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3 ways cordcutters can watch the Olympics

Until the (theoretical) day that the Olympics are available online without a subscription, there are some ways to watch the games without paying up for a higher-priced channel bundle.

The world is watching this summer's Olympic games...unless you are in the US and don't pay for a traditional television subscription.

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Is the antenna really the only way to watch the Olympics without a television subscription nowadays?

Sarah Tew/CNET

Unless you subscribe directly to a supported television provider, you can't access the NBC streams online or through apps. And while some sports organizations offer their own internet-only subscription services such as the WWE Network, NFL Sunday Ticket and MLB.TV, you can't watch the Olympics a la carte.

Until the networks change their minds, here are a few ways to get an Olympics fix without committing to a cable or satellite provider:

Buy an antenna, if you have the signal

NBC is one of the "big four" broadcasters, and still has a free over-the-air signal in many parts of the US. (Fox, ABC and CBS -- the owner of CNET -- are the others.) So, if you live in an area with good reception, nearly any TV can pick up the signal with the addition of a TV antenna. (A notable exception: new 2016 Vizio TVs are among the few models without support for over-the-air TV, but you can buy a compatible DVR or tuner box.)

The best antenna options

Antenna prices start dirt cheap for the decent options like the Channel Master Flatenna 35 ($10 directly from Channel Master, closer to $22 with shipping from Amazon). My colleague Ty Pendlebury found that the trade-offs for that antenna's low price are a short, nonreplaceable cable and plasticky construction, but is otherwise almost as good as slightly costlier options.

The best option he found while testing out eight different indoor antennas was the $39 Antennas Direct ClearStream Eclipse, which pulled in the most channels in our Manhattan location while offering a good mix of features including a detachable cable and a set of sticky pads to attach the antenna to your window or wall.

Warning: Your mileage may vary

Your mileage for picking up channels may vary based on where you live. In my day-to-day usage of an antenna, there are usually a number of channels I have difficulty picking up. From my apartment in Queens, I just can't pick up CBS, and my signal for NBC can be unstable. When I lived in the suburbs about an hour's train ride outside of Manhattan, my indoor antenna could only pick up three channels, and none of them were NBC.

And even if you do have a clear signal for NBC, you will not be able to watch games broadcast on the network's cable channels, which include Bravo, CNBC, Golf Channel and USA Network.

To get those, you may want to eye two other streaming services...

Try PlayStation Vue or Sling TV (for free)

Sling TV and PlayStation Vue both offer streaming alternatives to cable service at prices starting at around $20 and $40 per month, respectively. The services are available on mobile devices and most living room streaming gadgets, including Roku and Fire TV (both), Apple TV and Xbox One (Sling TV) and PS3 and PS4 (Vue, naturally).

PlayStation Vue customers can watch most of the games using the Access tier at $39, or grab the Golf Channel as well using the Core tier at $45. Sling pricing is similar, with the Blue tier at $40 offering everything but the Golf Channel, which comes in the Sports Extra bundle for an additional $5.

PlayStation Vue customers can also use their log-in to access NBC's website and apps for on-demand viewing on additional devices. Sling currently doesn't offer that feature.

If you haven't given these services a try yet, you may be able to watch most of the Olympics using the free trial period for each of them. Just start with one, cancel when the trial is ending, then sign up for the other. Then after trying both, keep the one you want, or cancel both -- there's no contract, and no long-term commitment.

And if you absolutely must watch the Olympics, and refuse to add additional equipment nor new services into your life, there is a more social option...

For the cheapos: Hit the sports bar

If you're comparing the cost of an antenna or streaming subscription to the cost of beer, this option is for you. The benefits are obvious: be surrounded by other Olympics fans and cheer for athletes as if you are in Rio.

And if you want even more bang for your buck, pick a bar that's also a PokeStop in Pokemon Go!

What to wish for in 2020

So what would be the most ideal situation for the Olympics to grab cordcutters? Maybe an ad/subscription-supported service that both pays for the service while getting as many Americans watching whether or not they pay for cable?

Or (and this will probably never happen) a cable-provided Olympics-only package that cancels by itself after the end of the games? Tell us what you think should be the best, legal way to stream the Olympics come 2020 in the comments.

Jacob Krol contributed to this story.

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