July 25, 2024

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Free or cheap streaming alternatives to Netflix, Prime and Spotify

6 min read
Free or cheap streaming alternatives to Netflix, Prime and Spotify

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I have bad news and good news.

The bad news is that the digital entertainment you love is getting more expensive.

Netflix, Amazon Prime and HBO Max (now called Max) have raised their prices or cracked down on sharing passwords. Spotify might raise prices, too. In ye olden days of 2012, e-books were often cheaper than hard copies. Not anymore.

There’s no single explanation for these climbing prices. But mostly, companies now realize that digital entertainment may never be as popular and as lucrative as they hoped.

Their loss of confidence is translating into fewer digital entertainment choices and higher prices for you.

The good news is that you still have amazing free or cheap-(ish) entertainment to stuff into your eye holes and ear holes. Let me present: the cheapskate’s guide to digital entertainment.

I love JustWatch.com for saving me time and money.

Search for a particular show or movie, and JustWatch lists where you can stream or download it and how much each viewing option costs. You can filter the search results to show you only free streaming services.

When a friend recently raved about the British TV series “Detectorists” — and yes, it’s fantastic — JustWatch pointed me to see it on several free streaming services that I’d never heard of, including Plex. There were commercials, but I didn’t care.

To watch the recent Dungeons & Dragons movie, I could subscribe to the Paramount Plus streaming service for $9.99 a month without ads. Or, JustWatch tells me that I can rent a digital copy for a one-time fee of $5.99 from a bunch of places including Apple, Amazon, YouTube or Microsoft. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

You won’t find a cheap way to watch something like the latest hot Hulu series or Netflix movie. You’ll need to subscribe to Hulu or Netflix. (I’m not going to mention pirated viewing options.) And be aware that JustWatch has wrong information sometimes.

But mostly, JustWatch is a delightful streaming companion.

If you’re dying to see “Beef” on Netflix or some other buzzy streaming show, you can always sign up for a free trial and cancel before you need to pay. (See the one tiny win below for a tip.)

I also use the trick of rotating through streaming services one at a time to save money.

A while ago, I was paying for the BritBox streaming service. When I got bored with the stuff available there, I canceled and signed up for Hulu. I’ll move on to another subscription soon.

I keep browser bookmarks of shows that I want to watch on Hulu, Netflix, Max, Amazon Prime and other services so I know what to watch when their turn comes in my rotation.

You also have more options if you’re not too picky about what you watch and don’t mind commercials.

For less than $100, a digital TV antenna lets you watch a bunch of broadcast TV channels in your area — if you have a TV set.

There are also huge collections of mostly older TV shows and movies on free streaming services such as Pluto TV, Freevee, Tubi TV and the Roku Channel.

And Kanopy, which is available to some people with a public library card or university online account, also has free streaming movies and TV series.

Are you a Netflix subscriber? For more on why users are upset about Netflix’s latest password restriction, my colleague Heather Kelly has details here. She also explains what exactly the password sharing rules are.

I refuse to pay for a streaming music subscription. Instead I have song playlists saved on the free tiers of YouTube Music and Spotify.

It’s annoying to have my workout playlist interrupted constantly with commercials. But it’s free.

Chris Richards, the pop music critic for The Washington Post, told me that the digital service he uses the most without paying a dime is YouTube — “Not their music service, just plain old YouTube, which has a staggering amount of music. Concerts, user-uploaded loosies, etc.”

(For the uncool among us, “loosies” are often unpolished song recordings that aren’t part of an official album release.)

Chris also recommended sifting through Freemusicarchive.org and the online radio station NTS.

Other options for free streaming music with ads include Pandora, iHeart, AccuRadio and Radio Garden, which lets you hear local radio from anyplace you choose in the world. There’s also the radio radio, if you are into that.

Read more: Free alternatives for watching, reading and listening

I’ve heard from many Tech Friend readers who are addicted to the Libby app for borrowing free e-books and audiobooks from your local public library.

All you need is a card from a public library that works with Libby’s parent company, OverDrive. You can typically read or listen on your phone, on a Kindle or through the website.

Search here to see if your library system or school lets you borrow from Libby.

My Libby app says that I’ve borrowed more than 250 e-books or audiobooks from the New York Public Library for a grand total of zero dollars.

Hoopla is another app with library e-books, audiobooks, comics and mostly obscure movies and TV shows. Check the website to see if your local library participates. Hoopla’s app can be janky sometimes.

Because this is a technology newsletter, I’ve focused mostly on digital entertainment options. But if you’re into physical books, you can borrow them from friends, buy used copies from Goodwill or a website like ThriftBooks or check out a neighborhood Little Free Library.

Read more from The Post’s Climate Coach: Why you should buy everything used.

Your turn: Tell me your best advice for free or cheap digital entertainment. I might feature your tip in a future edition of The Tech Friend newsletter.

I have written about the downsides of buying digital subscriptions in smartphone apps or from Amazon’s digital video channel storefronts such as Fire TV.

But one big advantage is that you can see in one place all the digital subscriptions that you’re paying for and quit ones you don’t want. This includes free trials that you forgot are ending soon.

If you bought a digital subscription in an Apple or Android app or an Amazon storefront, here’s how to see what you’re paying for and cancel those subscriptions.

On an iPhone or iPad: Go to the Settings app and tap your profile name at the top.

Tap on Subscriptions. If you have any active subscriptions that you bought in an app, you can tap on each one to see when it renews and you can choose Cancel Subscription at the bottom.

Also make sure the option for Renewal Receipts is turned on (you’ll see the color green). You’ll get email reminders about your subscriptions.

On an Android device, the instructions vary a bit by device but try: Go to the Play Store app. Tap the box with three lines in the corner or your profile image in the upper right corner.

Tap “Payments and subscriptions” → “Subscriptions” to see what you’re paying for through your Google account. If you click on each subscription, you’ll see a button to cancel.

On Amazon’s website: Click on the “accounts and lists” menu at the top (to the right of the search box), click on “memberships & subscriptions.”

Again, you’ll see a list of the subscriptions you’ve purchased through Amazon to streaming video services like BET Plus or Starz. You can click cancel.

(Please note that you cannot purchase all digital subscriptions from apps or Amazon. Netflix won’t let you buy a subscription in its smartphone apps or from Amazon. You also can’t buy a Spotify subscription from its Apple app. You have to go to Netflix.com or Spotify.com.)

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