaming service, as well as recent episodes of The Tamron Hall Show, The Drew Barrymore Show, Rachael Ray and Entertainment Today (though availability may vary by city.) You can also customize your experience so that news from your area is more prominently displayed in the live channel guide, and watch live feeds of over-the-air digital networks such as Charge! (action shows), Comet (sci-fi), and Buzzr (classic gameshows). The downside of STIRR: Despite some great and exclusive content, has more ads (including pre-roll) than any FAST streamer I’ve sampled, plus Sinclair has been credibly accused of using its local stations to push a conservative agenda.
Pros: Local news and syndicated shows not available on other major streamers; customizable STIRR City channel.
Cons: Incredibly problematic corporate ownership (see also: Tubi).
If Pluto featured nothing but Spanish-language and Latinx content, it would be Prende. Launched in March 2021 by Univision, the streamer has one of the best user interfaces we sampled, with dozens of channels devoted to movies (including English-language titles dubbed into Spanish, such as Thelma & Louise and Leaving Las Vegas), telenovelas, sports, reality shows, kids program and more. There’s even one channel with nature programming narrated in Spanish. Prende’s on-demand catalog also seems pretty impressive, and once again, the user experience is smooth and speedy. Honestly, the English-language broadcast networks should take a lesson from Prende: This is how you do free streaming.
Pros: Huge content offering, a pleasure to navigate, and it’s the only major free streamer in the U.S. completely in Spanish.
Cons: No glaring shortcomings, though if you don’t speak Spanish, it’s probably not for you.
Very similar to Pluto, with a solid (if inelegant) interface which delivers 200+ virtual channels spread across a dozen categories, plus a decent collection of older, on-demand movies. Xumo was recently bought by Comcast, and it’s clear that, at least for now, the company is investing a lot more on building up Peacock. While there are quite a few movies in its catalogue (10,000 according to a rep for service), there are only about 500 TV shows whose complete runs are available to stream. Browsing for on-demand content is also a bit of a chore, and there are no Xumo originals. Still, if you want a cable-like experience but find Pluto’s breadth a bit overwhelming, Xumo is a perfectly serviceable alternative.
Pros: Quirky selection of older movies. Smooth interface.
Cons: Very little content you couldn’t find elsewhere; on-demand TV series offering is weak.
This upstart two-year-old indie streamer has an okay assortment of linear channels, featuring many of the usual FAST suspects (Bloomberg TV, Buzzr, Newsy) but with some twists. There are multiple live channels devoted to lndian and Southeast Asian programming (MATV Live, Pinoy Box Office, Brit Asia TV, Channel S); a channel programmed with content from the Black-centered subscription streamer Kweli; and a bigger than usual selection of channels focused on MMA and outdoor sports. There’s also an on-demand component to Distro, but be warned: The movie selection makes those DVD bargain bins in grocery stores look like HBO. We’re talking stuff like Slaw (yes, it’s a riff on Saw but about food service workers … I think) and Guardians of the Ancient Shadow Crown. Some might see this as a downside, but you never know what gems could be hiding in there.
Pros: Solid multicultural offerings; random indie movies
Cons: Not the place for premium content.
The company which began life helping folks stream their personal collections of digital content now runs a free streaming platform as well. The live linear offering is very robust and includes offerings from several big cable channels, including AMC, AXS, IFC, and Game Show Network. The on-demand offering is a bit more spotty, with much of the content drawn from Crackle’s program library. But that’s not a bad thing, since Plex’s user interface is actually better than Crackle’s (and seems to offer fewer ads). On the other hand, the live channel guide is a jumbled mess: There are 175 channels but zero content categories, making it harder to find what you want to watch.
Pros: Content from cable and Crackle; lots of live channels.
Cons: User interface needs an upgrade.
One of the pioneers of the free streaming space — it launched Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee and the now-hot-on-Netflix drama Start-Up — has never really lived up to its promise. After years of neglect, original owner Sony sold the platform to the Chicken Soup for the Soul company (really!), and while the new bosses have added a few low-budget series (including a self-help reality show from Ashton Kutcher called Going From Broke), the content offering on Crackle hasn’t really changed: It’s still mostly older TV shows and movies, many of them drawn from the Sony library. But that’s actually the best part of the service, since it means Crackle will often stream some random old Sony show you can’t find elsewhere (like the Sanford and Son spin-off Grady). Still, the user interface is pretty awful, and you’ll often get hit with multiple ads before you even get to a minute of content.
Pros: Quirky “lost” TV shows hard to find elsewhere.
Cons: Lots of ads.
—We didn’t include Peacock in the main list of major free streamers because the full service isn’t totally free: To get the platform’s best content, you either need to pay $5 per month or subscriber to the handful of cable companies (most notably Xfinity and Cox Cable) which include it with most packages. But while Peacock can be frustrating for consumers on the hunt for truly free entertainment, the service does offer thousands of hours of programming at no charge, including a selection of live linear channels and episodes of select NBC primetime shows.
—YouTube is obviously the granddaddy of free streaming, even if it’s not generally thought of in the same category as a Pluto or IMDb TV. But while it doesn’t have a linear channel lineup or a robust collection of (legal) free TV series, it does offer hundreds of feature films available to stream free with ads.
—Speaking of broadcast TV, all the major networks (including PBS) have apps and websites which include access to recent episodes of their programming. But as with Peacock, everything isn’t totally free, with the best (or at least most recent) content generally available only to folks who get broadcast TV through cable or satellite. One exception is The CW, which makes all of its content free to anyone without the need for a login or authentication.
—As noted above, several general interest free streamers do a good job of incorporating news into their platforms. But if all you want is streaming news — aggregated from numerous outlets, rather than just NBC or CNN — check out the apps for NewsON and HaystackNews. The former features live and recorded local newscasts from 275 TV stations across America, in case you’ve cut the cord and miss being scared senseless by sensationalistic crime coverage on the 11 p.m. news. Haystack, meanwhile, offers users the ability to create a custom feed of video news clips tailored to your location and interests.
—Similar to Redbox and Vudu above, Sling TV, which has as its main goal getting you to sign up for the digital equivalent of a cable package, also lets folks sample their ecosystem through a free tier. Anyone can access it without even entering a credit card number, but the content is also nothing special and be warned: You’ll be pushed to upgrade to paid services throughout the app.
—While the Roku Channel has expanded to make its offering available everywhere, some free streamers remain geared toward users of specific devices or TV sets. Samsung TV+, Vizio Watch Free, LG Channels, TiVo Stream, and Fire TV are all designed to keep people within specific ecosystems. There’s a reason why TV sets cost a lot less than they did 10 years ago, or why streaming sticks can be had for under $30: These companies make money by selling ads on the stuff you watch, or by selling data about your viewing habits to third parties. All of these platforms mostly offer the same general set of free channels, but depending on the kinds of deals your device maker has struck, there could be some goodies lurking within.