A little less than two years ago, Sarah and I made the decision to get rid of cable television in our home. We canceled our cable service, which was costing us about $100 a month, and moved to a mixture of services. When I wrote an update about our experience after a year without cable, I noted that we had migrated to an over-the-air antenna coupled with a rotating selection of streaming services.
After about a year of trying out different streaming services and combinations, I wanted to offer a summary of the options we’ve tried, how they worked for us, and what we’re going to do going forward. The pricing listed is current as of this writing, though it may have changed a bit for each service when you read this article.
12 ways to watch TV without cable
1. Over-the-air antenna
Cost: $30 – $50 initial cost, then free
Benefits: It’s free after initial setup, offers local content and a variety of channels
Drawbacks: Tons of commercials that can’t be skipped, nothing “on-demand” without additional devices, fairly limited quality programming
Our first move after cutting our cable package was to install an over-the-air antenna. We live fairly close to a large broadcast tower that repeats television signals for most over-the-air networks, so we get ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, PBS, The CW, and a bunch of independent channels and variations. All told, by my count, our over-the-air antenna gets us 22 different channels to watch.
The over-the-air antenna was easy to set up. It simply sits in an out-of-the-way spot near our television, almost unnoticed, and pointed toward the repeater antenna (generally in the direction of Des Moines, as we live in rural Iowa). It took a little bit of nudging to get it in the right position, but once we found it, it basically doesn’t need any further adjustment.
While I can’t argue with the price, and I do like having access to local news, we actually don’t use it very often. None of us like the intrusion of commercials that we can’t skip, and there’s honestly not a lot of content on there that we’re excited to watch other than a few live events. It’s good to have it, but our limited television time is usually spent with other services.
There are a lot of different over the air antenna options out there. If you replaced a satellite service and have a cable cord already running to your roof, I recommend the ClearStream 1Max, a really great roof-mounted option. If you don’t already have a cable running to your roof, the AmazonBasics Indoor Flat TV antenna is a good option.
However, before you buy one, I highly recommend using AntennaWeb, which will help you see what channels you should be able to pick up in your area and how big of an antenna you’ll need to get them. In general, the further you are from broadcast towers, the bigger the antenna you’ll need (and if you’re very far, you’ll probably need a roof-mounted one).
Cost: $20 – $200 based on features, then free
Benefits: Hooks up to most newer televisions with ease, allows access of almost every popular streaming service on your television
Drawbacks: Redundant if your television has streaming services built-in
Unless you have a good modern television that has streaming services built into it or you’re content to watch television on a computer screen or tablet, you will need some sort of device that will allow you to tap into your home wi-fi network and display streaming services on your television. There are a lot of options.
You will need some form of wi-fi at home with reasonable speed to use these options (and all of the streaming services below). I’d suggest using this speed test while hooked up to your home wi-fi network. You’ll want at least 5 Mbps at minimum to stream a single device, 10 Mbps if you want to watch HD video, and somewhere around 30 Mbps at the minimum if you’re wanting to stream 4K video. You can do it with speeds somewhat below those levels, but you’ll have pauses and some random degradation in quality.
Over the last two years, I’ve had a chance to use several different options: a Roku Express (costs around $25), a Roku Ultra 4K (costs around $120), a Fire TV stick ($40), and an Apple TV ($200). Unless you have a TV capable of 4K video and a very fast home internet service, my recommendation is the $25 Roku Express. If you do have blazing fast home internet and a 4K TV, get a Roku Ultra 4K. I wasn’t much of a fan of the Fire TV stick and, while I liked the Apple TV device, I couldn’t really see any reason to pay $200 for it. I’d probably recommend the Apple device if the price was more in line with the Roku devices, but it’s not worth the premium.
We are currently using a Roku Express — yep, the cheapest option listed here — and it does everything we want or need. It enabled me to try out all of the services listed below in HD quality with basically no issues.
3. Cable “replacement” streaming services: Sling, Hulu Live, YouTube TV, Philo, and others
Cost: $20 – $55 a month
Benefits: Gives you access to many cable channels without a cable or satellite package, more control over what channels you have, most have DVR/recording services so you can record and watch shows later
Drawbacks: The more expensive packages tend to have the more desirable channels, commercials are still included
This is an option to consider if there are just one or two cable channels that you absolutely don’t want to lose but don’t care about the rest. You can simply hunt around for a service that gives you a small number of channels you want at the lowest possible price.
Most of these services are very similar. They offer different groupings of channels into various packages at various prices. For example, Philo is just $20 a month, but the channel selection is the smallest and misses a few heavy hitters that a lot of people may want. On the other hand, Sling — with all of the various options — can easily get up into the $60 per month range, but you can probably wind up with every cable channel you might possibly want.
The question you should be asking yourself is whether you’re willing to pay that much per month for just a few channels you actually cared about on cable. Is ESPN (along with a handful of other channels you basically won’t watch) worth $40 a month? Is TNT (along with a bunch of other channels you basically won’t watch) worth $35 a month? I can’t answer those questions for you, but I will say this: it is worthwhile to try to move on from those channels and only come back if you truly miss them after a month or two of trying other services.
We currently do not use any of these services, though we tried a few over the past two years, mostly using free trials. We did subscribe to Sling for a period, but we found ourselves not using it very often, not because the service was bad, but because there weren’t any cable channels we really wanted to watch.
Cost: $9-16 per month, depending on video quality and how many screens you want to watch on simultaneously
Benefits: Very large library of original programming with a lot of quality stuff, no commercials
Drawbacks: Movie library is dwindling, as are classic series from broadcast and cable
If you want a single service with a very wide range of “pretty good” to “great” things to watch, this is probably the one you want. If you were to create a top ten list of best original shows on streaming services, Netflix might not have any, but if you made a top 100 list, Netflix would probably provide half the list. There is a lot of good stuff on here to watch, it’s all commercial-free, and it’s all on-demand.
Netflix is in an interesting transition period. Originally, when they were the first big streaming provider, they didn’t have much original content and leaned on theatrical movies and past seasons of television shows that had already been broadcast on over-the-air or cable networks. As time has gone on, it’s gradually been shifting to more original content and less theatrical movies and older television shows.
If you’re interested in discovering a lot of good, interesting, varied programming that might not be all of the stuff you’re familiar with, Netflix is a great choice, and it’s not devoid of theatrical movies or other television series. I believe it to be the best overall streaming package, assuming that you’re not primarily invested in binge-watching older television shows. This is the one streaming service we haven’t paused because there is just a ton of fresh content every month.
Cost: $119 per year or $13 per month
Benefits: Enormous library of content, some very good original programming, ability to rent newer movies and buy digital copies of some popular films and TV shows, you get other benefits of Amazon Prime membership
Drawbacks: Lots and lots and lots of junk in the enormous library of content
Amazon’s Prime Video service, which is perhaps the biggest part of their overall “Prime” selection of services which costs $119 per year, offers an enormous library of content, with some original shows mixed in with a huge backlog of older television programs and movies. I can’t stress huge enough here. The service allows you to rent/buy digital versions of new releases and newer television shows at an additional price.
The problem is that, while the mountain of content seems enormous, most of it is junk. The service is just chock full of forgettable movies and television shows. The original content is good, but there are really just a handful of programs that are quite good.
I feel like this service is all about quantity over quality, with a nice handful of diamonds mixed in with mountains of dirt. It’s a good option if you already have Prime for other reasons, but for me it’s a service that is on our list of rotating services that we’ll check out for a month here or there to dip into the newest stuff and then unsubscribe.
Cost: $6 a month with ads, $12 a month without
Advantages: Offers a few strong original programs and lots of recent network television shows, is often bundled with other services like Spotify and Disney+ to reduce costs
Disadvantages: Relatively small library
The big advantage that Hulu offers over the other services is that it offers the ability to watch a lot of current network (and some cable) shows on-demand the day after airing. If there are just a few shows that you’re going to miss after you cut cable, this might be a good solution for you.
It’s also nice that Hulu often comes packaged with other services, particularly Spotify and Disney+. You’ll often find promotional offers that allow you to get both or all three services at a combined lower price.
However, if Hulu isn’t offering current episodes of a network show that you’re into, their original content is pretty thin with just a few real standout programs. This is on our list of “rotating” services to pop into occasionally for a month just to watch what’s new and then cancel again.
7. YouTube / YouTube Premium
Cost: Free (with ads), or $11.99 a month (without ads and with a few extraneous features)
Benefits: Essentially infinite programming, a lot of good programming
Drawbacks: You have to work to find the good programming, ads are really annoying and really push you to Premium
The amount of content on YouTube is infinite, and there are a lot of good channels on there pushing out wonderful, enjoyable content. I am subscribed to somewhere around 100 channels, and there’s always something new on at least a few of them to watch.
The problem is that you have to really hunt for those good channels, subscribe to them, and then focus on just watching your subscriptions, because once you get out in the wilderness, there are infinite mountains of absolute garbage on YouTube, and the auto-play algorithm, once it shows you all of the new stuff that’s really relevant to you, will often start wandering into that garbage.
For me to have YouTube how I like it, I’ve spent a ton of time creating “smart playlists” that contain similar videos and mostly just watch those when I watch.
It’s definitely a service that, the more you put into it in terms of discovering channels that are really in line with what you like, the more you get out of it. If you’re just sitting down to watch whatever’s on, though, you’re going to see a lot of junk.
I’m still a free user of YouTube and I will say that I have considered premium simply because the ads are obnoxious, especially if you’re watching while doing something with your hands. I do not want to stop every few minutes to skip a three-minute ad; it’s really annoying. If I actually watched a lot of YouTube rather than checking on my subscriptions once every few days and watching for maybe 30 minutes, I’d go premium in a heartbeat.
Cost: $7 a month / $70 a year (as of May 29, 2020)
Advantages: Almost all the Marvel movies, virtually all of the animated Disney and Pixar movies, virtually all of the Star Wars movies and series, often bundled with Hulu and Spotify for a cheaper rate
Disadvantages: Very small amount of original content so far
What you see is what you get here. You get basically all of the Disney/Pixar animated movies, nearly all of the Star Wars movies and multiple Star Wars episodic series, nearly all of the Marvel films and (soon) some Marvel episodic series, along with some other live-action kid-friendly films from the Disney vaults. The whole service leans in strongly on the Marvel/Disney/Pixar/Star Wars film and television worlds and delivers all of that to you.
Basically, if you really enjoy the Marvel Cinematic Universe or Star Wars, or if you want an absolute ton of family-friendly movies to watch with your family until the end of civilization, Disney+ is probably the right service for you. If you want much beyond that scope, Disney+ is not the right service for you.
Cost: $6 per month with commercials, $10 per month without
Advantages: Some live sports, most current programming from CBS (which you can get free over the air, but it’s on-demand here), a number of good original shows just for the service
Disadvantages: Very small selection of original series
I’ll confess that the only reason I’m familiar with CBS All Access is that I got the free trial for a month so I could binge-watch the first two seasons of Star Trek: Discovery a while back. The original Star Trek content is clearly the calling card of the service, along with the ability to watch broadcast shows from CBS on-demand and commercial-free pretty quickly after their original airing, along with some limited live sports.
Again, this is one of the services that is on our list of services to hop between. We will likely eventually re-subscribe for a month to binge-watch a few shows, then cancel it and move on.
10. HBO Max
Cost: $12 – $15 a month ($12 seems to be an introductory price)
Advantages: A lot of very high-quality content, both original for the service, from the HBO archives and elsewhere
Disadvantages: It’s pretty pricy per month
HBO Max is basically the “quality over quantity” service. That’s not to say that there’s not much content on here — there is quite a lot, it’s just not bottomless as Netflix and others can sometimes feel. However, there is a very high ratio of shows on here that are well worth watching as compared to lower quality stuff. The content that is here is very good.
You get basically all of the series ever aired on HBO, including current ones. You get Game of Thrones, Watchmen, Westworld and many others. You get a set of pretty high quality recent theatrical releases that rotate over time. You also get the entire runs of a handful of shows — it clearly aimed for getting the rights to a small number of enormously popular shows rather than vast catalogs of middling stuff. There is a fairly large catalog of things and not all of it is great, but most of it is reasonably well known. There’s a small amount of original content for the service, but that’s not (yet) the reason to subscribe.
The catch? It’s expensive, and while there is some family content on here, there’s not a whole lot of it.
This is on our “rotating list.” We subscribed to its precursor, HBO Now, for a couple of months to catch up on a handful of series and will definitely be back.
11. Apple TV+
Cost: $5 per month; free with recent purchase of many Apple devices
Advantages: A small amount of good original content, free if you bought an Apple device recently
Drawbacks: There’s not much there at all yet
I tried this out because it was free as a result of a recent Apple device purchase (an iPad). I viewed it mostly as a perk to go along with the device rather than something I would consider subscribing to independently.
Why? While there are a healthy number of original series on there, but that’s about it. I watched the single season of a few shows and would like to go back for future seasons, but with the other options available, this one is pretty far down on our “go back to in the future to binge-watch” list.
12. Sports-specific services: MLB TV, NBA TV, WWE Network, ESPN+
Advantages: If you are extremely passionate about specific sports, the package for that sports league is probably a great value
Disadvantages: They’re very expensive for more casual fans, and they don’t stream all games
First, let’s talk about the services specific to individual sports and sports entertainment — MLB TV, NBA TV, WWE Network and so on. If you are a very passionate fan of a particular sport, to the point that you follow news about it daily and can watch programming about it endlessly, the service for that particular sport will be valuable to you. Most major sports in America offer such a service, which includes a large dose of live-streamed games and a ton of sport-specific original programming. However, these services don’t include all games from all teams, just a lot of them. Often, the “big” game of the week is only on ESPN or some other network, and you can’t get it through the service, and there are also some strange local blackout issues, particularly with MLB. Still, in terms of sport-specific content, it’s something you should look at if you’re a “lifestyle” fan in that the particular sport is a very significant hobby of yours. It may be enough to help you deal with losing cable service. (Note that the NFL doesn’t really offer an all-encompassing standalone streaming package; if you’re an NFL addict, you’re probably looking at a cable replacement service like Sling, described earlier.)
So, what about ESPN+? It’s $5 a month and the real reason to get it is the incredible number of sports documentaries. If you like sports documentaries, there’s so much to binge watch here that it will take you months to get through it, even with some extreme couch time, and the documentaries are so good, with a very high standard of quality. I think it’s a good option for a sports dilettante who mostly likes the stories of sporting achievements and the highlights.
What will we do going forward?
As you may have already noted, we subscribe to Netflix (mostly because it always provides something we’re interested in) and then also rotate through a handful of services for short periods based on shows we want to catch up on or new ones we want to see. We’ll subscribe to the second service for a month or two, then unsubscribe and move to a different one.
For example, I’m currently itching to catch up on Star Trek: Discovery and watch Star Trek: Picard, so we may subscribe to a month of CBS All Access soon.
This strategy keeps our costs at around $20 to $25 a month. We have 20+ over the air channels, Netflix, Youtube (with commercials), and another streaming service that rotates, all for that $20-25. That’s more content than we can ever hope to watch with a constant refresh of new things to watch. We never feel as though we’re lacking in terms of having things we’re excited to watch and only rarely feel like we “miss” anything. Compare that with our old cable package, which set us back around $100 a month.
(It’s worth noting that there are some niche services I didn’t cover here, like The Criterion Channel, which is $11 a month and is great for art film buffs. I didn’t include everything, just the services that I’m familiar with.)
If you’re considering cutting the cord, there really are a lot of great options out there for you, and you’re virtually guaranteed to save a lot of money no matter what you choose! Good luck!