Judging from media chatter, social media sharing, and recent award shows, many of today’s most exciting TV shows aren’t actually on TV. At least not basic cable. They’re on streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, and premium cable channels like HBO and Showtime.
You probably know this. You might already be watching “Game of Thrones” on HBO Go, using your Amazon Prime subscription to tune into “Transparent,” and streaming “Orange Is the New Black” with your friend’s Netflix account. And you’re not about to miss a word Cookie says on Fox’s “Empire.” On Hulu.
Whether you’re into TV, movies, or sports (or all three), cutting cable won’t cut you off, but it might just save you upwards of $1,000 in a year.
When the Golden Age of Television isn’t on traditional cable, choices have to be made. Subscribing to every service to watch all the great shows can cost an insane amount of money, especially if you’ve also got a cable account.
The next thought you may have is: “I’ll just get a rid of cable.” Great! It’s probably the right choice, but it also involves navigating a maze of competing services and devices. Luckily, we’re here to walk you through the cord-cutting landscape and figure out the cheapest way to watch the shows you love.
The Best Shows Aren’t Just on Basic Cable
What Is Cord Cutting?
“Cord cutting” might be one of the buzziest terms in entertainment right now. Cord cutters are people — mostly young people — who cancel a traditional cable package in favor of services like Netflix, Hulu, and others that stream over the Internet. You can watch shows from these services on a smartphone or tablet via an app, or on your TV through a media hub like an Apple TV, Chromecast, Roku, Amazon Fire TV, or a video game console.
Cord cutting isn’t a new movement, but its adoption has accelerated in recent years, especially among millennials. One in four millennials doesn’t subscribe to cable and 11% of them never have (they’re called “cord nevers”). As a whole, cable providers lost 600,000 customers in just three months last year, compared with 500,000 in all of 2014. So yeah, this is a thing.
Cable Subscriptions Are Plummeting
Why are consumers cutting the cord? Three main reasons:
- Cost: Cable is expensive and it’s getting pricier. In fact, the cost of a set-top cable box has shot up 185% since 1994. (Tech prices are supposed to go down over time, not up.)
- Channel selection: We aren’t wowed by hundreds of channels anymore. We’d rather just pay for what we watch. If our favorite shows are on Hulu and Amazon, why pay for 20 sports channels and the Hallmark Channel? (And wait, what is the Hallmark Channel anyway?)
- Convenience: We want to watch our shows anytime and anywhere, and streaming services let us do just that.
Not everyone will save the same amount of money by getting rid of cable. It’ll really depend on what you like to watch.
That said, there are a few costs that are universal to all cable subscribers. One is equipment fees, which you definitely won’t miss. They add up to around $231 a year (that’s roughly the cost of a new Apple TV and a year-long Netflix subscription). Then there are the monthly fees. They average around $100 today, depending on where you live, and they’ve increased 93% since 1993.
So how much could you save? If you love movies, for example, grab a $35 Google Chromecast and a $7.99/month Netflix subscription and you’ll save nearly $1,000 in one year. If you’re a TV fan, you can buy an Amazon Fire TV for $100 and subscriptions to HBO Now, Showtime, Amazon Prime, and Hulu for around $42 a month to save nearly $400 in one year.
In both scenarios, you could forgo the Hulu or Netflix subscription in favor of your local library’s free collection of films and shows, which, in some cases, are also available to stream. (Check out the visual below for more combinations and consumer-specific options.)
The Evolution of Cord Cutting
Millennial cord cutters are on the frontlines of disrupting the media industry. They want fewer fees, smaller channel bundles, and more flexibility to watch content on their smartphones and tablets. Cable providers are realizing they have to cave in to at least some of these demands if they’re ever going to get cord cutters back as subscribers. And the streaming services are going to keep sweetening their deals, too. Here are some recent developments:
- More selection: Early cord cutters were forced to make due with just a few apps and limited TV channels. Apple recently introduced ABC, NBC, A&E, and National Geographic to its Apple TV 4th generation users.
- Live programming: If you really love a show, you probably want to watch it when it airs, not an hour or a day later. You’re not alone, and the cable networks hear you. The aforementioned channels on Apple TV all carry forms of live TV, though some require a cable subscription. Sports can be a bit trickier when it comes to live action (more on that later).
- Cable packages for cord cutters: Cable providers know you’re unhappy with the current state of affairs, and they’re offering smaller and cheaper packages. Verizon, for instance, now offers a $55/month slimmed-down sports package. Cablevision’s Optimum also recently released a package for viewers who only want network TV. They’ll get high-speed Internet for streaming needs and an antenna for basic broadcast channels for $44/month.
What You’ll Need
New tech and services are rolling out every year, which means it’s tricky to stay on top of this stuff. We all just want to be able to watch our shows, right? Don’t fret. Below, we break down the major services, streaming devices, and other hardware you can use to enjoy your favorite TV shows, games, and movies without a cable box. Start by answering two simple questions:
Question 1: How do you watch your shows?
ON MY SMART TV
Smart TVs generally come loaded with popular apps like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Instant Video. Most connected TVs, however, don’t carry the variety of apps and channels that dedicated streaming devices, like the Roku boxes, do. So, you won’t need a set-top box but you might still want one.
ON MY TV
As mentioned, some cable companies are reaching out to cord cutters, offering packages that include high-speed Internet and TV via a digital antenna. Now, if you’re a millennial, you might be thinking, “Why would I need an antenna in 2016?” Here’s why: The four major networks (CBS, FOX, NBC, and ABC), PBS, and the CW, as well as many smaller networks, broadcast digitally over the air in most markets, meaning you can watch each channel with that antenna — for free. If you just want to watch popular shows like “NCIS” or “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and, say, the local news or Sunday’s football game, that antenna might be all you need. Just make sure you have the right one. AntennaWeb’s handy tool can help you figure out how close you are to the nearest transmitter, what type of antenna you’ll need, and how many channels you’ll receive. This will be the cheapest option for cord cutters, but it’ll also yield the least content. You’re basically living in the ’50s, at the mercy of network programming. But, like we said, it’s free. (More on this below.)
If you want access to more than just network shows, you’ll need a streaming device. And here’s where you’ll run into a variety of hardware — everything from the simple (a USB streaming stick) to the feature-rich (streaming boxes and DVRs) to the specialized (game consoles).
ON MY COMPUTER
No TV? No problem. You can still access content on your computer. Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Instant Video, Sling TV, and premium channels like HBO and Showtime are all accessible on your desktop or laptop without a dedicated streaming device.
ON MY PHONE OR TABLET
If you’re constantly on the go, access to content is simply a mobile app download (typically free) and a streaming service subscription away.
Question 2: What do you watch?
“If I get rid of cable, I’ll miss my games!” While this thinking may have been true a few years ago, sports networks have their own streaming apps and they’re much more user-friendly these days. If you love your sports, consider swapping out your cable subscription for a media hub (a.k.a. streaming box), a basic subscription to Sling TV ($20/month), and an HD antenna for some local action. That subscription comes with ESPN, ESPN2, TBS, and TNT. If you break it down by sport, you’ll get a good bit of live NFL, NBA, and MLB action as well as access to popular shows like “Mike & Mike,” “Monday Night Football,” and “Baseball Tonight.”
That said, local games remain an issue. For now, blackout rules apply for sport-specific streaming channels like NBA League Pass ($99.99 for the season) and MLB.TV Premium ($110/year) that let you watch every team except your own. Some leagues, though, are rethinking their blackout strategies given recent lawsuits.
This is probably sounding a bit pricey, right? It really isn’t. The total cost of a Chromecast stick, HD antenna, and subscriptions to Sling TV and one sport-specific channel are still nearly $780 less than a year of cable.
Want to give up cable but can’t imagine life without “Game of Thrones” or “Homeland”? Not a problem. Today, premium networks offer their current programs and archives without a cable subscription. Both HBO Now ($14.99/month) and Showtime Anytime ($10.99/month) are available on all the major set-top boxes and media hubs as well as on mobile and online. Hulu subscribers can layer Showtime on top of their package at a reduced rate.
When it comes to movie libraries, Netflix and Amazon reign over other streaming services. That isn’t to say they have every film, especially new, popular releases. If you’re a real movie buff, complement your Netflix or Amazon subscription with occasional iTunes, Amazon Video, or Google Play rentals (about $4 to $5 across the board) that you can play on your TV using your set-top box or stream from your mobile device.
The simplest way to watch live TV without cable is to buy that antenna we talked about earlier and get your network broadcasts the old-fashioned way. NBC and CBS also have apps on Roku and Apple TV, but CBS only offers certain live broadcasts in its paid subscription service, and NBC requires users to input their cable credentials to receive its full offerings. If you don’t mind watching your favorite network shows after they air, a simple Hulu membership should do the job.
For only $36 a month, you can subscribe to Sling TV, Hulu, and Netflix, and get a mix of live cable channels (including live sports), heaps of TV shows the day after they air, and a robust selection of movies and past seasons of popular shows. It’s a great price with lots of flexibility and viewing options.
What to Get
Ready to cut the cord? Great. We took a look at all the popular options for your streaming needs, so you can compare them side by side.
For new cord cutters, the fact that a streaming stick and a media box, such as a Roku, can do similar things may seem odd. Don’t let the streaming stick’s small stature fool you, though: It’s capable of housing the same popular streaming services that set-top boxes do. In fact, consumers often prefer streaming sticks because they’re unobtrusive and easily transportable.
How do they work? Most new streaming sticks plug into an HDMI port in your TV. They have their own interfaces and carry apps (some are native to the stick while others are third-party apps like Netflix or Hulu). You also get access to games and music. Some streaming sticks come with a remote while others require you to use your smartphone to navigate the interface. The number of apps and media it holds depends on the storage capacity.
Amazon Fire TV Stick
Google Chromecast (2015)
Roku Streaming Stick
|Wi-Fi||Dual-band, dual-antenna 802.11a/b/g/n (MIMO)||802.11b/g/n/ac||802.11a/b/g/n|
|Video Resolution (max.)||1080p||1080p||1080p|
|Dedicated Remote Control||Yes||No||Yes|
|Dimensions (in inches)||3.3 x 1.0 x 0.5||2.0 x 2.0 x 0.5||3.1 x 1.1 x 0.5
|Weight (in ounces)||0.9||1.4||5.0|
|The One Thing You Need to Know||The remote supports voice search, so you can instantly get to the content you want.||There’s no dedicated remote or on-screen interface, so you’ll need to use your smartphone, tablet, or PC.||You can set up Roku Feed to “follow” movies, TV shows, and even actors, so you get updates when there’s new, related content available.|
|Learn More||Learn More||Learn More|
With an overhauled Apple TV (4th generation), a refreshed Amazon Fire TV, and continued excellence from Roku’s line, you may find you don’t miss your old cable a bit.
Streaming boxes work similarly to the sticks mentioned above. Not surprisingly, there are some differences. First, there’s some cabling involved (you’ll need to plug in for power and connect the box to the TV using an HDMI cable). And, set-top boxes have more horsepower, which means they run faster and operate a bit more seamlessly. They also give you the option of connecting via Ethernet instead of over Wi-Fi.
Amazon Fire TV
Amazon Fire TV Gaming Edition
Apple TV 32GB
Apple TV 64GB
|HDMI (max.)||4K Ultra HD up to 30fps; 720p and 1080p up to 60fps||4K Ultra HD up to 30fps; 720p and 1080p up to 60fps||4K Ultra HD||4K Ultra HD||1080p||1080p||1080p||4K Ultra HD|
|Wi-Fi||Dual-band, dual-antenna 802.11ac (MIMO)||Dual-band, dual-antenna 802.11ac (MIMO)||802.11ac (MIMO)||802.11ac (MIMO)||Undisclosed||Dual-band 802.11b/g/n||Dual-band 802.11b/g/n||802.11ac (MIMO), dual-band 802.11b/g/n|
|Additional Ports/Interfaces||10/100 Ethernet, DC jack, microSD slot, USB 2.0||10/100 Ethernet, Bluetooth 4.1, DC jack, microSD slot, USB 2.0||10/100 Ethernet, Bluetooth 4.0, IR receiver, USB‑C||10/100 Ethernet, Bluetooth 4.0, IR receiver, USB‑C||Composite video||Ethernet, USB||Ethernet, USB 2.0||10/100 Ethernet, microSD card, USB|
|Remote Control Included||Yes||Optional||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Voice Search||Yes||Yes||Siri||Siri||No||Yes, with app||Yes||Yes|
|Dimensions (HxWxD, in inches)||0.7 x 4.5 x 4.5||0.7 x 4.5 x 4.5||1.4 x 3.9 x 3.9||1.4 x 3.9 x 3.9||3.2 x 3.7 x 3.7||1.0 x 3.5 x 3.5||1.0 x 3.5 x 3.5||0.8 x 6.5 x 6.5|
|Weight (in ounces)||9.5||9.5||15.0||15.0||3.5||5.0||5.0||14.4|
|The One Thing You Need to Know||Alexa voice search gives the Fire TV a leg up on other media hubs’ search platforms.||If you’re going to game with your Fire TV, the Gaming Edition, which comes with a controller, two games (Shovel Knight and Disney DuckTales), and a 32GB microSD card, makes sense.||No on/off switch here, but you can put your device to “sleep” by holding down the Home button.||You might not need the extra storage if you use the cloud for photos and videos.||Its composite cables make it good for consumers who own an older TV.||This stripped-down Roku has video output jacks for older TVs.||While similar to the Roku 2, it’s got a better remote and search.||It’s worth it if you want the best 4K-enabled streaming.|
|Learn More||Learn More||Learn |
Streaming Game Consoles
Millennials looking to shed their cable bill may only have to look as far as their game console. Many modern systems feature the same apps and streaming power of set-top boxes and sticks.
Sony PlayStation TV
Sony PlayStation 4
|HDMI (max.)||4K playback at 60fps, 4K capture at 30fps||1080p||1080p||1080p|
|Wi-Fi||802.11ac (2x2 MIMO)||802.11n||802.11b/g/n||802.11a/b/g/n|
|Additional Ports/Interfaces||Gigabit Ethernet, IR receiver, microSD slot, Micro-USB 2.0, two USB 3.0||10/100Base-T Ethernet, USB||10Base-T/100Base-T/100Base-TX Ethernet, Bluetooth 2.1 (EDR)||Gigabit Ethernet, three USB 3.0|
|Game Controller Included||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Remote Control Included||Yes||No||No||No|
|Dimensions (HxWxD, in inches)||1.0 x 8.3 x 5.1||0.5 x 4.1 x 2.6||2.1 x 12.0 x 10.8||3.25 x 13.1 x 10.5|
|Weight (in pounds)||1.4||0.24||6.2||7|
|The One Thing You Need to Know||You’ll need to use the game controller as a remote.||There’s no Netflix or Hulu app support yet.||In addition to being able to stream from your PC and USB stick, you can also download the media center Plex, making the integration of your media library even easier.||There’s a wider selection of entertainment apps than what’s available on the PS4.|
|Learn More||Learn More||Learn More||Learn More|
Live Streaming Services
While the earliest cord cutters were limited to a select amount of apps that played older content, today’s cable defectors are able to enjoy live TV. You can’t get everything yet, though. Expect more live programming in the years to come. For now, here’s what’s available.
Sony PlayStation VUE
|Plans||Access: $49.99/month (50+ channels)|
Core: $59.99/month (60+ channels)
Elite: $84.99 (85+ channels, including EPIX Hits and Machinima)
|$20.00/month (23 channels, including ESPN, Food Network, and HGTV)|
|Notable Add-ons||Showtime: $10.99/month|
EPIX Hits and Showtime: $13.99/month
Fox Soccer Plus: $14.99/month
Hollywood Extra: $5.00/month (EPIX, EPIX2, EPIX3, EPIX Drive-In, Sundance TV, Turner Classic Movies (TCM))
Kids Extra: $5.00/month (Baby TV, Boomerang, Disney Junior, Disney XD, Duck TV)
Sports Extra: $5.00/month (beIN Sports, Campus Insiders, ESPN Bases Loaded, ESPN Buzzer Beater, ESPN Goal Line, ESPNEWS, ESPNU, Outside Television, SEC Network, Universal Sports, Univision Deportes)
World News Extra: $5.00/month (Euronews, France24, HLN, NDTV 24x7, News 18 India, RT)
|Pauses Live TV||Yes (5 minutes)||Yes (on some channels)|
|Computers||None||Lion 10.7 and higher, Windows 7 and higher|
|Gaming Consoles||Sony PlayStation 3, 4||Microsoft Xbox One|
|Mobile||iOS 7 and higher (PlayStation VUE Mobile app)||iOS 8 and higher, Android 4.0.3 and higher, Android 4.4.2+, RCA|
|TVs via Players||Amazon Fire TV devices, Google Chromecast||Amazon Fire TV devices, Roku LT and higher, Google Chromecast, Google Nexus Player, ZTE|
|The One Thing You Need to Know||The service can get pretty pricey once you start adding on channels, and because it’s relatively new, as of February 2016, it’s only available in a few U.S. markets (Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York City, Philadelphia, and San Francisco Bay Area).||It doesn't allow two devices using the same account to run the service simultaneously.|
|Learn More||Learn More|
DVRs are essential for cord cutters who want to record network TV signals they receive from an antenna. Today’s DVRs do more than just record content, though. Modern DVRs can send content to your smart devices and even stream services, such as Netflix, directly to your TV.
Channel Master DVR+ 16GB
Channel Master DVR+ 1TB
Nuvyyo Tablo 2-Tuner DVR
Nuvyyo Tablo 4-Tuner DVR
TiVo Bolt DVR
TiVo Roamio Pro DVR
|Price (MSRP)||$249.00||$399.00||$219.99 (service: $4.99/month, $49.99/year, $149.99/lifetime)||$299.99 (service: $4.99/month, $49.99/year, $149.99/lifetime)||$299.99 (500GB), $399.99 (1000GB) (both include one year of TiVo service)||$499.99 ($14.99 monthly service with one-year commitment), $599.99 (includes one year of TiVo service)|
|Recording Capacity (HD/SD)||160 hours||160 hours||Depends on external storage device||Depends on external storage device||75/150||3000|
|HDMI (max.)||1080p||1080p||1080p||1080p||4K UHD||1080p|
|Wi-Fi||Optional||Optional||Dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n||Dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n||802.11a/b/g/n||802.11a/b/g/n|
|Additional Ports/Interfaces||10/100 Ethernet, IR extension, two USB 2.0||10/100 Ethernet, IR extension, two USB 2.0||Ethernet, two USB 2.0||Ethernet, two USB 2.0||Ethernet, CableCARD slot, coax connector, two USB||10/100/1000 Ethernet, CableCARD slot, coax connector, two USB 2.0|
|Remote Control Included||Yes||Yes||No (uses a smart device)||No (uses a smart device)||Yes||Yes|
|Dimensions (HxWxD, in inches)||0.5 x 10.5 x 8.0||0.5 x 10.5 x 8.0||1.4 x 6.9 x 4.6||1.5 x 6.9 x 4.6||1.8 x 11.5 x 7.3||2.4 x 16.5 x 9.7|
|Weight (in pounds)||1.1||1.1||0.8||0.9||1.9||6.9|
|The One Thing You Need to Know||Unlike other DVRs, there are no subscription fees.||Unlike other DVRs, there are no subscription fees.||A USB hard drive is required to watch live TV and record programming.||A USB hard drive is required to watch live TV and record programming.||It’s a DVR and media streaming system in one box.||Supports out-of-home viewing of live and recorded TV shows on iOS devices.|
|Learn More||Learn More||Learn |