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the mandalorian Image: Disney Plus

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2020 was the year everyone streamed

When we couldn’t go out, we watched anything and everything

By the end of March, questions with friends and family went from “Any plans this weekend?” to “What are you watching now?”

The pandemic forced most of us inside, sometimes for weeks on end. Zoom hangs got tired pretty quickly, puzzles were finished in rapid succession, and there are only so many home workouts to be done in a day. My friends and I started catching up on shows we promised we’d someday watch but kept putting off (for many, that seemed to be The Sopranos) or dove into Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, DC, and Marvel Cinematic Universe marathons. Everyone was streaming all the time — to the point that data caps were instituted in countries around the world by regulatory boards that were worried the internet would crash under the strain.

The internet never collapsed, but streaming, once an isolated activity, became one of the only forms of connection we had. In March and April, Netflix’s eight-part documentary series Tiger King was one of the few things people could talk about outside of the pandemic. Tiger King wasn’t special, but it became a show that everyone could obsess over and feel unified by.

At a moment when the world was so isolated and people were cut off from each other, what we were streaming became a meaningful connection. We’ve had that time and again throughout the pandemic: The Queen’s Gambit, The Mandalorian, Emily in Paris, The Undoing, and more. Not to mention we reconnected with friends over shows and movies we love so much: Avatar: The Last Airbender, Grey’s Anatomy, Criminal Minds, Adventure Time, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to name a few.

Companies took note. By the end of 2020, nearly every major company with a streaming service was peddling the same line to investors: streaming isn’t just a way to jump on a moment; it’s the future of the businesses. Disney, WarnerMedia, NBCUniversal, and ViacomCBS have undergone massive shifts internally to restructure themselves around their respective streaming products — Disney Plus, HBO Max, Peacock, and CBS All Access (soon to become Paramount Plus). Movies once designated for theaters are premiering on streaming platforms, features like group watch parties allow people stuck at home to make their streaming experience more interactive, and exclusivity deals continue to play out as each company vies for the biggest audience.

We’re in the middle of a radical shift in the industry — in nearly every industry — brought on by unprecedented forced acceleration. E-commerce is up because people are choosing to shop online; educators are adapting to teaching over Zoom; and in Hollywood, one message has carried forward throughout the year more so than any other: I stream, you stream, we all stream for eternity.

Every streaming service is trying to accomplish the same thing. Subscribers should be able to hit play, search, fast-forward and rewind, and enable subtitles without difficulty. It shouldn’t take long for machine learning algorithms to pick up on what a particular person is interested in and recommend shows or movies quickly. Each platform is also immensely different. Content design, user interface design, and the slightly different controls that create a streaming experience make all the difference in an enjoyable time navigating and watching a program and huffing in frustration.

Since streaming is so fundamentally important, and will remain so going forward, and because every platform is unique in its own way, I’ve decided to assign each service a grade. These are my personal feelings on streaming services that I use every single day (often for far too many hours throughout the day).

A promotional picture of Wonder Woman 1984 Image: Warner Bros.

Report Cards

HBO Max: B-

Pros:

  • One of the best film libraries of any streaming service, including the Studio Ghibli collection
  • Incredible lineup of animated shows
  • All of HBO’s catalog
  • Curated selection of episodes for high-profile shows
  • Hubs for different franchises
  • Offline downloads
  • Available on all major aggregators

Cons:

  • Search functionality isn’t reliable
  • No fast-forward button
  • No 4K / HDR capabilities currently
  • On the more expensive side
  • Glitchy

HBO Max is my favorite streaming service. It’s the one I open most frequently, the one that I spend most time on, and the one that’s usually carrying a show that everyone is talking about. At the time of this writing, that show was The Undoing, but I’m obsessed with Industry, and I’m excited for The Flight Attendant to drop. With a library that includes all of Studio Ghibli, some good DC movies, an incredible slate of cartoons, and animated programming from Cartoon Network and Adult Swim, HBO Max has everything I need. Still, despite how much I love it, the fact that it’s not on Roku (one of the biggest aggregators in the United States), can be glitchy, and doesn’t have 4K-enabled streaming are impossible to ignore. From a content perspective, HBO Max is an A+ service, but it’s everything else that drags it down. At $15 a month, not having access to those features becomes a problem.

Image: Disney Plus

Disney Plus: A-

Pros:

  • Big hubs for main film and TV franchises
  • Decent catalog of movies and TV shows
  • 4K / HDR streaming capable
  • Watch parties are available
  • Available on all aggregators
  • Affordable pricing
  • Offline downloads

Cons:

  • Confusing content design
  • Limited selection for subscribers
  • Not enough new content week after week

There’s no question that Disney Plus is a breakout success. Parents can have Frozen running all day to keep kids entertained, and shows like The Mandalorian or movies like Hamilton are enough to keep people subscribed. The biggest issue, however, remains that Disney’s content design is often confusing. Searching for something should be a pretty seamless activity, but Disney Plus’ hubs ironically make it frustrating to find movies or TV shows even within their specific sections. The Star Wars section, for example, could be separated into various trilogies, animated shows, and others, but for some reason, it’s all thrown together in a nonsensical way. Streaming is more than just the content on a platform — it’s the experience of using said platform. Disney Plus could use a little work.

Image: Netflix

Netflix: A

Pros:

  • Most extensive library of films and TV shows, including new programming being added weekly
  • Available on all aggregators
  • 4K / HDR capabilities
  • One tap fast-forward and rewind capabilities
  • Great audio control and options directly inside the streamer
  • Offline downloads
  • Pretty good personal recommendations

Cons:

  • Quality of programming is inconsistent at best
  • Terrible content organization

Netflix is the be all, end all of streaming services for a reason. It’s not because Netflix has been around the longest (that goes to Hulu); it’s because Netflix is the equivalent to basic cable. There’s something for everyone at a relatively affordable price, with new shows and movies appearing all the time — not to mention Netflix’s international power means shows from different countries can find new audiences. The Spanish series Money Heist, for example, is one of Netflix’s most popular shows. Netflix’s worst quality is that navigating its interface can be a chore, and I end up searching for something for 10 minutes before settling on a Hannibal rewatch because there’s too much meh content. But for $14 a month, Netflix remains the best bang for your buck.

Image: CBS

CBS All Access: B-

Pros:

  • Access to live news and some sports
  • Excellent catalog of older titles
  • Affordable pricing options
  • Available on all aggregators

Cons:

  • Not 4K / HDR capable
  • Lack of new shows on a consistent basis
  • Terrible UI
  • Most shows I want are also available on Netflix

CBS All Access is like the channel you forget you have until you’re scrolling one night and see something that catches your attention. There’s nothing particularly wrong with CBS All Access, but there’s hardly any reason to sign up when compared to what competitors are offering. Originals bring people in; libraries keep them. CBS All Access has a stellar library of classic TV shows and films, but I can’t think of the last time I felt like I had to open CBS All Access to catch something. Even some of my favorite ViacomCBS shows, like Avatar: The Last Airbender and Criminal Minds, are available on Netflix. CBS All Access has yet to prove why it’s something I should want, let alone why it’s something any of us need.

Photo by Jan Thijs / Amazon Prime Studios

Amazon Prime Video: C

Pros:

  • Included with Amazon Prime account
  • A number of projects from all-star creatives
  • Available on all aggregators
  • Offers 4K / HDR content

Cons:

  • Absolute garbage user interface
  • Search functionality isn’t optimal
  • New content is sparse
  • Library offering doesn’t compare to competitors
  • Overall incredibly frustrating to use
  • No offline downloads

Considering that Amazon Prime Video is a massive undertaking from one of the biggest corporations in the world, one might expect it to work well. It doesn’t. Nothing about using Amazon Prime Video is a pleasant experience. The catalog is relatively weak compared to others, browsing and searching are more complicated than they need to be, and the experience of watching something through the streaming portal is dismal. If it wasn’t part of the Amazon Prime package, I don’t know why anyone would use it. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel isn’t that good.

The Handmaid’s Tale Image: Hulu

Hulu: B+

Pros:

  • Incredible library of content
  • 4K / HDR capability
  • Offline downloads
  • Consistent stream of new content
  • Home to the FX on Hulu hub for prestige series
  • Excellent personalized recommendations
  • Affordable pricing options

Cons:

  • Not super intuitive
  • Browsing is a pain
  • Content design is difficult to navigate

Hulu is one of the longest-running streamers, so the team has had some time to figure things out. It’s mostly worked out pretty well. Hulu has one of the best library offerings at an affordable price and allows for seamless viewing when a movie or TV show is selected. The biggest issues remain browsing, searching, and the content design. Hulu isn’t search friendly. The personal recommendations are great, but actually scrolling around trying to find something is annoying. There doesn’t appear to be any rhyme or reason to how Hulu is laid out, and it takes away from how great the service truly is.

Image: Peacock

Peacock: C

Pros:

  • Affordable pricing options
  • Offline downloads
  • On all major aggregators
  • Impressive catalog of classic TV shows
  • Unique hubs (live content, traditional library)

Cons:

  • No 4K / HDR capabilities
  • Terrible search functionality
  • Frustrating user interface
  • Ads sometimes appear even on ad-free plan
  • “Channels” section is confusing
  • Content design is counterintuitive

Peacock is… well, that’s part of the issue. I’m still not quite sure what Peacock wants to be. It’s a general streamer that has one of the best collections of classic TV shows, thanks to NBCUniversal, but Peacock is trying to be too many things at once. It’s a bit of a mess. If it weren’t for the affordable pricing and library collection, I don’t see why anyone would return to it. There are some good series (I love the Saved by the Bell reboot), and if I want to marathon Law and Order: SVU, I can. But trying to figure out how to navigate the service takes more time than it should. There also aren’t enough new series or exclusive titles that make me want to open Peacock every day. Fans of The Office might start doing that in 2021 when the show moves from Netflix to Peacock, but NBCUniversal needs to give me more reasons to open the app.

Image: Apple TV Plus

Apple TV Plus: B

Pros:

  • Cheapest of the group
  • Quality programming
  • Easy to navigate
  • Offline viewing
  • 4K / HDR capable
  • Available on all aggregators

Cons:

  • Not a huge library offering
  • No catalog of classic TV shows or movies
  • Not enough consistent new entries

Much like Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV Plus has the advantage of belonging to a much bigger ecosystem. Buy any new Apple product, get Apple TV Plus for free. The downside is that there isn’t much to watch. And as far as downsides go, that’s a pretty big one. If the goal is to keep users subscribed and open the app every day, Apple’s lack of endless things to watch makes that a difficult ask. The upside is that many of the shows and movies being added to Apple TV Plus are worth checking out. I don’t use Apple TV Plus as often, but when I do, I enjoy what I watch. I feel pretty confident in saying that in a few years, that B- will be hovering around a B+ / A-.

Update (December 17th, 1:35pm ET): Updated to include new information that HBO Max is now available on Roku.

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