CNET también está disponible en español.

Ir a español

Don't show this again

Media Streamers

Best live TV streaming services for cord cutters

Sling TV, YouTube TV, Hulu with Live TV, PlayStation Vue and others let you ditch your cable company but keep the live channels and DVR. Here's how they stack up.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Cable TV can seem a lot like a landline phone: an unnecessary expense shacked by outdated hardware. All the cool kids, and a lot of the cool grownups, are cutting the cable TV cord.

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 in the US like Sling TV and DirecTV Now let you watch most if not all of your favorite live TV channels -- from ABC to CBS to CNN to ESPN to Fox News to Nickelodeon -- streamed over the internet. And the monthly fee is likely far less than you're paying the cable company for TV.

Read more: Game of Thrones season 8: When it starts, schedule and how to stream HBO without cable

Prices start at $15 per month with no extra fees or contracts. In place of a cable box, you'll use an app on your smart TV, Roku, Amazon Fire TV or Apple TV. And you can watch at home or on the go via a phone or tablet, or even a PC browser.

Now playing: Watch this: How to cut the cord like a pro
3:17

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 just keep going up.

With all that in mind, here's a guide to brave 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.


How to shop for cord-cutting 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" 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.

Other important factors include cloud DVR and the interface itself. Yes, most of the services above allow you to record and play back shows, just like a traditional cable or satellite DVR, but they often come with restrictions. Some services have a traditional, cable-box-like menu system, while some are more experimental (read: they have a steep learning curve).

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's 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 is PBS, as the broadcaster reportedly hasn't acquired the streaming rights to all of the shows that it airs. (You'll find Ken Burns' iconic documentaries on Netflix, for example.)

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.

While DirecTV Now offers HBO as part of its base subscription, most other services either sell it as an add-on or require you to sign up separately for HBO Now. 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 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. DirecTV 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.

DirecTV Now

directv-now-screenshot-11-30-at-11-01-29-am.png
Screenshot by David Katzmaier/CNET

Best for: HBO fans who want live TV streaming too

Starting price: $50

Step-up packages: One other package with more channels for $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.

In March 2019, DirecTV Now became less appealing than it was previously. Not only did corporate owner AT&T jack the price from $40 to $50 per month, it cut numerous key channels, including AMC, Discovery and HGTV, from its base package. The upside is that HBO is included as part of the price. Getting a standalone HBO Now subscription costs $15 per month, so an increase of $10 to get HBO included is technically a $5 monthly discount. But it locks you into a bundle, just the kind of thing cord cutters want to avoid. On top of that, its DVR and app are a step behind most competitors.

Hulu With Live TV

02-streamingservices
Hulu

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 Handmaid's Tale.

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.

PlayStation Vue

nfl-network-playstation-vue.jpg
PlayStation Vue

Best for: Commercial skippers and PS4 owners

Starting price: $45

Step-up packages: Three other packages with progressively more channels for $50, $60 and $80.

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.

PlayStation Vue has an "evolved" interface that is also easy to use once you get the hang of it, but can have a learning curve. 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 DirecTV Now (which includes HBO). You don't need a PlayStation 4 to watch it -- just like the others, Vue has apps for numerous streaming devices including Roku, Apple TV and Fire TV, as well as phones and PCs -- but a PS4 is the only way to get its sweet multiscreen view.

Sling TV

01-streamingservices
Sarah Tew/CNET

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 minipackages

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.

Aside from sports-free options Philo and AT&T Watch TV (see below), Sling is the cheapest multi-channel live TV streaming service out there. That's because it carries few local stations (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC). It has two base packages, Orange and Blue. 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 OTA antenna TV. 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.

YouTube TV

04-streamingservices
Sarah Tew/CNET

Best for: Unlimited DVR

Price: $50

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 is best known for scads of free video, but with an April price hike YouTube TV is now one of the two most expensive options here (the other is DirecTV Now). It has more top channels in its base package than any competitor, however, and its local channel coverage includes all four locals in most areas of the country. It also has the best DVR of the bunch, including unlimited storage, with one catch: If an episode you've recorded appears in YouTube TV's VOD library, it gets replaced by the on-demand version -- so you lose the ability to fast-forward through commercials. Its interface is no-nonsense, even 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.

Big Five TV streaming services compared


Hulu with Live TV YouTube TV Sling TV PlayStation Vue DirecTV Now
Base price $45/month for 60+ channels $50/month for 70+ channels $25/month for 30+ channels $45/month for 55+ channels $50/month for 40+ channels
Free trial Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
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 $50/month, $60/month or $80/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
Parental controls Yes No Yes No No
Bandwidth limiter No No Yes No No

Other (mostly cheaper) services

AT&T Watch TV

Price: $15 per month, or "free" with certain AT&T Wireless plans  

AT&T's has two separate services: DirecTV Now and Watch TV. The much-cheaper Watch TV includes 30 channels and many of them, such as AMC, HGTV and BBC America, are no longer available on DirecTV 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.

Philo

Price: Starts at $16 per month 

Another cheap service with no sports or local channels, Philo has bread-and-butter cable offerings 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. 

CBS All Access

Price: Starts at $6 per month

The only major broadcast channel to offer a live channel a la carte, this service offer live local TV from just one channel -- CBS, duh -- in some cities, in addition to video-on-demand and exclusive content such as Star Trek: Discovery. The on-demand stuff had ads, but you can get an ad-free option for $10 a month. (Editors' note: CNET is owned by CBS.)

Now playing: Watch this: How to cut the cord for $10: installing an indoor antenna
2:03

Fubo TV

Price: Starts at $45 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 originals like Daredevil and Orange is the New Black.

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 often offers shows not on Netflix, including originals like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Amazon Prime also has the ability to add channels (HBO, Starz and more), making it a potential one-stop shop.

Vudu/Movies Anywhere: A digital library (or locker) that incorporates both UltraViolet content and streaming movies and TV that are only available for purchase, like new releases.

It's also worth investigating free, ad-supported services such as Roku Channel, IMDB Freedive, TuBi TV, Pluto and Sony Crackle, which offer a wealth of content.

antennas-09.jpg
Sarah Tew/CNET

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 antenna for live local channels with an on-demand service such as Netflix or Hulu (which is now only $5.99 a month). That way you'll still be able to watch live programming and also have a choice of on-demand content.   

08-amazon-fire-tv-recast

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 their infancy, and the industry is still in flux. Since launch every service has increased prices by $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.


Read more:

The Best Password Managers for 2019

The Best VPN Services for 2019

The Best Meal Kit Delivery Services for 2019

Originally published Aug. 2, 2018 and updated as new developments occur.

Mentioned Above
DirecTV Now
CNET may get a commission from retail offers.