Cable TV can seem a lot like a landline phone these days: an unnecessary expense that is shackled to outdated hardware. All the cool kids and a lot of the cool grownups are.
If you want to join them but don’t want to ditch live TV completely, you’ve come to the right place. Live TV streaming services likeand let you watch most if not all of your favorite TV channels — from ABC to CBS to CNN to ESPN to Fox News to Nickelodeon — streamed live over the internet. And they probably cost far less than you’re paying the cable company for TV.
These services have plenty of benefits — no more cable fees, no more contracts, yay! — but the savings can be outweighed by other downsides such as internet fees, DVR restrictions, buffering and a lack of things to watch, especially live sports. And just like cable TV, the costs of these services .
With all that in mind, here’s a guide to brave the new world of live TV streaming over the internet, as well as other cord-cutting options available today.
Disclosure: CNET may earn commissions from the services featured on this page.
So which ones are the best?
This is a long article with lots of, dare we say great information, but if you just want to know which ones we like for the best tv streaming options, here you go.
With its best-in-class channel selection and cloud DVR, YouTube TV is our favorite option for cord-cutters who want as many of the perks of an actual cable subscription, without the cost and hassle.
These two are our go-to recommendations, but they’re not perfect for everyone. Each contender for your cord-cutting dollar offers different channel lineups, features, menu systems, and features. They have a lot in common as well as some key differences. Here’s the long version: everything you need to know about streaming live TV. Buckle up.
How to shop for cord-cutting live TV services
In ascending order of monthly price, the major multichannel live TV streaming services available today are:
Yes, it’s a big list. But relax, we’ll break it down for you. And remember that each one has a free trial and no contacts, so trying (and canceling) are painless.
Each offers a different mix of channels, so your first step should be choosing a service 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 starting at $15 but lacking local channels; and premium, with prices from $45 which include locals as well as other extras like exclusive skinny bundles and an unlimited cloud DVR. Yes, most of the services (bar AT&T Watch TV) allow you to record and playback shows, just like a traditional cable or satellite DVR, but they often come with restrictions.
Then 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 — you’ll want to make sure the service you’re watching has enough simultaneous streams. Some of the least expensive services only allow one stream at a time, and if you try to watch a second, it’s blocked.
Keep in mind that, especially if you do have more than one person watching at once, you need to make sure you have fast, reliable broadband internet. A 100Mbps download service will cost around $50 to $60 a month, and here’s where the savings of cutting cable can get swallowed up.
Here’s a live TV streaming shopping list to consider:
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. A big one has been PBS, as the broadcaster reportedly hadn’t acquired the streaming rights to all of the shows that it airs. However, the good news is that .
Another biggie is sports. Sure, most services carry ESPN and local channels for NFL football, but if you follow a professional baseball or basketball team, chances are you’ll need their specific channel — called an RSN, or regional sports network — to watch regular season games. RSN coverage varies widely for each service.
And fans of live sports beware: 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.
Whileas part of its base subscription, most other services either sell it as an add-on or require you to sign up separately for . In addition, NFL Red Zone and NHL Network are either not available or only as part of a package.
If you’re used to the 5.1 surrounds offered by cable or even OTA, then you’ll probably be disappointed that all of the services only include stereo sound on live broadcasts. AT&T TV Now and PlayStation Vue do include 5.1 audio on some on-demand material, though.
(Note that CNET is owned by CBS, which is a compensated programming provider on all cable, satellite and online TV services that offer CBS channels, which include Showtime, Pop, CBS Sports, and The CW, among others. CBS also owns and operates its own online service, CBS All Access, which is mentioned below.)
The Big Five compared
Time to narrow down the list. Here are the five biggest services in terms of name recognition, channel count and features, presented in alphabetical order. Four of them fit in the $45-plus premium bracket while one is a budget service.
The best premium service
Best for: Unlimited DVR
Step-up packages: N/A
Missing channels: A&E, Comedy Central, History, Lifetime, NFL Network, NFL Red Zone, Nickelodeon.
The good: Intuitive interface and comprehensive program guide; includes all four local channels in most of US households; unlimited storage on cloud DVR.
The bad: Tied for the most-expensive service, DVR shows replaced by on-demand versions.
YouTube TV is CNET’s pick of the premium services, as it has more top channels in its package than any competitor, including all four local channels in most areas of the country. It also has the best DVR of the bunch, including unlimited storage and a generous nine months to watch recordings (most are 30 days). The catch is that if an episode you’ve recorded appears in YouTube TV’s VOD library, it gets replaced by the on-demand version — which means no fast-forwarding through commercials. The service allows you to watch on-the-go with 3 simultaneous streams across devices including most Android L mobile devices and above. YouTube TV’s 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.
The best budget service
Best for: Saving money but still getting ESPN (or Fox and NBC), supplementing with an antenna
Starting price: $25
Step-up packages: Sling Orange + Blue for $40 month, $5 cloud DVR add-on, numerous $5 mini packages
Missing channels (all packages): ABC, CBS, Animal Planet, Fox News, MLB Network, Nickelodeon
Missing channels (Sling Orange): Fox, NBC, Bravo, FS1, FX, MSNBC, USA Network
Missing channels (Sling Blue): ABC, Disney Channel, ESPN
The good: Relatively cheap, flexible channel packages.
The bad: Can only stream to one device (TV, phone, tablet) with Orange package; very little support for local stations; cloud DVR costs extra.
Sling is cheaper than the other four because it carries fewer local stations (ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC). It has two base packages, Sling Orange and Sling Blue. Sling Orange doesn’t offer any locals, while Blue has Fox and NBC but only in a handful of cities. That’s why Sling makes a good complement to . Sling’s interface isn’t much to look at, but it offers all of the options you need without cluttering the screen. The only real letdown is its arcane live pause and DVR exceptions (you can’t record Disney-owned channels like ABC, for example). Its options are myriad, so check out Sling TV: Everything you need to know for all the details.
Best for: HBO fans who want live TV streaming too
Starting price: $50
Step-up packages: Six other packages with more channels from $70.
Missing channels: A&E, AMC, BBC America, Animal Planet, Discovery, HGTV, History, Lifetime, MLB Network, NBA TV, NFL Network, NFL Red Zone.
The good: Includes HBO, typically a $15 add-on, in the $50 price; TV-like interface including the ability to swipe left or right to change channels; discounts for AT&T Wireless customers.
The bad: Expensive service with fewer top channels than any other service in its price range; DVR is limited; no family member profiles.
For the service formerly known as DirecTV Now, 2019 has been a year of upheaval — most importantly, the service changed its name to AT&T TV Now in August. It joins the budget Watch AT&T (see below) service which remains the same whileClear as mud right? These revisions come after another big change in March 2019, when DirecTV Now jacked the price from $40 to $50 per month, and cut numerous key cable channels, including AMC, Discovery, and HGTV, from its base package. The upside is that HBO is included as part of the price, and as a standalone subscription costs $15 per month, the $10 overall increase is technically a $5 monthly discount. When it comes to the service itself though, AT&T TV Now’s DVR and app are .
Best for: Commercial skippers and PS4 owners
Starting price: $50
Step-up packages: Three other packages with progressively more channels for $55, $65 and $85.
Missing channels: A&E, Comedy Central, History, Lifetime, MTV, Nickelodeon.
The good: Solid DVR with unlimited storage that doesn’t replace recorded shows with the on-demand version (ahem, YouTube TV). PlayStation 4 users can split-screen multiple channels at once.
The bad: Worse channel selection than others at its price.
If you don’t get YouTube TV or Sling TV, the next best option is PlayStation Vue. It has an “evolved” interface that is also easy to use once you get the hang of it. Its DVR is excellent, with unlimited storage and the ability to skip commercials on any show — although unlike YouTube TV, shows in Vue’s DVR are deleted after 28 days. The biggest knock is that has fewer channels than any of the Big Five aside from Sling TV (which is much cheaper) and AT&T TV Now (which includes HBO). You don’t need a PlayStation 4 to watch it — just like the others, Vue has apps for numerous supported devices including Roku, Apple TV, and Fire TV, as well as phones and PCs — but a PS4 and Apple TV is the only way to get its sweet multiscreen view.
Best for: Current Hulu subscribers who want to add Live TV.
Starting price: $45
Step-up packages: Optional “enhanced” DVR and multistream plans.
Missing channels: AMC, BBC America, Comedy Central, MLB Network, MTV, NBA TV, NFL Network, NFL Red Zone, Nickelodeon.
The Good: Includes Hulu’s massive on-demand library, including exclusives such as.
The Bad: Confusing interface, standard DVR doesn’t let you skip commercials.
With the least cable-like interface of the Big 5, Hulu’s greatest asset is the integration of live TV with its significant catalog of on-demand content for one price. Unfortunately, the interface frustrations apparent with the standard service are amplified once you add live TV. The app generally confuses “simple” with “incomplete.” It technically offers a guide, for example, but it’s extremely bare-bones. Another issue is that you’ll have to pay another $10 per month to get the ability to skip commercials on Hulu’s cloud DVR (the base cloud DVR, included, doesn’t let you skip commercials). Its channel count is solid, however, and with Hulu’s catalog included it’s a top competitor, especially after YouTube TV’s price hike.
Big Five TV streaming services compared
|Hulu with Live TV||YouTube TV||Sling TV||PlayStation Vue||AT&T TV Now|
|Base price||$45/month for 60+ channels||$50/month for 70+ channels||$25/month for 30+ channels||$50/month for 55+ channels||$50/month for 40+ channels|
|ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC channels||Yes, in many markets||Yes, in many markets||FOX and NBC only in select cities||Yes, in many markets||Yes, in many markets|
|Video on demand from local channels||Yes||Yes||No||Yes||Yes|
|Step-up packages with more channels||No||No||Yes, an extra $5/month each||$55/month, $65/month or $85/month||$70/month|
|Simultaneous streams per account||2 ($15 option for unlimited)||3||1 or 3||5||2 ($5 option for 3)|
|Family member/user profiles||Yes||Yes||No||Yes||No|
|Pause, rewind, fast-forward||Yes||Yes||Yes, except for Disney or ESPN channels||Yes||Yes|
|Record shows for later (cloud DVR)||Yes||Yes (keep for 9 months)||Yes ($5 per month, can’t record Disney or ESPN channels)||Yes (keep for 28 days)||Yes (20GB, keep for 30 days)|
|Fast-forward through or skip commercials with cloud DVR||No (Yes with $15 option)||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|DVR show replaced by on-demand version||No||Yes||No||No||No|
|Video on demand/3-day replay||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
Price: $15 per month, or “free” with certain AT&T Wireless plans
Watch TV includes 30 channels and many of them, such as AMC, HGTV, and BBC America, are no longer available on AT&T TV Now. Watch TV doesn’t have any sports or local channels, and many of the shows on its channels can be watched on-demand with a Hulu subscription for less. It also doesn’t work with Roku devices, but it is available on the other major streaming platforms. And some AT&T wireless plan customers get it for free.
Price: Starts at $20 per month
Another cheap service with no sports or local channels, Philo offers bread-and-butter cable channels like AMC, Comedy Channel, Nickelodeon and BBC America. Unlike Watch AT&T, it includes a cloud DVR, but it lacks a big-name 24-hour news channel like CNN.
Price: Starts at $6 per month
CBS All Access stands out from all of the other services as it offers live (in some cities) and on-demand from just one channel. In addition to broadcast video-on-demand it offers exclusive online content such as . The on-demand stuff has ads, but you can get an ad-free option for $10 a month.
Price: Starts at $55 per month
Fubo TV is a sports-centric service that also offers a number of other channels including local OTA stations (except ABC) — and more RSNs (regional sports networks) than any other service. Especially for fans of professional baseball, basketball and hockey teams, Fubo might be the only way to watch regular-season games without cable. There’s no ESPN, however, and a convoluted user interface and high price mean it’s not the first service we’d choose.
Don’t care about live TV? More cord-cutter staples
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. Plans start at $13 a month, and it covers thousands of TV shows and movies, including original content like Daredevil and Orange Is the New Black.
the ability to add premium channels (HBO and Showtime and more), making it a potential one-stop shop.: 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 . Amazon Prime also has
Vudu/UltraViolet content and streaming movies and TV that are only available for purchase, like new releases.: A digital library (or locker) that incorporates both
It’s also worth investigating free, ad-supported services such as Sony Crackle, which offer a wealth of content., , TuBi TV, Pluto, and
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..
You can also add a DVR such as theor 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 .
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 (which is). That way you’ll still be able to watch live programming and also have a choice of on-demand content.
Conclusion: Try it yourself
Streaming live TV services are still in their infancy, and the industry is still in flux. Since launch, every service has increased 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. While streaming is undoubtedly the future, 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 on the go 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 PlayStation Vue, there should be a streaming TV service to suit you.
Originally published Aug. 2, 2018 and updated as new developments occur.