Getting Past Cable: Why It Might Be Time to Cut the Cord
It's a digital-age triumph for David over Goliath. Consumers forced the giants of home entertainment to respond to cord-cutting, and the options are many.
An estimated 22 million people said goodbye to cable and satellite TV last year (a 33 percent increase from 2016), according to an industry researcher. The numbers are expected to climb dramatically in 2018.
Thinking about making the move? There are five major players:
- DirecTV Now
- Hulu with Live TV
- PlayStation Vue
- Sling TV
- YouTube TV
Major networks: ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX
Where it’s winning: Delivers many more channels than PlayStation Vue or Sling TV. At last check, it offered more than 120, and the cheapest channel package gave you more than 60. By comparison, Sling’s cheapest option has 20.
How it falls short: You can’t get NFL Sunday Ticket or the popular NFL Red Zone channel. Currently, it doesn’t have Parental Controls.
Cool features: Premium options such as HBO, Cinemax, Showtime and Starz can be added individually for $5 to $8. You don’t need to buy the budget-busting “movie package” that’s a hated feature of every cable provider.
The DVR factor: Has it in closed beta testing, still not released for all subscribers. That’s a problem in most households.
Supported devices: Amazon Fire, Android, Apple TV, Chromecast and Chromecast-enabled TVs, iOS, Roku
Streaming capabilities: Only delivers two concurrent streams. Want to watch in a third room? You’ll end up kicking someone off their show.
Wild card: You have the ability to watch and search at the same time. When you pull up the guide, it overlays what you’re viewing so your entertainment continues uninterrupted.
Bottom line: There are four plans from which to choose. The channel options are more like the traditional cable packaging, but it’s still a comparative bargain. It has the most channels for the money, and it’s still cheaper than cable or satellite.
Entry-level package per month: $35
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Hulu with Live TV
Major networks: ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC
Where it’s winning: It takes the curating gold medal. The service is fantastic at recommending new shows. Be sure to build a detailed profile as you move the on-screen prompts during sign-up. A new Voice Control feature lets you use your Alexa Voice Remote or pair Amazon Fire TV with an Amazon Echo device to control Hulu without a remote.
How it falls short: It can be nearly a full minute behind on live sporting events. If you’re on social media during a game that delay can leave you out of the digital conversation. Buffering, which is a fairly universal complaint, occurred intermittently. The interface trends toward clunky — too many up-right-left-back arrow commands in order to get around.
Cool feature: You have access to full seasons of classic comedies like “I Love Lucy,” “The Brady Bunch” and “Seinfeld.” If your favorite TV decades include the 1950s through the 1990s you’ll find plenty of offerings.
The DVR factor: 50 hours of storage is included. You can pay an additional fee for upgrades.
Supported devices: Amazon Fire TV and Fire TV Stick, Android, Apple TV, Chromecast, iOS, Nintendo Switch, Roku, Xbox One, Xbox 360
Streaming capabilities: Offers two; you can add more for an additional fee.
Wild card: Doesn't provide Viacom channels such as Comedy Central, BET, MTV and VH1.
Bottom line: The quality of Hulu Originals programming (The Looming Tower, Hard Sun, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Path, Marvel’s Runaways, just to name a few) is impressive. It’s enough to consider foregoing premium providers such as Netflix and Amazon Prime.
Entry-level package per month: $39.99
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Major networks: ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC.
Where it’s winning: Customizable channel setup allows you to view your favorites first. Compatible with almost all devices. Search and recommendation tool was efficient and intuitive.
How it falls short: If you want to use the service in a new city you’ll have to contact customer support and explain your circumstances. Then you’ll have to do the same upon your return. Probably not the best for a busy frequent flyer. A 5-minute limit on pauses is something that’s difficult to get accustomed to.
Cool features: Sports fans will love the ability to break out events by date so you can get a look at games in the week ahead.
The DVR factor: The cloud allows you to retrieve programming at your home or on the go. It has a 28-day limit (why not a month?) before shows are deleted. There’s no limit to the number of recordings you can store.
Supported devices: Amazon Fire, Android, Apple TV, Chromecast, Chromecast-enabled TVs, iOS, PlayStation 3 and 4, Roku
Streaming capabilities: The service stands head and shoulders above its competition by offering 5 concurrently. That can be vital in a big family or with a lot of roommates.
Wild card: If you’re a gamer with a PS Plus pass, you’ll get a discount on the following add-ons: HBO/Cinemax, Showtime and Fox Soccer Plus.
Bottom line: It has a robust channel lineup, more streams, free DVR and a polished interface you’d expect from a Sony product. It’s definitely user friendly.
Entry-level package per month: $39.99
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars
Major networks: ABC, NBC, FOX, CBS (limited to select markets)
Where it’s winning: Price and compatibility. It plays on every device and it’s the cheapest of the bunch.
How it falls short: You can’t pause live TV! Major fail. Perhaps this isn’t true with everyone, but commercials are LOUDER than the shows.
Cool features: A My Channels lineup greets you when you launch the app. Has channel filters like a traditional cable TV box that allows you to choose from My Channels, Sports, Movies, Entertainment, Lifestyle, Kids and News. The user interface more resembles Netflix than the traditional cable TV guide.
The DVR factor: 50 hours of space included; can upgrade to 100 hours for an additional fee.
Supported devices: Amazon Fire, Android, Apple TV, Chromecast, Chromecast-enabled TVs, iOS, Roku, some Samsung Smart TVs.
Streaming capabilities: Offers one device with basic packages but will allow you to view up to three streams at once, if you upgrade.
Wild card: Offers NBA League Pass and NBA Team Pass.
Bottom line: It first debuted the concept of “a la carte” TV in 2015 and they understand the unique demands of the cord-cutting audience. The base Orange package (30 channels) is a good starting point. You can tack on channels, depending on your price range and needs, as well as upgrade to the 45-channel Blue package.
Entry-level package per month: $20
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Major networks: ABC, FOX, NBC, CBS
Where it’s winning: The sports interface is a dream, particularly the feature that allows you to click one button to record every game by a team (even when they’re on different channels). The recent addition of the Turner Networks (TBS, TNT, Turner Classic Movies) greatly expands your viewing options.
How it falls short: It isn't compatible on Amazon's Fire TV player. And it’s not available in every U.S. market.
Cool feature: It just expanded its partnership with Major League Baseball, bringing the sport’s mothership channel, MLB Network, to its lineup. Access to the ever-growing list of YouTube Red originals is included with your subscription.
The DVR factor: The clear winner in this category. It doesn’t charge extra, nor does it set storage limits. Allows you to skip commercials! Its cloud keeps shows for 9 months, although it will replace recordings when on-demand versions become available.
Supported devices: Android, Apple TV, Chromecast, Chromecast-enabled TVs, iOS, Roku, Xbox One, smart TVs from LG and Samsung
Streaming capabilities: Allows for three streams at once, both inside and outside of your home.
Wild card: You can stream your entire library wherever you go.
Bottom line: The stream quality is impossible to differentiate from cable. The buffering issues that plague competitors don’t occur. Channels load in a few seconds. With included channels such as NBC Sports, CBS Sports, NBA TV, the YES Network, Golf Network and The Tennis Channel, it’s the preferred pick for hardcore sports buffs.
Entry-level package per month: $40
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The Final Tally
All of them offer some form of a free trial, so be sure to give them a thorough test drive. Rather than sign up simultaneously, it’s best to try them over the course of 4-6 weeks, making notes about what worked and what didn’t, then make a final decision about your subscription.
You can choose one of the aforementioned providers and customize, adding channels (at a price) as you go. Or consider creating your own “magic formula,” blending a variety of services at different pricing tiers. Right now the combination of Hulu, PlayStation Vue, Netflix and Amazon Prime (which my household gets through our free shipping membership) is delivering more content than our family of four can consume.
Ready to save between $50-$100 a month while sending a message to your cable or satellite provider? All you need is an Internet signal, and a streaming player such as Roku or Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, or a smart TV.