This is an exciting time for cord cutting — dropping cable or satellite TV service in favor of online video sources. Options are expanding, with AMC, ESPN, HBO and other hot channels going online. Plus, Internet-only channels like Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video offer their own shows, movies and specials.
Online doesn't mean free, though. Almost every streaming service still costs money. Hulu runs $8 per month, Netflix is $9 per month and Amazon is $99 per year. The new HBO Now costs $15 per month, and Sling TV — which has an assortment of "cable" channels, including AMC and ESPN — starts at $20 per month. In addition, some shows aren't part of unlimited streaming plans, so you will have to pay for individual episodes or seasons.
You might be wondering, "Is cord cutting really going to save me money?" To find out, let's consider what you like to watch, what each service offers and the price for each one.
Step 1: Determine Your Cord-Cutting Budget
Even if you cut cable or satellite, you still have to pay for an Internet connection — possibly a faster one, since you need a lot of bandwidth for streaming. For example, Netflix recommends 5 megabits per second for each HD stream (and 25 Mbps for Ultra HD/4K). Let's pick a baseline of at least 15 Mbps.
Here's the math:
Calculate your maximum budget
This is the cost of a cable/satellite plan and Internet access, minus the cost for just broadband with adequate bandwidth.
Pick all the streaming services for the content you like (we'll help with that), and add up the monthly costs.
Add in the prices of any favorite content you can't stream and have to buy a la carte.
If the total cost is less than what you've been paying for cable TV, go ahead and cut the cord.
We checked the cost of cable in six major U.S. cities — Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York and Seattle. The lowest prices for adequate broadband ranged from $38 per month (Denver) to $63 per month (New York). The lowest prices for deluxe cable — about 200 channels, without premium channels like HBO — ranged from $75 (Chicago, New York) to $80 (Seattle). When you research prices for your location, be sure to include rental fees for modems and cable boxes, as well as taxes, setup fees and other add-on costs not included in the advertised prices.
Step 2: Determine Which Services You Need
There are lots of free video sites online — such as Crackle, YouTube and Vimeo — but for now, let's focus on the ones that cost money. Most pay services offer free trial periods that allow you to see if they have the programs you want. You can also get a good sense of what's available online by visiting the site canistream.it.
You might already subscribe to some of these services, such as Netflix, even if you have cable or satellite service. If so, don't count any of them in the cost of cord cutting.
Amazon Prime Instant Video
($99/year): Amazon offers shows from HBO (about three years old and older), Showtime, CBS and PBS; kids' shows from Nickelodeon and Nick Jr.; and original kids' and adult programs. (See our monthly picks for Amazon Prime video.) Prime has other benefits, such as free two-day shipping, that might on their own justify getting it. If so, don't count Prime in your cord-cutting bill.
CBS All Access
($6/month): This service offers most of the current content for live streaming and, in some cases, on demand.
($8/month): Hulu Plus offers current and previous shows from ABC, Fox and NBC (not CBS), cable channels like Comedy Central, and older BBC shows. (See our picks for Hulu this month.)
($9/month): Netflix includes TV content from just about everywhere (episodes are usually at least a year old), as well as original programs like House of Cards. (See our picks for Netflix this month.)
(basic, $20/month): Sling TV's basic package includes a mix of cable-TV channels, such as ESPN, ESPN2, AMC, HGTV, Food Network, Cartoon Network and the Disney Channel. Sling TV's $5/month add-ons provide additional content like more children's channels or sports channels. (See our Sling TV review.)
(basic, $50/month). Currently available in Chicago, New York and Philadelphia, PlayStation Vue includes most networks and their local affiliates (except ABC) and most popular cable channels, such as AMC, Cartoon Network, Comedy Central, Discovery, Food Network, FX, MTV, Nickelodeon, Syfy, TLC, USA and VH1. Notably absent are A&E, CW and ESPN. (See our PlayStation Vue review.)
($15/month): HBO's online-only options include current shows like Game of Thrones, Girls, Silicon Valley and Veep, plus the entire back catalog. It's branded as HBO Now on Apple devices, and it's simply called "HBO" as part of Sling TV. You'll probably pay about as much to add HBO to your cable or satellite package, so it may be a wash.
Networks with antenna: ($7.50/month): ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, plus many local channels. This option depends on whether your location receives strong signals. Check the site Antennaweb.org to get an idea. Prices range from about $25 for an unamplified antenna to about $90 for an amplified model. On the high side, that's $7.50/month for the first year. See our Best Antennas listing for models.
A la carte purchases: Episodes of shows in HD generally cost about $3 each, and you may save a few dollars if you buy whole seasons.
Because most streaming services charge monthly, you can save a lot by adding or dropping services each month depending on what you want to watch. Say, for example, you get two or three months of HBO for Game of Thrones and a month of Sling TV (with ESPN) for the World Cup.
Step 3: Add Up the Costs
Time to add it all up. Here's a rough tool for selecting a package of services by the type of content they are strongest in.
Especially good for
Sitcoms, dramas, kids programs. Some good original shows
Sitcoms, dramas, news, sports
Sitcoms, dramas. Lackluster original shows
Sitcoms, dramas, movies, kids programs, original shows
Sitcoms, dramas, sports, kids programs, lifestyle (home/food)
$5 each for extra sports, kids, movies, lifestyle or news channels
PS Vue basic
Sitcoms, dramas, sports, kids, lifestyle
Sitcoms, dramas, movies
Sitcoms, dramas, news, sports
|A la carte||?||Sitcoms, dramas, movies. Amount depends on whether what you like is available on other services.|
Step 4: Choose Your Hardware
If it turns out that cord cutting saves you money, the next step is to figure out the gadget or gadgets you need in order to tune in.
You can watch most online TV on your PC/Mac, smartphone or tablet using websites or apps. (See this article about HBO Now for the details on compatibility of all top video services.) It's easy to bring online content directly to your TV as well.
The simplest method is to use an HDMI cable from your computer, which may require adapters. For instructions, see How to Connect a Phone, Tablet, Mac or PC to Your TV.
A slicker approach would be to use an Internet-connected device: a smart TV, game console, Blu-ray player, or set-top box such as Apple TV, Chromecast or Roku. For help choosing a smart TV, see our Best TVs list.
If you need to add streaming content to your current TV, see our Best Streaming Players list.
If you decide cord cutting is the way to go, follow this flowchart to the bottom to pick a hardware setup that works for you.