The most basic cable package from Charter (Spectrum?) costs me more than $70
per month, and that’s without any equipment other than a single cable
card. It’s very clear why people have been cutting the cord with cable
TV companies. But, what options exist? Do the alternatives
actually cost less? Are the alternatives as good? I’ve been trying to
figure that out for a few months now, and the results? It depends.
The idea of cord cutting isn’t new. For years, people have been
severing their ties with cable companies in order to save money. The
ever-persistent question is this: how do the options compare?
Real Time or On Demand?
When replacing cable TV, there are two main types of media in
question. Services like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu are great, but
they don’t provide live television. In fact, depending on the show and
service, you might need to wait until the next day or even the end of
a season before your desired shows are available. You usually get the
advantage of no commercials, but the waiting often is unbearable if
you’re into television shows that end with cliffhangers.
It is interesting though, now that Netflix and Amazon have been so successful with
their streaming services, they’re beginning to get their own exclusive
shows. This means that not only are the shows not delayed, but they’re also actually
not available at all via cable TV! Admittedly that phenomenon is fairly
new (only the last few years), but it makes the case for streaming far
stronger. Why pay $70 per month and still not get to watch
Also, many individual stations are starting to offer their own
streaming options, so the days of paying for cable so you can see a
particular HBO show are over. Broadcast networks are starting to offer
streaming options too, so if you’re just looking for the ability to watch
particular television shows, even paying for multiple online accounts
is cheaper than paying for cable—usually.
All Those Cable Channels…
Some of the biggest hurdles for cord-cutters are cable-only channels. I
have a relative who watches only shows on the History Channel. And my
mother-in-law couldn’t live without watching movies on the Hallmark
Channel. And everyone I know in real life is addicted to HGTV and its
tiny house program. Those channels aren’t big enough to support a full
streaming platform (or are owned by actual cable companies, so they won’t
offer a non-cable alternative). So what’s a cord-cutter to do?
Until recently, not much. Now, however, there are three really good options
for streaming cable television stations, and one is almost really good. Those
options aren’t exactly cheap, and they’re mostly US-only, but they’re
far less expensive than cable TV. The three options each have their quirks,
but any of them are worth looking into if you have reliable internet
speeds that aren’t dependent on cable TV bundling. Currently, the three main
options are Sling TV, PlayStation Vue and DirecTV Now.
Streaming Cable: Sling TV
Sling TV has been around the longest and is owned by Blockbuster
(yes, that Blockbuster!), who in turn is a subsidiary of Dish Network. It
has a large lineup of cable stations and several tiers of options that
include packages like premium cable channels. Depending on promotions and
where you live, the packages range from $20–$40 per month. If you live
in a big city, you also might get local broadcast stations (NBC, ABC,
CBS, PBS, FOX), but for most of the country, you get those channels
only «on demand», which means recordings of popular shows the next day.
Figure 1. Sling TV has been around a long time, but the lack of DVR and
video glitches make it less than stellar in my experience.
The technology details of Sling TV are a little confusing. If you
subscribe to the lowest tier, you can stream only one channel per account
at a time. That means if you are watching TV in your living room, you
can’t watch something else on your phone. If you subscribe to a
higher-priced tier, you can have up to three streams at once. Also,
although the streams
usually are good quality, my anecdotal experience shows that there are
a few more artifacts and glitches with Sling TV than with the other options,
but nothing that makes it a showstopper. (I get glitches with my cable
television too, so nothing is perfect.)
There’s a free trial with Sling TV, so it’s worth checking out. Just
be sure to cancel it before your credit card auto-renews at the end of the
trial, unless you decide to keep it. Also, because it’s been around for a
long time, Sling TV has apps on multiple platforms. Xbox users can install
Sling TV, along with Android TV and Roku users. Like most streaming
services, Roku does a great job of staying vendor-neutral, which means
it usually can provide services regardless of who is providing
PlayStation Vue is a bit more of a surprise, since Sony PlayStation
is synonymous with gaming rather than television. Its offerings
are impressive, however. The lineups are similar to Sling TV, but
the breakdowns are a little different. The lowest-price service is around
$30 per month, with other tiers available that add more channels. Sony
gives you a price break if you’re not in one of the cities that has local
channels available, so for me in rural Michigan, it’s cheaper than if I
lived in Chicago. (That means I don’t get local channels though, which
Figure 2. PlayStation Vue is remarkable, until it’s not. The video
quality is amazing, and the DVR is superb. The geolocation frustrations
along with PS4 console problems make it difficult to love.
Although the slightly higher price seems frustrating, the technology included
might make up for it. Not only can you stream to five devices simultaneously,
but it also provides «Cloud DVR», which automatically stores recorded
content for you. All you need to do is mark a program as a favorite,
and all episodes are saved for 30 days. It’s not possible to schedule a
timed event, but the DVR feature is extremely nice, and it provides a far
better experience than the live-only Sling TV.
The video quality with PlayStation Vue is
shockingly good. Whether
watching on a mobile device, a Roku or a PlayStation system, the video is
far more reliable in my anecdotal trials. The five streams means people can
watch TV in multiple rooms, and since Vue allows for individual profiles,
different family members can have their own DVR’d shows. The only really
big issue I’ve had with PlayStation Vue is that it’s not possible to
watch streams from the same account on two different PlayStation 4
consoles. I have a console in my office and a PlayStation Pro in the
living room, and it’s not possible to watch Vue on both devices. That is
particularly frustrating, because watching on multiple Roku units works
fine, but not on the actual Sony hardware! There’s also some frustration
with geolocation. Sony often thinks I’m not home, so it limits what I can
watch. I would understand if my IP address changed, but I have a static
IP address and I’m always connecting from home! (See the notice in Figure
DirecTV Now is the new kid on the block when it comes to cable TV
streaming. The packages are similar to the other services I mentioned, with some
initial low-priced options available to entice users away. (Note: with all
these services being contract-free, the potential for moving in order to
save a few bucks is very legitimate!) DirecTV Now has similar limitations
regarding live broadcast stations (that is, at the time of this writing there aren’t
any available), but DirecTV Now has the additional limitation that even
on-demand content from CBS isn’t available. The kerfuffle that DirecTV and
CBS have been having extends to the streaming service as well.
Figure 3. DirecTV Now is the new kid on the block. The $35/month is a trial
cost and likely will increase before this article is published.
I haven’t personally used the DirecTV Now service, because none of my
devices currently are supported. (Apple TV is its main device, and you
can get one free if you pre-pay for three months of service.) I have friends
who’ve used it though, and they say the quality is very good. Like Sling
TV, however, it doesn’t currently have any DVR capability.
Since DirecTV Now is new, it’s not fair to criticize its lack of
hardware support yet. Roku streaming is slated for Q1 2017,
and it’s possible other non-competitors will get apps as well. As is
usually the case, Roku likely will be one of the premiere ways to watch
streaming cable TV service, because its compatibility will allow for
service-hopping without hardware reinvestment.
USTVnow, the Sort of Option
USTVnow is a service designed for US citizens living outside
the US and, therefore, unable to get US television. It’s a streaming
service that provides live network channels (ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, FOX)
for free, and for a monthly fee, it adds a few cable channels (28 total)
and HD streaming as well. There is also some DVR service included with
the premium packages. Any time I’ve tried to use USTVnow inside the
US, it’s worked perfectly, so there aren’t any apparent geographical
restrictions. Honestly, on paper, it’s the best thing going.
Figure 4. I want to love USTVnow, and perhaps now that there is a paid
service, the reliability will improve. I just hope it’s able to keep
providing live broadcast channels in the US.
Unfortunately, the times I’ve used USTVnow, I’ve had lots of
glitches. Usually it’s during busy times (Super Bowl party, for instance)
that the service glitches, but since those are the times I want it to work
the most, it’s been a frustrating service. The pricing is competitive,
however, especially since the SD free tier is really free and provides
live broadcast stations. As with most services, Roku seems to be the
best way, apart from a browser, to consume USTVnow.
I want to love USTVnow. I have no idea how it’s able to provide
service in the US when the other options struggle to provide broadcast
stations. Hopefully, it’s not a loophole that will be closed, because
for some folks, it’s the only way to get broadcast channels at all,
even if they do live in the US.
Yes, obviously using an antenna is a great way to get local television. In
fact, you can head over to http://antennaweb.org and see what
channels are available in your area and what sort of antenna you’ll
need. The site even will tell you what direction to point your antenna for
the best signal. If you’re just looking for some old-fashioned television,
an antenna is often a good option. Plus, apart from the hardware, it’s
Figure 5. «Up to 0 channels» is a sad thing to see; I hope your
location is better.
The problem is, even though I live in a (small) city, I get exactly
zero channels from my location. That is due to geography, because I live
on the side of a hill, but nonetheless, I can’t get any channels using
even a rooftop antenna. Even if you can, however, it’s worth considering
whether that sort of system is acceptable for you. I don’t want to switch my
input source on the television every time I want to watch TV. And TiVo has
spoiled me; I want to pause live TV. It’s possible to get something like
an HD Homerun device from Silicon Dust and convert your antenna signal
into a digital stream, but integrating that into your entertainment system
is often challenging. Plus, I had so much frustration with my HD Homerun
setup in our last house that I opted to just buy a cable TV subscription.
So OTA (over the air) channels are worth checking out, and for some
people, they are more than enough. For me, however, even if I could get
a good signal, I want more.
What about the Parade?!
If you live in a big city and can get local channels via services like
Sling TV or PlayStation Vue, things like watching the Thanksgiving Day
parade are possible. For me, the only way I can watch live events is
with the not-always-reliable USTVnow. And even those channels aren’t
local, so I can’t ever watch the local news. My big issue used to be how
to watch the Olympics, but thankfully, many streaming options
are available now. Still, watching the Thanksgiving Day parade is something I’ve done
my whole life, and without some way to see local channels, all the cable
channels in the world don’t help.
Because I have thousands of dollars invested in my TiVo infrastructure
(lifetime Roamio subscription and four TiVo Minis), I’m still paying for
the lowest tier of cable TV. I find that we almost never switch over
to the TiVo, however, so in the next few months, I might bite the bullet
and cancel cable TV altogether. For most folks, services like Sling TV,
PlayStation Vue and DirecTV Now provide more than enough service at a
fraction of the cost. So if you live in a big city or can live without
live broadcast channels, I urge you to give them a try. Each is available
with a free trial, and if you sort through the various pros and cons,
coming up with a satisfactory service is pretty easy.
If you’ve cut the cord (many of you I’ve spoken with already
have done so), I’d love to hear about your specific solution. Do you just
switch sources on your TV and use rabbit ears? Do you strictly Netflix
and chill? Have you sold your television and reverted to books? (I’m
often tempted.) Please let me know. I’d love to follow up with some
alternatives for folks like myself who are still struggling to cut