If you’ve wanted to “cut the cord” and ditch your expensive cable or satellite TV service in favor of streaming video, or at least move in that direction, now is a great time to start. Many big screen TVs and streaming devices are on sale, major streaming service providers are offering promotions, and thanks to the holidays you likely have some free time to try out new devices and programming options.
Streaming, as you probably know, lets you buy channels, movies and shows on an à la carte basis instead of paying a monthly charge to one provider for a large bundle of channels that likely includes some stinkers. In most cases, you pay for one month at a time and don’t have to sign any contracts.
The downside of cord cutting: You need to make some decisions about exactly what you want to watch and how much you’re willing to pay for it. And given the plethora of offerings to choose from, you can easily build a package that costs as much, or more, than what you already pay for cable or satellite TV.
Sports is the real sticking point. The rights to broadcast live games are locked up in many instances, and even though some professional baseball, football, basketball and hockey games are available to stream, quite a few are “blacked out” in local broadcast areas. The landscape is changing rapidly, however, and some games that are out of reach today could well become available in the not-too-distant future.
[Related: How to stream live NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL games]
Here’s a quick guide to help you declare independence from your cable company.
Quality internet connection is key
If you want a solid streaming experience, you need an internet connection that delivers downloads speeds of at least 5Mbps to the room where your television lives. If you or members of the household plan to use additional connected devices, in other locations, you’ll likely need more speed.
[Related: A cord-cutter’s guide to digital TV antennas]
If your router is in another room, you may have to add a range extender or buy a device such as Google Wifi that creates a mesh network around the home. If all else fails you could run an Ethernet cable to your living room, an annoying option, but one that should deliver better performance. (Here are four easy ways you can speed up your pokey WiFi.)
Smart TV or streaming box (or both)?
Quite a few devices exist today that you can use to stream video to your TV. The simplest, though, is the TV itself, or a “smart TV” that connects directly to the internet via Wi-Fi or Ethernet. They generally come with built-in software that lets you watch programming from a variety of popular services.
Smart TVs are convenient, but there’s a downside: The search and navigation interfaces are often terrible. You typically need to use an onscreen menu to scroll through a bunch of categories, or even worse, spell out search terms one letter at a time using the remote to hunt and peck. If you make a mistake, you have to start all over again.
You can also buy a number of different “set-top” devices that connect TVs to the Internet and offer more features than a typical smart TV.
Roku, maker of one of the first popular streaming devices, recently updated nearly all of its products, and the new Roku Express (Find it on Amazon) costs a very reasonable $29.99. Amazon also updated its Fire TV Stick (Find it on Amazon), a USB dongle that plugs into the back of your TV, with new voice-recognition features that make search much easier. The price of the new Fire TV Stick is only $39.99.
Google’s Chromecast costs $35 (or less when it’s on sale), and it plugs into a USB slot on the back of compatible TVs. It’s simple to use and a great way to watch YouTube on your TV, but unfortunately it’s not compatible with all of the most popular services or video apps.
Then there’s Apple TV, which offers more features and app support than most of its competition, but it also costs more at $139. It uses Siri, Apple’s voice assistant, and can run more than 1,000 apps, many of which have nothing to do with TV. You can, for example, use the Zillow app to shop for a house on your TV or play any number of games.
Which streaming service is right for you?
Unlike conventional cable and satellite TV, streaming services — with the exception of Amazon Prime — don’t require commitments of longer than a month. Many also offer free trials of a week, or even a month, with no obligation to remain, though you usually have to provide credit card information.
[Related: 6 important considerations before you cut the cord]
If you sign up for a handful of the available services, you’ll quickly wind up paying more than you do for conventional pay TV. So it’s a good idea to pick one or two, give them a few weeks, and then make a final decision. Here’s summary of the major competitors.
Despite the availability of many new competitors, Netflix is still my first choice for streaming video. It has excellent original shows, including the recent hit “The OA,” and older favorites, such as “Orange is the New Black.” It offers complete seasons of many popular shows. Netflix also has a huge collection of movies, but the majority are available only on DVD via the company’s mail service, which is unfortunate if you don’t want to wait to watch a film.
Netflix recently got more expensive, as well. Its standard HD streaming plan costs $10 a month. You can save $2 a month if you pass on HD and only stream standard definition, but that plan also only lets one person use the service at a time. For $12 a month, you can stream simultaneously to four screens and watch programs in ultra-high definition (UHD).
I found some older, foreign TV shows on Hulu that aren’t available elsewhere, and the service also has an enormous library of more familiar offerings. Hulu, however, is a partner of the major entertainment companies that control much of the television world, so it has features designed to keep it from becoming a cable-killer. Many network shows it features aren’t available until the day after they air, for example, and some shows are only available in abbreviated form.
Its policy on ads is even more annoying. If you opt for the basic price ($7.99 a month), you’re subjected to frequent interruptions that generally include three short ads. I’m not sure why, but you often see the exact same ads over and over again, and you can’t skip or fast forward through them. To avoid the torture, you can pay another four bucks a month to remove the ads.
Sling TV probably won’t replace Netflix on your streaming menu. It doesn’t offer movies unless you pay for an add-on package, and unlike Hulu it doesn’t have a deep library of popular and vintage TV programs. What Sling does have is a wide range of cable channels, and it’s available at a competitive price — subscriptions start at $20 a month, though some of the tiers are a bit confusing.
Sling TV works on most streaming devices. (You can see a complete list of compatible gadgets here.) It runs in a browser on Mac, Windows 7 and Windows 10 devices, so you can use it on your PC or laptop. A dedicated Windows 10 app also exists, but Sling does not work on Google’s Chromecast. And you need to use an HDMI cable to move your stream to a television from a Windows PC.
AT&T gobbled up DIRECTV in 2014, and late last month it debuted the DIRECTV NOW streaming service. Although it was plagued with outages and technical glitches during its first weeks of operation, the service offers a lot of channels.
At the moment, an introductory offer gets you a free week, and for $35 you get more than 100 channels. That price will increase when the offer ends — AT&T hasn’t said when that will be or how much the service will cost — but early subscribers will continue to pay the introductory price. The service does not have any DVR or recording features, but some of its programs are available on demand.