It seems like a lifetime ago when we used to scour the web for free episodes of TV shows or wait the entire day for movies we wanted to watch to download, neither of which was exactly legal. As consumers, we were seeking easier, faster and more convenient options for movie and TV watching. Even if it meant we had to endure low quality or an endless stream of pop-up ads.
The emergence of Netflix and YouTube took streaming to a new level, with Netflix releasing high-quality licensed content in the early 2000s that was considerably more affordable than cable and instantly available anytime. Hulu and other inexpensive streaming services followed, and even networks like HBO and CBS got in on the action. Illegal streaming and downloading sites were eventually forced into obscurity.
But that hasn’t meant the end of free content. While many people subscribe to at least one paid service, there are still quite a few streaming services out there that offer licensed programming without charging their viewers a monthly membership or pay-per-view fee.
Sound too good to be true? Believe it or not, it’s not. These free services afford fee-free streaming through sponsorships with film studios and other web-based companies, partnerships with film and university libraries, and of course, ad support.
While their content isn’t as diverse or as plentiful as that of their paid counterparts, the services have several things going for them. The quality of the videos available is usually great, many services have their own specialty (e.g., TV shows, documentaries, vintage and classic movies), and you might even stumble into a few obscure, hard-to-find titles. (As with all video services, the availability of movies and shows changes from month to month, so the examples that follow were on the services at the time of publication.)
Intrigued yet? Try these free streaming services to start. (And check out our guide to setting up streaming services on your TV.)
While Crackle hasn’t reached Netflix’s level of success, having Sony Pictures Entertainment as a parent company certainly has its perks and has helped keep it afloat. The free streaming website boasts about 7 million monthly visits, a legitimately decent collection of movies and TV shows and a good number of original programs.
Though you’ll find that most of Crackle’s content is not exactly in high demand, they’ve got some pretty good older movies on their roster. “Big Fish,” “Blade Runner,” “Drive” and “The Matrix” are some of the biggest hits on the site. Cult favorites such as “The Craft” and “Being John Malkovich” and indie films like “Safety Not Guaranteed” are also currently available.
Crackle does a little better on TV series and anime/cartoons, with shows like “Community,” “Heroes,” “Seinfeld,” “Ironman” (the animated series) and “The Real Ghostbusters.”
Supported devices include smartphones, tablets, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Roku and gaming consoles.
Kanopy markets its content as “thoughtful entertainment” and its collection as “the world’s finest cinema.” As far as diversity, it’s hard to compete with Kanopy’s. It’s got everything from movies to documentaries to “The Great Courses” educational videos.
This streaming service, which originated in Western Australia, was created for public libraries, educational institutions and universities all over the world. It also claims to stream more than 26,000 films, many of them obscure titles you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. And as long as you have a public library membership or belong to an educational institution that has a partnership with Kanopy, you have access to all of them.
Examples of movies on the site are foreign films like “Breathless,” “The 400 Blows” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” thrillers like “Memento,” black comedies like “The Little Shop of Horrors,” and documentaries such as “Life Off the Grid” and “The Future of Work and Death.”
You can stream Kanopy content on iOS and Android devices, Apple TV, Roku and Chromecast.
True to its name, Popcornflix is all about the movies. It’s not as big as Netflix or even Crackle, mind you. But it does its best to deliver entertainment in different genres and boasts some pretty enjoyable, if lesser-known or older, films. If you need a break from motion pictures, Popcornflix also has some TV series and webisodes on its roster. All for free.
“Paycheck,” “Coneheads,” “Forces of Nature,” “Shutter Island” and “The Ouija Experiment” are some of the most popular titles it offers currently. The shows aren’t the most popular and the selection isn’t that big, but kids might enjoy the cartoon selection and reality TV buffs might find something on their short list.
The reason its content is a little limited is that Popcornflix mostly streams videos from Screen Media's library, which includes only independent films. It relies on ad support to offer free viewing. The great thing about this service is that you won’t have to sign up for a membership to watch anything.
Supported devices include Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Xbox, and iOS and Android devices.
It takes less than a second to sign up for a Tubi TV account. In exchange, you get completely free access to over 50,000 movies from big film/entertainment companies Paramount Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Lionsgate. Tubi TV boasts blockbusters, award-winning or nominated films, indie flicks and classics.
“True Grit,” “School of Rock,” “Paycheck,” “Amistad,” “Teen Wolf” and “Paper Moon” are some of the titles currently on offer. Excellent documentaries and popular TV shows are also available: “Merlin,” “The IT Crowd” and “Peep Show” are among many on the list. To compete with Netflix, Tubi has a category called Not on Netflix, which includes movies like “The Kite Runner,” “The Machinist,” “Delicatessen” and the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.”
To provide free viewing, Tubi relies on ads, investments and content partnerships. Outside the US, it also serves Mexico and Canada.
Besides iOS and Android devices, Tubi is also available on Roku and Amazon Fire.
The Roku Channel
Just launched late in 2017, Roku Channel is another good ad-supported streaming service. It’s subscription- and login-free and its content comes complimentary with your Roku device.
Thanks to its strong partnerships with studios like MGM, Sony Pictures and Warner Bros. as well as content publishers like Popcornflix and American Classics, this newbie service is able to offer a few hundred Hollywood movies and shows. Featured films for February include “Cruel Intentions,” “Finding Forrester,” “First Knight,” “Elizabethtown,” “My Girl,” “Only You” and ‘90s TV show “Eerie, Indiana.” To keep its viewers updated on new content, Roku releases a weekly list of newly added stuff.
The only drawback with this service is that it’s only available with a Roku device, the cheapest of which — Roku Express— will set you back $30.
After having shut down many of its sites and services, the web company is, surprisingly, still chugging along. It even launched its latest video-on-demand site, Yahoo! View, which essentially replaced the now-defunct Yahoo! Video and Yahoo! Screen. This version looks promising, as it involves a partnership with Hulu.
Yahoo! View gives viewers access to many of the top current and old TV shows. Of course, content is limited. Not all episodes of the shows available for streaming on this service will necessarily be available.
Shows on hand include “Saturday Night Live,” “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” “Will & Grace,” “This is Us,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” “Once Upon a Time” and “Grey’s Anatomy.”
While not available on streaming devices, you can watch for free on iOS and Android devices as well as your computer.
With very niche content, SnagFilms isn’t as popular as the other free streaming services. However, it’s a great resource for folks who enjoy documentary-type movies and shows. Here’s where you go if you’re looking for a more cerebral form of entertainment.
This service’s selling point is that it showcases philanthropic, thought-provoking and educational videos — more than 5,000 of them — for free. And you need not set up an account, though having one lets you create a watchlist and track your viewing history. Current great features include “The Slaughter Rule,” “Spinning Plates,” “Alive Inside,” “We the People: The Market Basket Effect” and “The Corporation.”
Ad-supported SnagFilms managed to secure such an amazing library of harder-to-find titles through partnerships and affiliations with web companies, nonprofits and special interest sites, including XfinityTV.com, Hulu, Huffington Post, IMDB and YouTube.
The service is available for iPad, Kindle Fire, Roku and Boxee, as well as iOS and Android mobile devices.
While SnagFilms focuses on think pieces, Switzerland-born Viewster’s expertise is anime, fantasy and sci-fi. This video-on-demand service headquartered in Zurich boasts a library of more than 12,000 movies as well as shows from several different countries around the world, available to viewers in more than 120 countries. It’s essentially Netflix for the fandom community.
Viewster relies on ad support and nation-specific partnerships with content owners, so its list of titles may be location-dependent. All content, however, is viewable without membership or registration. To start a list or keep track of your history, register for an account.
“Fushigi Yugi,” “Street Fighter,” “Flame of Recca,” “Murder Princess,” “Zombie-Loan” and “Galaxy Express 999” are among the long list of anime series available. There are some Korean dramas and a few related documentaries as well.
Viewster content is available for streaming on several devices including Apple TV, Chromecast, Roku, Xbox 360, smart TVs and iOS and Android devices.
Classic Cinema Online
While we’re on the subject of specialized streaming services, we need to talk about Classic Cinema Online. Much like paid service FilmStruck, this site offers viewers old, classic and even silent movies. Unlike FilmStruck, the site offers them for free and without membership or registration.
There are a couple of snags: The movie quality isn’t the best — don’t expect high-definition here — and the selection is limited. But the modest library does span several genres including animated, comedy, drama, Western, sci-fi and musical. Episodes of some old TV shows are also available.
Current movies and shows in the showcase include “Fire Over England,” “Texas Terror,” “Casablanca,” “Broken Arrow,” “The Lone Ranger,” “The Mask of Zorro,” “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and “Captain America.”
Classic Cinema Online is only available on iOS and Android devices and computers.
To set up these streaming services on your TV, check out our guide to the best streaming devices on the market.
[Image credit: family watching TV via BigStockPhoto, Crackle, Kanopy, Poipcornflix, Tube TV, Roku, Yahoo!, SnagFilms, Viewster, Classic Cinema Online]