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Best live TV streaming service for cord-cutters


As the US begins to finds its feet financially, one good way to save money is by cutting the cable TV cord. With a live TV streaming service, you can get rid of cable while keeping the familiar TV channels you love. It still includes live local and national news, which is just as important as ever, and live sports such as NBA basketball and MLB baseball. You can watch both live TV and guilty favorites with an inexpensive streaming device: no cable box or antenna required. 

Not to be confused with on-demand streaming services like Netflix, HBO Max and Amazon Prime Video, live TV streaming services like Sling TV and YouTube TV offer a package of live channels such as NBC, Fox, CNN and ESPN, same as cable. Unlike cable though, prices start at $20 a month with no extra fees or contracts. In place of a cable box and the monthly fee to rent it, you can use streaming apps on the smart TV, Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire TV or game console you own already. You can watch at home or on the go via a tablet, phone or even a web browser. And setting one up doesn’t require a stranger visiting your house.

Read more: Best streaming service of 2021: Netflix, Disney Plus, Hulu, Amazon Prime and more


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Live TV streaming services for cord cutters: How to choose…



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The downside? The prices and services themselves are in constant flux. In the past few months alone Sling TVHulu and the renamed AT&T TV have all increased their prices. In May, Google and Roku got into a contract dispute which prevents users downloading the YouTube TV app on Roku devices (although there is a workaround). Change can also mean that competition is squeezed out — our former cheap picks AT&T TV Watch TV and TVision either stopped accepting customers or shut down, while PlayStation Vue shuttered in 2020.

Read more: YouTube ratchets up Roku face-off by adding YouTube TV to main YouTube app

With all of that in mind, here’s a guide to the brave new world of live TV streaming over the internet, as well as other cord-cutting options available today. We update this list periodically.

Top live TV streaming services compared

AT&T TV FuboTV Hulu Plus Live TV Sling TV YouTube TV
Base price $70/month for 65-plus channels $65/month for 100-plus channels $65/month for 70-plus channels $35/month for 30-plus (Orange) or 45-plus (Blue) channels $65/month for 85-plus channels
Free trial Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC channels Yes, in many markets Yes, in many markets Yes, in many markets Fox and NBC only in select cities Yes, in many markets
Simultaneous streams per account 20 (in home, 3 outside of it) 3 2 ($15 option for unlimited) 1 (Orange), 3 (Blue) 3
Family member/user profiles No Yes Yes No Yes
Cloud DVR Yes (20 hours, unlimited for $10 a month) Yes (250 hours) Yes Yes (50 hours, 200 hours for $5 a month) Yes (unlimited)
Fast-forward through or skip commercials with cloud DVR No (Yes with $15 option) Yes No (Yes with $10 option) Yes Yes

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YouTube TV has more top channels than any competitor at this price and it’s still the only one with local PBS stations. It also has the best cloud DVR of the bunch, including unlimited storage and a generous nine months to watch recordings (most rivals offer 30 days). The interface is no-nonsense, if a little 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.

If you want the best service available and don’t mind paying for it then YouTube TV is the one to get. However, if you just want to save money over a traditional cable subscription then Sling TV is the superior bargain.

Note that currently Roku owners can’t download the YouTube TV app to their devices. That could change if Google and Roku come to terms, and in the meantime existing subscribers can still watch YouTube TV on Roku.

Top channels not available: A&E, History, Lifetime.

Read our YouTube TV review.

 

Ty Pendlebury/CNET

At $35 Sling TV Blue may cost more than Philo (soon to be $25) but it has better channels, more options and a comparatively better interface, so it’s worth the extra money in our opinion. And it’s still dirt-cheap compared to most other streaming services, let alone cable.

Sling is cheaper than premium services like the $65 YouTube TV and Hulu Plus Live TV and this is because it has very few local stations (no local ABC or CBS stations, and availability of local Fox and NBC is very limited). Sling offers not one but two $35-per-month channel packages, Sling Orange as well as Sling Blue. While some channels are available on both Sling Orange and Sling Blue, the two differ significantly with other channel offerings: Orange is basically the ESPN/Disney package, while Blue is the Fox/NBC package and offers more channels overall.

In addition to an affordable price Sling TV has two new feathers in its cap, an upgraded DVR (increased to 50 hours) and the new interface seen above. The new home screen makes the service a lot more fun to use, and it is available on Fire TV now and will coming to more devices over summer.

Top channels not available on Sling Blue: ABC, CBS, Animal Planet, Disney Channel, ESPN, Nickelodeon. Fox and NBC are only available in select major cities.

Top channels not available on Sling Orange: ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, Animal Planet, Bravo, CNBC, Discovery Channel, Bravo, Fox News, Fox Sports 1, FX, MSNBC, USA Network.

Read our Sling TV review.

 

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With that December price hike came a number of additional channels, but Hulu Plus Live TV is still second banana to our top premium pick, YouTube TV. Its channel selection still isn’t as robust as YouTube TV and FuboTV but Hulu’s significant catalog of on-demand content helps set it apart. Exclusive titles such as The Handmaid’s Tale give it a content advantage no other service can match. Its interface and DVR lag behind competitors, however, and you’ll still have to pay another $10 a month to skip commercials on Hulu’s cloud DVR (the base cloud DVR, which is included, doesn’t permit skipping ads). In short, for the same base price, YouTube TV is still better than Hulu.

Top channels not available: AMC, BBC America, MLB Network, NBA TV, NFL Network, NFL Red Zone.

Read our Hulu Plus Live TV review.

 

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Now simplified from “AT&T TV Now” to “AT&T TV,” while also adding a raft of missing channels, this service is also the most expensive at $70. The traditional-style interface is good, however, as it includes the flipper-friendly ability to swipe left and right to change channels.

For cord-cutters who want to follow their local NBA or MLB team, AT&T TV’s $85 Choice package is our pick because it has access to more regional sports networks than the competition. Although you’ll want to make sure your channel is included, and not available on one of our better picks, before you pony up. Check out our guides to streaming the 2021 NBA season and MLB season for more details.

Top channels not available in base package: MLB Network, NFL Network, Travel Channel.

Read our AT&T TV review.

 

Sarah Tew/CNET

It couldn’t stay at $20 forever and it gets a price bump to $25 as of June 8. Nevertheless this is a cheap service with no sports or local channels, Philo offers bread-and-butter cable channels like AMC, Comedy Channel, Nickelodeon and BBC America. It also includes a cloud DVR and add-ons from Epix and Starz. We think most people are better off paying another $10 for Sling TV’s superior service, but if Philo has every channel you want, it’s a great deal.

Read CNET’s Philo review.

 

Ty Pendlebury/CNET

There’s a lot to like about FuboTV — it offers a wide selection of channels second only to YouTube TV, and its sports focus makes it especially attractive to soccer fans in particular. It’s also a great choice for NFL fans since it’s the only service aside from YouTube TV with NFL Network and optional RedZone. 

In August 2020 Fubo TV added a bunch of channels including ESPN and Disney channels, but at the same time it dropped Turner networks including CNN, TNT and TBS — the latter two also carry a lot of sports content, in particular NBA and MLB. Those programming holes, and the $65 price tag, make it less attractive than the others.

Top channels not available in base package: Cartoon Network, CNN, MLB Network, TBS, TNT, TruTV.

Read our FuboTV review.

 

How to shop for cord-cutting live TV services

Each of the services above offers a different mix of channels, so your first step should be choosing one that carries your “can’t miss” cable 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.

Read more: Top 100 channels compared across Hulu, Sling TV, YouTube TV, FuboTV, AT&T TV Now and Philo

The services can be broken down into two main groups: Budget, with prices ranging between $20 and $35 and few or no local channels; and Premium, with prices from $65 and up and including locals plus extras like supercharged cloud DVRs. That’s right, all of the services allow you to record and play back shows, just like a traditional cable or satellite DVR, but they often come with restrictions. 

Next 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 or other devices — you’ll want to make sure the service you’re watching has enough simultaneous streams. Sling Orange only allows one stream at a time, and if you try to watch a second, it’s blocked. Other services have higher simultaneous stream limits.

Keep in mind that, especially if you do have more than one person watching at once on supported devices, you need to make sure you have fast, reliable broadband internet. A 100Mbps download service will cost around $50 to $60 a month, and sadly that’s where the savings of cutting cable can get swallowed up. 

Here’s a live TV streaming shopping list to consider: 

05-hulu-live-tv

Hulu Plus Live TV.


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What streaming TV services won’t give you

Streaming TV services are great, but there are 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. For example, only one of the services offers PBS — YouTube TV — and this is because the broadcaster reportedly hadn’t acquired the streaming rights to all of the shows it airs. 

With sports returning from hiatus, fans will want to make sure they can follow their teams. Most services carry ESPN and local channels for NFL football, but if you follow a professional baseball or basketball team, you might need their specific channel — called a regional sports network or RSN — to watch regular season games. RSN coverage varies widely for each service.

Every live TV service’s video streaming is a few seconds to a minute or more behind the “live” stream you’ll get from your local cable or satellite provider. That means you could get a preview of scores or big plays from Twitter, phone alerts or phone calls from friends slightly before you see the action on screen.

If you’re used to 5.1-channel 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. 5.1 audio is available on some on-demand material, though.

Don’t care about live TV? More cord-cutter staples

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Nicknamed Baby Yoda, this might be the cutest Star Wars character ever, from The Mandalorian on Disney Plus. 


Disney/Screenshot by Bonnie Burton/CNET

In 2021 streaming fans have more choices than ever, including NBC/Comcast’s Peacock, AT&T’s HBO MaxApple TV Plus and Disney Plus. While Peacock differs in that it has live news the other services lack traditional live channels — focusing instead on back catalogs and new original programming — but they can still eat into your entertainment budget.

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. And then, of course, there’s the ever-popular “Netflix and chill.” High-definition plans start at $14 a month, and the service covers thousands of TV shows and movies, including original TV series like The Queen’s Gambit and Stranger Things. Then there’s Netflix original movies like Army of the Dead and The Irishman. 

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 original content like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and The Expanse. Amazon Prime also has the ability to add premium channels (HBO and Showtime and more), making it a potential one-stop shop.

wandavision-ep-6-1

Marvel Studios

Disney Plus: One of the biggest streaming services to launch in some time, Disney has gathered a mix of movies, TV shows and exclusive content, including The Mandalorian and WandaVision, for $8 a month. Read our Disney Plus review here.

Paramount Plus: 
Recently renamed from CBS All Access, Paramount Plus costs $6 a month, or ad-free for $10 a month The service offers live TV (in some cities), sports and on-demand content from CBSMTVBETComedy CentralNickelodeon and Paramount Network, plus its Paramount Pictures movie studio. Paramount Plus also offers exclusive originals such as Star Trek: DiscoveryPicard and the Good Fight.

Vudu/Movies Anywhere: Digital libraries (or lockers) that incorporate legacy UltraViolet content and streaming movies and TV that are only available for purchase, such as new releases.

Peacock: Live now nationwide, Peacock is NBC’s answer to CBS All Access. Its main claim to fame is that its basic tier, with 7,500 hours of content, is free.

It’s also worth investigating free, ad-supported services such as Roku Channel, IMDb TV, TuBi TV, Pluto and Crackle, which offer a wealth of content. Read CNET’s roundup of free TV services here.


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How to cut the cord for $10: installing an indoor antenna



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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 CNET’s roundup of the best OTA DVRs for cord-cutters.

A solid, lower-cost alternative to live TV streaming services is the combination of an antenna for live local channels and an on-demand service such as Netflix or Hulu. That way you’ll still be able to watch live programming and also have a choice of on-demand content.

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Amazon’s Fire TV Recast DVR is a cord-cutting antenna user’s friend.


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Conclusion: Try it yourself

Streaming live TV services are still in flux. Since launch, every service has increased its 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, or even closing in the case of T-Mobile’s TVision. While streaming is undoubtedly the future, and cable the past, 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 for on-the-go devices, 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 YouTube TV, there should be a streaming TV service to suit you.

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