Live TV streaming service Philo offers a large selection of channels for $20 a month and is perfect for mobile use, but it's not as fun to use as its budget rivals.
Editor's note, May 27 2021: Philo will be raising its price for new subscribers to $25 as of June 8.
Entry-level live TV streaming services like AT&T Watch TV and Philo promise a cable-like TV service for a lot less money. But there's a lot of compromises, especially compared to more expensive competitors like Sling TV, Hulu With Live TV , PlayStation Vue , DirecTV Now and YouTube TV .
Like CNET's Cheapskate Rick Broida, I was drawn to Philo by its impressive channel count, its included cloud DVR and Roku app. But my initial infatuation with the mobile app was soon tempered when I switched to TV streaming devices. The Roku app in particular is let down by a lackluster interface and the occasional hiccups (saved programs could disappear when switching between platforms, for example).
Since it all comes down to channels, Sling TV with its superior list of must-have channels will likely be worth the extra $5 for a lot of cord cutters. And if you simply want to pay the bare minimum, AT&T's $15 Watch TV offers CNN, TNT and TBS (all missing from Philo) as well as a better experience overall, despite its lack of a DVR.
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Read more: Best live TV streaming services for cord cutters
Philo is a service designed to replicate your cable TV subscription at a much reduced price. It requires no contracts -- just a wireless number -- and users can watch on their phone or on a PC, Roku or Apple TV . While Philo recently increased its prices it was a rather modest jump from $16 to $20, and Watch TV is the cheapest at $15.
|AT&T Watch TV ($15)||Philo ($20)||Sling TV Blue ($25)|
|Total number of channels||37||58||49|
|Locals included||No||No||Yes (NBC and Fox)|
|DVR storage||--||Unlimited||50 hours|
|Resolution||480p/Up to 1080p set-top||Up to 1080p||1080p|
Now that Hulu is crazy cheap at $6, what does a service like Philo have that makes it worth paying extra for? The answer is live channels. Philo straddles the worlds between the Hulu/Netflix on-demand model and live cable TV channels. Yes, you can pay to add live channels to Hulu but it costs a lot more ($45).
The channels on offer are a matter of taste, but if you like food or travel then Philo might be more compelling than AT&T. Philo has the Cooking Channel, Travel, Nickelodeon and Science while AT&T offers some heavy hitters like CNN, Cartoon Network and TCM. Peruse the full line-up at the end of the article that compares available channels on Sling TV (both Blue and Orange), AT&T Watch TV and Philo, or check out CNET's Top 100 channels comparison for the full list comparing every service.
Other things to note are that Philo users are able to watch on up to three screens at once -- best for families -- while they are also not subject to AT&T's 480p restriction on mobile content.
Of the multiple TV platforms available, Philo is best when viewed on an Apple TV. The mobile app may drill down to the basics quicker, and Roku may add some viewing flexibility, but it's the Apple TV where the service really gets to stretch out and show off a bit. Compared against the mobile app, Apple TV app adds a sorely-needed Top shows panel which highlights the most popular shows from each channel. Its menu system is also a little more intuitive than Roku.
After using Philo on Roku for a while I found its dark interface a little drab and distracting -- for example, selecting an item in the on-demand menu makes it counter-intuitively darker. On the Apple TV app, the current selected item is a lot more obvious (lighter) than when viewed on Roku.
Though the DVR is technically a plus, it doesn't quite operate as a recorder -- it's really glorified on-demand -- nor does it even use the accepted language. Instead of "record" it lets you "save" things, and while most DVRs list the individual recordings you've made, that's not the case here. Saving is supposed to "record" future showings of the show you select but you have to drill down into the show's menu to see when these are/were, if at all. Until you do this it's impossible to if your show is indeed going to record or will never air again despite letting you save.
Saved programs could be a little idiosyncratic sometimes, and I found at least one example (John Wick) of upcoming showings of a saved programs appearing on the mobile interface but not on the Roku or Apple TV. I was also able to watch the final Preacher season on demand one day (May 20) and it disappeared the next. I have reached out to Philo for clarification.
Otherwise the interface worked as expected and I appreciated that the Live panel showed the time elapsed of each show. You can choose to start live programs at the beginning which is a nice feature and I couldn't get it to trip up -- most shows seemed to work this way.
If you just want to watch cable TV for less, then Philo lets you do that on multiple platforms, with some (Apple TV) better than others (mobile). It does seemingly offer a lot of features for the money including a stack of channels and a DVR. However neither are all they're cracked up to be -- for example, the DVR is more a "cable on-demand service" than it is a TiVo .
In the end a service like this lives or dies by its channel line up: if it doesn't offer anything you want to watch, then you won't be paying for it. Check the table below for the full comparison.
|Philo||AT&T Watch TV||Sling TV Orange||Sling TV Blue|
|NBC (select cities)||No||No||No||Yes|
|Fox (select cities)||No||No||No||Yes|
|BBC World News||Yes||Yes||$||$|
|Fox Sports 1||No||No||No||Yes|
|Fox Sports 2||No||No||No||Yes|
|Lifetime Movie Network||Yes||Yes||$||$|
|Turner Classic Movies||No||Yes||$||$|