Just 10 years ago, the idea of settling down to watch a movie on your phone was unthinkable. And yet here we are—people are binge-watching more than ever before using the devices we carry around in our pockets.
The key to watching movies and television shows on your smartphone is installing the right apps. You've got a wealth of options, so we're going to highlight the best picks. Grab some popcorn, charge up your battery, and settle in.
Several steaming giants offer (almost) all the movies and TV you could possibly want, in return for a monthly subscription fee. These apps beam content straight to your phone for as long as you keep paying your subscription. You don't, however, get to keep digital versions of the videos—stop paying, and you'll lose access to these video libraries.
Amazon Prime Video (Android, iOS): This app is a must-have for Prime members...but less compelling for everyone else. Amazon Prime Video includes a ton of movies, TV shows, and original content, such as The Man In The High Castle and Transparent. These offerings provide one of the best reasons to sign up for Prime membership, if you haven't already. However, Amazon's web and phone apps aren't quite as polished as its main rivals' offerings. Prime membership, which also includes benefits like free shipping, costs $99 a year or $10.99 a month.
Hulu (Android, iOS): Often considered to lurk in the shadow of Netflix, Hulu in fact offers more TV channels and more up-to-date TV shows than its main rival, making it fantastic for primetime television shows. On the downside, Hulu's cheapest subscription tier includes ads, and its original programming and movies aren't up to Netflix's standard yet. A subscription to Hulu will cost you $7.99 a month or $11.99 to go ad-free, and there's a new $39.99/month Live TV plan in beta, giving you access to 50 channels live as they air.
Netflix (Android, iOS): Netflix played a big role in changing the way we watch movies and television, popularizing the monthly subscription model and leading the charge for watching anything anywhere. The video behemoth doesn't carry quite as much third-party content as it once did, but for many, its original shows remain essential viewing, and the Netflix apps are consistently setting a higher bar for on-the-go TV watching. Netflix plans start at $7.99 a month, though you have to pay more for HD and 4K content.
Sling TV (Android, iOS): Undoubtedly one of the leading options when it comes to getting live TV on your phone, Sling TV supports more than 100 live channels and over 10,000 hours of on-demand content that you can call up from the archives. This is how mobile TV watching really should be in the 21st century. The number of channels you get varies depending on how much you pay each month. The bottom tier starts at $25 a month, and you can cancel whenever you like.
YouTube TV (Android, iOS): With years of experience promoting video, if anyone can nail television on your smartphone, YouTube can. Its recently launched TV service and apps are only available in selected cities and they remain a bit rough around the edges. But the offerings show plenty of promise—you can watch live channels from ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, and other primetime players. Plus, you get some cloud DVR functionality, enabling you to record as much content as you want for later watching. Subscriptions cost $35 a month.
Specific channel and carrier apps
Slowly but surely, the networks and carriers are waking up to the way we're all watching TV and movies these days. Some of them offer apps that complement an existing cable subscription, but we picked standalone apps that will work whether or not you're currently a cable customer.
CBS All Access (Android, iOS): This app gives you access to all the shows CBS broadcasts, without a cable subscription. You need to fork out $5.99 a month to get access, and $9.99 a month to watch without ads. The app experience is perfectly functional, and as for the selection of content, that depends how much you like the programming on CBS. As a bonus, the channel throws in a lot of classic TV shows, and you also occasionally get access to some exclusive TV content before it airs anywhere else.
DirecTV (Android, iOS): An AT&T initiative aimed at cable cord-cutters, DirecTV goes way beyond smartphones to cover pretty much every device out there. You get a ton of channels and shows (though HBO costs a little extra and CBS is absent), and a mix of live programming and archived material. For now, you don't get a cloud DVR for recording your favorite shows, but AT&T says it's on the way. Prices start at $35 a month for the basic package, and as your subscription rate increases, so do the number of channels.
HBO Now (Android, iOS): HBO Now is an appealing option for cord-cutters (those who already have a cable subscription can use HBO Go). It gives you access to a shifting slate of movies, along with some of the most acclaimed programs in TV history, including Game of Thrones, Westworld, The Wire, True Detective, and more. You need to stump up $14.99 a month after the month-long free trial in order to tap into all of this content, but if the app carries shows and films you like, then it's worth the investment. Remember, it's replacing your traditional HBO television subscription.
Showtime (Android, iOS): If you want to watch Showtime on a phone without an existing subscription, then this app and $10.99 a month will do it. (You can also get a taste with a 30-day free trial.) The app grants you access to live TV from Showtime, as well as on-demand catch-up viewing and a bunch of classic shows that the channel previously aired. To help you keep track of all this material, the app includes lists and reminders so you won't miss anything you want to watch.
Digital stores and other options
Streaming models are all very well, but they don't give you permanent, ongoing access to your favorite movies and shows. If the streaming model isn't for you, then you can pick from a variety of digital stores to save your own copies of these videos to your phone. With this option, you can keep your content forever, and you won't have the monthly expense of a subscription fee to worry about either.
Google Play Movies & TV (Android, iOS): Google's digital movie and TV show store is very well stocked. As you'd expect from Google, you can watch your stuff from pretty much any device—a web browser, iPhones, Android devices, smart TVs, and so on. Anything you purchase and watch will actually stream to your phone, Netflix-style, though you do have the option to cache downloads in advance if you're going to be without Wi-Fi. The mobile apps themselves are simple and streamlined, but have everything you need.
iTunes (built into iOS): It's hard to find fault with the choice of content on Apple's digital store. After all, it was one of the very first to go online. Whether you're after a ratings-busting television show or a recently released movie, chances are you'll be able to find it on iTunes. On the downside, this app is only for iPhones and iPads—you can't watch any of your iTunes purchases on Android. That's something to bear in mind before you decide to buy all your digital videos from Apple.
Plex (Android, iOS): Plex works a bit like your own personal Netflix. If you have a library of video content (from ripped DVDs to iTunes purchases) saved on your computer or networked drive, Plex lets you beam that video to pretty much any other device you like, including your smartphone. Despite all the heavy lifting going on behind the scenes, the app is simple and a pleasure to use. For more information on setting it up, check out our guide on streaming your video collection to multiple devices. The basic Plex service is free, but to watch your movies and shows on a phone, you'll need a Plex Pass, which currently costs $4.99 a month, $39.99 a year, or $149.99 for a lifetime.