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What is the best streaming service to replace cable? This is a question that gets asked often thanks to the shift away from traditional cable to streaming alternatives. However, the answer is not always simple and depends on many factors that we’ll go into more detail on.
In the days of old (before 2015) watching live TV was simple. The choice of live TV services operating locally were limited, the price was the price, and someone would come and install any necessary equipment for you.
However, when Sling TV launched in 2014, things changed, and since then the changes have kept coming. Now, watching live TV is a matter of finding the right live TV streaming service and even that’s not as simple as going with the cheapest considering there are many more aspects to take into consideration. Channel lineups and device support, are just a couple.
In this guide we’ll cover everything you need to know before choosing a live TV streaming service to make sure you end up with the right service for you.
In this guide
- Section 1: what’s live TV streaming
- Section 2: Choosing based on price
- Section 3: Choosing based on channels
- Section 4: Choosing based on features
- Section 5: Best live TV streaming services
Section 1: What’s live TV streaming
If you’re new to streaming, then before getting started with finding the right live TV streaming service it is important to understand what live TV streaming is. In this section we’ll cover the basics you need to know about live TV streaming. If you are already informed enough on this topic then 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 you ready need is a 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.
Difference between video and live TV services
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 you with 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 it’s secondary content.
In spite of this focus on live content, the interface is likely to present it 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 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 them are discussed throughout this guide as they all impact on the overall experience and should influence your decision when choosing the best live TV streaming service to replace cable.
How to stream live TV
There’s three major components to streaming live TV and once you have those sorted you are good to go and ready to access to all your favorite live TV channels and shows.
The first is the internet connection. Not all internet connections are equal and streaming has different requirements based on the quality.
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
Another aspect to be aware of 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.
Live TV streaming services are not all that forthcoming about how much data they use, but as a very rough guide:
- 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.
Here’s a list of many 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
- Games consoles
- Web browsers
The final component is the live TV streaming service itself.
Most popular live TV streaming services
The last major component is an actual live TV streaming subscription. This is the easiest part of the equation as you just need to pick a live TV streaming service and sign up.
Here’s a list of the most popular live TV streaming services:
- AT&T TV NOW
- Hulu + Live TV
- Sling TV
- YouTube TV
While there are plenty of services to pick from now, choosing one is not always that simple due to how different they all are.
This is where the rest of this guide comes in.
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 for you 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. The market still appears to be too young for a firm figure resulting in a landscape where pricing can be extremely erratic.
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, services are currently hovering around the same price. If we were going to name that price, than the starting price you can expect to pay for a premium service would be $50.
That’s not to say you’ll pay $50 exactly as some services charge much more and others much less. Although if you account for a $50 per month spend on live TV streaming then it will put you in a good place to have options.
Read more: Live TV streaming deals
Be aware of price increases
One point to note about live TV streaming is that price increases are a real thing now. 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 alone, 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.
Read more: Live TV streaming price increase tracker
Are there any free live TV services?
Yes, there are free live TV streaming services. 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.
Now, one of the things about the free live TV streaming services is that they might not necessarily fall under your own definition of live TV. For example, a lot of these services provide access to lesser-known channels, in some cases, channels they’ve created.
While the channel lineups are often not directly comparable to the paid live TV services, that should not mean you automatically rule them 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.
Examples of free live TV streaming services:
Likewise, there’s 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. However, in the age of streaming, some companies have been looking at ways to drive down the cost of live TV with streaming access to locals.
Locast is the most well-known example of this is. Locast is a service that provides access to local channels over the internet for free – although the service does push users to make monthly “donations.”
There are some caveats to the use of Locust and the biggest one is the service is currently only available in select cities. You can check if your local area is currently supported by Locast by clicking here. In addition, Locast is currently battling it out in court against 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 in general. Gone are the days when services offer what is essentially the same lineup and just compete on price by either an introductory offer 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 combination of channels. For example, just because two different services both charge $50 per month for live TV streaming does not mean they are directly comparable. In some cases, their channel lineups might be very different with the one or two channels you most want completely missing.
Do all live TV services have the same channels?
As mentioned, no. Not all live TV services provide access to the same channels. 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’s often some glaring channels holes in their lineup.
In this sense, it is usually always more beneficial for prospective subscribers to look at the channels that are missing instead of those that are included. After all, a service might offer you 200 entertainment channels for $50 per month, but if it doesn’t have the one or two you want, then it is not the right service for you 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 you to subscribe to at a minimum. These 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. In some cases, they’ll offer a completely different package for a higher price which includes additional channels. In other cases, the service will offer add-ons or channel packs that are typically priced between $1 and $10 per month. These packs allow you to add a selection of additional channels to your 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. Here’s an example: if one service is priced $10 cheaper than another, but you are put off the cheaper service because it is missing crucial entertainment or sports channels you want, the same service may offer an entertainment or sports channel pack that you can add. Although 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 you 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, you might also want to factor in premium networks before choosing the right live TV service for you. Nearly all major live TV streaming services offer access to premium networks although once again, that’s not to say they all offer access to the same premium networks. What’s more, even the ones who do offer access to the same premium networks might not charge the same price for the same premium network.
Here’s a prime example of how much the price can vary. AT&T owns HBO. AT&T also owns the AT&T TV NOW and WatchTV live TV streaming services. Naturally, as AT&T owns HBO, both live TV services come with access to HBO. However, AT&T TV NOW subscribers pay nothing for HBO each month while WatchTV subscribers are charged $17.99 per month.
While AT&T TV NOW costs considerably more than WatchTV to begin with, the $17.99 per month WatchTV subscribers are charged for HBO is more than what a subscriber to any other live TV streaming service will be charged for HBO. It’s even more expensive than what HBO charges for direct access to the service.
|HBO price p/m|
|AT&T TV NOW||Free|
|Hulu Live TV||$14.99|
In this instance, no WatchTV subscriber should ever add HBO to their package as it is cheaper to access from elsewhere, including directly from HBO.
Check for your 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 your area before signing up can help to make sure you don’t end up missing out on local channels or affiliates that are important to you.
Most worthwhile services will offer a search tool on their website to show you exactly what local channels you will get by entering in your zip code.
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 it often being the most overlooked by customers. Typically, most people are so (rightfully) fixated on the price and the channel lineups that they don’t realize the limitations of the service until after they’ve signed up. And therein is the main takeaway with features as this section is more about what limitations you have than what you get.
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 to a lot of content and this can negate the use of DVR for some, but it might often come with time-restrictions or having to sit through ads.
Although cloud DVR doesn’t always overcome all the issues with on-demand content, it is yet another layer of choice, and for some content it might be the only way you can watch other than tuning in live.
Cloud DVR is not something that’s equal across services. For example, not all services offer cloud DVR or don’t include it as a feature with the main package resulting in subscribers having to pay more for cloud DVR.
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 when it comes to cloud DVR Hulu offers 50 hours for free while YouTube gives you unlimited hours. That’s a big difference.
Another cloud DVR difference to be aware of is how long you can keep recordings for. Not all services will store your recordings indefinitely. Instead, some will limit the length you can keep recordings, and in some cases down to as little as 30 days making it not much different to how long it would likely be available via on-demand.
Read more: Live TV cloud DVR comparison
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 you plan to use a Roku device as the main access point for live TV streaming then you’ll only be able to access live TV streaming services that come with Roku support.
Even if you have yet to decide on your main living room device or platform this is still an area that you’ll want to be informed on as streaming lets you access your favorite channels and shows on many different devices, including devices you use when away from home.
Knowing the service you want to go with accommodates all your devices – inside and outside the home – can go a long way to improving the overall experience.
Don’t forget about the number of streams
You’ll also want to make sure you understand any limitations the service places on the number of streams. Besides accessing a service on different devices, streaming allows multiple users to watch live TV at the same time. 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 two simultaneous streams. However, in many cases that will be the limit for the price quoted. While some services will also offer the option to increase the number of streams by paying more each month, other won’t.
Knowing both the soft and hard simultaneous streams limitations of a service will help you to choose the right live TV streaming service for everyone involved.
Read more: Live TV simultaneous streaming comparison
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. The information in this section should only be viewed 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 and 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 price.
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 cost – starting with the cheapest:
|Hulu + Live TV||$55|
|AT&T TV NOW||$65|
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 we are just discussing the main packages from the main live TV streaming services then Hulu + Live TV is arguably the best live TV streaming service for content.
The reason for this is Hulu + Live TV also includes the basic Hulu subscription. This is subscription that Hulu normally 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.
If you are interested in getting as much value as you can with a single subscription, then Hulu will be worth checking out.
Read more: Hulu + Live TV review
Best live TV service for families
If you are interested in a service that’s likely to cater well to families or busy households in general, YouTube TV is a good option. Firstly, YouTube TV lets a single TV subscription be split up into six sub-accounts. In other words, up to six family members can have their own account without each sub-account affecting the others.
In addition, YouTube TV also lets accounts stream from three different devices at the same time. While that’s not exactly a lot, and certainly not equal to the number of sub-accounts, it is more simulations streams than most other services give you for free.
Where YouTube TV really comes into its own for families is the cloud DVR. For starters, YouTube TV offers unlimited cloud DVR and so there are no issues with multiple household members recording all the content 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.
The bottom line
If you haven’t picked up on it yet, the recurring theme in this guide is that no one feature defines a live TV streaming service. The right streaming service for any individual is the one that checks the most boxes for that individual in particular.
While the previous “best” section goes against this point considering it identifies services based on one feature or another, that section is just to point you in the right starting direction. From there, you should check whether the rest of the points made in this guide also work for your individual situation and circumstances.
In other words, if price matters the most, then narrow down your 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 to see which one (within the right price limit) gives you the most useful and worthwhile experience overall.
Only once all of these factors are taken into consideration are you liking to know that you’ve chosen the right live TV streaming service before signing up.