Happy Holidays! This article is part of our Holiday 2021 Gift Guide where you can find the best-of-the-best recommendations from How-To Geek, LifeSavvy, and Review Geek to help you pick the perfect gift for everyone on your list!
What to Look For in a Specialty Streaming Service in 2021
Unlike larger streaming services that generally try to provide content for every viewer, specialty services aren’t interested in pleasing a broad audience. As such, the main thing to consider when finding a specialty streaming service is what kind of content you’re looking for.
Pretty much every genre of movie and TV series is available in some form on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, but there may only be a handful of options for your favorite type of programming. Once you identify what you’re missing on those services, you can look for an additional niche offering to supplement them.
Or maybe you have no interest in the kind of mainstream entertainment offered by major streaming services, and you want to start by honing in on your particular favorite niche, whether that’s a genre, an era of filmmaking, or a specific global region.
There’s no need to spend money on popular streaming services that don’t offer the content you’re looking for, and most specialty services charge cheaper monthly fees than their big-name counterparts. If you only enjoy specific genres of media, you can save by sticking with just a few specialty services.
Whether you rely on them as your primary source for entertainment or as supplements to more extensive services, it’s unlikely that you’ll want to subscribe to more than one or two specialty streaming services. These services aren’t for everyone, and that’s precisely the point.
Our picks will help guide you to the exact service for your unique interests.
Best Streaming Service for Horror: Shudder
- ✓ Carefully curated selection of classics and recent releases
- ✓ High-quality original and exclusive films
- ✓ Hosted live-stream events with horror personalities
- ✗ Library content changes frequently
Launched in 2015, Shudder is one of the more longstanding specialty streaming services, and it’s gotten more popular and more prestigious over time. Horror fans are known for the service’s dedication to the genre, even to productions that might be considered questionable to mainstream audiences.
But that’s what’s great about Shudder—it doesn’t take the horror audience for granted. Sure, there are well-known horror classics and weird cult favorites available to stream, but Shudder is also dedicated to bringing its audience new discoveries and unlikely picks from the horror vaults.
Shudder’s slate of original and exclusive films has become the premier destination for independent, creative horror, and the service has increased its frequency of originals and exclusives over time. In addition to movies, Shudder features select original series, including its series revival of the Stephen King/George Romero anthology Creepshow.
The service also offers themed live-stream channels of films from its library for viewers who can’t decide what to watch. Shudder even features occasional live-stream marathons hosted by icons of the horror community like Joe Bob Briggs and Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.
Shudder’s curation is one of its main strengths, but that curation involves removing as well as adding new movies. As a result, the service’s library grows slowly, with many films often expiring or being removed. Still, if you can’t find your favorite horror movie to watch, you can count on Shudder’s expert programming team to offer you something just as good or even better.
Best Streaming Service for Classic Cinema: The Criterion Channel
- ✓ Expertly selected collections of classic and influential films from around the world
- ✓ Extensive bonus materials
- ✓ Helpful guidance on what to watch
- ✗ Titles come and go frequently
- ✗ Higher price than most specialty services
Since 1984, Criterion has been the most trusted brand name for curating classic and acclaimed cinema on home video, from laserdisc to DVD to Blu-ray. The Criterion Channel brings that same standard to a streaming service.
This streaming service isn’t just an endless list of titles to scroll through. It’s a thoughtfully programmed lineup of themed sets of movies, many of them augmented by the kind of extensive bonus material that’s still a hallmark of Criterion’s home releases. That means that you can listen to feature-length commentary and watch supplemental interviews for many of the movies on Criterion.
Criterion’s definition of classic cinema is expansive, encompassing vintage Hollywood and movies from around the world, underground and experimental cinema, and even select new releases. The themed collections make it easy to hone in on what interests you or explore a new area of cinema.
These extras are costly, though, and Criterion’s price ($11 per month or $100 per year) is higher than most specialty services. In order to offer content from so many different sources, some of which are subject to complicated rights issues, Criterion also cycles through its catalog fairly quickly, and dozens of movies leave the service at the end of each month.
But at any given time, there is more than enough to satisfy even the most discerning cinephile.
Best Streaming Service for British/International TV: Acorn TV
- ✓ Extensive library of series from the U.K. and other countries
- ✓ Multiple seasons of vintage shows
- ✓ New premieres close to overseas release dates
- ✗ International selection focused primarily on Europe
- ✗ Minimal movie content
There was a time when British TV series only made it to the U.S. via PBS stations, but one of the great things about the age of streaming is that it’s made international TV much more accessible. Major streaming services all feature a selection of shows from around the world, but for hardcore fans of British and European TV, the selection is still relatively limited.
That’s where Acorn TV comes in. You won’t find any American-produced shows here, but you will find a wide range of shows from the United Kingdom and other countries, from beloved classics to new releases.
Maybe you remember growing up with dramas like Midsomer Murders or Poirot on PBS, or perhaps you’re curious about cult British comedies like Detectorists or Only Fools and Horses. Maybe you want to be among the first American viewers to catch the latest Scandinavian murder drama. Acorn is the place for all of that, with a library of British TV staples and new productions from the U.K., Europe, Canada, and Australia.
The international scope of Acorn sticks mainly to English-speaking countries and mainland Europe, so if you’re interested in shows from South America or Asia, you won’t find them here. Acorn is almost entirely TV-focused, with only a smattering of feature films that sometimes seem like they were selected at random.
However, that still leaves tons of content for fans eager to explore TV from across the pond. So if you’re a fan of British or European TV, Acorn TV is the subscription to get.
Best Streaming Service for Anime: Crunchyroll
- ✓ World’s largest selection of anime
- ✓ Free ad-supported tier available
- ✓ Non-anime content including live-action programs and manga
- ✗ Uncertainty over new ownership
Japanese animation, or anime, has had an American following for decades, with periodic mainstream breakthroughs like Akira or the films of Studio Ghibli. But its popularity has exploded in recent years, thanks to the kind of diligent fans who founded Crunchyroll in 2006.
A streaming service that grew from semi-legitimate origins into a corporate powerhouse, Crunchyroll is now the premier destination for anime in the world outside Japan, with a repository of thousands of episodes of popular series like My Hero Academia, One Piece, and Mobile Suit Gundam.
Over the years, Crunchyroll has expanded to showcase other content that relates to anime, including manga (Japanese comic books that are often adapted into or from anime), live-action series, and even video games.
Through various mergers and licensing deals, Crunchyroll has become an indispensable service for fans of Japanese pop culture, as well as original content produced in a familiar anime style. Best of all, it’s done so while remaining free, with the vast majority of users taking advantage of the free ad-supported version. For viewers who want to forgo commercials, premium subscriptions are available starting at $8 per month.
Crunchyroll has become such a power player that it’s been the subject of a number of corporate acquisitions, and in late 202o it was acquired by Sony, owner of rival anime service Funimation. At some point, the two services will be combined, and there’s a lot of uncertainty over how that will play out.
For now, though, Crunchyroll continues on as normal, providing anime fans with all their favorite content and a destination to connect with fellow enthusiasts.
Best Streaming Service for Reality TV: Discovery+
- ✓ Full seasons of popular series from Discovery’s brands
- ✓ New spin-offs and extensions of reality favorites
- ✗ Ad-free plan increases price
The cable networks under the Discovery corporate umbrella, including HGTV, TLC, Food Network, Travel Channel, and Animal Planet, feature some of the most popular reality shows on TV. If you’re a cable subscriber, you can catch endless reruns of home renovation shows and true crime shows, but you’ll be at the mercy of TV programmers if you’re hoping to catch an episode you haven’t seen before.
Discovery+ brings all of those reality shows together, along with many more, on one streaming service with dozens of seasons of dozens of shows available on demand. Not only can you watch popular reality shows like 90 Day Fiancé, Ghost Adventures, and Dr. Pimple Popper, but you can also catch spin-offs and expanded versions of those shows that are exclusive to Discovery+.
There are only so many hours in a day for programming on Discovery’s cable networks, but Discovery+ has unlimited space for new iterations of fan-favorite reality shows. The service also includes some more serious documentary feature films, fitting with the focus on true-life programming, but with loftier artistic ambitions.
Discovery+ has a tiered subscription set-up, which means that you’ll have to shell out $7 a month for the ad-free version, or $5 with ads. That’s a business model more typical to larger services, but these shows were all designed for commercial breaks, so viewers may not mind them as much.
Best Streaming Service for Spanish-Language Television: Pantaya
- ✓ Variety of TV series and films from throughout the Spanish-speaking world
- ✗ No English subtitles on the majority of content
The audience for Spanish-language content in the U.S. has been strong for many years and continues to grow, with movies from Latin America bringing in big box-office returns and Spanish-language TV networks reaching millions of households.
So there’s plenty of demand for a streaming service like Pantaya, which brings together Spanish-language TV series, including telenovelas from Mexico and South America, and Spanish-language films under one virtual roof.
Although Spanish-language content has proved popular on major streaming services, Pantaya offers a wider selection than can be found on Netflix or Amazon Prime, including exclusive rights to many series currently airing in Latin America.
Pantaya has even ventured into original programming with the series El Juego de Las Llaves, emulating the kind of content it licenses from other countries. Pantaya is geared toward Spanish-speaking viewers, so while some shows are offered with English subtitles, most TV series and movies on Pantaya are only available in Spanish.
As Pantaya grows, the service may expand its subtitling efforts to English and other languages, as larger streaming services typically do. For now, though, Pantaya provides exactly the kind of content that caters to its primary audience, as the destination for Spanish-language programming that isn’t represented elsewhere.
Best Streaming Service for Indie and Arthouse Cinema: MUBI
- ✓ Diverse selection of challenging, fascinating films from various regions and eras
- ✓ Expertly curated to provide targeted programming for cinephiles
- ✗ Limited selection with titles frequently coming and going
If you miss the days of indie video stores or arthouse movie theaters, staffed by cinephiles with deep knowledge of obscure films, then MUBI is the service for you. While other streaming services, even specialty-focused ones, tout their wide selection, MUBI is built on curation, debuting one new title each day, which is then available only for a limited time.
Instead of spending your time scrolling through seemingly endless lists of titles you’ve never heard of, you can open up MUBI and watch that day’s selection, confident that it’s been carefully selected by curators with impeccable taste and extensive knowledge.
That movie might be a masterwork by a pioneer of the French New Wave, or a forgotten low-budget exploitation movie, or a new release from a titan of world cinema. Whatever it is, you can be assured that it will be challenging and rewarding to watch and that it will enhance your appreciation of film as an art form.
MUBI also functions as an arthouse distributor. Its theatrical releases, including titles picked up from film festivals and restorations of neglected classics, end up streaming on MUBI following their theatrical runs.
MUBI’s business model means that if something you want to watch premieres on the service, you probably won’t be able to put it in a queue and get to it weeks or months later. Even if you miss out on a particularly enticing movie, though, there will be something else just as great premiering the very next day.
Best Streaming Service for Martial Arts Movies: Hi-Yah!
- ✓ Selection of rare and in-demand movies
- ✓ Low price point
This streaming service’s silly but memorable name tells you exactly what Hi-Yah! is about—martial arts action. Browse through Hi-Yah!’s selections, and you may be amazed at the depth and breadth of martial arts movies and related Asian action cinema. But followers of the genre have known for decades how rich and varied it can be, and they’re some of the most dedicated fans in all of cinema.
For a long time, just tracking down many of these special foreign action movies has been a challenge, via a combination of import home video releases and questionable bootleg trades. But Hi-Yah! brings many previously unavailable martial arts movies together to stream, along with new premieres.
Martial arts stars like Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, and Donnie Yen are all well-represented, but Hi-Yah! also goes beyond those famous names. The service seeks out up-and-coming talents and regional cinemas, so that subscribers to Hi-Yah! may be the first to experience a new martial arts sensation from Malaysia or Indonesia. Genre fans who’ve worn out their DVDs of classic Hong Kong action movies will still find plenty of new movies to explore here.
There’s no shortage of martial arts movies to fill out Hi-Yah!’s programming, and the service expands the definition to include other types of action movies from Asia. But unlike genres on other niche services, Hi-Yah!’s focus is so limited that even die-hard fans may get burned out on the same type of content.
The good thing is that Hi-Yah! is so inexpensive (just $3 a month) that it’s easy to pick up as an add-on to other services, even if you don’t use it constantly.