It's time to kill your cable box and cut the cord, freeing yourself up for better, cheaper alternatives in live TV streaming services.
For decades, cable television was the best way to get quality shows geared toward specialized audiences. Today, that's what some of the best streaming services do, while cable is more like a lumbering dinosaur, slowly laying waste to consumers' wallets.
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.
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.
And be sure to see how much I saved after cutting the cord for a year (opens in new tab) — and what I learned.
If you're currently on the phone canceling your cable subscription, or in the store to pick up cord-cutting gear, here are the bare-bones necessities you need to consider. The rest of the article goes into more detail about each point:
- Invest in an HD antenna. Your local broadcast networks are very expensive to carry, so cut the middle man while you cut the cord. The best TV antennas will let you watch all of your favorite network TV stations live, in high definition, with no cost beyond the antenna itself.
- Consider cable TV alternatives. The best cable TV alternatives are perfect for reluctant cord-cutters. They're almost the same thing as having a traditional cable or satellite subscription — but at a lower price. Sling TV and Philo are the cheapest.
- Pick the best streaming device for your needs. Every streaming device has pros and cons. Consider whether you need 4K resolution, fancy remote controls, or the ability to play games. (The Roku Streaming Stick 4K is our current top pick.)
- Check your smart TV. Most smart TVs offer dozens of streaming services, so you may not need any additional hardware at all.
- Subscribe to the best streaming services. Netflix, Disney Plus, Hulu and Amazon Video provide vast libraries of classic movies and TV, as well as lots of original content. Peacock, Paramount Plus and AMC Plus are decent options too.
- Find a way to stream your own content. With the right library, DVD-ripper and hardware, you can DIY. Plex is the one of the best programs for the job, and most of its features are free.
Cut the cord: Hardware
Once you send your cable box back to the company that was merely renting it out, 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. Tom's Guide routinely tests HD antennas, and we post the results on our best antennas page. We also have a primer on how to get better reception with your TV antenna.
If you want to take advantage of streaming services, 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.
Tom's Guide has compiled a list of the best streaming 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 Streaming Stick 4K is our top pick in this category, as it offers thousands of channels, 4K resolution and an inventive interface.
Amazon and Google also produce quality 4K players, like the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K Max and Chromecast With Google TV respectively. The Apple TV 4K is a fantastic choice, albeit one that's more expensive.
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.
Cut the cord: Streaming services
While Netflix, Disney Plus, Hulu and Amazon Prime ($139 per year) are the most recognizable streaming services, they are not the only ones available.
In recent years, more services have popped up, including HBO Max, Peacock, Paramount Plus, AMC Plus and Discovery Plus. Many other streaming services have popped up, but some — we're looking at you ESPN Plus and CNN Plus — seem completely unnecessary. ESPN Plus is primarily valuable to hockey and UFC fans, as those events can sometimes only be found on those services.
But 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.
Tom's Guide has ranked the best streaming services and our current favorite is HBO Max, for its quality content. HBO Max is also improving its apps, though we still can't forget the crashy disaster that was the Euphoria season 2 finale debut. While the breadth and depth of Netflix's library cannot be beat, HBO Max has the buzzy, prestige originals that are the talk of Twitter.
Of course, Netflix still has a ton of fantastic content from all around the world. Just look at the success of Squid Game.
All streaming services carry licensed movies and shows, which tend to move around a lot. If there's one particular title you want to watch, your best bet is to look it up with JustWatch (opens in new tab), a website that acts as an index of where 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.
Cut the cord: Live TV services
The most expensive, but also most comprehensive, streaming services are the cable TV alternatives, which offer live TV. This includes offerings like Sling, YouTube TV, Fubo TV, Hulu with Live TV, and DirecTV Stream.
Of those five, we recommend all but DirecTV Stream. More expensive than most — and primarily beneficial for those hunting for regional sports networks — DirecTV Stream is just plain "meh."
These cable replacement services work almost exactly like cable — live channels presented in real time — except they come streaming over the internet rather than through a wire. The upside is that you don't have to give up the channels that you love. Heck, some ISPs offers their own streaming services for cheap, such as Spectrum Streaming.
However, you may not be saving much money. While Sling TV starts at $35 per month, the costs of adding extra stations like Epix, HBO and Starz can pile up pretty fast. Fubo and YouTube TV start at $65 per month. Hulu With Live TV used to, but now it's $70 per month (thought it does include Disney Plus and ESPN Plus).
Cut the cord: Sports
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. The big problem, as you can see in our guide for where to live stream NFL, NBA, MLB and more, is that many regional sports networks are stuck on DirecTV Stream.
An HD antenna can help for some 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.
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.
Cut the cord: Premium channels
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 Max, 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 have begun cutting out the middleman. The three aforementioned networks all exist in stand-alone formats. HBO Max contains the entire HBO library for $14.99 or $9.99 with ads. Showtime Anytime costs $14 per month and Starz costs $9 per month; both can be access through standalone apps or via Amazon or Apple channels.
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.
Cut the cord: Foreign TV
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. 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.
Cut the cord: Other Services
There are thousands of niche channels, from local live news stations to camera feeds that show nothing but goats. (Really.) One service worth checking out is Plex.
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, as it also lets users watch and record live TV.
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.