Best free TV streaming services: Roku Channel, Pluto TV, Tubi TV, Sling TV and more

Best free TV streaming services: Roku Channel, Pluto TV, Tubi TV, Sling TV and more


crackle-tv-shows-as-of-march-2019

Crackle offers a lot of free TV to watch, though you don’t always get to watch every episode of every series.


Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

Hulu is arguably the best streaming-TV bargain at $5.99, but in the uncertain times of the coronavirus pandemic you may be looking for something a little more… free. As long as you’ve got internet, you can enjoy a wealth of free TV. Granted you may not be able to binge-watch entire seasons like you can on Netflix, nor will you be able to access every show you want to see. But you might be surprised at how much content is available online, and how many options you have for viewing it.

While there are plenty of free services, some of them come with limitations. First and foremost these services are almost all ad-supported, so you won’t be able to skip commercials. Most have older shows and movies, sort of like basic cable reruns. And many network sites won’t let you stream all their shows unless you’re a paid cable or satellite subscriber — but many offer a selection of stuff you can watch without signing in or paying. Let’s take a look at some the best free, legal ways to indulge your inner couch potato. (Prefer movies? Check out these 10 free Netflix alternatives.)

Read more: The best live-TV streaming services for cord-cutters

Roku Channel

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Roku

Roku Channel is designed for people who own the company’s streaming products, but anyone with a phone or PC browser and a connection to the internet can use it. 

What you can watch: The selection of TV shows is heavy on reality TV such as Hoarders and crime shows such as Cold Case. Unfortunately, not every series is complete and the service only offers a single episode in some cases. There’s plenty of stuff to watch, however, including a dedicated kids section and another for live news. There’s also a solid array of past and recent movies including Stand By Me, The Karate Kid and Donnie Darky. The channel also offers the ability to subscribe to premium services including HBO, much like you can on Amazon Prime Video channels or the Apple TV app.

Where you can watch: As you might expect, you can get the Roku Channel on Roku devices including streamers and Roku TVs. However, you can also watch the Roku Channel in any browser or via the iOS/Android Roku app, though it doesn’t offer the option to download shows for offline viewing. There’s also a Roku Channel app on Samsung smart TVs.


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Crackle

Sony’s Crackle is an ad-supported streaming service that offers mostly movies, but also some TV shows — including original content. It’s available on a wide variety of devices and doesn’t even require you to set up an account, though doing so enables you to save favorites, get recommendations and resume playback if you switch between devices.

What you can watch: Crackle’s commercial-supported selection isn’t particularly extensive, with only a little over 100 different shows, and mainly consists of family sitcoms such as All in the Family, Roseanne and Who’s the Boss. As above, not every series is complete. In some cases you might get only one or two seasons, or even just a partial season.

Where you can watch: Crackle’s list of devices is also extensive. The service offers apps for all mobile platforms, game consoles and major streaming devices. It’s even baked into many smart TVs. It does not offer the option to download shows for offline viewing.

Pluto TV

Pluto TV is noteworthy for offering not only on-demand movies, but also live TV channels including CBS News and, ahem, CNET. It’s ad-supported, of course, but definitely one of the best free-content options currently available. (Disclaimer: Pluto TV is owned by ViacomCBS, the parent company of CNET).

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Pluto TV is arguably the single best place to watch live streaming TV at no charge.


Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

What you can watch: Pluto offers an impressive selection of live channels, all of them sorted into categories like news, sports, comedy and movies in a grid format. On-demand TV content consists mostly of crime and reality shows, and it’s not organized nearly as well as the live channels. One oddity: If you’re watching a live stream, there’s no way to pause. You can only mute it.

Where you can watch: Pluto TV works in desktop browsers, but also offers a Windows client. It has apps for Android, iOS and various smart TVs and channels for Apple TV ($179 at Apple), Fire TV and Roku.

Tubi TV

The name belies the content: Tubi TV offers considerably more movies than it does TV shows, but that’s not to say you shouldn’t check out its extensive library. Similar to Crackle, this ad-supported network is available on a wide variety of devices and doesn’t require an account, though signing up for one enables you to save favorites and resume playback if you switch between devices.

tubi-tv-shows

Tubi TV offers a lot of shows, just maybe not many that you really want to watch.


Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

What you can watch: Tubi TV definitely isn’t Hulu. Its TV selection consists of a lot of British imports and various shows you’ve probably never heard of. Indeed, there’s not even a dedicated TV section, just a few TV-specific categories (comedies, dramas, reality and so on) within its much larger content list. 

Where you can watch: Tubi TV’s list of devices rivals that of Crackle. The service offers apps for Android and iOS, the major game consoles and streaming devices, and some Samsung TVs. It doesn’t offer the option to download content for offline viewing.

Sling TV Free

Recently redubbed Stay in and Sling, the free version of Sling TV includes free on-demand TV, movies and live TV from ABC News Live and (for the next month at least) Fox News as well as local Fox stations in select markets.

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Screenshot: Ty Pendlebury/CNET

What you can watch: Sling TV‘s rebrand of its existing free streaming service includes a stream of ABC News Live as well as “thousands of movies and shows suitable for kids and families,” including titles such as Teen Titans Go!, DC Super Hero Girls and Lego Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu.  

Where you can watch: Sling TV Free is supported by the same devices that Sling is — they use the same app — and the list is extensive: from streamers to consoles to mobile devices.

Network sites: ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and PBS

Just about every major network lets you stream shows via a web site or mobile app, which seems like great news for cord cutters. So what if you couldn’t watch, say, the latest episode of Bob’s Burgers? Just fire up the Fox Now app and stream it on demand. At least, that’s the idea.

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CBS offers plenty of free shows to stream.


Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

What you can watch: If there’s a show that’s currently on the air, chances are good you can watch it online at a network site. However, in some cases there’s a Catch-22: Many networks require you to have an active service provider (like cable or satellite). Unless you can supply valid sign-in credentials, you can’t stream. That’s true of networks such as AMC and Syfy, meaning no episodes of The Walking Dead or Deadly Class for you. But CBS (which, again, owns CNET), TBS, The CW and a few others will let you watch at least some episodes of some shows without a sign-in. So you’ll have to poke around a bit.

Where you can watch: This also varies from one network to another, but in most cases you can watch shows in a browser, on a mobile device or via a media-streamer app. But download options are few and far between, so don’t expect to be watching shows offline unless you pay for them. Here’s the list of major network sites.

Hoopla Digital

Got a library card? Check to see if your library has partnered with Hoopla. This digital-media service allows you to check out all kinds of stuff — from e-books to movies to TV shows. When you “borrow” one, you have 72 hours in which to watch it. Your library determines the total number of titles you can borrow each month.

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Hoopla’s TV selection includes plenty of stuff that’s both enriching and educational, but some mainstream content as well.


Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

What you can watch: Hoopla’s TV selection is something of a hodge-podge, with a smattering of well-known shows mixed in with a lot of self-help, documentary and family fare. For example, you’ll find three seasons of the SyFy original Humans, both seasons of The Jim Gaffigan Show and lots of Ken Burns documentaries. Hoopla also has instructional videos from The Great Courses series, various PBS Kids shows and plenty of Acorn TV content that would otherwise require a subscription.

Where you can watch: Hoopla content can be viewed just about anywhere: mobile devices, streaming devices and on your PC in a browser. Surprisingly, the mobile apps offer not only streaming, but also a download option for offline viewing.


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