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Picking The Best Live TV Streaming Service — A Beginner’s Guide

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live TV services 2022

What is the best live TV streaming service to replace cable? This is a question we hear a lot but the answer is not always simple. The best live TV service typically depends on a combination of factors, including the price, selection of channels, device support and additional features. All of which means the best for one home might not be the best for another home.

In the days of old (before 2015) watching live TV was simple enough. The choice of live TV services was based on location, the price was the price, and someone would come and install the necessary equipment for you. However, when Sling TV launched in 2015, things changed, and the changes have kept coming since then.

With greater choice than even before, one option is to simply go with the cheapest service overall. While this will suit those looking to save money, there are other aspects that should be taken into consideration.

In this guide we’ll attempt to cover everything you need to know before choosing a live TV streaming service, in the hope that this will help you choose the right service for your needs. As this guide is aimed at those new to streaming, more experienced streamers may want to jump to a specific section using the links below.

What’s live TV streaming?

For those completely new to streaming, it is important to understand what live TV streaming is before looking for the best live TV streaming service. If you are already familiar with how streaming works in general, skip to the next section.

Live TV streaming mostly differs from traditional live TV in the way that it is delivered. For example, as live TV is received over the internet, there’s no need for any specialized equipment. All a home really needs is a reliable internet connection and a streaming device to connect to the TV.

In fact, smart TVs are also now smart enough that many homes might find they don’t want or need an additional streaming player. With support for mobile devices, PCs, and laptops as well, some homes may find they don’t even need a TV to stream live TV channels and content.

Live TV vs on-demand video

Live TV streaming isn’t that different to how you might already stream on-demand videos, or for that matter, music. The only real difference is the user experience. While on-demand streaming services provide content you watch from the beginning, live TV services more heavily focus on live broadcasts from popular cable networks.

Even though live TV streaming services also provide access to some on-demand content (videos you can whenever you want), the main reason to consider signing up to a live TV service is the access to live broadcasts.

While the design can vary a lot between services, the interface for live TV is likely to be presented similar to other streaming apps, like Netflix. For example, and although a traditional live TV guide will still be available, many live TV streaming services focus on the episodes and movies that are being shown live, more so than the actual channels.

YouTube TV 4K main
Live TV streaming services focus more on content than channels

There are some features that are more specific to live TV streaming services and designed to further enrich the experience. Many of these can influence your decision when choosing a live TV service to replace cable, and will be discussed later in this guide.

In the meantime, the takeaway here is that live TV streaming isn’t fundamentally any different to subscription services like Netflix.

Getting started with streaming live TV

There are three major components to streaming live TV and the first is the internet connection.

WiFi streaming multiple homes
Internet is an essential requirement for live TV streaming

Not all internet connections are equal, and streaming has different requirements based on the quality of the video. Here are some rough estimates for the minimum download speeds required for streaming video over the internet:

  • Standard Definition (SD): 3 Mbps
  • High Definition (HD) 720p: 7 Mbps
  • High Definition (HD) 1080p: 13 Mbps
  • 4K Ultra HD: 25 Mbps

It is important to note these are only minimum estimates and the recommended speeds are going to be much higher. Not to mention, recommended speeds can vary depending on the live TV streaming service.

best Streaming players
Source: Streaming Better

The second major component to streaming live TV is a device. Even though most new devices (with a display) will support video streaming, not all services support all devices.

Common devices used for streaming live TV:

  • Amazon Fire TV players, TVs
  • Android TV players, TVs (including Google TV)
  • Android phones/tablets
  • Apple TV
  • Game consoles (PlayStation, Xbox)
  • iPhone/iPad
  • Roku players, TVs
  • Smart TVs (LG, Samsung, Vizio etc)
  • Web browsers

The third and final major component is the live TV streaming service. In some ways, choosing a live TV streaming service can be the easiest component, as they are easy to sign up and test, and easy to cancel and switch services.

Popular live TV streaming services:

  1. DirecTV Stream – read our review
  2. Fubo – read our review
  3. Hulu Live TV – read our review
  4. Philo read our review
  5. Sling TV – read our review
  6. YouTube TV – read our review

Choosing a live TV streaming service…

While the process of signing up to a live TV streaming service is easy enough, it is important to be aware that they are all very different. Not only in terms of price, but also in the selection of channels and even the features.

…based on price

One of the easiest and most obvious ways to choose a live TV streaming service is by price. After all, if a service is too expensive then it doesn’t matter how good it is, or how many channels or features it has.

As crazy as this might sound, there can also be times when a live TV streaming service is too cheap as well. Cheaper live TV services can be a good way to save money each month, but the lower price also tends to result in fewer channels and features, and they might not suit the needs of some homes.

The cost of live TV streaming varies

There’s no real common consensus on the cost of streaming live TV but the market has matured enough to reach a stage where the price is somewhat self-determined. With many live TV services priced between $60-$80 a month, this range is a good example of how much live TV costs in general.

If shopping for a live TV streaming service right now. The now is particularly important, as the price is never guaranteed, and does frequently change.

Be aware of price increases

Price increases are a real issue. While the market tends to operate on a competitive basis, and services often look to lure you in with a limited-time deal or promotion, there are no price guarantees in streaming.

As there are no long-term commitments involved, these services are able to increase the price at relatively short notice. Over the years, every major live TV service has increased in price. In some cases, the price has increased more than once for the same service in the same year.

Taking price increases into consideration is an important part of choosing a service based on the cost. Even if one live TV streaming service is $5 or $10 more expensive than another, the more expensive service may have recently upped the price. If that is the case, then it is possible the cheaper service might increase in price before the more expensive one does again, and potentially to an even higher price.

While that’s not guaranteed to happen, the pattern of increases would suggest it is a possibility, and this could mean opting for the cheaper service now results in a higher monthly price sooner or later.

There are free live TV services

Some streaming services offer access to live TV for free. While these free streaming services allow you to watch live content without the need for a subscription, or even an account, they do tend to be different to what many homes will view as a traditional live TV plan and channel lineup.

As an example, a lot of these services provide access to themed channels instead of popular networks. Most often, these are channels related to a network, show, or genre.

Pluto Live TV guide
Source: Pluto

Although the channel lineups are not directly comparable to the channel lineups offered by paid live TV services, it is worth considering free streaming services. After all, if they offer access to the right live content, they can be a great way to completely cut out the cost of a live TV plan.

Examples of free live TV streaming services:

  • Fire TV Channels
  • LG Channels
  • Pluto TV
  • Samsung TV Plus
  • The Roku Channel
  • Tubi
  • Vizio WatchFree+
  • Xumo Play

…based on channels

Gone are the days when different services offered the same channel lineups and just competed on price. Instead, the streaming world is largely made up of cherry-picked channel lineups, with the price directly linked to that specific combination of channels.

For example, just because Hulu Live TV and YouTube TV are similar in price doesn’t mean they offer the same channel lineups. In some cases, the selection of channels can vary massively between two services and these differences can be make or break for some homes.

YouTube TV channels old list
Source: YouTube TV

In our opinion, it is usually beneficial for potential subscribers to look at the channels that are missing instead of those that are included with a subscription. While a service might offer 200+ entertainment channels at the right price, if it doesn’t have the one or two channels you watch the most, then it won’t be the right live TV service for you.

Channel add-ons help fill gaps

The price a live TV streaming service advertises is usually for its base package. This is the selection of channels that the service expects a consumer to begin with, and can usually be improved on through the use of add-ons.

For example, while services like DirecTV Stream and Fubo offer multiple packages (made up of a fewer or more channels), services Sling TV rely more heavily on add-ons. These add-ons are typically priced between $5 and $20 a month each and unlock access to a variety of similarly themed channels.

Sling TV comedy extra add-on
Source: Sling TV

Deciding whether any add-ons are needed to create the right live TV package before signing up can further help to identify the true cost of a service compared to another. For example, if one service is priced $20 cheaper than a different service, but the cheaper base plan is missing crucial entertainment or sports channels, the same service may offer an entertainment or sports channel add-on that fills in the gaps.

Even though add-ons also add to the monthly price, if they cost less than a more expensive base plan that includes the same channels as the add-on, you’re still saving and getting the channels you want.

The takeaway here is that consumers shouldn’t only view live TV streaming services based on the price they advertise, or their base plan. More often than not, that’s just the starting price and starting point.

Factor in premium networks

In addition to add-ons, consumers might also want to factor premium networks into the equation before deciding on the right live TV service. Even though most major live TV streaming services now offer access to premium networks, consumers may find they get some premium networks included with their base package at no additional cost.

A great example here is Hulu Live TV. While Hulu’s live TV base plan is priced very similar to YouTube TV’s base plan, Hulu Live TV subscribers also get access to the basic Hulu catalog, Disney+ and ESPN+.

Hulu Live TVYouTube TV
Channels95+100+
Cost p/m$76.99$72.99
Hulu
Disney+
ESPN+

If already paying for these additional streaming subscriptions, Hulu Live TV could end up being a much cheaper live TV option than YouTube TV, thanks to premium networks.

Check for local channels

Not all live TV services provide access to the same local channels and checking to see which locals are available in an area before signing up can help to ensure you don’t end up subscribed to a plan that doesn’t include the local channels you want.

Most services offer a search tool on their website to show exactly which local channels are included in a given area. For example, the results shown in the image below are provided by Hulu Live TV and before signing up.

Hulu live TV local channels example
Source: Hulu

To check for the locals in your area, visit the Hulu Live TV website, scroll down to ‘All Your TV in One Place‘, click on ‘View channels in your area‘ and enter your ZIP code.

You may already have access to some locals

It is worth checking your existing subscription to make sure you don’t already get access to select local channels at no additional cost. For example, the Paramount+ with Showtime plan not only unlocks an ad-free viewing experience but also access to a subscriber’s local CBS station. Likewise, Peacock’s Premium Plus plan provides subscribers with access to their local NBC station.

For homes that already get access to these locals through Paramount+ and Peacock, there’s less of a need to worry about whether a live TV plan includes them in their channel lineup.

…based on features

Additional features can be one of the most overlooked, and important, factors to take into consideration before signing up for a live TV streaming service. In our experience, it is not uncommon for consumers to focus on the price and channel lineup only to realize they are limited in other areas after signing up.

With this in mind, it is often important to focus on what’s not included with a live TV subscription rather than what is included.

Check cloud DVR limitations

Most live TV streaming services provide on-demand access to content and this can negate the need for a DVR. However, on-demand content usually comes with time-restrictions or requires the viewer to sit through ads. While a cloud-based DVR won’t overcome all of the issues and limitations with on-demand content, it is another layer of choice.

Hulu TV cloud DVR
Hulu Live TV’s Cloud DVR

Cloud DVR is not something that’s equal across services. Even though most include a DVR with their base plans, some impose restrictions on recordings. For example, while Hulu Live TV and YouTube provide subscribers with an unlimited DVR, Sling TV limits the number of recording hours to 50. Even though Sling offers the option to pay extra to upgrade the DVR, the upgraded DVR is still limited to 200 hours.

How long recordings can be kept for is another DVR difference to be aware of. Not all services store recordings indefinitely, and in some cases, recordings might only be kept for as little as 30 days.

Check device support

Just like the DVR, device support is another feature that should be taken into consideration before signing up. If planning to use a Roku player then it is important to make sure a live TV streaming service supports Roku players. Even in cases where a home has yet to buy a streaming player, knowing which ones a preferred live TV streaming service supports can make it easier to decide which device to buy.

YouTube TV device support
Source: YouTube TV

Device support can be all the more important in busier households where different people are likely to be sharing a subscription and accessing the live TV service on different devices.

Check the number of streams

Streaming allows multiple users to watch live TV at the same time on different devices. This is another factor that’s especially important for busy households and large families where there’s an increased likelihood of one member watching in one room while someone else watches in a different room.

Sling TV simultaneous streams
Streams are important for busier households

Generally speaking, most services will offer at least two simultaneous streams, allowing more than one person to watch at the same time. While some services offer more than two streams, some might charge an additional fee for the extra streams, increasing the overall monthly cost in the process.

Even in cases where a service allows streaming on an unlimited number of devices, that’s only likely to apply when streaming on the home network. In other words, consumers may find that they can only stream on a limited number of devices when away from home, even when subscribed to a plan advertised with ‘unlimited streams.’

Knowing any soft and hard simultaneous streams limitations should make it easier to choose the right live TV streaming service for everyone that will be sharing a subscription.

Best live TV streaming service…

In this section we’ll look to provide some insight into what we think is likely to be the best option for different types of users. That said, the information in this section should only be used as a guide to narrow down the list.

…for the price

With so much variation in channels (and features), it is almost impossible to create a level playing field where all services can be reduced down to just the monthly cost.

Of course, what can be looked at is the general price, as services that are too expensive can automatically be ruled out. On that basis, and excluding free live TV services, here’s how much the cheapest plans from the major live TV streaming services currently cost – starting with the cheapest.

ServicePrice
p/m
Frndly TV$7
Philo$25
Sling TV$40
Vidgo$70+
YouTube TV$73
Hulu Live TV$77
DirecTV Stream$80+
Fubo$80+

If simply looking for the cheapest live TV package overall, it is hard to look past Frndly TV and its plans starting at just $8 a month.

Frndly TV
Frndly TV GuideFrom $7.99/month
40+ channels
Up to 4 streams
Unlimited DVR (select plans)
7-day free trial

We also found Philo to be a good and affordable live TV service with its base package priced at just $25 a month.

Philo
Philo Live TV guide$25/month
70+ channels
3 streams
Unlimited DVR
7-day Free Trial

If, however, you want access to select locals and some live sports, Sling TV is likely to be the cheapest live TV streaming service to consider.

Sling TV
Updated Sling TV logo with emphasis on TV
$40/month
Up to 40 channels
Up to 4 streams
50 hours DVR

$15 First Month

…for content

Considering most live TV streaming services will let you continuously add content for a price, content mostly comes down to how much you are willing to spend. However, if just discussing the main packages from the main live TV streaming services, Hulu Live TV is likely to be one of the best options for content overall.

The reason for this is that a Hulu Live TV subscription not only includes access to a wide selection of live TV channels, but also the Disney Bundle, unlocking access to Disney+, ESPN+ and the basic Hulu catalog.

These subscriptions cost between $7.99 and $9.99 a month each, resulting in a significant saving compared to subscribing to them on top of a live TV plan offered by a competing service.

Hulu Live TV
Hulu LIve TV guide$77+ a month
95+ channels
2 streams
Unlimited DVR
Disney+ and ESPN+
3 Days Free

…for families

If interested in a service that’s likely to cater to a family or busier household, Hulu Live TV is a good option. With Disney +, ESPN+ and basic Hulu included, there’s plenty of content available for individual family members, as well as families in general.

YouTube TV is another very good option for families. YouTube TV allows a single TV subscription to be split into six sub-accounts, effectively splitting a subscription into six individual subscriptions. This can be a major benefit for families or households where multiple people will be sharing a subscription.

By extension, this also results in an improved DVR experience as well. As the unlimited DVR is also specific to each sub-account, every household member gets their own unlimited DVR that isn’t affected by the recordings made by other people. Again, this can be majorly beneficial to families, with each person only having to navigate and manage their own recordings and libraries.

YouTube TV
YouTube TV live guide listings$73 a month
100+ channels
3 streams
Unlimited DVR
$58/mo for 3 months

Choosing a live TV service — summary

The main takeaway here is that no single factor determines the best live TV streaming service. Instead, we recommend focusing on the right live TV service instead. This will be the service that checks the most boxes for an individual or household, and then checking the limitations to ensure no single one is a dealbreaker.

For example, if price matters the most then narrow down the options by price first, starting with the cheapest services. Then look to compare channel lineups, the number of streams, device support, and cloud DVR limitations, to see which service provides the most value at the price point.

Only once all of these factors are taken into consideration is a home likely to know that they’ve actually picked the best live TV streaming service for them.

John Finn

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