15 best online TV streaming services: which are best for you?

Enjoy the best TV, anywhere, anytime

Smart TV

Within the last few years there's been a new explosion of TV in our lives. Before, we were content to watch television on a schedule dictated by the broadcasters, but things have moved on a long way since then.

We now have a huge range of services that let us get our fix of programmes and movies at any time and through a multitude of devices. No longer are we confined to the living room; the internet lets us watch TV anywhere in the house, while portable media devices like smartphones and tablets keep us entertained on the move – some even with downloads.

Viewing habits haven't quite kept pace with technological advancement, so although the amount of time we spend watching television is increasing every year, we're still a long way from ridding our homes of the big TV. Just 0.2 per cent of people in the UK watch TV exclusively online, but with 12 million tablets currently in use in the UK, the second screen is here to stay.

As the number of services increases, along with the number of ways we can access them, the future of TV becomes ever more muddled and confusing.

Which service do you trust to supply your programmes? Do you really need catch-up TV? Do you buy your movies through your TV provider, or should you stream them online? Do you want to watch TV on a laptop, phone, tablet, or TV? Most importantly, how much should you pay for it all?

Answering these questions isn't an easy task, and the service providers scrapping for world domination don't help either. From Netflix, Lovefilm and Blinkbox to YouTube, iTunes and Now TV, we're here to cut through the jargon and tell you what's worth a second look.

We'll look at what traditional content providers like Sky and Virgin are offering, and what they're doing to keep pace with an ever-evolving industry. We'll also take stock of what the plethora of online services, apps and new platforms like YouView are offering to see if they can compete with the big guns – even Intel is coming out with something soon, while Google TV is also gathering pace on a few LG TVs for 2013.

Are we looking at a future without linear TV at all? Catch-up apps and on-demand streaming services are certainly about more than just replacing DVDs, but will the likes of Sky, Virgin and even YouView one day be mere apps themselves on the smart TVs of the future?

1. BBC iPlayer

The BBC, with its publicly supported TV empire, is a long-standing British institution, so it should come as no surprise that its digital service – BBC iPlayer – was the first of the online catch-up facilities to appear as broadband internet connections hit the mainstream.

This is part of the reason for iPlayer's popularity, but it's also head and shoulders above the rest in terms of content and delivery. At least for now.

In December 2012 alone the BBC received 174 million requests for iPlayer, a rise of 22% on December 2011. iPlayer's content is made up almost entirely of TV shows, along with the occasional film, which have already aired on terrestrial TV and can be watched for a week after they're made available online, though some landmark BBC series are available for 30 days or even in perpetuity.

iPlayer

What makes iPlayer even better is downloads – at least if you use the new apps for iPhone and iPad, or the browser-based service's desktop counterpart. The chance to take a laptop, tablet or smartphone full of downloaded BBC programmes (which expire after 30 days) makes iPlayer a dream come true for commuters and frequent flyers.

The desktop and iOS apps have another significant advantage over the browser version – and other catch-up services – because it lets you 'favourite' content and thereby set a series link. iPlayer will do the rest of the work for you.

iPlayer's other celebrated feature is high definition content, which is ripped straight from the BBC's two HD channels. However, if you have a keen eye for quality you'll notice that HD programmes seem to have been compressed somewhat so they can be streamed down the pipes without causing any hiccups.

With these impressive features available to anyone free of charge, iPlayer is clearly ahead of the game. Provided you don't have to watch something the minute it's broadcast, iPlayer will meet all your needs. If you're happy sticking to BBC content, it could even make Freeview TV redundant.

More than just catch-up TV

iPlayer doesn't just offer catch-up TV either; it airs a reasonable amount of live TV as well, mainly sports broadcasts and the like. It's started to provide HD streaming too, and has promised that in 2013 it will broadcast around 100 hours of content exclusively via iPlayer.

Although its Android apps (which require a messy additional download of a BBC Media Player app) and its streaming-only catch-up service for the BBC's radio stations are a poor relation, iPlayer's myriad versions are a thing of wonder. Found on Xbox360 and PS3, iPlayer apps crop-up on every smart TV platform as well as on YouView, Sky and Virgin and countless other third party devices.

To date, no other catch-up service has managed to branch out to such a diverse range of media-consuming platforms, and iPlayer looks set to further capitalise on its growth as the BBC looks at ways of improving its mobile broadcasting.

One feature that might see the light of day is DVB-T2-Lite, which will let the BBC offer reliable live broadcasts on mobile devices with less impact on battery life. We have yet to see whether this will work with 3G networks and allow truly mobile TV consumption.

The iPlayer is a national obsession and the gold standard – worldwide, even – for streaming TV.

Verdict: 5/5

2. YouTube

Ask someone what they think was the biggest internet revolution of the 21st century and they'll probably say it was YouTube. And with good reason - the user-generated video-blogging site has changed the online landscape forever.

It lets anyone, however well known they are (or not), whatever the quality of their content and wherever they hail from, upload their weird and wonderful videos for anyone around the world to watch at their convenience. The beauty of YouTube is that in the blink of an eye it's taken the broadcasting power from the bigwigs and placed it right in our hands.

OK, so it might not have stopped people wanting to watch a high quality, professionally made production in their living room TVs, but it's an insight into how TV might be produced in the future. After all with YouTube you don't need a big budget – or indeed any budget at all – to produce your own TV series and establish a massive following.

best online TV streaming services

YouTube also lets you share high definition content all the way up to the mighty 1080p, and the site has even started experimenting with 3D viewing. The service isn't just dedicated to amateur video bloggers and filmmakers either - it also has a section where you can watch catch-up TV from the likes of Channel 5 and 4OD, as well as a variety of films and live TV events.

Although it's at a disadvantage in terms of the amount of relevant content it can offer through these channels, YouTube's key strength is its ability to find something you're interested in watching quickly and easily. If YouTube's catch-up function doesn't offer what you're looking for, chances are you'll be able to find it elsewhere on the site - after all, its users upload a staggering eight years' worth of content every day.

Multi-platform

YouTube has universal appeal, and it's no surprise that you can access its video-sharing resource almost anywhere, no matter what the device you're using. There are apps available for just about any mobile device, media player and smart TV, but the unique thing about YouTube is the way its content is shared between users.

The site is a social powerhouse, with around 17 million people sharing their videos with an accompanying social network like Facebook or Twitter. Although it might sound like an excuse for one of your friends to annoy you with yet another video of a dog being beaten up by a cat or a dancing parrot, the sentiment is important: if everyone shared the programmes they watched live or via catch-up with their online associates, their viewing figures would no doubt increase dramatically.

The latest HTML5 versions of YouTube apps across all devices allow secure pairing; browse for video on one device (say, a smartphone or tablet), add it to your 'watch later' list and it's instantly available on another device (including a smart TV's YouTube app, the YouTube app on a TiVo box, games console, tablet or smartphone).

Verdict: 4.5/5

3. Netflix

If you're a connoisseur of movies and/or TV, there's only one game in town – and that's the battle between Amazon's Lovefilm and Netflix. It is, however, something of a race to the bottom, with the truth being that there's not a lot of truly must-have new movies and TV to stream from either; both operate in a different window to Sky, Blinkbox and iTunes, so get their movies a little later.

Not all smart TVs have both Netflix and Lovefilm apps – most do – but on most devices, be it an iPad, a smartphone or a games console, it's a straight choice between the two. The quality of the movies and TV we tried – mostly streamed in 'super HD' – on both TV and on tablets is exquisite.

best online TV streaming services

The problem of content is most pressing for Netflix, which charges £5.99 per month for unlimited streaming, but doesn't offer downloads. Netflix runs on a PC and Mac, Apple TV, the Wii, Xbox 360 and PS3, Android phones and tablets, Windows Phones, iOS devices, internet-enabled TVs and Blu-ray players, and streaming players from Philips, Roku and Western Digital. The most recent addition to the list is the Kindle Fire HD.

Trying to find a film you actually want to watch, and that's less than a few years old (and often decades) is tricky, but Netflix is trying hard to bolster its brand – and its reputation for being the place to go for if you're into TV dramas, rather than movies (though it claims 6,000) – by hosting exclusives.

House of Cards aired on Netflix alone during February 2013, and the CEO is keen to shake-up the industry. Good luck to him – the availability of the latest content is really the only complaint we have about this otherwise splendid service.

Don't forget you can also give Netflix a spin with the 1-month free trial to see if it's worth your money.

Verdict: 4/5

4. LoveFilm Instant

Is it any better than Netflix? Yes, it is, but only if you consider its core old-fashioned-but-reliable postal add-on service. It's a bit ludicrous in our digital age, but such is Hollywood's conservative attitude to the internet (why do they hate it – us – so?) that only the postman can bring you the latest releases.

LoveFilm is available for PC and Mac, the Kindle Fire HD, iPad, Xbox 360, PS3, internet-enabled TVs and Blu-ray players, Sony's Home Cinema system, Sony's Network Media Player and the Onyx Digital Stream set-top box.

For the moment we'll gloss over Lovefilm's peerless selection of DVDs and Blu-ray discs (not that you don't have to wait for top-line discs – you certainly do) and consider Lovefilm Instant A streaming-only service, it offers north of 4,000 titles, though entire series are rolled into one, so there's actually closer to 9,000 individual episodes and movies.

best online TV streaming services

A new 4OD selection of comedy (think Peep Show, Spaced, The Inbetweeners etc) is bolstering Lovefilm's non-film content, but it's also beginning to test the waters with pilot episodes of new comedies from its own Amazon Studios. It will soon host 11 original TV series test pilots for members to stream for free, with viewer response helping to determine which series go into full-season.

A nice idea, but until the movie selection on Lovefilm Instant can rival that of its disc library, it can only ever equal Netflix in terms of streaming. However – and call us old-fashioned – but the chance to have a couple of Blu-ray discs at home puts it just ahead of its rival; streaming is great, but Blu-ray still rules and it makes sense to have it as part of the mix if you're seriously into movies.

Like Netflix, Lovefilm also offers a 1-month free trial so you don't have to pony up any money when you first start.

Verdict: 4/5

5. ITV Player

ITV Player, previously known as ITV Online, is the place to go if you want to sift through the range of programmes available on the broadcaster's channels, but it's getting more and more commercial.

It's a popular service, with 321m views for first nine months of 2012, a 23% increase on 2011. The service couldn't be simpler to use and everything you could want is within easy reach. When you open a program, you might find yourself getting a little annoyed at the two adverts that play at the beginning, as well as subsequent adverts that play throughout the show, but this is how the channel is funded. This is ITV after all, not the BBC, and it doesn't benefit from TV licence fees.

ITV Player

February 2013 saw its first online premiere, of 666 Park Avenue, the day before its linear TV broadcast on ITV2, though in future it will charge for that service. ITV also charges for shows older than seven days from their initial broadcast – typically around 69p – as well as older archive content, though it does have a habit of populating the 'recommended' section exclusively with pay-for content.

We can't argue with the commercial realities, but what happened to free-to-air broadcasting? We're probably not the only ones who would only pay for a show if it could be downloaded.

That said, ITV Player is searching for a workable business model and has made a decent stab at universality; aside from its streaming-only iOS apps, PS3, YouView, Virgin and Sky versions, ITV Player as a smart TV app is presently exclusive to Samsung's smart TVs and Android devices. PS3 users can watch via a channel on YouTube.

Verdict: 4/5