Hello, I’m poor.
As a poor soul trying to survive the Great Streaming Wars of 2019 (more likely the full-scale invasion of our wallets will take off in 2020), I have to wonder if there’s any escape from the carving of content to fifteen different services, of each company producing exactly one original series that I feel like I need to see, of realizing that in order to have unfettered access to every library that I want it’ll probably cost as much as--if not more than--cable. Is there a way that we can survive without having to sit down next to little Timmy on Christmas Eve and explain that between Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, Sling, Shudder, The Criterion Channel, HBO GO, Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, and DC Universe that Santa was just too busy binging to tuck anything under the tree this year? Can we escape financial death by a million subscription-service cuts?
Yes, my friends. There is hope. There are streaming services, some with a wealth of interesting film and TV offerings, that are absolutely free. Best of all, none of these are illegal! I’m not going to have the FBI knocking on my door, thank you very much. So, let’s dive in and see what the great wide internet has to offer the most thrifty viewers among us.
Crackle has been around for a very long time, and in that time it’s become the go-to joke for what free streaming apps are supposed to be. Supposedly full of terrible content and lackluster originals, it’s the epitome of “you get what you pay for.” But is this true?
Yeah, pretty much.
Crackle’s not great, and the most you can say is at least it’s free. Most of its bulk comes from sequels to cool movies, without hosting the cool movies themselves. Crackle has Beverly Hills Cop 3 but neither of the others. Why would they do that? The presence of Beverly Hills Cop 3 only makes sense to complete the trilogy. No one only wants to watch Beverly Hills Cop 3, and having that alone on your service makes everything around it appear that much worse. Also, having Airplane 2 without having Airplane? What are you smoking, Crackle? It has Boondock Saints 2 without having Boondock Saints, only Hostel 3, Insidious 2 and 3, Cruel Intentions 2 and 3, The Grudge 2 and 3--you can just keep going and going with this. Crackle at the very least hosts the entire unbroken Look Who’s Talking trilogy.
Its original content is also kind of baffling. It made two Dead Rising adaptations that are gone now. What kind of service loses its own originals?
To its benefit, Crackle does have some newer stuff like The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (and possibly only The Man Who Killed Don Quixote) and some great films like Tokyo Godfathers, so downloading it isn’t a total waste. You would expect a lot more from Sony, though.
Oh, also if you’re looking to get your Marvel on without paying, Crackle has these weird anime-looking series for Wolverine, Iron Man, Blade, and the X-Men. They look bad, but you get what you pay for, right?
Owned by Viacom, Pluto sets to recreate the live-TV experience of just turning on your set and having video immediately in front of your face and does a really good job of it. It’s nice to not always have to actively consider what you want to watch, to just pick a channel and let whatever’s on wash over you while you look at your phone or fold laundry or whatever. Pluto’s updated with new channels pretty frequently and has neat stuff like a channel dedicated to old game shows and another dedicated exclusively to American Gladiator. There’s a ton of channels, so it’d be hard not to find something that you (or your kids) will be into.
That said, there are a few caveats. Some channels can be pretty content light, cycling through the same four or five movies or shows with little variety. That same lack of variety extends to the commercials, so expect to have the MyPillow guy haunt your dreams. Also, commercials splice into movies with no warning, which is a bit disorienting.
Worst of all, though, is the lack of features within the app itself. Pluto is built to allow you to use your phone to favorite and hide channels from its channel guide which would make navigation a cinch, but it doesn’t work on most apps. That can make finding stuff you actually want a bit of a chore, and until that bug gets sorted out you might find yourself defaulting to one or two channels without exploring.
There are other live-TV apps like Xumo and Airy, but they often have the same content as Pluto but less of it, which makes them hard to recommend.
Hoopla is a pretty fantastic service that comes with a couple strings attached. First, it’s funded through public libraries, so you’ll need to have a card with a library that pays for Hoopla in order to use it. The second is that Hoopla gives its users a total allotment of 10 borrows a month. Once those are up, you have to wait until the first of the next month to get back in. If you’re able to gain access to it, though, you absolutely should.
Hoopla’s film selection is as good as anything you’d see from a paid subscription service. It has a pretty sweeping collection classics from the 20’s forward like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and The Sting. It gets plenty of recent releases, sometimes the same day they hit DVD. It has a collection dedicated to A24 releases. Hoopla even has a some flicks that services like Amazon (The Neon Demon) or Shudder (Mandy) claim as exclusives.
Given the 10 borrow limit, watching TV on Hoopla is a bit of a joke as you use one borrow per episode. Its offerings reflect this--it’s a lot of PBS stuff and single seasons of shows without the others. As a TV platform, it’s not very exciting.
Out of all the free streaming services I’ve used, Tubi is the out-and-out best. It has a wealth of content. It warns you before ads appear. Its app is clean and easy to use. If Crackle is what you’d expect a free streaming app to be, Tubi is what you’d hope it would be.
Libraries that appear on other services, like ConTV or FilmRise, are fully available on demand here. No matter the genre, Tubi boasts a huge list of films and TV like you’d only expect from a paid platform. As a fan of low-budget and trashy horror, I was in awe of Tubi’s collection of Full Moon, Arrow Video, and Scream Factory films. Beware! Children at Play, Schramm, Microwave Massacre, Slumber Party Massacre, Attack of the Crab Monsters, C.H.U.D., Willard--the app is like a candy store. This extends all around. I can’t exactly say what makes for a great kids movie, but All Dogs Go to Heaven, How to Train Your Dragon, and Norm of the North (of course) are in the downright bottomless list of family features. They have non-Disney versions of classics like Cinderella--and an Aladdin retelling that has the genie as a dude in a trucker cap that reads “I’m the Genie.” So, that’s cool.
Tubi is sprawling and rekindles that sense of the discovery that the golden age of streaming allowed, where you’d see a hundred things you’ve been meaning to watch and a bunch of stuff that you feel like you need to see. It’s fantastic, and the only issue I ran into was some weird backtracking and fast-forwarding I experienced in the stream while watching through my (admittedly old) Chromecast. It dampened the joy of introducing my significant other to Bloody Birthday--but we switched over to Roku, were able to pick up right where we left off, and had no issues after that.
Do check it out, for sure.
Whatever your tastes, there are apps that can offer you compelling free alternatives to the paid streaming giants. Does that mean we’ll go totally free? No. We’re all dumb sacks of flesh easily swayed by hype, and there will always be a service or two you probably can’t do without, because it hosts a comfort show like Seinfeld or Friends--but these can certainly fill the gaps.
And if you do decide to take the cheapskate plunge and cut the cord totally free, Tubi has Peep Show, the best sitcom ever made. That could be your new Friends, if you’d just give it a chance.