Cord-cutting 101: How to quit cable for online streaming video

Once called an “experiment” by prognosticating pundits, live-streaming TV has captured the attention of a wide audience, with SlingTV, YouTube TV, DirecTV Now, PlayStation Vue, and Hulu with Live TV all attempting to capitalize on the cord-cutting phenomenon. Channels and hit series that were once strictly bound by the confines of a cable subscription can now be accessed for a small monthly fee with no contract, no equipment rentals, and no crappy customer service to deal with. There’s never been a better time to kick cable to the curb.

Not everyone is cut out to be a “cord cutter,” though. Ditching cable or satellite service and the bill that goes with it sounds great in theory, but it’s not something you want to rush into without doing a little research and preparation first. As with most things, there’s a right way to go about cord cutting, and then there’s the way that sends you back to your cable company begging for forgiveness. We tend to prefer the right way. Keep reading to find out the most cost-effective methods for dropping cable in favor of streaming.

First things first: How’s your internet?

The thing about internet-delivered TV is that you need a broadband connection that’s copacetic with the streaming lifestyle. This may seem like a foregone conclusion, but we want to make it clear that if you’re going to bet your precious entertainment future on your network, you best have a solid hookup. Netflix and other similar streaming video services suggest downstream speeds of 5Mbps, but that’s simply not going to hack it for most folks, especially those with families that might want to stream more than one show or movie at a time.

When new cord cutters are confronted with buffering, they are understandably frustrated.

Consider that 5Mbps may get you one HD video stream, but you may experience loading and buffering delays if your network is getting choked up with any other traffic. Of course, if you’re looking to get into the streaming big leagues to access the growing array of 4K Ultra HD streaming content available from Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, and others, you’ll want to kick up your broadband speed a to at least 25Mbps. Cable TV doesn’t interrupt your show to buffer, so when new cord cutters are confronted with delays, they are understandably frustrated. If you’re only going to be downloading 4K content from sites like FandangoNow or Ultraflix, 10Mbps will probably suffice. In any event, fast and reliable internet is an integral key to a positive streaming experience.

We also recommend testing your internet speed at peak streaming hours (between 6 – 10 p.m. weekdays) to determine if your neighborhood struggles under the strain of heavy traffic. For instance, if you routinely get around 10Mbps downloads during the day, but that figure takes a dive to about 3Mbps around dinner time, you’ll want to call your internet provider to see if anything can be done. Fortunately, this is an increasingly rare problem outside of rural areas, but better to check ahead.

Get an HD antenna

Before you’ve canceled your cable or satellite subscription, you’ll first want to investigate what’s available to you via an HD antenna. For people in urban areas, a good HD antenna likely offers all four major networks (FOX, ABC, NBC, and CBS), along with as many as 10-15 other selections (PBS, CW, etc.) in HD resolution, for free. To make sure you’ll get decent reception, you can simply buy one and try it out, ask around the neighborhood, or try this antenna analysis tool which will tell you which channels you can expect to receive and even offers a standardized color-coded system that can recommend specific antenna types.

There are numerous antennas available that will nab you plenty of HD channels, but here are a few of our favorites:

ClearStream Eclipse ($60)

clearstream lifestyle best indoor hdtv antennas

The ClearStream Eclipse has some of the best-rated performance in its class. The antenna is multi-directional, powerful, and surprisingly versatile. The Eclipse comes in four separate versions: 35, 50, 60, and 70-mile variations, so you’ll be able to snag a model that best suits your location. The double-sided adhesive mounting surface is black on one side, and white on the other, and it can be painted over so you’ll be able to integrate it into any decor. The circular design of the antenna is unique and provides an advantage in being better at picking up UHF signals (a type of HD TV signal) than most other indoor antennas. Plus, it’s multidirectional, so finding an ideal configuration where the signal is clearest is easy.

Available at:

Amazon

Leaf Metro ($20)

We like the Leaf Metro because its small profile easily tucks away, without sacrificing much functionality. Though its range is limited to approximately 25 miles, it’s perfect for those living in smaller apartments or rented rooms, especially in urban environments where over-air TV signals are plentiful. To compound the versatility enabled by its tiny size, the antenna also come in either black or white, and you can also paint it to match your interior. Plus, its adhesive coating means it’ll stick to most any surface and can be moved to other locations with ease. An included 10-foot coaxial cable allows for fairly flexible installation.

Available at:

Amazon

Channel Master FLATenna ($10)

If you’re cutting the cord to save money, then it seems logical to want to save on an indoor antenna, too. Fortunately, the Channel Master FLATenna is one of the cheapest on the block, and performs nearly as well as other models five or six times its price. The FLATenna has a range of 35 miles, and it’s simple design is also multidirectional. The antenna’s surface is adhesive for easy attachment to windows or walls — wherever it picks up signals (and fits) best.

Available at:

Amazon

There are several more recommendations in our indoor antenna guide, which also includes explanations on how antennas work and how best to set them up.

Think you might want to record your local network TV stations? Consider picking up a Channel Master DVR+ or TiVo Roamio OTA DVR.

Trade up for a real streaming device

You might have a Blu-ray player or smart TV with streaming apps on board, and newer TVs from Samsung and LG have pretty impressive smart interfaces. But if you’re going to transition to a full-time streaming entertainment plan, you may want a device purpose-built for the job. Below is a small selection of some of our favorites, but if you want more recommendations, check out our full list of the best streaming devices you can buy.

Roku Ultra ($99)

early roku 4 buyers offered discount on ultra

For our money, the best and brightest offerings come from Roku. While every model the company sells has its merits, the best of the bunch has to be the Roku Ultra. The Ultra boasts 4K UHD picture and support for HDR and 802.11ac Wi-Fi.

With thousands of available “channels,” Roku’s platform connects to virtually every major streaming service online. More importantly, the interface is very intuitive; you can quickly search for content across providers by actor, series or movie titles, or the specific genre you’re looking for. The Roku interface will even tell you which services offer what you want for free, and which will charge for it. The remote is also super handy — you can even connect a pair of headphones for wireless listening late at night.

Available at:

Amazon

While the Roku Ultra is our standout favorite, there are some great alternatives, each with its own special something to offer. Here’s a rundown of some close contenders:

Apple TV4K ($170-$200)

Apple TV (2015)
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Apple’s most recent version of its streaming box, the Apple TV 4K, adds long-awaited support for 4K UHD resolution and 4K content. The Apple TV 4K uses an intuitive touch-pad remote, which is designed to operate more like an iPhone, and it can even be used as a gaming remote. The system is also faster than previous models, and the inclusion of 4K makes it a viable alternative to the 4K Roku and Amazon options for Apple users.

Another option for the serious bargain seeker is to find the previous generation’s model on a site like ebay, though we obviously can’t vouch for any reliability there. While the previous generation Apple TV is definitely showing its age (and lacks 4K support), it’s still very handy for Apple fans thanks to AirPlay, which easily allows you to stream media from your iPhone or iPad to the TV. Either way, if you’re a big-time Apple fan, the Apple TV 4K is likely to be a viable choice as your streaming hub.

Check out our hands-on review of the Apple TV 4k.

Available at:

Apple

Amazon Fire TV ($70)

Amazon Fire TV
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

The Amazon Fire TV has gone through a few iterations now, and with each one it gets better. The current version shrinks the form factor down to a small, square dongle that can easily slip behind TVs. Like just about every modern streaming device worth its salt, the Amazon Fire TV supports 4K HDR picture (though no Dolby Vision here), so if you’ve opted into the 4K TV adoption craze, you’re in luck. And if you haven’t, you’ll be well-prepped should you choose to make the jump in the future.

A major draw here is the Fire TV’s integration with Amazon’s Smart home platform and AI assistant, Alexa. The Fire TV can act as yet another node in your smart home network, allowing you to control any other connected Alexa devices and appliances from your TV. Plus, since it’s a TV and likely to be on of the most-used screens in your home (not to mention the biggest), it’s the perfect centralized hub for an interconnected smart home, with important messages, alerts, and video feeds available on your TV.

If you don’t happen to have a house full of Alexa devices (or any at all), the Fire TV still makes a great option, especially for Amazon Prime subscribers as all your Prime music and video content will be available on the device. This makes up for the slightly truncated app support the Fire TV has compared to Roku.

Check out our full review of the most recent Amazon Fire TV.

Available at:

Amazon

Chromecast Ultra ($69)

google chromecast ultra 2016
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Chromecast, the wildly popular streaming dongle, doesn’t have a remote or on-screen menu, but it lets you use your smartphone or tablet to “cast” content at your TV, and it’s constantly being updated with new supported apps for streaming. The latest version of the device, the Chromecast Ultra, takes everything handy about earlier models but adds 4K resolution as well as HDR, with both Dolby Vision and HDR10 supported. If that’s too rich for your blood, the HD Chromecast is just half the price, and offers virtually all the same functionality besides 4K and HDR. While the Chromecast is one of our favorite ways for quick and dirty streaming, search is still relatively limited via the Google Home app, and those who want to be able to exchange their phone or tablet for a more prominent interface on the big screen will want to go with one of the more traditional streaming boxes on our list. That said, much like the Fire TV’s relationship with Alexa, the Chromcast is probably going to be the ideal choice for Android users or those deeply ingrained into the Google ecosystem — especially Google Home.

Check out our full review of the Chromecast Ultra.

Available at:

Best Buy

Round up your video streaming services

Now that you’ve gotten all of the hardware you’ll need, it’s time to consider which streaming services will best meet your entertainment needs. We suggest aiming to strike a balance between variety and cost.

There is one thing to consider before we get to the services themselves: Once you’re subscribed to more than a few streaming services, keeping track of what’s available where can begin to become a problem. Fortunately, there are solutions. If you’ve got an iOS device or a fourth-generation Apple TV or Apple TV 4K, Apple has an app that is simply named TV that allows you to search and navigate movies and TV shows across 60 different streaming services. If you prefer Android, Google has an offering of its own in its Play Movies & TV app. While this started out as just another place to buy movies and TV shows, Google added a feature that shows you what streaming service movies and shows are available on, even if Google doesn’t sell that particular show or movie. Most of the services below should be supported by both Apple and Google in their respective apps, with the caveat that Netflix isn’t currently searchable via Google Play Movies & TV.

Netflix ($8-14/month)

Netflix tips tricks rating

An obvious choice, and one that is nearly essential to any cord-cutting list, Netflix’s streaming service costs $8 for the basic plan (one stream at a time, no HD or UHD content), $10 for the standard plan (up to two simultaneous streams, includes HD video) and extends up to $14 per month for a premium plan that allows up to four users at once, with the added bonus of access to 4K content with HDR. Netflix’s catalog is loaded with full TV series (past seasons only), scores of movies both licensed and produced in-house, and hit original series like Stranger Things, Marvel’s Daredevil, Altered Carbon, and so many more, all of which come commercial free.

Subscribe to:

Netflix

Amazon Prime Instant Video ($99/year, $13/month)

Amazon prime live now tv

While Amazon’s Prime video service can occasionally cross over into Netflix’s catalog, it does have exclusive rights to a host of classic HBO series like The Sopranos and Oz, along with its own critically acclaimed original series like Mozart in the Jungle and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. The service has been working hard to close the gap with Netflix and beyond, including the addition of bundles like Showtime and Starz networks at reduced prices with a Prime account, along with a good selection of streaming content available in both 4K and HDR. The company also offers video on demand, allowing you to rent or buy newer movies and TV shows. Finally, Amazon has introduced a new monthly plan for $13 per month. If you tend to do much shopping at Amazon at all, however, Prime’s free 2-day shipping makes the $99/year subscription a much better deal.

Subscribe to:

Amazon Prime Video

Hulu ($8-12/month)

Hulu Plus interface

The only choice out of the top three that plays commercials, Hulu is best loved for its selection of current seasons of popular TV shows, most of which show up on the site soon after their original air date. For those who want to have their cake and eat it, Hulu also offers a luxurious, commercial-free way to stream its growing catalog of original shows, network content, and movies for just $4 more a month — well worth it if you’re leaving behind the bonds of cable.

Hulu also recently threw its hat into the live TV streaming ring. The $35 per month plan nabs you over 50 channels of live TV (depending on your region), and includes all the VOD content you’d get with a regular Hulu subscription, to boot. We get more in-depth in this service and how it compares to the likes of SlingTV, PlayStation Vue, and others in the Streaming TV section below.

Subscribe to:

Hulu

HBO Now

ramin djawadi composer of game thrones got hbo s6e10 04

Those who love HBO will want to put HBO Now high on the list. While its $15 per month price point is the most expensive service on our list, that comes with the benefit of seeing all of the service’s latest shows, including Game of Thrones, Westworld, Silicon Valley, Veep, and more, all at the same time they appear on the traditional service. Add to that a cascade of past classics, from Curb Your Enthusiasm to Deadwood, newer movie releases, and virtually everything on the network anytime on demand.

Subscribe to:

HBO Now

Showtime

showtime

CBS’ premium network Showtime has made its own move into the stand-alone streaming game, calling its new streaming service simply (and confusingly) Showtime. As the name suggests, you’ll get virtually all the benefits of being a subscriber of Showtime’s cable version for $11 per month, and the service has also made deals to bundle with both Hulu and Amazon Prime at a reduced cost of $9 per month.

Subscribe to:

Showtime

An on-demand version of much of CBS’ network programming is also offered on CBS All Access, which will run you $6 per month. It’s important to note, however, that the more you spread out your selection, the closer you’ll come to matching that dastardly cable bill every month. If you’re looking to save real bucks, choosing just two or three of our highlighted services should probably be your goal.

In addition to these choices, ESPN, Nickelodeon, and other networks and platforms are expected to follow suit soon.

Web TV — the final piece of the puzzle

Perhaps the biggest enabler for those aiming to quit cable for good — without giving up live TV — is the growing list of live TV streaming services that have become available in the last few years, all of which come with free trial periods and no contracts. There are several out there, each with its own advantages (and disadvantages). We’ve got a detailed comparison piece that breaks down each of these services in finer detail, but there’s a general overview for each below.

Sling TV

sling-tv

Sling TV offers two base channel monthly packages: Sling Orange ($20) and Sling Blue ($25). Sling Orange offers popular channels like ESPN, but is limited to a single stream — meaning subscribers can only view on one device at a time. Sling Blue offers many of the same channels as Orange along with a whole lot more, but is also missing some key channels, ESPN among them. On the flip side, Sling Blue offers NFL Redzone, a must-have channel for NFL fans. Viewers can sign up for both packages and get a $5 discount, bringing the total to $40 per month.

You get to pick your poison, not have it spoon-fed to you.

Apart from the basic packages, $5 add-on packs like News Extra, Kids Extra, and other bundles can be added on top. There’s even a respectable selection of movies for rent in HD for $4 each. While the picture may not be quite as reliable as cable or satellite TV (often dependent upon your device), Sling TV is affordable and easy to use, and the reliability has improved since launch.

In addition to the channel package add-ons, Sling TV also offers premium add-ons, including live and on-demand HBO programming for $15/month on top of your base package, the same price as the HBO Now standalone app. You can find out more in our new Sling TV hands-on guide.

Subscribe to:
Sling TV

PlayStation Vue

Sony’s Playstation Vue service has moved from its Playstation 3 and PS4 bonds to include Chromecast, Roku, Apple TV, and Amazon Fire TV support. While Vue’s slew of channels make it much more comprehensive, its base packages are a bigger investment than Sling TV, starting at $40 per month and moving up to $45, and $55 tiers. However, Vue also offers Slim packages, which drop local channels (available only in select cities), but also drop the price to a very competitive $30, $35, and $45 respectively.

playstation-vue-lifestyle

Vue also offers ESPN’s glut of channels with the packages available nationwide, as opposed to being resigned to just a few cities. On the other hand, the service also recently lost the rights to Viacom-owned channels like Comedy Central, MTV, and Spike. The service tried to lessen the sting by adding channels like BBC America and NBA TV, but the threat of potentially losing key channels could serve as a warning to potential customers.

Subscribe to:

Playstation Vue

DirecTV Now

AT&T’s DirecTV Now was officially unveiled on November 28 with a launch date of November 30. Like PlayStation Vue, this service is closer to old-fashioned cable than Sling TV, and offers four different programming packages.

DirecTV Now
Digital Trends/Keith Nelson Jr.
Digital Trends/Keith Nelson Jr.

The intro package, called Live A Little, offers more than 60 channels for $35 per month, while for $50, the Just Right package offers over 80 channels. The package given the most attention by DirecTV Now during its launch event was the $60 per month Go Big package, offering more than 100 channels, but if you’re looking for everything you can get, the Gotta Have It packages dishes up more than 120 channels for $80 per month. Finally, add-on channel packages like HBO and Cinemax are available for just $5 each — and no, that’s not a typo.

Keen on drawing both Sling TV and PlayStation Vue subscribers, DirecTV Now was announced with a number of deals, like offering the Go Big package — normally $60 per month — to early subscribers for just $35 per month, and there are often generous free-trial offers as well. Interested users will want to check the DirecTV Now website below to see what kind of deals the service is currently offering.

Subscribe to:

DirecTV Now

Hulu with Live TV

best streaming TV service

Unlike most of its competitors, Hulu with Live TV (not the catchiest name) offers a single channel package, priced at just $40 per month for access to over 60 channels (depending on your region, of course). Sports fan will likely find plenty to love about Hulu with Live TV’s user interface, which makes tracking games and teams simple and concise. Unlike the other services here, Hulu doesn’t have much in terms of add on channels to bolster your channel listing, but it does have quite a few premium features that can be added to your subscription, such as more cloud DVR storage and an unlimited number of streams at a time.

Subscribe to:

Hulu with Live TV

YouTube TV

YouTube TV

It’s a no-brainer that the largest video platform in history would build its own live TV streaming service. Like Hulu’s service, YouTube TV offers a single channel package. You’ll get 40-plus channels with a $35 monthly subscription — including a slew of sports channels you’d normally have to pay much more for on other services — with the option of supplementing with a small handful of premium add ons. On top of the TV content, you’ll also get access to all of YouTube Red’s premium content, which includes YouTube-produced series from popular creators and celebrities. At time of publication, however, the service was still offered in select areas only, so you’ll want to check if it’s available in your town before getting too excited.

Subscribe to:

YouTube TV

Adjust your expectations

While Sling TV and the other live TV streaming services feel a little more like cable than Netflix or Amazon Prime Video, the cord-cutting experience is very different from what you’re used to, and you should expect an adjustment period. Quitting cable is like dealing with any other kind of lifestyle change: At first it may be awkward, perhaps even frustrating, but once you’ve grown accustomed to it, it feels natural. No, you won’t be doing much mindless channel surfing anymore, but there’s something satisfying about being more deliberate about your entertainment choices. You get to pick your poison, not have it spoon-fed to you.

When it comes to cord cutting, choice is really what it’s all about (because it isn’t really about monstrous savings). With the modern piecemeal delivery method, you can build your entertainment empire as you see fit, choosing from all or none of our suggestions. Once you get the hang of it, there are even more options to choose from, with new selections popping up all the time. So, if you’re tired of being pushed around by cable or satellite companies, and want to make your own way, follow our lead and cut the cord. We did, and we never looked back.