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Best live TV streaming service for cutting cable


Many people may have considered cutting the cable cord, but for that one show or channel that keeps them from taking the plunge. Enter live TV streaming services. These streaming services allow you to keep the familiar TV channels you love, as well as live sports (including NBA basketball and major league baseball) plus local and national news. All this with just an inexpensive streaming device — no cable box or antenna required. 

Not to be confused with an on-demand streaming platform like Netflix, HBO Max or Amazon Prime Video, live TV streaming services such as Sling TV and YouTube TV offer a live channel lineup. Packages start at $25 a month with no extra fees or contracts, which is much less than a cable subscription. You can stream live programming from channels including CNN, NBC, Fox and ESPN on your smart TV, Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire TV devices or game consoles, or on the go via a mobile device. The best part of all? Setting up a streaming TV service to watch original programming doesn’t require an engineer to visit your house.

Read more: Best streaming service: Netflix, Disney Plus, 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 as people scramble to secure access to popular channels (ones with highly watched original shows and regional sports networks are particularly in demand) without a subscription. In the past six months Sling TVHuluPhilo and AT&T TV have all increased their prices. In April, Google and Roku got into a contract dispute that prevented users from downloading the YouTube TV app on Roku devices (although there is a workaround). There’s also the chance that a certain cable channel could disappear from a certain service after a contract expires. 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 entirely, 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, welcome to the brave new world of live TV streaming over the internet. If you need help deciding which streaming bundle or service is best for you then read on! We’ll break down which services offer the most popular channels (including sports channels) and how to make the most of your streaming box, streaming stick, or other streaming device. We will update this best streaming service list periodically as things change (they always do).

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 ($20 adds unlimited and 4K streams)
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

Sarah Tew/CNET

YouTube TV has more top channels than any competitor at this price and it’s still the only one with local PBS stations. Though it doesn’t add any more channels, the service announced a $20-a-month add-on which enables users to watch 4K live streams and on-demand content. It also adds an unlimited number of simultaneous streams (up from three).

The basic $65 service 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, 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 $10 more than Philo 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 be coming to more devices over the 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.

 

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Read our Hulu Plus Live TV review.

 

Sarah Tew/CNET

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

At its new price of $25 Philo is still a cheap service with a variety of channels, but no sports or local stations. It offers bread-and-butter staples 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 decent deal.

Read our 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 one of the only services, alongside YouTube TV and now Hulu, 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.

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. 

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

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: 

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Hulu Plus Live TV is our No.2 pick.


Sarah Tew/CNET

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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HBO’s Mare of Easttown is one of 2021’s best shows.


HBO

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.

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Disney Plus’ Loki premiere on June 9 was the most-watched on the streaming service.


Disney Plus

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 Loki, 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.


Sarah Tew/CNET

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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