This is the third part in my series on cutting the cord. If you’re just visiting for the first time, you may want to start from the beginning.
Part 3: The Players
This is the big one folks. I’m going to run through all the major streaming boxes, content marketplaces, streaming services, premium networks, and bundle providers, and provide my viewpoint on each. Fair warning, this post will undoubtedly get stale as prices change, service offerings are adjusted, and new hardware is introduced. As of this point in time however, I’ve done the best I can to provide you with a full picture of the post-cable landscape. Here we go!
The Fire TV line of devices has really become popular in the past few years. They’re relatively low prices and offer a lot of content and a great user experience. Out of the box, they come bundled with apps for the major content services, and a simple way to buy or rent movies and TV shows from Amazon Prime. There’s also an app store where you can download additional apps and games to enhance the capabilities of the device. One nice perk is that you can even install the Firefox Browser, so if a particular service does not have an app for the Fire TV, you can still visit the website and watch that way.
The one drawback for the Fire TV is that you can’t access any of the movies, TV shows or music you may have bought from Apple’s iTunes service. If you’re a heavy iPhone or Mac user, this could be an issue.
Prices range from $30 for an HD Fire TV Stick that plugs right into the HDMI port on your TV, to $120 for a 4K Fire TV Cube with a built-in speaker and more storage. See Amazon’s Fire TV Family page for a full comparison of features and pricing.
The Fire TV has really become the go-to choice for many cord cutters, and it’s what I would probably recommend for most people. It’s got the best mix of features and price, and unless you’ve already bought a lot of movies, music or television programs from iTunes, you’ll likely be very happy with it.
Second verse, same as the first!
Put simply, the Apple TV is the same thing as the Fire TV, but it’s made by Apple instead of Amazon. So where the Fire TV makes it easy for you to buy or rent movies and TV shows from Amazon, the Apple TV makes it easy to get them from Apple. It also has a bunch of pre-installed apps for popular services, an app store where you get apps for everything else, and it makes it easy for you to AirPlay video, pictures and music from your iPhone, iPad or Mac to your television.
One upside to the Apple TV is that while the Fire TV can’t view content you’ve purchased from Apple, the Apple TV can show content you’ve purchased from Amazon because there is an Amazon Prime Video app available. You can also buy or rent movies from the Google Play store and watch them through the YouTube app, so the Apple TV is pretty much an all-inclusive solution.
On the downside, a lot of people really hate the remote. I don’t mind it, but there’s room for improvement. It’s also the most expensive of the big four options at $179 for the latest 4K model.
The 4K Apple TV is what I own, and I really like it. Yes, it’s quite expensive – shocking for an Apple product, I know – but I like that it has access to all the major content from all the major services, it’s very fast, and it also allows me to AirPlay from my various devices to the television. If you want the absolute best experience, this is my pick.
Google has taken a different approach with the Chromecast. It’s an HDMI stick like the low-end Fire TV, but rather than a host of apps that run on the device itself, they make it easy for apps on your phone to cast a video to your television. So if you want to watch Hulu, you open the Hulu app on your iPhone or Samsung Galaxy, then tell is to send the video to the TV. At that point (I believe) the Chromecast is working back and forth with Hulu directly, so your phone does not need to be on for it to work. The phone just kicks off the playback and the Chromecast does the rest.
The upside to this approach is that the devices are very cheap – from $35 for the HD version to $70 for the 4K Chromecast Ultra.
On the other hand, this approach means that the Chromecast does not come with a remote. Your phone (or tablet or laptop) is the remote. In fairness, I’ve never used a Chromecast, but this seems like a degree of fiddliness that is more than I’m willing to put my family through. Just imagine trying to explain to the babysitter how to use the TV. Seems like a hassle.
Roku was an early player in the streaming box market, and a lot of people love them. Since they don’t have a content store or streaming service of their own, they try to offer the widest possible choice of options from everyone else. With the exception of iTunes, they work with just about everyone else. The UI is a bit dated by modern standards, but not enough to be a distraction.
The big downside to Roku in my book is their business practices. In addition to the sale of the device itself, Roku makes money by collecting your user data and showing you ads – with no way to opt out. For me, that’s a deal breaker. I’d rather pay more up front and not have my viewing habits tracked and sold.
There are 7 different versions of Roku devices, ranging from a $29 HD box to an $80 Roku Ultra 4K with a variety of boxes and sticks in between. Honestly, that’s way too many choices. I really think they’d be better off streamlining the product line and trimming back to HD and 4K options.
Odds are that if you’ve bought a television anytime in the past 5 years, it’s a “Smart TV”. That means it probably has a few apps pre-bundled, and a way to install more if you like. Right out of the box, your TV likely has a way to watch Netflix, HBO, Hulu, and YouTube just by clicking a few buttons on the remote.
While this makes it very easy to get started watching a ton of content online with no additional cost, I would not suggest you take this approach.
For one thing, the user experience on the TV apps is typically pretty bad. The apps are often flakey and slow, which can be frustrating.
More importantly, if you care at all about privacy (and you should), I strongly recommend you do not use these apps and instead invest in one of the other streaming devices. Why? Because all of the major TV makers are collecting data about what you’re watching, and selling it to advertisers. The CEO of Vizio came out and admitted it two weeks ago. It’s called “Post-Purchase Monetization”, and I suspect most of you had no idea your television was spying on you.
My advice is that you never connect your TV to your WiFi network, and if it’s connected right now – go and disable it.
The Content Stores
If you’d rather rent or own your content rather than pay a monthly bill to a streaming service (what I call the a la carte approach), you have three main options – Amazon, Google Play or iTunes. Honestly, all of these stores are about the same. They have roughly the same selection and typically charge the exact same prices. Occasionally the Googe Play store will run a 99¢ sale on rentals, but in my experience, it’s only offered to people who haven’t rented from them before. So take advantage once, then you’re back to full price like the rest of us.
It really just comes down to what devices you use. If you’ve got an iPhone or Apple TV, you’re going to buy from iTunes. If you’ve got an Android phone, you’re buying from Google Play. If you’ve got a Fire TV, you’re buying from Amazon. It’s that simple.
The Streaming Services
This one is interesting in that you can’t subscribe to Amazon Prime Video directly, it’s a perk of being an Amazon Prime member. So along with that free 2-day shipping we all love, you also get access to a catalog of movies, TV shows, and Prime originals.
It’s probably a good thing that Prime Video is bundled with other perks because it would probably struggle on its own merits. The movie selection is generally poor, and it doesn’t change often. There are a bunch of older gems like the Indiana Jones movies, Blazing Saddles, and Animal House, but they rarely get big name new releases. The originals are also a mixed bag, though there are a few bright spots. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is fantastic, a lot of people like The Man In the High Castle, and I enjoyed Jack Ryan as well.
Hulu has been around longer than the other big names, and they’ve gone in and out of fashion over time. Right now they’re having a bit of a renaissance. The big draw for Hulu is that they get new episodes of many televisions shows the day after they air on broadcast. They also have a smattering of movies and a few original programs like The Handmaid’s Tale and 11.22.63.
Hulu just made news last week when they lowered the price of their base service (the one with ads) to $7.99. They also offer an $11.99 tier that’s ad-free. If you’re hooked on a bunch of current television shows, Hulu is probably a good investment. Personally, I don’t tend to find enough unique content here to make it worthwhile for my family.
Do I really need to explain what Netflix is to any of you? They’re the flag bearer in the streaming world, and they just keep getting bigger. For $12.99 a month you get access to a ton of television programs, movies and Netflix originals like Stranger Things, Orange Is The New Black and Bird Box. Sure, the TV shows are mostly a full season behind, and the movie selection can be sporadic, but there are thousands of titles to choose from. You’ll definitely find things you’ll like. They’ve also poured billions into creating original content, and there always seems to be another show everyone is talking about right around the corner.
Just sign up. Netflix is the closest thing to a sure bet in the industry.
The Premium Networks
If you watch a lot of TV, you probably subscribe to HBO. They’ve been cranking out quality originals for decades (hello Larry Sanders Show), and they probably sell a zillion dollars in subscriptions based on Game of Thrones alone.
Their streaming service is called HBO NOW, and you can download the app on any of the devices I mentioned above. The $14.99 monthly fee is a bit steep, but they’ve got the content to justify it.
Here’s a tip: it’s very easy to subscribe and unsubscribe on a monthly basis. I’ll often jump around between HBO and Showtime depending on the season. When GoT or Westword are on, I subscribe to HBO. When Billions starts, I cancel HBO and subscribe to Showtime. If there’s nothing compelling, I go dark for a few months and save the cash.
Showtime has really taken advantage of this “Golden Age of Television” to elevate themselves into 2nd place amongst the premium networks based on the strength of their original series. They’re not quite on par with the quality of HBO’s best, but Dexter, Homeland and Billions are all top-notch. The movie selection on Showtime leaves a bit to be desired, but that seems to be the case with many of the streaming services.
Like HBO, you can sign up for the Showtime streaming service without a cable subscription. You download the app and sign up for $10.99 a month. See my notes in the HBO section for how I recommend best using this service.
Cinemax and Starz
For me, these are the two also-ran networks. The movies they feature are never too exciting, and their originals just don’t excite me. I actually had to look them up because I couldn’t name any of them off the top of my head. Yawn.
The Bundle Providers
This is the hottest sector in the cord-cutting world, so naturally, it’s the most volatile. The prices, features and channel selections of each of these services will probably change quickly, and I don’t claim to have every fact and figure. There were two sites that helped me with my research, and they seem to be good at keeping up with the changes. So in addition to what you see here, I would also suggest you check out Tom’s Guide Face-Off of Streaming Services and Clark’s Streaming TV Comparison of Channels.
Go figure. One of the big players in the traditional cable industry (okay, satellite) is also trying to corner the market in streaming. They made a big splash a few years ago when they launched the DirecTV Now service because they had a better selection of channels than the competition at the time. They were also giving away a free Apple TV when you signed up.
Honestly, there’s a lot to like about DirecTV Now. In most markets, they offer all of your local channels, and they have perhaps the largest selection of channels overall. You get a guide that looks like what you’re used to from cable, a DVR to record your favorite shows, and prices start at just $40 a month for 65 channels. Another nice perk is the ability to get HBO or Cinemax for just $5 a month, and Showtime or Starz are just $8 a month. That’s way less than you can get from those services directly.
All is not champagne and roses though. There were a handful of things that I really didn’t like about DirecTV Now when I signed up for the trial. First, the DVR feature is still listed as a beta, which seems odd two years after the service launched. It’s also very skimpy with only a 20-hour recording capacity. Want more, you have to pay an upgrade fee. Second, the time-shifting ability in the app was very clunky. Trying to rewind a program in progress was often slow and jumpy – not what I’m used to on the buttery smooth Apple TV. And finally, the app crashed on me 3 times in the first 10 minutes while searching for a program. That’s a deal breaker. Others tell me they don’t have the same issues with crashing, so perhaps it’s better on the Fire TV. Your mileage may vary.
One other thing of note about DirecTV Now is that they seem to be trying to replicate the cable model in the streaming world. Where most of the other providers offer one service with all the best features, DirecTV offers four ranging from $40 to $75 a month depending on which channels you want. Not surprisingly, you’ll probably find that a few of the ones you can’t live without are in the more expensive packages. While you could spin this as giving the consumer the choice, my 15 years as a DirecTV customer have made me jaded, and I suspect it’s more about continuing to push everyone higher and higher until their streaming bill is the exact same price as what they were paying for cable.
In addition to the popular Hulu service I mentioned about, there’s also Hulu Live which gives you about 60 channels for $40 a month (note, this will jump to $45 in late February). Like DirecTV is also gives you the major networks, a channel guide, DVR, video on demand, and a pile of the most popular networks.
This is a very popular option in the cord-cutting world due to the huge catalog of TV shows Hulu is known for, and the familiarity many people already have with the company. There are a few things to nit-pick, like the DVR that only gives you 50 hours of recording or the fact that you can only watch on 2 devices at once. These limitations can be overcome with “add-ons” that will give you 200 hours of DVR and unlimited devices – for a price. And of course, you can also add HBO, Cinemax, Showtime or Starz for somewhere between $8.99 and $14.99 a month.
Sony was one of the first big-name tech companies to jump into the streaming bundle market with PlayStation Vue. Despite the terribly confusing name, you do not need a PlayStation to use the service. Apple TV, Fire TV, and Roku all have Vue apps, as do the iPhone, iPad, and Android – which allows you to cast to the Chromecast.
As with the other services, you get a pile of channels for a lower fee than cable, but Vue is currently the worst deal when you consider that it’s $45 for about 45 channels. They do offer the four major networks, but ABC and Fox are on demand only, not live streams. Like DirecTV, they offer more expensive packages with additional channels, including a $79.99 package that includes HBO and Showtime. Cinemax and Starz do not appear to be available.
Sling made a name for itself by enabling place shifting of your cable broadcasts, so it’s no surprise that they would eventually pivot into the streaming bundle market as well. Sling TV may have been the first game in town, it has been surpassed by the newer services by bigger name companies. Local channels are not available for me without an antenna, and while their starting price is only $25, they confusingly have two packages at that price (orange and blue) that have different sets of channels. For $40 you can get all of them, which is comparable to what the competition is offering.
What Sling does seem to do well is upcharge. They have about 16 “extras” that you can add for $5 each to get things like a DVR with 50 hours of recording time, additional news channels, additional kids channels, additional sports channels – you get the idea.
If you’re really looking for the absolute cheapest option, Sling may be for you. For me, the mix of channels, features, and pricing just doesn’t stack up favorably against some of the other alternatives.
YouTube TV is one of the newer options in the market, but they’ve made a big splash. For $40 a month you get over 60 channels, all four broadcast networks, a pile of popular cable networks like TNT, TBS, CNN, ESPN, FX, and video-on-demand. They’ve also got an app on almost every device, and their UI is the best I’ve tried.
A few unique features set YouTube TV apart from the competition. First, they have really great coverage for local channels. Last week they announced that they’re offering local networks to over 98% of the households in the United States. Second, their DVR is best of breed with unlimited storage. And third is that your subscription comes with six profiles, each with their own unique DVR, customizable channel guide, and personalized content recommendations.
The channel selection on YouTube TV has a few gaps, like Food Network, HGTV and NFL Network. On the flip side, they’re the only company that offers MLB Network, NBA TV and BBC World News. If you’re big into sports, this may be the service for you.
There are so many streaming content providers in the market right now that it would be nearly impossible for me to give a comprehensive review of each. That said, I’m sure I’ll get a bunch of “You forgot to mention …” tweets if I don’t cover a few of these:
Star Trek fans will want to get CBS All Access, which features Star Trek: Discovery along with the full CBS back catalog. Teenage boys who want to see boobs and explosions will love Crackle, which has a small catalog of movies like Anaconda, Charlies Angels and Rambo III. IMDb FREEDIVE is a new free service that offers a small selection of movies with advertisements. There are a bunch of big-name titles, but they’re classics. Nothing overly recent. Quello has a catalog of live concerts from bands like Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, Nirvana and Luke Bryan for $7.99/month. Redbox On Demand lets you rent recent movies and TV shows using an app on your phone or streaming box. Prices are about the same as what you’ll get on iTunes or Google Play, so I don’t really see the point, but they occasionally will have a sale. TED offers an app that lets you stream over 3,000 of their fantastic TED Talks. YouTube is so ubiquitous that it’s easy to overlook it as an option for streaming content. In addition to a zillion cat videos, they also offer movies and shows for rent at the same prices as Amazon, Apple or Google. And lastly, there’s Disney+ on the horizon that will have all of the classic Disney animated movies alongside everything Star Wars and Marvel. The service is set to launch in late 2019 and nerds are already excited about The Mandalorian that will be exclusive on the service.
So there you have it. There’s a lot to digest, and I hope you find this helpful. In the final part of this series, I’ll talk about the choices I made, and my observations after the first month without cable. See Cutting the Cord – Part 4: My Choices and Initial Impressions.