Cable TV can seem a lot like a landline phone these days: an unnecessary expense that is shackled by outdated hardware. All the cool kids, and a lot of the cool grownups, are cutting the cable TV cord.
If you want to join them but don’t want to ditch live TV completely, you’ve come to the right place. Live TV streaming services in the US like Sling TV and DirecTV Now let you watch most if not all of your favorite live TV channels — from ABC to CBS to CNN to ESPN to Fox News to Nickelodeon — streamed over the internet. And the monthly fee is likely far less than you’re paying the cable company for TV.
Prices start at $15 per month with no extra fees or contracts. In place of a cable box, you’ll use an app on your smart TV, Roku, Amazon Fire TV or Apple TV. And you can watch at home or on the go via a phone or tablet, or even a PC browser.
These services have plenty of benefits — no more cable fees, no more contracts, yay! — but the savings can be outweighed by other downsides such as internet fees, DVR restrictions, buffering and a lack of things to watch, especially live sports. And just like cable TV, the costs of these services just keep going up.
With all that in mind, here’s a guide to brave new world of live TV streaming over the internet, as well as other cord-cutting options available today.
Disclosure: The Techy Trends may earn commissions from the services featured on this page.
How to shop for cord-cutting services
In ascending order of monthly price, the major multichannel live TV streaming services available today are:
Yes, it’s a big list. But relax, we’ll break it down for you. And remember that each one has a free trial and no contacts, so trying (and canceling) are painless.
Each offers a different mix of channels, so your first step should be choosing a service that carries your “can’t miss” channels and shows. And some of the most important channels are locals, namely ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC. Not every service offers all of them in every area.
The services can be broken down into two main groups: budget, with prices starting at $15 but lacking local channels; and premium, with prices from $45 which include locals as well as other extras like exclusive bundles and an unlimited cloud DVR. Yes, most of the services (bar AT&T Watch TV) allow you to record and play back shows, just like a traditional cable or satellite DVR, but they often come with restrictions.
Then there’s the multistream issue. If you want to watch more than one program at the same time — for example, on your living room TV and on a bedroom TV, or the main TV and a tablet — you’ll want to make sure the service you’re watching has enough simultaneous streams. Some of the least expensive services only allow one stream at a time, and if you try to watch a second, it’s blocked.
Keep in mind that, especially if you do have more than one person watching at once, you need to make sure you have fast, reliable broadband internet. A 100Mbps download service will cost around $50 to $60 a month, and here’s where the savings of cutting cable can get swallowed up.
Here’s a live TV streaming shopping list to consider:
What streaming TV services won’t give you
Streaming TV services are great, but there’s some things they can’t do compared to a traditional cable box.
First, it’s worth looking at the channels that you can’t get with any of these services. A big one is PBS, as the broadcaster reportedly hasn’t acquired the streaming rights to all of the shows that it airs. (You’ll find Ken Burns’ iconic documentaries on Netflix, for example.)
Another biggie is sports. Sure, most services carry ESPN and local channels for NFL football, but if you follow a professional baseball or basketball team, chances are you’ll need their specific channel — called an RSN, or regional sports network — to watch regular season games. RSN coverage varies widely for each service.
While DirecTV Now offers HBO as part of its base subscription, most other services either sell it as an add-on or require you to sign up separately for HBO Now. In addition, NFL Red Zone and NHL Network are either not available or only as part of a package.
If you’re used to the 5.1 surround offered by cable or even OTA, then you’ll probably be disappointed that all of the services only include stereo sound on live broadcasts. DirecTV Now and PlayStation Vue do include 5.1 audio on some on-demand material, though.
(Note that The Techy Trends is owned by CBS, which is a compensated programming provider on all cable, satellite and online TV services that offer CBS channels, which include Showtime, Pop, CBS Sports and The CW, among others. CBS also owns and operates its own online service, CBS All Access, which is mentioned below.)
The Big Five compared
Time to narrow down the list. Here are the five biggest services in terms of name recognition, channel count and features, presented in alphabetical order. Four of them fit in the premium bracket while Sling TV is a budget service.
Best for: HBO fans who want live TV streaming too
Starting price: $50
Step-up packages: One other package with more channels for $70.
Missing channels: A&E, AMC, BBC America, Animal Planet, Discovery, HGTV, History, Lifetime, MLB Network, NBA TV, NFL Network, NFL Red Zone.
The good: Includes HBO, typically a $15 add-on, in the $50 price; TV-like interface including the ability to swipe left or right to change channels; discounts for AT&T Wireless customers.
The bad: Expensive service with fewer top channels than any other service in its price range; DVR is limited; no family member profiles.
In March 2019, DirecTV Now became less appealing than it was previously. Not only did corporate owner AT&T jack the price from $40 to $50 per month, it cut numerous key channels, including AMC, Discovery and HGTV, from its base package. The upside is that HBO is included as part of the price. Getting a standalone HBO Now subscription costs $15 per month, so an increase of $10 to get HBO included is technically a $5 monthly discount. But it locks you into a bundle, just the kind of thing cord cutters want to avoid. On top of that, its DVR and app are a step behind most competitors.
Best for: Current Hulu subscribers who want to add Live TV.
Starting price: $45
Step-up packages: Optional “enhanced” DVR and multistream plans.
Missing channels: AMC, BBC America, Comedy Central, MLB Network, MTV, NBA TV, NFL Network, NFL Red Zone, Nickelodeon.
The Good: Includes Hulu’s massive on-demand library, including exclusives such as The Handmaid’s Tale.
The Bad: Confusing interface, standard DVR doesn’t let you skip commercials.
With the least cable-like interface of the Big 5, Hulu’s greatest asset is the integration of live TV with its significant catalog of on-demand content for one price. Unfortunately, the interface frustrations apparent with the standard service are amplified once you add live TV. The app generally confuses “simple” with “incomplete.” It technically offers a guide, for example, but it’s extremely bare-bones. Another issue is that you’ll have to pay another $10 per month to get the ability to skip commercials on Hulu’s cloud DVR (the base cloud DVR, included, doesn’t let you skip commercials). Its channel count is solid however, and with Hulu’s catalog included it’s a top competitor, especially after YouTube TV’s price hike.
Best for: Commercial skippers and PS4 owners
Starting price: $50
Step-up packages: Three other packages with progressively more channels for $55, $65 and $85.
Missing channels: A&E, Comedy Central, History, Lifetime, MTV, Nickelodeon.
The good: Solid DVR with unlimited storage that doesn’t replace recorded shows with the on-demand version (ahem, YouTube TV). PlayStation 4 users can split-screen multiple channels at once.
The bad: Worse channel selection than others at its price.
PlayStation Vue has an “evolved” interface that is also easy to use once you get the hang of it, but can have a learning curve. Its DVR is excellent, with unlimited storage and the ability to skip commercials on any show — although unlike YouTube TV, shows in Vue’s DVR are deleted after 28 days. The biggest knock is that has fewer channels than any of the Big Five aside from Sling TV (which is much cheaper) and DirecTV Now (which includes HBO). You don’t need a PlayStation 4 to watch it — just like the others, Vue has apps for numerous streaming devices including Roku, Apple TV and Fire TV, as well as phones and PCs — but a PS4 and Apple TV is the only way to get its sweet multiscreen view.
Best for: Saving money but still getting ESPN (or Fox and NBC), supplementing with an antenna
Starting price: $25
Step-up packages: Sling Orange + Blue for $40 month, $5 cloud DVR add-on, numerous $5 minipackages
Missing channels (all packages): ABC, CBS, Animal Planet, Fox News, MLB Network, Nickelodeon
Missing channels (Sling Orange): Fox, NBC, Bravo, FS1, FX, MSNBC, USA Network
Missing channels (Sling Blue): ABC, Disney Channel, ESPN
The good: Relatively cheap, flexible channel packages.
The bad: Can only stream to one device (TV, phone, tablet) with Orange package; very little support for local stations; cloud DVR costs extra.
Aside from sports-free options Philo and AT&T Watch TV (see below), Sling is the cheapest multichannel live TV streaming service out there. That’s because it carries few local stations (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC). It has two base packages, Orange and Blue. Orange doesn’t offer any locals, while Blue has Fox and NBC but only in a handful of cities. That’s why Sling makes a good complement to OTA antenna TV. Sling’s interface isn’t much to look at, but it offers all of the options you need without cluttering the screen. The only real letdown is its arcane live pause and DVR exceptions (you can’t record Disney-owned channels like ABC, for example). Its options are myriad, so check out Sling TV: Everything you need to know for all the details.
Best for: Unlimited DVR
Step-up packages: N/A
Missing channels: A&E, Comedy Central, History, Lifetime, NFL Network, NFL Red Zone, Nickelodeon.
The good: Intuitive interface and comprehensive program guide; includes all four local channels in most of US households; unlimited storage on cloud DVR.
The bad: Tied for the most-expensive service, DVR shows replaced by on-demand versions.
YouTube is best known for scads of free video, but with an April price hike YouTube TV is now one of three services that charge $45 a month (the others are PlayStation Vue and DirecTV Now). YouTube has more top channels in its base package than any competitor, however, and its local channel coverage includes all four locals in most areas of the country. It also has the best DVR of the bunch, including unlimited storage, though with one catch: If an episode you’ve recorded appears in YouTube TV’s VOD library, it gets replaced by the on-demand version — so you lose the ability to fast-forward through commercials. Its interface is no-nonsense, even drab, and yet it offers most of the features a cable service can give you. And unlike Sling and others, it’s dead simple: one package, one price, done.
Big Five TV streaming services compared
|Hulu with Live TV||YouTube TV||Sling TV||PlayStation Vue||DirecTV Now|
|Base price||$45/month for 60+ channels||$50/month for 70+ channels||$25/month for 30+ channels||$50/month for 55+ channels||$50/month for 40+ channels|
|ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC channels||Yes, in many markets||Yes, in many markets||FOX and NBC only in select cities||Yes, in many markets||Yes, in many markets|
|Video on demand from local channels||Yes||Yes||No||Yes||Yes|
|Step-up packages with more channels||No||No||Yes, an extra $5/month each||$55/month, $65/month or $85/month||$70/month|
|Simultaneous streams per account||2 ($15 option for unlimited)||3||1 or 3||5||2 ($5 option for 3)|
|Family member/user profiles||Yes||Yes||No||Yes||No|
|Pause, rewind, fast-forward||Yes||Yes||Yes, except for Disney or ESPN channels||Yes||Yes|
|Record shows for later (cloud DVR)||Yes||Yes (keep for 9 months)||Yes ($5 per month, can’t record Disney or ESPN channels)||Yes (keep for 28 days)||Yes (20GB, keep for 30 days)|
|Fast-forward through or skip commercials with cloud DVR||No (Yes with $15 option)||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|DVR show replaced by on-demand version||No||Yes||No||No||No|
|Video on demand/3-day replay||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
Other (mostly budget) services
Price: $15 per month, or “free” with certain AT&T Wireless plans
AT&T’s has two separate services: DirecTV Now and Watch TV. The much-cheaper Watch TV includes 30 channels and many of them, such as AMC, HGTV and BBC America, are no longer available on DirecTV Now. Watch TV doesn’t have any sports or local channels, and many of the shows on its channels can be watched on-demand with a Hulu subscription for less. It also doesn’t work with Roku devices, but it is available on the other major streaming platforms. And some AT&T wireless plan customers get it for free.
Price: Starts at $20 per month
Another cheap service with no sports or local channels, Philo has bread-and-butter cable offerings like AMC, Comedy Channel, Nickelodeon and BBC America. Unlike Watch AT&T, it includes a cloud DVR, but it lacks a big-name 24-hour news channel like CNN.
Price: Starts at $6 per month
CBS All Access stands out from all of the other services as it offers live (in some cities) and on-demand from just one channel. In addition to broadcast video-on-demand it offers exclusive online content such as Star Trek: Discovery. The on-demand stuff has ads, but you can get an ad-free option for $10 a month.
Price: Starts at $55 per month
Fubo TV is a sports-centric service that also offers a number of other channels including local OTA stations (except ABC) — and more RSNs (regional sports networks) than any other service. Especially for fans of professional baseball, basketball and hockey teams, Fubo might be the only way to watch regular-season games without cable. There’s no ESPN, however, and a convoluted user interface and high price mean it’s not the first service we’d choose.
Don’t care about live TV? More cord-cutter staples
Netflix: One of the first streaming TV services and it’s so popular that it’s become a catch-all term in the same way as “Magic Marker” or “Coke” in the South. Plans start at $13 a month, and it covers thousands of TV shows and movies, including originals like Daredevil and Orange is the New Black.
Amazon Prime Video: The “other” major streaming service, which is included as part of a $99 annual Prime Membership or $9 a month. The interface isn’t as user-friendly as Netflix, but the service also offers shows not on its rival, including originals like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Amazon Prime also has the ability to add channels (HBO, Starz and more), making it a potential one-stop shop.
Vudu/Movies Anywhere: A digital library (or locker) that incorporates both UltraViolet content and streaming movies and TV that are only available for purchase, like new releases.
It’s also worth investigating free, ad-supported services such as Roku Channel, IMDB Freedive, TuBi TV, Pluto and Sony Crackle, which offer a wealth of content.
Is an indoor or outdoor antenna a viable option?
If you have a TV in your house — that is, a screen that incorporates a tuner — you’re part-way to cutting the cord already. An affordable indoor antenna hooked up to your TV will let you watch free TV over the air from any channel you receive in your local broadcast area. Antennas cost as little as $10. See our comparison of indoor antennas here.
You can also add a DVR such as the Amazon Fire TV Recast or TiVo Bolt OTA if you want. Then you can record those live TV antenna channels, play them back and skip commercials, just like on a standard cable TV DVR. Here’s The Techy Trends’s roundup of the best OTA DVRs for cord cutters.
A solid, lower-cost alternative to live TV streaming services is the combination of antenna for live local channels with an on-demand service such as Netflix or Hulu (which is now only $5.99 a month). That way you’ll still be able to watch live programming and also have a choice of on-demand content.
Conclusion: Try it yourself
Streaming live TV services are still in their infancy, and the industry is still in flux. Since launch every service has increased prices by at least $5 a month, channel selections and cities with local channel access are changing all the time, and reports persist about some services losing money. While streaming is undoubtedly the future, it will be some time before both prices and the services offered settle in.
That said, if you want a cable-like experience both at home and on the go without the dead weight that a cable subscription brings, then a streaming service is worth a look. There’s no contract to sign, and if you don’t like the service you’re on, you can easily switch. So whether you’re looking for a basic package such as Sling TV or want to pay more for a deluxe experience from the likes of PlayStation Vue, there should be a streaming TV service to suit you.
The Best Password Managers for 2019
The Best VPN Services for 2019
The Best Meal Kit Delivery Services for 2019
Originally published Aug. 2, 2018 and updated as new developments occur.