I'm practically ready to cut the cord, but I needed to check Philo out before I made my decision. Philo may not get the attention that its competitors do, but at $25 per month, it's certainly the most affordable option out there. The big thing, though, is that some may see it as incomplete.
Philo is, for lack of a better term, the "skinny-bundle" streaming service, with 65+ channels for only $25 per month. That's less than half the price of some of the best cable TV alternatives, such as YouTube TV and Hulu with Live TV. But it's also a case of "you get what you pay for," with the flip side of that low price being that some of the most popular cable TV channels are missing.
To give you some context, near the end of the summer, I decided I was finally ready to cut the cord — as I was tired of the cable box's archaic nature. My roommates, though, don't want to give up their specific channels, and so I'm planning on getting rid of my cable box, and telling them that their $127 per month cable bill (which will get cheaper without that cable box) is their problem. I'll even offer to let them share my account with me.
Price: $25 per month
Channels: More than 65
DVR: Unlimited (with 12 months' capacity)
Simultaneous streams: 3
Broadcast networks: None
My ideal goal was to find a service that could convince my roommates to say goodbye to cable, too. But when I tested DirecTV Stream, formerly known as AT&T TV, I found it wasn't good enough to make up for the fact that it's the only way cord-cutters can get the YES Network (a big deal for the Yankees fans I live with).
The top two competitors for my dollar are Sling TV and YouTube TV, which impressed with price and excellent apps, respectively. Unfortunately, not all of its rivals can say that much. Hulu with Live TV, for example, didn't prove stable enough for my liking. And fuboTV doesn't have TNT, which means much fewer NBA Playoff games.
Based on my testing, here are the pros and cons of Philo for cord-cutters.
Where Philo beats (or matches) cable and the competition
Philo's wins both come at the bottom line and how it breaks the norms of the cable box. The biggest reason to champion it (outside of that price) is its unlimited-capacity DVR, which should help you avoid that "you need to delete things" warning my cable box loves to pop up on the screen. That also beats Sling and Hulu's standard 50-hour DVR capacities, DirecTV Stream's measly 20-hour capacity and even fuboTV's impressive 250-hour capacity.
Additionally, Philo's unlimited DVR does one other thing better than YouTube TV's unlimited DVR: it lets you hold recordings for 12 months, instead of YouTube TV's nine.
I also appreciated Philo's rewind/fast-forward mechanisms for their accuracy. This may sound like a small aspect, but I've always loathed how my Spectrum TV cable box over-shoots the landing point when you hit play after skimming across the timeline. The new Sling app, annoyingly, is more like cable than Philo or YouTube TV.
Philo also gives a preview of the frame you're fast-forwarding or rewinding to, which is something I wish my Spectrum TV cable box did (Sling and YouTube TV both do this, too).
I also commend Philo for making it easy to log in on new streaming devices. Rather than needing to remember your password, you just plug in your phone number, and they text you a link to a site where you confirm that you're logging in.
Where Philo fails against cable (and Sling and YouTube TV)
Philo's biggest flaw may be its channels (more on that below) but it suffers from one of the issues I found to hit live TV services in varying degrees. Its live TV isn't as 'live' as cable, sporting a delay of sorts.
When I was watching Dark Side of The Ring on Vice, I timed it against my cable box to see that Philo's broadcast was 43 seconds behind Spectrum's. This may not sound like a huge deal, but in this age of social media and remote co-watching, it's not great when you're the one behind the others as you watch. It's almost certainly how someone could spoil what's just about to happen.
But Sling's actually worse at this, as I found its feed was 16 seconds behind Philo's.
Philo, which I tested on a Roku Ultra (2020) and Apple TV 4K (2021), proved a little buggy. When I scrolled through its interface, and tried to open the Vice channel, it would throw me to the live feed of the Cheddar network (it's sort of like a less-stuffy Bloomberg channel). I eventually had to use the search functionality to open Vice.
Later on, when I was using that same search, I found rows of the interface stacked on top of each other in the tvOS menu, as you see here. Inelegant is the right word for this botch.
Otherwise, Philo was OK as an app. If I had to nitpick, I'd say that the app uses too much space for each channel and show box. If I had to speculate as to why, I'd say it's because they're trying to obscure the fact that they don't have all the stuff their competitors do.
Does Philo hit my sweet spot for channels and price?
OK, this is the round of grading where Philo suffers the most. It's got only one channel I need, in Vice, and then three I think are neat to have in Comedy Central, Food Network and AMC.
But none of my actual essentials are there, with FX, USA and TNT all MIA. It's also got a grand-total of zero broadcast TV channels, which means no NBC for the rare SNL host or musical guest that I want to see, or Bob's Burgers episodes on FOX. It's also missing ESPN and Cartoon Network, channels I find myself watching at some point, albeit not that often.
It's also missing all of those regional sports networks that are locked into DirecTV Stream's $85 per month Choice package.
Philo gets a 33% score on the Roommates Test, with points for having BBC World News (which is in a $6 News Extras add-on for Sling and a part of the $65 YouTube TV package). Its points off are for the lack of PBS (though that's accessible for donors via the Thirteen Passport) and the aforementioned YES Network.
But for $25, should I expect Philo would give me everything that higher-priced services would? I think not.
Philo is not a contender to cut my cord
Now having tested six cable TV alternatives, I've still got two main contenders and now four coulda-been-a-contendas. Philo's lack of the channels I need is sort of an instant disqualification, but I felt like it was worth testing to show people who might be considering it.
Next up, I'm going to do my final bit of work to come to a conclusion about which service I will use to replace cable. And my decision may be about price vs. experience.
Right now, Sling is still winning with the best pricing for my particular needs. YouTube TV's superior app and mid-stream navigation help make it my favorite if money were no option. However, a year of YouTube TV is $780, which is 85% more than the $420 per year for Sling Blue. And as I learned this week, YouTube TV doesn't have the Vice channel, so that may be an issue.
Stay tuned for my final decision, and let me know if you have any questions.
Oh, and one more thing: even quitting DirecTV Stream stinks
One note to follow up on last week’s column, where I tested DirecTV Stream. When it came time to cancel, I hit (yet another) bump in the road. While most services these days make you click through a few windows of polite pleading to get you to stay with them, DirecTV Stream is living in the antiquated past with its exit strategy.
DirecTV made me wait online for 15 minutes for a customer service rep to try and talk me out of staying (itself a five-minute process). Talk about leaving me with a bad taste in my mouth.
Stream Time is where Tom's Guide senior editor Henry T. Casey dives into the big choices we make about streaming media. We tackle it all, from the best and worst streaming services and devices, to the never-ending list of shows to watch.
Be sure to check out my guides to the best streaming devices (and best streaming services) for more recommendations. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below with anything you’d like to see me cover in the streaming world — I might just address it in a future installment.