For decades, cable television was the best way to get quality shows geared toward specialized audiences. Today, that's what streaming services do, while cable is more like a lumbering dinosaur, slowly laying waste to both consumers' wallets and their sense of good taste. Cable TV still has some great shows, but you no longer need to pay through the nose to get them — not when you can cut the cord.
If you're determined to do so, or if you've already done it, here's what you'll need to know about life after cable TV. Tom's Guide will tell you what kind of hardware you'll need, where you can find your favorite shows and roughly how much you should expect to spend.
Once you ship your cable box back to its Machiavellian overlords, you'll need a way to funnel streaming content directly to your TV. The good news is that this process is both easy and inexpensive, and you may even own the necessary components already.
The first thing you may want to consider is an HD antenna. This doesn't provide a way to watch streaming videos, but if you want to watch live TV, it's the cheapest and simplest solution. You may remember having rabbit ears on your hand-me-down TV as a kid — an HD antenna is basically the modern-day version of that. You hook the device into your TV, put it somewhere near a window and watch as the free channels roll in.
This process is how you get local broadcast stations and, as such, is ideal for news and sports. You can get a good HD antenna for less than $40, and like with a regular antenna, there are no subscription fees. However, your channel selection depends a lot on where you live, as well as your line of sight to the broadcast location.
A nonamplified antenna picks up signals across a range of about 20 miles and is ideal for people in urban areas, who tend to live close to broadcast towers. The Mohu ReLeaf is a good choice for city dwellers, and costs about $40. Suburbanites and rural citizens may prefer amplified antennas, which pick up signals over a range of about 50 miles, but also cost more. Our top pick here was the $40 Terk Trinity.
If you want to take advantage of streaming services — Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and so forth — you'll need a way to display them on your TV. If you have a recent TV from a major manufacturer, you may not need to get anything at all. Smart TVs usually have these apps built in, and almost every high-end TV sold within the last two years or so has smart capabilities.
If not, setting up your TV for streaming can still be a simple and inexpensive process. The market is positively glutted with set-top boxes, streaming sticks, game consoles and other devices. Tom's Guide has compiled a list of the best devices to fit various budgets and streaming preferences.
In general terms, your choices boil down to devices from Roku, Google, Amazon and Apple, plus game consoles from Microsoft and Sony. The Roku 4 is our top pick in this category, as it offers thousands of channels, 4K resolution and an inventive interface. However, Roku is in the process of releasing a new lineup of streaming players, and the Roku Premium Ultra looks like the model that will replace the Roku 4.
Amazon also produces a 4K player (the 2015 Fire TV), while Google's Chromecast is the cheapest device around, but requires a mobile device or a computer to function. (A 4K Chromecast, known as the Chromecast Ultra, will be available in November.) An Apple TV is a good choice for consumers who already own a lot of Apple devices, while if you plan to do a lot of gaming, a PS4 or an Xbox One is the way to go. These devices range in price from $35 to $400.
Finally, if you have a laptop or don't mind moving your desktop to the living room, you can simply plug your computer into your TV via HDMI, DisplayPort, VGA or DVI cable (depending on which ports you possess). Grab a wireless mouse and keyboard, and voilà: You have access to almost every streaming music and video service on Earth.
Once you've picked up the appropriate device, all that's left is to pick the services that provide the shows you want to watch.
While Netflix ($8-12 per month), Hulu ($8-12 per month) and Amazon Prime ($99 per year) are the most recognizable streaming services, they are not the only ones available. In fact, traditional streaming services — wherein you pay a monthly fee to consume as much content as you like on-demand — are only a small part of the market. Depending on how much you're willing to spend (from nothing up to hundreds of dollars per year), you can get just about anything you used to enjoy on cable.
The most expensive, but also most comprehensive, streaming services are known as cable replacements. This includes services like Sling TV and PlayStation Vue. Comcast plans to provide its own competing service soon, and other cable providers may well follow suit.
Cable-replacement streaming services work exactly the same as having cable — live channels presented in real time — except they come streaming over the Internet rather than via an analog wire. The upside is that you don't have to give up the channels that you love. Sling TV carries multiple ESPN stations, plus Cartoon Network, TBS, Bloomberg, CNN, History and dozens of others. PlayStation Vue offers SyFy, Spike, USA, VH1, Fox News, Nickelodeon and more. You can also record programs to watch later on PS Vue, just like you would with a cable DVR box.
However, you may not be saving much money. While Sling TV starts at $20 per month, the costs of adding extra stations like Epix, HBO and Univision can pile up pretty fast. Just to add HBO and the Hollywood Extra package (which includes TCM, Epix and others) raises the monthly cost to $40. PlayStation Vue starts at $40 per month, and can go up to $70, depending on your region.
Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime are the best-known subscription-based services, and for good reason. They have excellent selections of TV shows and movies, both modern and classic, and the services are quite inexpensive. Each one costs between $8 and $12 per month, depending on what kind of options you need. Even if you subscribe to all three, this will represent a substantial price break over cable.
Credit: ShutterstockTom's Guide compared all three services head-to-head-to-head, and discovered that Netflix is generally the best of the three. However, the services do not offer exactly the same thing. Netflix is a good all-purpose service, while Hulu focuses on recently aired TV, and Amazon Prime is part of a larger service that also offers free shipping on Amazon orders, e-book loans and other perks. (Viewers who just want Amazon Video without any other perks can now subscribe to it for $9 per month.)
Recent cord-cutters will probably want to keep an eye on Hulu, since network and cable shows often show up on the service just a day or so after airing on TV. On the other hand, if you want a rich backlog of classic shows (and ambitious original programming), Netflix or Amazon is probably the way to go.
If there's one particular movie or show you want to watch, your best bet is to look it up with JustWatch: a website that trawls more than 20 streaming, à la carte and on-demand services to show you where your content is available. If there's a series you want to watch, for example, looking it up on JustWatch and subscribing to that service for just a few months could save you a lot of money.
You should also keep an eye on the trend of TV networks offering their own streaming subscription channels. CBS All Access, for example, is exactly what it sounds like: a combination of live CBS TV, on-demand CBS programming and next-day episodes for new CBS shows.
One of the toughest things for cord-cutters to give up is sports content, since cable and satellite TV give access not only to home games, but also to matches from all around the world. An HD antenna will keep you covered for local games. Otherwise, you have two options: a cable-replacement service, or a streaming sports service. Every major sports organization offers some kind of streaming package, from MLB.TV to NFL Live to NBA League Pass. These services are expensive compared to streaming subscriptions, and can cost between $100 and $200 per year.
MORE: How to Watch NFL Games Online
If you're a die-hard sports fan in general, a cable subscription is probably worthwhile for that content alone. But if you follow only one or two teams in one or two sports, you can probably get away with paying $15 to $20 per month — much less than traditional paid TV.
To learn more about streaming sports services, visit your sport of choice's website (MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL, etc.) and click on its streaming section. It will likely be toward the top of the page on one of the toolbars.
By cutting the cord, you're also losing your access to premium channels, which often have some of the most daring content on TV. Networks like HBO, Showtime and Starz are the prime destination for edgy dramas like Game of Thrones, Homeland and Outlander, respectively. You can also get raunchy comedy specials, niche documentaries and newly released movies.
The good news is that premium channels are starting to cut out the middleman. The three aforementioned networks all exist in stand-alone formats. HBO Now costs $15 per month, Showtime Anytime costs $11 per month and Starz costs $9 per month.
Subscribing to these channels allows you to stream shows, either as soon as they air or on-demand after the fact. You can also stream movies, comedy specials, documentaries and even specialty sports events, just like what you get on the cable channel. The price tags are not for the faint of heart, since each one is just as expensive (if not more so) than a comprehensive streaming service.
All three apps are widely available, so you should be covered whether you use a smart TV, streaming player, game console, mobile device or computer.
What to Stream
You need not fear running out of things to watch. If you sat through every episode of everything on our list of the best shows to binge watch list, it would take you 38 days, 3 hours and 15 minutes. And that's if you don't break to eat or sleep. Add to that some essential, newer shows you can find online (Empire, Better Call Saul, Downton Abbey, Vikings, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones and Peppa Pig) and you're looking at 48 days, 8 hours and 59 minutes of TV shows alone.
While foreign-TV streams make for a huge topic on their own, it's worth pointing out that cutting the cord opens the door to a whole world of TV from other countries. Offering entire cable channels for individual linguistic niches would be unthinkable, but there are a ton of streaming channels dedicated to just that.
For starters, anime fans should check out Crunchyroll. DramaFever brings Korean dramas and sitcoms to Western audiences, while YuppTV broadcasts a variety of news, sports, music and serials in Hindi. Those who prefer programs in English can check out Acorn TV, which streams British TV to expats and Anglophiles all around the world.
These channels are available on most streaming devices, but not every service is available on every device. (Acorn TV, for example, isn’t available as a Chromecast app.) Your best bet is to check the manufacturer's website for your streaming device and see if the channel is supported before dropping the money on a subscription to it.
There are thousands of niche channels, from local live news stations to camera feeds that show nothing but goats. (Really.) Two services worth checking out are Plex and Crackle.
Plex is a fantastic service, which allows you to make a media library on your computer, then stream it to your TV, mobile device or other computer anywhere in the world. Plex has become one of the most comprehensive media servers around, letting users record TV from HD antennas and store their media servers in the cloud. (For reference, a monthly subscription costs $5, a yearly subscription costs $40 and a lifetime subscription costs $150.)
Crackle is not the only free streaming-video service out there, but it is one of the only ones that don't rely on public domain or cheap content. Sony owns Crackle, and as such, you can find tons of cool movies, newish anime, beloved sitcoms (Seinfeld, All in the Family, Mad About You) and even a few funny original shows (Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, SuperMansion, Sports Jeopardy!). If you remember the days of mid-'90s afternoon cable, Crackle is like coming home after school and binging on TV that’s so bad it’s good.
Beyond that, there's a whole world of streaming content to explore. No, you can't cut the cord and continue to watch every single one of your favorite shows in real time — at least not yet. But you'll never again be shackled to an expensive service that broadcasts mostly junk, and that's worth the price of a few prime-time dramas.
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.