What is the best live TV streaming service to replace cable? This is a question that often gets asked due to the shift away from traditional cable to streaming alternatives. However, the answer is not always so simple and tends to depend on multiple factors that we’ll look more closely at in more detail later on.
In the days of old (before 2015) watching live TV was simple enough. The choice of live TV services was based on location, the price was the price, and someone would come and install any necessary equipment for you. However, when Sling TV launched in 2015, things changed. Since then, the changes have kept coming, and now watching live TV comes down to choosing a live TV streaming service.
However, even that’s not always as simple as going with the cheapest, as there are many more aspects to take into consideration, including channel lineups and device support. In this guide we’ll cover everything you need to know before choosing a live TV streaming service to help make sure you end up with the right service for you.
This guide is aimed at those very new to streaming, so more experienced streamers may want to jump to a specific section using the links below.
In this guide
Section 1: What’s live TV streaming
For those new to streaming, it is important to understand what live TV streaming is before looking for the right live TV streaming service . In this section we’ll cover the basics you need to know. If you are already familair with how streaming works in general, skip to the next section.
Live TV streaming mostly differs from traditional live TV in the way that it is delivered. For example, there’s no need for any specialized equipment, as the live TV content is delivered directly over the internet. Therefore, all someone really needs is a streaming device that connects to the internet and to the TV. In some cases the TV itself will be enough. For others, a TV might not even be necessary, thanks to mobile, PC, laptop and other device support.
Video and live TV service differences
Generally speaking, live TV streaming is not any different to how you might already stream video, or for that matter, music. The same devices stream most content and the only real difference is in the user experience. While most streaming services provide access to content you watch from the beginning, live TV streaming focuses more heavily on the airing of live content from major broadcast and popular cable networks.
That’s not to say there’s not content you can watch from the start, but that’s additional on demand content typically bundled with a live TV subscription.
In spite of this focus on live content, the interface is likely to be presented in more of a Netflix style. For example, while a traditional live TV guide will be accessible, live TV streaming services will often present TV shows or movies that are being shown live more prominently than the actual channel itself.
There are some other additional features that come with live TV to enrich the experience and most of these will be discussed throughout this guide. However, they all can impact on the overall experience and are therefore likely to influence the decision when choosing the best live TV streaming service to replace cable.
How to stream live TV
There are three major components to streaming live TV and the first is the internet connection. Not all internet connections are equal and streaming has different requirements based on the resolution and quality of video.
For reference, here are rough estimates for the minimum download speeds required for streaming video over the internet:
- Standard Definition (SD): 1.5 Mbps
- High Definition (HD) 720p: 3 Mbps
- High Definition (HD) 1080p: 6 Mbps
- 4K Ultra HD: 16 Mbps
An extension of this point is data consumption as not all video types consume the same amount of data. The most common difference here is the playback quality. Live TV streaming services may offer a playback quality of up to 4K and this consumes significantly more data than SD or HD.
These streaming services are not always that forthcoming about how much data they use, but here is a very rough guide of the absolute minimums:
- Standard Definition (SD): 500MB to 1GB data per hour
- High Definition (HD: 1GB and higher data per hour
- 4K Ultra HD: 2GB and higher data per hour
The second major component to streaming live TV is a device. Generally speaking, most new devices with a display will support video streaming, although not all services support all devices and platforms.
Popular devices used to stream video, including live TV:
- Smart TVs
- Android smartphones
- Android Tablets
- iOS smartphones
- iOS tablets
- Amazon Fire TV devices
- Android TV devices
- Game consoles
- Web browsers
The final component is the live TV streaming service itself.
Most popular live TV streaming services
With a sufficient Wi-Fi network and a device that’s capable of streaming video over the internet, all that’s left to do is choose a live TV streaming service. In some ways, this can be the easiest component, as these services are easy to sign up to and even usually even offer a no-cost free trial as well.
Popular live TV streaming services:
- AT&T TV
- Hulu Live TV
- Sling TV
- YouTube TV
While the process of actually signing up to a live TV streaming service is easy enough, and there are plenty to choose from, it is important to be aware that they are all very different. This is not only in terms of the selection of channels they offer and the features they provide, but also the price itself.
Section 2: Choosing based on price
One of the easiest and most obvious ways to choose a live TV streaming service is the price and so we’ll cover this first. After all, if the service is too expensive to begin with, then it doesn’t matter how good it is or how many channels or features it has.
As crazy as it might sound, there can also be times when a live TV streaming service is actually too cheap as well.
How much does it cost to stream live TV?
Right now, there’s no real common consensus on how much live TV streaming costs. However, the market is slowly maturing and pricing has reached the stage where it is somewhat self-regulated by the services themselves. In other words, multiple live TV services now hover around $65 per month. Of course, some are more expensive while others are cheaper, but $65 per month seems to be a price many have now settled on. The now part is important, as the price is never guaranteed and can change.
Be aware of price increases
One point to note about live TV streaming is that price increases are a real thing. While the market tends to operate on a competitive basis with services opting to forgo profits in favor of building out a customer base, price rises have been increasingly hitting the market recently. In 2019 and 2020, almost every major live TV service increased its price. Some, increased their prices more than once in the same year.
Taking price increases into consideration is an important part of choosing a service based on price. For example, if you look at two services and one is $5 or $10 more than the other, but the more expensive service only recently upped its price, then it stands to reason the least expensive service is more likely to increase in price before the expensive one does again. That’s not guaranteed to happen, but the pattern of increases would suggest it is the case.
Are there free live TV services?
Yes, there are some streaming services that are free. While the price is a major factor, and an ever-increasingly important one, there are a number of services that offer access to live TV for nothing.
One of the things about the free live TV streaming services is that they might not necessarily fall under your definition of live TV. For example, a lot of these services provide access to lesser-known channels, in some cases, channels they’ve created that simply loop certain shows or content from the same network.
While the channel lineups are often not directly comparable to the paid live TV services, these services shouldn’t automatically be ruled out. If they offer access to the right live content for you, then they are a great way to cut the cost of live TV streaming.
Free live TV streaming service examples:
There’s also the local live TV side of the market. Local live TV channels – including ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox – are technically available to access for free. Typically, this requires the use of some additional equipment with the minimum being an over-the-air antenna. In the age of streaming, however, companies like Locast have been looking at ways to drive down the cost of live TV by providing access to locals over the internet.
Locast is the most well-known example of a service that provides access to local channels over the internet for free. While free to use, the service does push users to make monthly “donations.”
There are some other caveats to the use of Locast and the biggest one is the service is currently only available in select cities. In addition, Locast is currently facing legal claims from some of the major networks who don’t want the service providing streaming access to local channels.
Section 3: Choosing based on channels
Price aside, one of the most important factors to consider when choosing a live TV streaming service is the channels. Gone are the days when services offer what is essentially the same lineup and just competed on price by either offering an introductory deal or by bundling services together.
Instead, the world of streaming is made up of live TV services that have cherry-picked channels with the price relevant to that specific channel combination. For example, just because Hulu Live TV and YouTube TV charge the same each month for live TV streaming does not mean they both offer the same channel lineups. In some cases, the selection of channels will massively vary and these differences in content can make or break a service for some consumers.
Companies have become very good at choosing the channels they offer and combining them into a package which highlights the service’s strengths. These companies have also become equally as good at ignoring the fact there are often glaring channels holes in their lineup.
In this sense, it is usually always more beneficial for potential subscribers to look at the channels that are missing instead of the ones included in a subscription. After all, a service might offer 200 entertainment channels for $65 per month, but if it doesn’t have the one or two an individual or household want the most then it is not the right service to replace cable with.
Get used to channel add-on packs
A caveat to the last section is that live TV streaming services are not just defined by the channels they list in their basic or main package. For example, the price plastered over the website is usually for the package the service expects consumers to start with. These plans are designed to be attractively-priced to get you in the door.
However, many services also offer the option to improve on that basic package. With services like AT&T TV, they tend to offer completely different packages with more channels for a higher monthly cost. In other cases, like with fuboTV and Sling TV, the service will offer add-ons or channel packs that are typically priced between $1 and $10 each per month. These packs allow the subscriber to add a selection of additional channels to their main package.
Again, this is another area where you’ll want to specifically scrutinize the service with a view to knowing the true overall price you’ll be paying. As an example: if one service is priced $10 cheaper than another, but the cheaper service seems less appealing as it is missing crucial entertainment or sports channels, the same service may offer an entertainment or sports channel add-on. While the add-on does also add to the monthly price, if it is less than the $10 difference then you’re still saving and getting the channels you want.
The takeaway here is that consumers shouldn’t solely view live TV streaming services based on the price they advertise on the front page. More often than not, that’s just the starting price.
Factor in premium networks
Just like having to factor in add-ons, consumers will also want to take into consideration premium networks before deciding on the right live TV service. Nearly all of the major live TV streaming services offer access to premium networks, although they don’t always offer access to the same premium networks. What’s more, even the ones that do offer access to the same premium networks might charge a higher or lower price for the same premium network.
Here’s a prime example of how much the price can vary. AT&T owns HBO and operates the AT&T TV live TV streaming service. Due to this, select AT&T TV subscribers get access to HBO Max at no additional cost. In contrast, the other live TV streaming services typically charge around $14.99 per month for HBO Max, on top of the base subscription price.
Check for locals and affiliates
A last, but important component of the channel decision-making process is locals. While local channels can be accessed for free over-the-air, or through Locast (in select regions), for most people the natural way to access local channels is through their TV provider. This is also true of live TV streaming although this is yet another area where live TV streaming services vary.
Not all live TV services provide the same level of access to local channels and checking to see what locals are available in an area before signing up can help to make sure the local channels and affiliates that are important to an individual or household are not missed out on.
Most worthwhile services will offer a search tool on their website to show exactly what local channels are included. For example, the results above are from Hulu Live TV’s website and just require the consumer to enter the ZIP code to check, before having to sign up and find out the hard way.
Section 4: Choosing based on features
Another area that absolutely should be factored into the live TV streaming service equation is the additional features. In some ways, this is the most important due to features often being the most overlooked by customers. Typically, most consumers will (rightfully) fixate on the price and the channel lineup, only to realize the limitations of the service after they’ve signed up. Therein is the main takeaway with features, as this section is more about the limitations than what’s included.
Don’t forget about cloud DVR
Arguably, cloud DVR is one of the most underrated and overlooked features of all. One of the major benefits of cutting the cord and streaming is the option to watch what you want, when you want. Many services do provide on-demand access content and this can negate the need for a DVR for some, but it might often come with time-restrictions or having to sit through ads. While cloud DVR won’t always overcome all the issues with on-demand content, it is yet another layer of choice. For some content, it might be the only way it can be watched other than tuning in live.
Cloud DVR is not something that’s equal across services. For example, not all services offer cloud DVR, or include it as a feature with the main package, resulting in subscribers having to pay more for the option to record. Those that do offer cloud DVR as part of a package often restrict the recording limit and this limitation majorly varies across services. As an example, Hulu Live TV and YouTube TV are fairly level on price, but YouTube TV provides subscribers with an unlimited recording experience while Hulu only offers 50 hours of recording space for free. That’s a big difference in DVR experiences for two services that cost the same.
Another cloud DVR difference to be aware of is how long recordings can be kept for. Not all services will store recordings indefinitely, with some opting to impost a time limit instead. In some cases, this can be as little as 30 days, making it not much different to how long the same show or movie would likely be available for via on-demand.
Don’t forget about device support
Just like cloud DVR, device support is another feature that absolutely should be taken into consideration. After all, if planning to use a Roku player as the main device to stream live TV on, then the device owner will only be able to access live TV streaming services that come with Roku support. The list of supported devices, both inside and outside the home, could affect the decision of which service is best for an individual or household, and even for those that have yet to decide on their main living room device, or the platform it will run on.
Knowing the service you want to go with will be able to accommodate all your devices before signing up can go a long way to improving the overall experience once a subscriber.
Don’t forget about the number of streams
Another limitation to be aware of is the the number of streams. Besides accessing a service on different devices, streaming allows multiple users to watch live TV at the same time on different devices. This is especially important for busy households and large families where there’s an increased likelihood of one member watching in one room while another watches in a different room.
Generally speaking, most services will offer access to at least two simultaneous streams, allowing more than one person to watch at the same time. However, in many cases that will be the limit for the price of the base plan. While some services will also offer the option to increase the number of streams by paying more each month, others might not.
In addition, while some services allow subscribers to stream on an unlimited number of devices at the same time, that likely only applies to when streaming on the home network. In other words, the same service is likely to greatly reduce the number of simultaneous streams when watching away from home.
Knowing both the soft and hard simultaneous streams limitations of a service should make it easier to choose the right live TV streaming service for everyone that will be using the service.
Section 5: Best live TV streaming services
In this section we’ll look to provide some insight into what is likely to be a better live TV streaming service for different users. However, the information in this section should only be used as guidance to get you started.
Best live TV service for the price
This is likely to be the question most new to streaming want an answer to. Unfortunately, it is also the hardest one to answer. With so much variation in channels (and features), it is almost impossible to create a level playing field where all services can just be reduced down to the monthly cost.
Of course, what can be looked at is the price in general, as services that are too expensive to begin with can automatically be ruled out. On that basis, and excluding the free live TV services, here’s how much the cheapest plans from the major live TV streaming services currently cost – starting with the cheapest:
Best live TV service for content
Again, content mostly comes down to how much you are willing to spend considering most live TV streaming services will let you continuously add content for a price. However, if just discussing the main packages from the main live TV streaming services then Hulu Live TV is likely to be one of the best live TV streaming services for content overall. The reason for this is Hulu Live TV also includes the basic Hulu subscription. This is subscription that Hulu typically charges a minimum of $5.99 per month for, and provides access to a wide selection of TV shows and movies. In this sense, it is very similar to Netflix and all of that content is provided free of charge to Hulu’s TV subscribers.
For those interested in getting as much value as they can with a single subscription, then Hulu Live TV will be worth checking out. Not only will they gain access to a wide selection of channels, but also to a wide selection of on demand shows and movies, including Hulu originals and at no additional cost.
Best live TV service for families
For those interested in a service that’s likely to cater to all members of a family or a household equally, then YouTube TV is a good option to consider. Firstly, YouTube TV allows a single TV subscription be split into six sub-accounts. In other words, up to six different family or household members can have their own account, without each sub-account affecting the others. In addition, YouTube TV also lets accounts stream from a number of different devices at the same time.
Where YouTube TV really comes into its own for families, however, is the cloud DVR. For starters, YouTube TV offers an unlimited cloud DVR, so there are no issues with multiple household members recording all the live TV channels they want. What makes it all the better is the cloud DVR is specific to each sub-account. Essentially, every household member gets their own individual unlimited cloud DVR. This is a major advantage for family members, with each person only having to navigate and manage their own recordings.
Choosing a live TV service summary
A major takeaway from everything in this guide is that no one thing defines a live TV streaming service. The right streaming service for any individual or household is the one that checks the most boxes for that individual or household. While the previous “best” section looked to identify services based on one feature or another, it is just a starting point. From there, consumers are encouraged to check whether the rest of the points made in this guide also work for their individual situation and streaming needs.
In other words, if price matters the most, then narrow down the options by price first and starting with the cheapest services. Then look to compare channel lineups, the number of streams, device support, and cloud DVR limitations to see which one provides the most useful and worthwhile experience overall.
Only once all of these factors are taken into consideration is a consumer likely to know that they’ve actually found the right live TV streaming service for them.
Updated July 2021