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

29th Mar 2013 | 13:00

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

Enjoy the best TV, anywhere, anytime

Best online TV streaming services

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

Best TV streaming service - 6-10

6. 4OD

Although one of the main terrestrial broadcasters in the UK, Channel 4's on-demand service continues to lag behind. However, unlike many of the terrestrial catch-up TV providers, Channel 4's 4OD service keeps its programmes available online seemingly forever, so you don't have to worry about that annoying seven-day window. It's a growing service, too, with 136 million views in the first quarter of 2012 – a ten percent increase on 2011.

But can a service that still doesn't feature on Sky's on-demand offering (though it does feature on Virgin Media, YouView and Xbox 360) and only launched as an app for Android devices in February 2013 be taken seriously? The latter, which complements an iOS app, only allows streaming of content, with downloading not permitted. A similar app for Windows 8 has just been launched.

A commercial outlook means Channel 4 is more interested in business models than experiments for its catch-up service, and to that end it's busy collecting audience data from its six million registered members. The endgame is demographically-targeted adverts based on age, sex and geographical location, though the 'why register?' only mentions the benefits, such as favourites and reminders.

best online TV streaming services

In terms of usability, 4OD is clear, simple and easy to use, but is blighted by an unacceptable amount of adverts; before a programme starts, no less than six adverts are played – and some include 'touch here for more information' panels that open a related web page while the video content underneath pauses. On Windows 8, the video continues underneath.

However, 4OD goes beyond most catch-up TV services by offering entire series in its archive for free; all eight series of Peep Show, The Inbetweeners and, err, all 27 series of Come Dine With Me (gulp) are freely available. There is a curated Collections area, too, featuring grouping like Jimmy Carr Collection, Two World Wars & Animal Kingdom, though most are vaguely titled and confusing; Star Gazing is unfortunately about Z-list celebs, not the night sky.

There are also links on 4OD's website to 4Seven (a seven-day catch-up hub to keep things simple), More4, 4Music and Film4, the latter of which has a rental section powered by FilmFlex that allows downloads to a laptop for £3.99 for 30 days and a 48-hour watching window.

If you don't mind adverts in exchange for a huge collection of free content, 4OD is great.

Verdict: 4/5

7. Virgin Media

Up to 100MB of fibre optic broadband is available to Virgin subscribers, but it's what the cable operator has done for streaming and 'second screen' TV that we love it most for.

At the core of its streaming-savvy service is TiVo, the most advanced PVR around with three tuners, HD, 3D and either a 500GB or 1TB hard disk, which now comes with a companion app for iPhones and iPads called TV Anywhere. A similar suite of apps for Android is scheduled for 2013.

The catch-up avenue gives you everything from the BBC, ITV, C4 and Demand 5 and puts it through your living room TV for free, so there's no rooting around trying to access different sites for different programmes. You can go backwards on the EPG, too, something that YouView has recently copied. The on-demand side of things lets you watch TV, movies and music – generally for free, with a small charge to rent anything not included as standard – any time you like. Virgin Movies gets the latest films, which cost from £3.99-£6.99 and come in SD, HD and 3D.

best online TV streaming services

Virgin Media has around 160 channels on its books and also includes a selection of Sky channels via an app, so if you're planning to stray from Sky you can still access some of its services (including Sky Sports, for a fee, and even Sky's on-demand content). It's also got a dedicated channel – number 198 – for YouTube, which is here in the latest multi device-friendly HTML5 flavour.

However, the real innovation is TV Anywhere. Fire it up at home on a smartphone or tablet and the app instantly connects to TiVo, identifies what you're currently watching, and gives you options to record it or set a series link, explore (cast, crew, YouTube search links), inspect upcoming scheduled episodes, or share on social media.

It's Guide (EPG) and Browse (by genre and curated collections that comprise links to entire series on BBC iPlayer) options makes it a cinch to set recordings – either at home or remotely while on 3G – while My Shows gives full access to all of your recordings, sound recordings and cities links.

Basically, the app replaces your remote control (there's even a virtual remote and a watch now links on all content pages) and quickly becomes the default way to organise and navigate the TiVo box. Best of all, it's possible to do a free text search of everything the TiVo box knows about, including live and upcoming TV and within all on-demand content and apps.

However, where it makes the leap from an informational app to a proper streaming service is by offering TV several channels to stream live through TV Anywhere. Unfortunately, this is merely an emerging service since it only works over WiFi and doesn't apply to all terrestrial channels (only the Five suite of live channels are included from the big broadcasters), but it's definitely the way forward.

Verdict: 4/5

8. Dave

Once the home of repeats and more repeats, comedy channel Dave has spent the last few years commissioning fresh programmes, with the likes of Dave's One Night Stand, Al Murray's Compete for Meat and the tenth series of Red Dwarf all in its recent past. Add to that US lawyer comedy Suits and you've got a package that's worth dipping into.

Time for its own catch-up app, which arrived in February 2013, though so far only for iOS devices.

Also available as a VoD service online and on BT Vision and Sky On Demand, Dave is the first UKTV channel to get the iPhone/iPad treatment, though we're promised that similar apps will follow for the Yesterday and Really channels.

best online TV streaming services

Dave is likely to be the highlight of that lot, then, and in use it's a great app. A slick design of black, white and red make it feel a bit like a comedy club, programmes are provided to stream only – no downloads – and there's not even any adverts before each play. That's a relief, though programmes don't stay online forever, and you do have to give Dave your email, gender and date of birth to register. Perhaps ads will follow soon, but for now it's impressively slick.

Verdict: 4/5

9. Sky, Sky Go & Now TV

Murdoch's empire knows no bounds, and nothing says this better than Sky TV - the virtual monopoly that's stormed into the homes of millions of UK residents.

There are two reasons for this. Firstly, the Sky dish makes it easy to access a huge range of content. The second and more important factor is the range of programmes available to viewers, including a hefty selection of movie and sports channels.

The company's main focus is its regular TV service, which is where it makes its money, but it's still experimenting elsewhere. One of its most recent advances has been in 3D TV, letting the three million Sky+ HD customers enjoy their favourite programmes with an extra dimension.

All of this video-on-demand was threatening to make pricey subscription TV like Sky rather pointless, so what did the satellite broadcaster do? It started its own Now TV app to take Sky Movies to the masses, then bought-up smart TV movie streaming app Acetrax.

best online TV streaming services

It's also bolstered its Sky Go app for its own subscribers, extending it to allow downloads. This so-called Sky Go Extra service costs at extra £5 per month for existing subscribers, so doesn't come cheap, and only allows you to download the content you already subscribe to. Still, the chance to travel by train or plane and watch movies offline is true Nirvana if you've got a tablet or over-sized smartphone.

Now TV is an interesting one. Aimed at streaming (no downloads) Sky content – primarily its line-up of Hollywood movies – to tablets, smartphones, smart TVs, YouView boxes and the Xbox 360, Now TV is available free for the first 30 days, with Sky charging £8.99 per month for the next three months. It then increases to £15 per month.

A rich man's Netflix and Lovefilm, for sure, but if you can afford it the choice and convenience is hard to argue with. Add live Sky Sports – promised in Spring 2013 – and its cross-platform nature (though it only works on two registered devices at once) could get harder to ignore.

As if to round-up Sky's bolstered offering of on-demand content, don't forget either its catch-up TV-heavy Sky+HD box nor Sky Player on Xbox 360, a mash-up of live TV, and on-demand content including Sky Sports, though it's more of a multiroom/second-home add-on for existing Sky subscribers than a catch-up offering to the world.

Not wanting to be outdone by Netflix and Lovefilm, Now TV have also started a 1-month free trial so you can give it a go for 30-days, no strings attached.

Verdict: 4/5

10. Blinkbox

Often painted as a rival to Netflix and Lovefilm, Blinkbox is best thought of as Blockbuster for the digital age, with the Tesco-branded service operating in the same DVD release window as Sky, Now TV, iTunes and Virgin Movies. That means it has the latest titles sooner than both Netflix and Lovefilm.

An a la carte service, Blinkbox eschews monthly subs and instead works on a pay-as-you-watch basis; £3.49 to rent, £6.99 to buy. It's free to join, and the first £1 you deposit gets increased to £5.

best online TV streaming services

Crucially, it's largely about Microsoft Silverlight streaming (Mac users must use Firefox or Safari), not physical downloads (unless you watch on a PC). Available on the PS3 (via the browser) and Xbox 360 (if you have an Xbox Live membership in place) as well as iOS and (since February 2013) Android, Blinkbox is also available as an app on smart TVs from LG, Philips, Samsung and Toshiba.

Since movie rental is prohibited by Apple – lest it threaten their near-identical iTunes service – it's not possible to download films to an iPad. It's also worth noting that Xbox users should create a Blinkbox account using the same email address as used by Xbox Live (which must be of Microsoft origin, typically Hotmail). If not, you'll have make purchases using a computer, though it's then easy enough to access back on the Xbox.

The user interface is excellent, with content arranged logically, but it's easy to browse, too; there's a nice 'watch later' shortlist that stuff can be added to as you browse, something that other such services ignore.

Claiming to have 10,000 titles, Blinkbox has also just picked-up the tights to 23 James Bond titles, including Skyfall, which it has exclusively; Argo is also available, with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey to follow.

If you hate the thought of a contract, Blinkbox is the answer – especially if you're a Tesco Clubcard holder after extra points.

Verdict: 4/5

Best TV streaming service - 11-15

11. iTunes

Apple is a bit like Marmite – you either love it or loathe it – and the same goes for its media-rich offspring, iTunes. The store is targeted primarily at an audience of iFans – those with iPhones, iPads and Apple TV – although Apple also caters for those that want to download the latest TV show or movie to their PC, provided they don't mind watching it in the iTunes desktop app.

As well as the latest movies and TV, iTunes has one huge advantage in that most of its content (be it TV shows or movies) is available in high definition, which puts it head and shoulders above LoveFilm's standard definition line-up. You'll have to wait for it though - there's no instant access streaming here. You have to download anything you want to watch, and with the HD stuff that's going to take some time.

best online TV streaming services

What makes iTunes a truly great service and a serious contender for the title of best on-demand provider is its ability to transfer any movies or TV shows straight to your mobile device. This means you can download a programme once and watch it wherever you are. Didn't have time to finish that movie on your desktop last night? Save it to your iPad and watch the rest of it on the way to work the following morning.

iTunes isn't perfect; it's a little bit clunky and slow at times, the newest version is slightly baffling, and Windows aficionados will baulk at the need to install Apple software just to get access to something you want to watch.

But that's the real Marmite bit of iTunes, if you want to do anything with it, it must be done through iTunes – there's no other way.

Verdict: 4/5

12. YouView

A platform for other catch-up content rather than offering anything genuinely new in itself, YouView is nevertheless something of a God-send for watch-again addicts. If you're after streaming movies, however, look away now.

It's a small black box, offered either as a standalone product from Humax or as part of BT Vision's newest offering. The brainchild of the terrestrial broadcasters in the UK, it's possible to go backwards in the electronic programme guide and watch anything you want (providing it's on the BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, 4OD or Demand Five). No Smart TV offers that, but YouView doesn't offer what those smart TVs do, either, namely Netflix or Lovefilm apps.

best online TV streaming services

What is does have is Now TV, though that's a pricey add-on. Nor does it have YouTube, which puts it at a significant disadvantage to, say, an Xbox360, which has almost everything YouView has and more, at least in terms of on-demand viewing. That said, YouView works as a traditional set-top box and can record onto its 1TB hard disk; familiar and easy to use, YouView is hardly revolutionary and it is expensive, but it is much more pleasant to use than a smart TV.

Verdict: 3.5/5

Read our full review of YouView here

13. TVCatchup

If you're after straight live TV on a portable device, TVCatchup is hard to beat, though it may have just received its death sentence. According to TV Licensing, if you're watching a programme as it happens live then you do need a licence, but if you're only watching on-demand services that show programmes after they're aired then you don't.

TVCatchup falls into the former category; despite its name, you need a TV licence because it lets you to watch TV as it happens. You can access content from over 40 different channels, including BBC One, Film 4 and Dave. Although the site states that these programs are free to watch, technically you still have to pay to watch them since you need to buy a TV licence, but it's a moot point if you already happen to own one.

best online TV streaming services

Like other streaming sites, TVCatchup lets you watch content the moment you click the 'Watch now' button. The beauty of this particular catch-up service is that because the channels are live, if you're one of the unlucky people who have opted to use Freeview to save a few quid but can only get about four channels in your area, then TVCatchup serves to fill the void.

The quality of the service is about what you'd expect from Freeview, so it's not brilliant, but good enough for casual viewing. The only slight annoyance is that when you're watching a channel, you can't flick through the other channels quickly to see what else there is.

At some point TVCatchup would do well to offer this sort of functionality on the fly. TVCatchup does offer a low quality version of its channels, making it ideal if you're on a really poor connection or you just want something smaller to watch in the corner of the screen while you're doing something else.

For mobile users there's an iOS version that lets you watch content on the move. It's browser-based, so you can use a Wi-Fi or 3G connection to watch channels.

Verdict: 3.5/5

14. Demand 5

Think waiting 20 seconds for programmes in ITV Player is bad? Then you won't like Demand 5, where the adverts are exactly 108 seconds long. Surely on-demand TV should be instantaneous?

Confusingly the website – which contains material broadcast on Channel 5, 5USA and 5* – doesn't show any adverts, and while there are a suite of basic apps for the iPhone and iPad, they only allow streaming, not downloads. What use is that when you're bored on a train and a plane?

Android users have less luck, with no app and just advice to watch in a browser, though that's only likely to work with older versions of Android that support flash-based video. Demand Five is also available on Virgin Media and Sky, and YouView, and Xbox 360. PS3 users can watch via a channel on YouTube.

best online TV streaming services

Design-wise, Demand 5 is uninspiring, though it's easy enough to navigate the thumbnail image-based interface, and there are comprehensive episode guides and plenty of integration with social media (the only reason to register, it seems, though registering its users is clearly not Demand Five's priority … yet).

As with ITV Player there's also a smattering of adverts during each show (three times during a 45-minute shows, each of 108 seconds), and they can't be skipped. Click on a programme and not only will you see the video, you'll also see a wide range of extra options related to it.

For example, the last series of Big Brother had several tabs that allowed you to check the show's Facebook page, see who's in the house and review the most memorable moments at a glance. These social tools transform the service from passive viewing to something interactive and much more compelling.

Best of all, everything is free, though it's an advert-heavy experience.

Verdict: 3/5

15. Clubcard TV

Completely free but limited to web browsers, Clubcard TV is the latest addition to online streaming services. Clubcard TV is operated by supermarket chain Tesco, but it's powered by Blinkbox, which it has an 80% stake in.

Available only to (the 16 million) holders of the Tesco loyalty card inputting their details, it provides TV and movies for free, though only via Microsoft Silverlight-compatible browsers on a PC or Mac (so forget Chrome on a Mac). All content – which ranges from catalogue movies like The Shawshank Redemption and Ocean's Eleven to entire series of The Only Way Is Essex and James May's Big Ideas – is free after two 30-second adverts, which are tailored to each viewers based on their shopping habits at Tesco.

best online TV streaming services

There's a lot to watch, but it suffers from a lack of a search function. Clearly aimed at people prepared to either watch on-demand TV either on a laptop or desktop PC or Mac (no smartphone or tablet access is possible), there's an upfront section explaining how to connect-up computers to a TV. How quaint, but, hey – it's free. Expect Clubcard TV to grow and add apps for smartphones, tablets and games consoles in due course.

Verdict: 3/5

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