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NBA Finals cord-cutting playoff: Who's the streaming champ?

I streamed game 5 of the finals on PlayStation Vue, Hulu Live and DirecTV Now, and compared them to Verizon Fios TV. Which one was best?

2017 NBA Finals - Game Five

Which streaming service is the MVP?

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

I'm not a Warriors fan, but I like Cleveland even less. And I always enjoy watching the kind of exciting, team-oriented basketball Golden State employed when it summarily dismantled the Cavaliers last night to claim the NBA title

And even though I watched most of the game via live TV streaming over the internet, it was still awesome.

At home I typically watch TV using Verizon Fios, but for Game 5 I wanted a real-world test of how it compares to the current live TV streaming services that compete directly against Fios, cable and satellite TV. 

I watched it live on ABC, jumping between PlayStation Vue, Hulu with Live TV and DirecTV Now, three of the five current multichannel live TV services. As for the other two, Sling TV carries the ABC games via ESPN3 so I didn't include it in this test, and YouTube TV isn't yet nationwide and requires a cludgy Chromecast connection to watch on my TV, so I didn't bother. 

I used an Apple TV because the three streaming apps are the most mature on that device, and compared it to Fios via a TiVo Roamio Plus on a 65-inch plasma TV and my surround sound system. 

Here's how it played out.

All three streamed well, with no interruptions

Live TV streaming services can be less reliable than cable in my experience, especially with popular live events like the NBA Finals, but the game I watched was glitch-free on all three. My method typically involved watching on one service until the commercial break, then switching to another. Each service suffered a few seconds of softer definition before ramping up to full quality, but in no case did I experience dropouts or freezes.

hulu-tv-37.jpg

Sarah Tew/CNET

Vue won the picture quality battle (after Fios)

It didn't surprise me that Fios delivered the best image quality, but the three streamers did pretty well in considering the frenetic movement and fast pace of the game (especially the way Curry and Durant were playing). 

But PlayStation Vue had a distinct advantage over the other two. Its frame rate was visibly better, resulting in smoother movement that was very similar to what I saw on Fios. The other two were slightly choppier, and seemed very slightly less sharp, especially as motion picked up. They weren't bad, but in this case they were worse than Vue, especially on a big TV.

All lagged live time, but DirecTV was 3 minutes late

Flipping back and forth it quickly became obvious that Hulu and Vue were a few seconds behind Fios -- my reference for "truly live" -- but the delay wasn't a huge deal. But people watching DirecTV Now learned the Warriors won about 3 minutes after everybody else. That seems like a long delay even by cautious streaming standards.

Hulu's interface kinda got in the way

When I went back into an app, the DirecTV Now and Vue apps behaved just as I expected from a cable box: The channel I was last watching (ABC) fired right up, and DirecTV Now gets extra points for not even making me dismiss the interface. With Hulu, however, I had to click a couple of times to get back to watching the game. In general Hulu's interface is more cluttered than the other two, which is kind of excusable since it focuses more on on-demand rather than live TV.

I missed surround sound

The three streaming services carry live TV, including the game, in two-channel stereo. Even more than video quality, I noticed Fios' glorious surround sound when I switched back and forth. I've grown used to the crowd noise in the rear speakers, the squeaks of sneakers from the fronts and the announcers' voices in the center -- effects and locations that disappeared when my receiver processed those stereo signals with the faux surround of Dolby ProLogic. 

And the winner this time is... Vue

Between the three I liked Vue best, primarily because it delivered smoother video. But all three were good, and likely "good enough" for most viewers. Of course this test was just one game, and can't address each service's long-term reliability and other factors. 

Personally I'm not going to ditch my TV subscription for a streaming service anytime soon -- at least until one of them carries my teams' regular season games -- but in this case at least, streaming live TV worked almost as well, and for a lot less money.

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