As the competition between video streaming services gets hotter, Hulu is keeping pace with new original series, a strong library of classic shows, a good selection of anime series and movies, and a robust live TV option. It’s far from perfect, with HD and 4K selections lagging behind on-demand competitors and occasionally frustrating ads even in the mostly ad-free subscription tier. Still, Hulu is an Editors’ Choice and the best single catchall service for cord-cutters, covering several bases at once. Individually, Netflix remains our top pick for video streaming services, Sling TV is the best value for live TV, and Crunchyroll wins for anime-specific streaming.
Features and Pricing
If it has been a while since you considered a Hulu subscription, know that a lot has changed. Both Hulu Plus and Hulu’s free version are long gone. Now, at a minimum, you need to fork over $7.99 per month, though this still includes limited advertisements. We reviewed the service with the base Hulu with Live TV plan, the $39.99 package that includes both live television and the on-demand library with limited ads. You can also shell out $11.99 per month to (mostly) avoid advertising for the on-demand library on its own, or $43.99 for both live TV and mostly ad-free VOD (the live channels, of course, have commercials). Hulu also offers HBO ($14.99), Showtime ($8.99), and Cinemax ($9.99) add-ons, which let you watch shows and movies from those networks along with their live feeds.
You may be outraged to discover that even the “No Commercials” price tier still displays some ads, but to Hulu’s credit, it explains that there are a small number of shows it cannot stream without ads. At present, those shows include Grey’s Anatomy, Once Upon A Time, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Scandal, New Girl, and How To Get Away With Murder.
The ads in the $7.99 plan may sound annoying, but they are no worse than regular television. The ads play at the same points as they do in broadcast TV. Films run uninterrupted, with ads before the movie begins. The ads can be a bit unpredictable, however; you may find that shows run with more or fewer ads, occasionally. Some shows also offer a choice between running a single very long add or several shorter ones, or between directly inviting engagement with an interactive ad or a series of regular ads.
Another issue to note is that Hulu’s record with HD content is a little spotty. We were unable to confirm how many shows are available in HD, or what other restrictions might apply. However, you can restrict search results to show HD content only. Part of this issue is that many of Hulu’s older shows are simply not available in a high-quality format. Ultra HD (UHD, or 4K) content is even spottier, while Amazon Video and Netflix have fairly robust libraries of new shows and movies in 4K.
A basic Netflix subscription costs the same as a basic Hulu account, but Netflix doesn’t run ads on any of its content. Higher Netflix tiers let you stream in HD and on more devices simultaneously. Netflix also continues to offer its excellent disc-by-mail program for an additional fee, giving you access to more and often rarer films and TV series.
Where to Watch Hulu
Hulu’s web interface for browsing on-demand content is functional, but doesn’t look particularly modern. Netflix does a much better job presenting content. We also feel that Netflix’s recommendation engine is more attuned to individual tastes.
TV and movies are best viewed on a big screen from the comfort of a couch. Cord cutters can find apps for Hulu on a variety of streaming devices, such as the Apple TV and the Roku Premiere+. Some users may not want to spring for a standalone streaming device. For those people, Hulu apps can be found on game consoles, including both PlayStations and Xbox Ones, and on many smart TVs. Smaller, portable devices like the Google Chromecast Ultra and Amazon Fire TV Stick also work with Hulu, letting you take your favorite shows with you when you travel. Even the Nintendo Switch has a Hulu app, which is the only streaming video service currently available on the system.
You can also enjoy Hulu on your Android or iOS device. The experience on smartphones and tablets is superb, with smooth playback and crisp resolution. We experienced very few instances of video sputtering on any of the number of devices we used for testing. We discuss the mobile apps in later sections of the review. Both on-demand video and live TV were available on all apps we tested.
Hulu does not currently let you download videos for offline viewing, which both Netflix and Amazon Video allow. Since your only option on mobile is to stream content, it’s best to make sure that you’re connected to a Wi-Fi network, unless you have an unlimited data plan. Hulu recently announced plans to allow offline viewing, but the feature won’t be rolled out until later this year.
Hulu and VPN
You should use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) on every one of your devices and for every internet-based activity. Hulu is no exception. Note, however, that some video streaming services simply won’t work if you have a VPN enabled. It may take some effort to find a service that works with your favorite streaming platforms, if any do, but a VPN could help you access to region-locked content in some cases.
TV Shows and (Some) Movies
From its inception, Hulu has been about TV shows, and that emphasis remains. The service offers hundreds of seasons and thousands of episodes from major networks. However, the rise of network-specific streaming services, like CBS All Access, might cut into this vast content library. Disney’s recent acquisition of 21st Century Fox’s Film and TV divisions is also problematic, in light of Disney’s plans to launch its own streaming platform. There’s still enough good TV content that we’re not downgrading its rating—yet. But if the trend continues, it will definitely be a problem for Hulu.
One solution to this problem is, of course, making your own shows and movies. Like Netflix and Amazon, Hulu creates original content. Its offerings have been a mixed bag, including prestige projects like The Looming Tower, hits like I Love You, America with Sarah Silverman, and less worthy offerings like Rocketjump: The Show. Netflix Originals have been more successful and more varied, including mega-budgets productions like The Crown, animated hits like Bojack Horseman, stunning genre pieces like Stranger Things, and smash-hit Marvel miniseries like Jessica Jones. Amazon also has a growing list of quality originals, including The Grand Tour, Patriot, The Tick, and Transparent. Recent original releases, such as Difficult People, Marvel’s Runaways, and The Handmaid’s Tale have improved Hulu’s reputation when it comes to original content.
The service offers many current broadcast and cable TV shows, which appear on Hulu sometimes as little as a day after airing on the traditional outlets. Hulu shares this day-after availability with Amazon and iTunes. Netflix, by comparison, only releases complete seasons, which is great for bingeing, especially when it comes to the service’s original shows. It does mean that regular network seasons don’t reach Netflix for as much as a year after the first episode is shown.
For some newer shows, only the most recent season or two is available on Hulu. If you’re starting from scratch, you’ll have to get the earlier parts from a competitor. Some very popular shows only offer the most recent few episodes, so it’s important to stay current, or you’ll have to go to a service like Amazon Video or Apple iTunes to buy the ones you missed. For older complete series, there’s quite a bit of overlap between Hulu and Netflix; both services have every past Star Trek series you could possibly hope to watch, although for Star Trek: Discovery, you’ll need to sign up for CBS All Access.
While Hulu may now have the edge when it comes to shows, Netflix’s wide variety of films and documentaries trumps Hulu’s solid but modest movie library. Hulu no longer includes films from the Criterion collection, which have since moved over to Turner’s FilmStruck streaming service. Hulu does have a large selection of Korean, British, and Latino programming. If you’re a fan of import television, it’s a strong offering.
Hulu With Live TV
The Hulu with Live TV subscription covers all local, regional, and standard cable channels available in your market with support for up to two simultaneous streams, plus 50 hours of cloud-based DVR (similar to the DVR available on PlayStation Vue) and full access to Hulu’s on-demand programming (the same you get with Hulu’s standard $7.99 monthly membership with ads). You can make the on-demand service ad-free for another $4 per month, and add Showtime and all of its on-demand content for another $8 per month.
Larger households will want to consider either of Hulu’s add-on packages. The Enhanced Cloud DVR package quadruples the available DVR storage to 200 hours, and the Unlimited Screens package lets you stream simultaneously to an unlimited number of devices in your home and up to three outside of your home. These packages are another $14.99 per month each, or can be bought together for $19.99.
Local and regional channels depend on your market. In the New York City area, Hulu offers 60 channels between local affiliates and cable networks. Local TV includes ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC, along with YES (Yankees Entertainment and Sports) and MyNetworkTV. Entertainment cable networks include A&E, Boomerang, Bravo, Cartoon Network, Chiller, Disney, FX, Oxygen, Syfy, TBS, TNT, and USA. CNN, FOX News, and MSNBC cover the cable news field, along with CNBC, CNN International, FOX Business, and Headline News. Sports networks include CBS Sports, ESPN, ESPN 2, ESPN U, FS1, FS2, NBCSN, and SNY.
Viacom networks like Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon, Spike, and TV Land are notably absent, and the local CW affiliate also isn’t available in the NYC market. The selection is similar to PlayStation Vue’s $45 Core subscription tier, which shares similar holes in its lineup. DirecTV Now and Sling TV both include Viacom programming, and their $40-range tiers are otherwise similar to Hulu’s in terms of selection (though Sling TV doesn’t offer local affiliates). However, add-on packages for Sling and more expensive tiers for DirecTV Now feature far more channels than Hulu currently offers.
Sling TV might be cheaper, but you won’t get the local programming or the massive library of existing content that you do with Hulu. Both services are available on a wide range of devices, from Amazon Fire TV Sticks to Android devices and more. Although Hulu does offer a range of sports channels, fuboTV is still probably the best options for sports addicts. It includes more than 80 channels of sports and entertainment content and good DVR capabilities. Notably, it does not include ESPN programming, which Hulu and Sling TV do offer.
Hulu’s library includes a good collection of anime shows and movies. While Netflix has a mere 50-odd streaming anime titles, Hulu has hundreds. These include recent shows, such as My Hero Academia, Himouto! Umaru-chan and One Punch Man, as well as older classics. If you grew up with Cowboy Bebop, FLCL, Ranma 1/2, Rurouni Kenshin, Slayers, and Trigun, you’ll find them all on Hulu. Crunchyroll’s 950-odd titles beat Hulu’s offerings, but you won’t find some of these older, critically acclaimed shows there. Crunchyroll also hangs its hat on simulcasting new anime series currently on the air in Japan. Netflix and Hulu both offer this, but not to the same extent.
Hulu also has a collection of feature-length anime films, such as the venerable Ghost in the Shell. While most anime series on Hulu have both subs and dubs, we had a harder time finding subtitled anime films with the original Japanese audio track. Also, Hulu subtitles aren’t always the best. When we watched Ranma 1/2, for example, signs and other important on-screen text went untranslated.
Hulu recently updated its apps on most platforms with a new interface, and we tested the Android app on a Google Pixel running Android 8.1. The new app uses a text-based menu system, with four persistent icons (Home, My Stuff, Browse, and Account) on the bottom for navigation. Within each section, you can scroll horizontally between broader categories and vertically to see all of the associated content. Movies and TV shows pop out into full-screen overviews, which look really slick. We are disappointed by the lack of options in the Account section. The only app-related preferences are for customizing subtitles/captions and toggling Hulu’s Autoplay feature.
Hulu’s mobile app reminds us of the elegant, text-based interface of the ill-fated Windows 10 Mobile operating system. The tan and blue backgrounds and white accents are also visually pleasing. Oddly, despite this redesign effort, Hulu’s web interface on the desktop has not changed significantly. The inconsistency is somewhat annoying and the web version would seriously benefit from a more streamlined look and feel.
Overall, the mobile app looks nicer than Netflix’s mobile offering, though the latter is easier to navigate. For example, Hulu’s layout makes it more difficult to discover new content, since the screen is only capable of showing about two and a quarter content thumbnails at any one time. Thus, you may have to scroll around to reach any new or undiscovered content if you don’t use the search bar. An option to adjust the size of items would be useful.
Live TV is generally sequestered in its own tab, but live programming that might catch your interest can show up on the main screen alongside suggested on-demand movies and shows. The program guide for live television looks sleek and elegant like the rest of the app, but it isn’t particularly intuitive for looking through a large number of TV channels at once, or exploring multiple channels’ upcoming programming for the coming days.
The distinction between on-demand programming and DVR recordings isn’t particularly clear unless you manually go to the Manage DVR tab in the app. You can browse your live TV recordings from this tab; otherwise all of your favorite shows and movies simply show up in the category menus throughout the app.
We tested out the streaming performance of the mobile app while connected to PCMag’s Wi-Fi network (50Mbps download). Streaming performance is strong and content started playing at full-quality after a few seconds. And yes, if you don’t pay for the ad-free version, you still have to watch advertisements on mobile, too.
Hulu also offers apps for your iPhone and iPad. We had no issues installing and logging into the app on an iPhone 8 running iOS 11. Its streaming quality over the same network is just as strong as on Android, which comes as no surprise. Videos launch quickly and we didn’t encounter any lag.
The apps are practically identical. The only significant difference with the iOS version is an extra icon in the bottom navigation bar labeled Search. This is functionally identical to the Search icon in the Browse section of the Android app. The other minor difference is that section headings are aligned to the left on Android and centered on iOS, but we doubt that differences will cause an uproar.
TV on the Internet
Netflix has better original programming, movie options, and a superior web interface, but Hulu subscribers have a better choice of TV content, especially when it comes to shows currently on-air, and it makes many new shows available a day after they premiere on network TV. Add live TV on top of that, and you have a pretty compelling package, especially when considered alongside Hulu’s growing arsenal of original content and a surprising number of anime series and films. On the other hand, Hulu does bring over some aspects of the television watching experience that would be better left behind, such as ads in its base price tier (and even some with its No Commercials plan).
If you’re getting only one streaming service, Hulu is an excellent choice for its combination of a robust on-demand library and live TV, and for that it earns our Editors’ Choice when the live TV option is factored in. If you don’t mind juggling two accounts, though, we generally prefer the selection, value, and ease of navigation from Netflix for on-demand streaming movies, and Sling TV for live television, especially if you supplement it with an OTA antenna for local programming.