To help you comb through your options, we’ve put together this overview of 2018’s best TV providers and based it on our individual, in-depth reviews of each company. We know that not everyone wants the same thing from their TV provider, so we broke it down by satellite, cable, fiber-optic, and streaming providers. We encourage you to use this as a quick comparison, and dive into our individual reviews for a more thorough rundown of the companies that catch your eye.
Eric narrowly averted a career in food service when he began in tech publishing at Ziff-Davis over 25 years ago. He was on the founding staff of Windows Sources, FamilyPC, and Access Internet Magazine (all defunct, and it's not his fault). He's the author of two novels, BETA TEST ("an unusually lighthearted apocalyptic tale"--Publishers' Weekly) an... See Full Bio
Hulu is more than just a place to find some streaming originals and a lot of day-after-air shows. Last year it launched a live TV service—and it quickly became the PCMag Editors' Choice in this arena. Yeah, you pay more, but for that $39.99 you get access to the entire Hulu library we discussed above, plus lots of cable channels, including many local affiliates that stream live (depending on your location).
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If you live in a more rural area, however, you will only be able to access very few internet types. For example, you may only have DSL internet, dial-up internet, and satellite internet. If that is the case and if you're not too worried about affordability, you should opt for satellite internet, which may feature speeds of up to 25Mbps depending on the satellite dish service.
We make it easy for you to determine which local cable companies you'll have to choose from. Use our handy ZIP code checker to get valuable information that will help you in your search. You'll get the names of cable companies in your area, along with a snapshot of what they offer. Searching for cable providers by ZIP code is a great way to save time and effort so you can get right down to researching the details of each plan.
DIRECTV also offers more full-time high-definition (HD) channels than anyone, and it has the ability to record up to 200 hours of HD video content. So whether you’re tuning in to see Tom Brady’s piercing baby-blue eyes or just want to marvel at the realistic zombie makeup on The Walking Dead, you can expect a crystal clear picture for both live TV and recorded shows off your Genie DVR.
If you aren’t close enough to the TV towers to use an indoor antenna you may need an outdoor solution. Furthermore, today’s digital TV signals require a TV with a digital tuner. If your TV was made before 2007, it may not have one. For solutions to these issues, check out my post How To Get Local Channels Without Cable. I also expand on this a bit in the TV Antenna section later in this guide.
Over the last few years, however, I’ve noticed that I barely watch any television at all. I just generally prefer to read books or to play a board game in the evening rather than watching television. So, for me, the cost of a cable bill is kind of excessive. I could justify spending $10 or $15 a month on Netflix, but paying $80 or $100 a month for a bunch of channels I don’t watch just isn’t worth it.
Wow, thank you so much for this informative article. But to be honest I’m still so freakin confused. We have 5 TVs, so my first questions is do we have to pay for 5 Subsctiptions every month? My second questiton is, should I buy my own modem and router? I’m not exactly sure what each one does but would I still need to pay for an internet connection if I had them?
If you watch a lot of shows on your local stations—think ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX—you can tune into them for free. These channels are publicly broadcast and the signals are easy to pick up in most metropolitan areas. All you need is a good HD antenna, which you can score for under $40 on Amazon. Depending on the terrain in your area and your proximity to TV towers, one type of antenna might be better for you than another. But once you’re set up, you’ll be able to enjoy the latest episode of Modern Family with the same crisp picture you were getting through your cable company, minus the monthly bill.
Our view: If you've got a good $50- to $60-a-month internet plan and can add an antenna for local channels and maybe a Netflix or a Hulu, you will pay less. But many of us have TV/internet bundles that raise the price of internet if we drop TV. That's what happened with me and Frontier, when the company said my $35 monthly internet charge would double to $70 if I ditched cable.
Fios TV is #1 in customer ratings in HD picture quality and signal reliability, according to the 2017 American Customer Satisfaction Index. In fact, every major customer satisfaction study ranked Fios higher overall than cable TV providers like Comcast, Spectrum (formerly Time Warner Cable), Cox and Cablevision. If you’re wondering what is the best alternative to cable, then check out how Fios compares to Cable TV, download and upload speeds as well as using video streaming services.
Sports first is the goal at fuboTV, even if it's not sports exclusive. You get 82 channels of live TV with a intense focus on sports-related channels—even though the service doesn't include any ESPN networks (those are on Sling TV and Hulu with Live TV). But you do get stations like MSG, FS1, NBCSN, NBATV, BTN, Fox Sports, CBS Sports Network, and a lot more—including many entertainment networks like Fox, History Channel, HGTV, FX, E! and others. Add-ons include Showtime for $10.99 a month, plus even more sports channels from different countries for $8.99 a month. It comes with cloud-DVR capability and works on a PC, iOS, Android, Chromecast, Apple TV, and Roku devices; it's in beta on Amazon Fire TV. The first month is only $19.99 before it goes up to full price.
Showtime Online has a unique service of being able to be added on to other services that you may already subscribe to. For $9 a month, it can be added to Amazon Prime and Hulu and for $11, Playstation Vue. Showtime offers you award-winning series like Dexter, Weeds and House of Lies as well as a large selection of movies including action, comedies and dramas added each month. The stand-alone service is $11 and it offers both live viewing and streaming.
PlayStation Vue streams with 720p resolution. I use an Amazon Fire TV, but with an Ethernet connection to get a nice picture. Right now, if you look at PS Vue, Sling TV and DirecTV Now and fuboTV, they all stream at about the same quality. I can tell you that when I have family or friends over, they think the TV is showing cable. (I don’t have a 4K TV.) Check out a video of my TV streaming PS Vue on Amazon Fire TV: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RabL1GGhA6Y
The conversion to digital broadcasting has put all signals - broadcast and cable - into digital form, rendering analog cable television service mostly obsolete, functional in an ever-dwindling supply of select markets. Analog television sets are still[when?] accommodated, but their tuners are mostly obsolete, oftentimes dependent entirely on the set-top box.
Let’s get caught up on the full story of our use of cable television over the last several years. We’ve always been a one-television household with just a single TV that resides in our family room. I rarely watch it aside from the occasional live event, on family movie night, or when Sarah and I are cuddled under a blanket binge-watching something.
Netflix ($7.99/mo., $10.99/mo., $13.99/mo.): What HBO has been to premium cable, Netflix has been to subscription streaming services, offering buzzed-about programming that anyone who wants to be “in the know” regarding contemporary television needs to see. It got a head-start on its competitors by producing must-see original content, and it continues to expand its library every month with new series and movies that generate a lot of buzz. (Think “Orange Is the New Black,” “Stranger Things,” “BoJack Horseman” or “Jessica Jones”) The service has been licensing fewer older TV shows and films in recent years, but it still offers a lot of high-quality product from those realms, including great British television, recent CW and Fox series and a surprisingly healthy amount of contemporary foreign cinema.
The lowest pricing tier here offers standard definition streaming on one screen at a time. Mid-tier adds High Def and would allow you to watch a Netflix show on your TV at the same time that another family member was watching something different on his or her own device. The top tier includes 4K streams and covers four screens for simultaneous viewing.
FuboTV is a live online streaming service that specializes in providing sports programming. Though they also offer a selection of regular TV programming, they provide live streaming of games in the MLB, NFL, NHL and NBA, as well as major college sports and international sporting events. For $34.99 per month the service offers access to 68 channels. FuboTV is also offering a one-week free trial so that you can check out the service.
You forgot Playstation Vue. It’s way better than Sling (Sling’s app is terrible), has full function cloud DVR and OnDemand access, and has access to local Comcast SportsNet channels (DirecTV Now doesn’t in Philly). I’ve been using Vue for 6 months and I did a trial of DirectTV Now and Sling. DirecTV probably has the best app (Amazon Fire), but Vue has the best content if you’re a sports fan. Sling is a distant 3rd, worst app and worst performance.
Amazon Prime Video has a pretty huge collection of newer movies, and more importantly, exclusive shows that are really well done. It’s now $119 per year, and comes with an assortment of other perks like free shipping, a one million song library and access to free Kindle books. But for me, the value comes with Amazon’s homegrown movies and series. Many, if not all, are shot in 4K HDR (Ultra HD) so it’s nice to have that option without having to pay more for it (like Netflix).
The service that started the cable-replacement trend is still one of the best on the market. Sling TV starts off cheap ($20 per month), and while the cost can balloon quickly, depending on your add-ons, this probably won't happen. That's because Sling TV offers two basic packages of channels (Orange and Blue), then lets viewers pick and choose smaller add-ons, which usually cost $5 per month. From sports to comedy to kids' programming to foreign language channels, Sling TV has a little something for everyone. The service's DVR features are not bad, either.
Hulu is a great option if you want to watch Hulu original series or currently airing shows soon after they broadcast (along with many past seasons). The only catch? Unless you want to upgrade to the commercial-free version ($12), you’ll have to sit through some repetitive ads. So if you’d rather not wait to keep watching, maybe cough up the extra four bucks. Still, it's one of the best alternatives to cable tv on the market.
Direct TV Now is a streaming service from AT&T that offers live TV programming over the Internet. It gives you access to over 60 live channels for $35 per month. This includes popular stations, such as CNN, the Hallmark Channel, ESPN, the Disney Channel, HGTV, TBS, Discovery, Bravo, Animal Planet and Bloomberg, among many others. But you can also choose to add HBO, Starz or Showtime for an extra $5 to $8 per month.
Beware of the trial period for Sling, they charge you on the very minute your trial expires and will not refund your money. I just called because there was a 12 hour delay from the time my trial expired and I was charged and when I cancelled (my fault, I know). Thought I'd call and explain the mixup thinking the trial was for the full day and I cancelled at 8am the next day, they will not refund my money. I mentioned that seemed like big cable company treatment and the rep didn't seem to care, company policy is not to refund any partial months. Seems to me like a great way to sucker a bunch of potential new customers into paying for a month, not a fan of that type of business practice.
Adam… there are countless options and opinions out there on what’s “best” but it all boils down to what the readers want and need. The wife and I cut cable completely about 6-7 years ago. We have internet only for $50/mo. We now have a $4 a month (taxes only) VOIP phone (Ooma) for home phone, cut our cell phones down to bare minimum $5/mo. plans and rolled the savings to an amazing 55″ OLED SmarTV television on an open box deal. Between the apps on that, the computer attached by HDMI, the over the air antenna and free apps and web sites, we don’t need any of the devices or subscriptions to have it all… and then some. There’s no need for Netflix, Hulu, Prime, Sling, Philo, Fire Stick or anything. Our motto is keep it simple. We get library access online 24/7 and instead of asking “what’s on TV tonight?” the question is “what do you WANT on TV tonight?” … $54/month total… we’re good!
It’s these little things, plus the channel offerings, that make PlayStation Vue feel more like a traditional TV service (even though it’s not). You also get free DVR service with PlayStation Vue and can store an unlimited number shows for up to a month before they get automatically deleted. We really like the recording features that PlayStation Vue offers, but the downside is that you can only record one show at a time.
We also considered each company’s assortment of channel packages, their prices, and the variety of bundling plans. We took the 136 most watched channels and tallied each provider’s channel plan to compare the price it took to get the best value. We found that you can usually get the best value just by sticking to the simplest channel package. Our favorite providers also offer discounts when you bundle your internet service, and they limit fees for first-time customers.
Although HBO and Showtime are perhaps better-known these days for original programming, they still show recent theatrical releases, and they make them available through their subscription services. Starz is also excellent for anyone seeking current blockbusters. Consider tacking on a subscription to one, two or all three of these to an Amazon Prime Video account. Video-on-demand rentals are also an option, facilitated by multiple retailers. And if you’re interested in owning digital copies of your movies, the service Movies Anywhere is a helpful way to manage and view your library.
With Sling, there’s no more waiting on a show to air—you can watch it live like with cable or satellite, except you’re watching over the internet! The basic package includes 30 live channels like AMC, CNN, ESPN, ESPN2, HGTV, and Disney Channel. You can get a slightly different lineup of networks for $25, or get both for $40. There are also $5–10 add-on packages for sports fans, movie buffs and your little ones. So if ESPN is the only reason you’re clinging to your cable box, you may be out of excuses now!
There is a $10-per-month add-on channel for sports and $4.99-per-month one for Spanish channels. Perhaps the best feature on PS Vue: a cloud-based DVR for storing up to 500 programs to watch whenever you like. Also, you can use the "TV Everywhere" apps that many cable channels have that require a cable subscription—but by authenticating them with PlayStation Vue. And you can pause or rewind or fast forward on every channel. All of them.
Two of the biggest providers of skinny channel bundles are satellite TV companies Dish Network (Sling TV) and AT&T's DirecTV (DirecTV Now). It seems crazy to consider Sling TV and DirecTV clients to have "cut the cord" since pay-TV companies are continuing to make money off them. Analysts at eMarketer, however, take the opposite view, as do other experts.
While I would agree that PlayStation Vue is a very good streaming option for many people, the current lowest price is $39.99 ($40) for the "Access" plan. The SLIM package is no longer available anywhere in the US. It was discontinued July 2017. I spoke with a PS Vue rep, and she said the Slim package was always intended to be a temporary (tempting) package to just get people to try.
Although early (VHF) television receivers could receive 12 channels (2-13), the maximum number of channels that could be broadcast in one city was 7: channels 2, 4, either 5 or 6, 7, 9, 11 and 13, as receivers at the time were unable to receive strong (local) signals on adjacent channels without distortion. (There were frequency gaps between 4 and 5, and between 6 and 7, which allowed both to be used in the same city).
Hulu With Live TV ($39.99/mo.): The package varies from region to region, but for the most part this is one of the most conveniently cable-like services out there. It has most of the major basic cable channels — including ESPN and the big cable news outlets (CNN, MSNBC, Fox News) — and some local broadcast channels. The base price also includes everything that standard Hulu has to offer and up to 50 hours of DVR recording of live telecasts. For additional fees, users can eliminate commercials on Hulu shows, expand the DVR storage and add subscriptions to HBO, Cinemax and Showtime.
This is hands-down the most important part of your cord cutting solution. If you've never used a TV antenna you're going to be amazed at the value you will discover. Depending on where you live, people will have different requirements for TV antennas. We offer a thorough explanation in our Antenna Selection Guide. Channel Master has been making TV antennas since 1949 and we are the experts.
Because the content you get with any of these cable-replacement services, especially local channels, can vary by region, you should go to each company’s website, plug in your ZIP code, and see which channels are available in your area. These video streaming services have been adding more local broadcast channels, such as ABC and CBS, but they’re not always available in smaller markets.
In the most common system, multiple television channels (as many as 500, although this varies depending on the provider's available channel capacity) are distributed to subscriber residences through a coaxial cable, which comes from a trunkline supported on utility poles originating at the cable company's local distribution facility, called the "headend". Many channels can be transmitted through one coaxial cable by a technique called frequency division multiplexing. At the headend, each television channel is translated to a different frequency. By giving each channel a different frequency "slot" on the cable, the separate television signals do not interfere with each other. At an outdoor cable box on the subscriber's residence the company's service drop cable is connected to cables distributing the signal to different rooms in the building. At each television, the subscriber's television or a set-top box provided by the cable company translates the desired channel back to its original frequency (baseband), and it is displayed onscreen. Due to widespread cable theft in earlier analog systems, the signals are typically encrypted on modern digital cable systems, and the set-top box must be activated by an activation code sent by the cable company before it will function, which is only sent after the subscriber signs up. If the subscriber fails to pay their bill, the cable company can send a signal to deactivate the subscriber's box, preventing reception.
On the other hand, expanded cable TV package usually contains about 30-50 channels. Popular networks such as Fox News, MTV, ESPN, and Disney are usually included in this package along with the channels available in the basic cable package. However, it is critical to note that not every channel are available in all the packages, which implies that it is best to check the channels in your preferred package before settling for a certain cable TV provider.
Know when special pricing ends. If you're taking advantage of an introductory offer with limited time pricing, set a reminder in your calendar for one month before the offer expires. This way you have plenty of notice to call your provider and negotiate a new deal with them. Failure to do so could result in your bill going up by as much as double when your offer expires.
In an effort to entice cord cutters and cord nevers, some cable television providers have begun offering Internet-only streaming services. Cablevision began to offer "Cord Cutter" packages that include a free digital antenna and access to its Optimum WiFi network, as well as the option to add HBO Now to the service, making it the first ever cable provider to do so. In 2015, Comcast and Time Warner Cable (TWC) began to trial television services delivered via their managed internet infrastructures; Comcast's "Stream" service offered access to broadcast networks, HBO, Xfinity StreamPix, and their respective TV Everywhere services. Outside of TVE apps, the service can only be accessed via Comcast home internet on supported devices. In October 2015, TWC began to trial a service under which subscribers are given a Roku 3 digital media player to access their service via the supplied TWC app, rather than a traditional set-top box. A TWC spokesperson emphasized that this offering would provide "the same TV and same packages delivered to the home today", but delivered over TWC-managed internet rather than a cable line. This service has since been transferred to the current Spectrum service after Time Warner Cable's merger with Charter, with an equivalent Apple TV app forthcoming.
DISH also has the best DVR available. The Hopper 3 Smart DVR lets you record up to 16 shows at once, and you can record 2 ½ times more HD content (500 hours) than the Genie from DIRECTV (200 hours). However, keep in mind that the advertised package price doesn’t include the DVR price. You’ll have to pay an extra $10 per month for the Hopper and an additional $5–$10 per month for each added receiver.
K.C. That’s a great way to save money, especially if you aren’t much of a TV watcher. I don’t personally watch much TV, but the shows my wife and I watch tend to be on cable – often the Travel Channel, Food Network, Discover, History, ESPN, and The Disney Channel for our little one. That said, I don’t think we would be heartbroken to cut the cord and go without – just as long as I can keep my fast internet connection! 😉
If you stream, you should abandon the notion of channels. Many channels do have apps, but not all, and some require a cable log in. Streaming services are more like hubs, or video stores, where you can find thousands of titles, including some popular shows. But if you’re thinking about a cheaper way to maintain your present viewing habits, forget about it. What you’re getting is far superior, ad free content for a fraction of the price.
We ran into a weird issue when we tried pausing a live stream. It let us pause our show (because when you gotta go, you gotta go), but when we tried to resume and pushed play, the app skipped us ahead to the live stream. We ran into this problem only with live streams and not with on-demand shows and movies, We’re hoping this issue goes away when the cloud DVR feature launches, We’ll see. Right now it makes for a somewhat buggy experience.