What is the best live TV streaming service to replace cable? This is a question that often gets asked due to the shift away from traditional cable to streaming alternatives. However, the answer is not always so simple. More often than not, the best live TV service will depend on a combination of factors including the price, selection of channels, device support, and additional features.
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. Since then, the changes have kept coming, and now watching live TV only requires choosing one of the many live TV streaming services.
With greater choice than even before, it is possible to simply go with the cheapest option overall. However, 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, hopefully helping to ensure you end up with the right service.
This guide is aimed at those very new to streaming, so more experienced streamers may want to jump to a specific section using the links below.
In this guide
What’s live TV streaming?
For those new to streaming, it is important to understand what live TV streaming is before looking for the best live TV streaming service. In this section we’ll cover the basics you need to know. 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. As the live TV content is received over the internet, there’s no need for any specialized equipment. Instead, all a home really needs is a streaming device that’s connected to the TV and the internet. In fact, many smart TVs remove the need for an additional streaming player. Not to mention, a TV also might not even be necessary in some homes, thanks to the ability to stream live TV on mobile devices, PCs, and laptops.
Live TV and on-demand video differences
Generally speaking, live TV streaming is not any different to how you might already stream on-demand videos, or for that matter, music. The same devices can stream live TV channels and on-demand videos, and 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.
Live TV streaming services do also provide access to some content you can watch from the start (on-demand). However, the main reason to consider signing up to a live TV service will be the access to live TV channels.
Even though this is live TV, the interface is likely to be presented in more of a Netflix style. While a traditional live TV guide will still often be accessible, many live TV streaming services focus on the episodes and movies that are being shown live more so than the channels.
There are some other additional features that come with a live TV streaming service and these are designed to further enrich the experience. Many of these additional features will be discussed later in this guide and can influence the decision of choosing the best live TV streaming service to replace cable.
How to stream live TV
There are three major components to streaming live TV and the first is the internet connection. Not all internet connections are equal and streaming has different requirements based on the quality of the video.
For reference, 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
Data consumption is also directly linked to the video quality. As some Live TV streaming services offer a playback quality of up to 4K, streaming at this resolution will consume significantly more data than streaming in SD or HD. Depending on the device being used and the internet plan, the rate of data consumption may affect some users more than others.
Streaming services are not always forthcoming about how much data they use, but here is a very rough guide of the minimum consumption per hour:
- Standard Definition (SD): up to 1GB per hour
- High Definition (HD): 1-3 GB and higher per hour
- 4K Ultra HD: 7-10 GB and higher per hour
It is important to note these are only minimum estimates and the actual amount of data used per hour could be significantly higher with some streaming services.
Popular devices for streaming live TV:
Another major component to streaming live TV is the device. Even though most new devices with a display will support video streaming, not all services support all devices with a display.
Common devices for streaming live TV include:
- Smart TVs
- Fire TV players and TVs
- Roku players and TVs
- Android TV devices
- Game consoles
- Android phones/tablets
- Web browsers
The final component is the live TV streaming service itself.
Most popular live TV streaming services
With a sufficient internet connection and a device that’s capable of streaming video over the internet, all that’s left to do is choose a live TV streaming service. In some ways, this can be the easiest component, as these services are easy to sign up to, and some even even offer a no-cost free trial.
Popular live TV streaming services:
- DirecTV Stream (full review)
- fuboTV (full review)
- Hulu Live TV (full review)
- Philo (full review)
- Sling TV (full review)
- YouTube TV (full review)
While the process of actually signing up to a live TV streaming service is easy enough, it is important to be aware that they are all very different. The difference is not only in terms of the selection of channels, but also the features and the price.
Choosing based on price
One of the easiest and most obvious ways to choose a live TV streaming service is the price. After all, if a service is too expensive to begin with then it doesn’t matter how good it is or how many channels or features it has.
As crazy as it might sound, there can also be times when a live TV streaming service is actually too cheap as well. Cheaper live TV services can be a good way to save money each month, but they also tend to come with fewer channels and features to help keep the cost low.
How much does it cost to stream live TV?
Right now, there’s no real common consensus on how much live TV streaming costs. However, the market is slowly maturing and pricing has reached the stage where it is somewhat self-regulated by the services themselves. In other words, multiple live TV services now hover around $65-$70 per month, making that range somewhat of a standard price.
While some services are more expensive and others are cheaper than that price, $65 to $70 per month seems to be a good price to focus on and expect to pay 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
One point to note about live TV streaming is that price increases are a real issue. While the market tends to operate on a competitive basis, and services often lure users in with limited-time deals and promotions, 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. While a consumer might be paying one price this month, they could end up paying a much higher price next month.
Over the last couple of years, almost every major live TV service has increased its price. In some cases, the price has increased more than once in the same year.
Taking price increases into consideration is an important part of choosing a service based on the cost. For example, if one live TV streaming service is $5 or $10 more expensive than another service, but the more expensive service recently upped its price, then it stands to reason the least expensive service is more likely to increase in price before the expensive one does again.
While that’s not guaranteed to happen, the pattern of increases would suggest it is more likely to be the case, and this could mean opting for the cheaper service now results in a higher monthly price later.
Are there any free live TV services?
Yes, some streaming services do offer access to free live TV without the need for a subscription or even an account. However, what these streaming services consider to be free live TV might not necessarily match your definition of live TV.
For example, a lot of these services provide access to lesser-known channels. These might be channels related to a network, a show, or genre, and tend to simply loop certain shows or similar-themed content.
Although the channel lineups are not directly comparable to the channel lineups offered by paid live TV services, these free services shouldn’t be automatically ruled out either. If they offer access to the right live content for a home, they can be a great way to cut the cost of live TV streaming.
Free live TV streaming service examples:
There’s also the local live TV side of the market. Local live TV channels – including ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox – are technically available to access for free. Typically, local channels require the use of some additional equipment, with the minimum being an over-the-air antenna. In the age of streaming, however, it is possible to stream some locals over the internet, and even without paying for a live TV plan.
For example, Paramount Plus offers a $9.99 Premium plan. In addition to an ad-free on-demand viewing experience, the Premium plan also provides access to a home’s local CBS station. Likewise, Peacock’s $9.99 Premium Plus plan has also now started offering access to a home’s local NBC station.
Choosing based on channels
Price aside, one of the most important factors to consider when choosing a live TV streaming service is the selection of channels. Gone are the days when different service offers similar lineups and just compete on the price by either offering an introductory deal or by bundling services together.
Instead, the world of streaming is made up of live TV services that have cherry-picked a selection of channels, 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 that doesn’t mean they both offer the same channel lineups. In some cases, the selection of channels will vary massively and these differences in the lineup can make or break a service for some homes.
In this sense, it is usually always more beneficial for potential subscribers to look at the channels that are missing instead of the ones that are included with a subscription. After all, a service might offer 200 entertainment channels for $65 per month, but if it doesn’t have the one or two an individual or household actually wants, is it the right service to replace cable?
Get used to channel add-ons
For reference, live TV streaming services shouldn’t solely be defined by the channels they list in their basic or main package. The price typically advertised on a website is usually for a package that the service expects consumers to start with. These plans are designed to be attractively-priced to get you in the door, but are often only the starting point.
Many live TV services offer the option to improve on a base package through the use of add-ons. Services like DirecTV Stream offer different packages made up of a fewer or greater number of channels for a cheaper or more expensive monthly price. Services like with fuboTV and Sling TV also offer specific add-ons and channel packs that are typically priced between $1 and $20 each per month. These packs allow the subscriber to add a selection of additional channels to their main package.
Taking add-ons into account can further help to identify the true cost of a service compared to another. For example, if one service is priced $10 cheaper than a different service, but the cheaper service’s base plan is missing crucial entertainment or sports channels, the same service may offer an entertainment or sports channel add-on. Even though the add-on also adds to the monthly price, if it is less than the $10, 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 on the front page. More often than not, that’s just the starting price.
Factor in premium networks
In addition to taking add-ons into consideration, consumers will 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, they don’t always offer the same premium networks.
What’s more, even if two services do offer the same premium networks, they might charge different prices, affecting the overall monthly cost.
Check for locals and affiliates
A last, but important component of the channel decision-making process is locals. While local channels can be accessed for free over-the-air, or through services like Peacock and Paramount Plus, the natural way to access local channels for most people will be through their TV provider. While this is also true of live TV streaming, it is yet another area where live TV streaming services vary.
Not all live TV services provide the same level of access to local channels and checking to see which locals are available in an area before signing up can help to make sure the local channels and affiliates that are important to an individual or household are not missed out on.
Most services will 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 above are from the Hulu Live TV website. Before signing up and finding out the hard way, users can scroll down to the channel selection, click on the ‘View channels in your area‘ link, and then enter their ZIP code to check.
Choosing based on features
Additional features is another area that some homes may want to take into consideration when choosing a live TV streaming service. In some ways, this is actually one of the most important aspects as it often one of the most overlooked by customers. Typically, most consumers will (rightfully) fixate on the price and the channel lineup, only to realize the limitations of the service after they’ve signed up.
Therein is the main takeaway with features, as this section is more about the limitations than what’s included.
Check for cloud DVR limits
One of the major benefits of cutting the cord and streaming is the option to watch what you want, when you want. Many services do provide on-demand access to content and this can negate the need for a DVR. However, on-demand content does usually come with time-restrictions or require 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.
For some content, it might be the only way it can be watched other than tuning in live.
Cloud DVR is not something that’s equal across services. For example, while most services do include a DVR in the base plan price, some restrict the recording limit, and this limitation majorly varies across services. As an example, while Hulu Live TV and YouTube provides subscribers with an unlimited recording experience, Sling TV limits the number of free recording hours to 50, and Vidgo limits its subscribers to just 20 hours.
Another cloud DVR difference to be aware of is how long recordings can be kept for. Not all services will store recordings indefinitely. In some cases, this can be as little as 30 days, making it not much different to how long the same show or movie would likely remain available via on-demand.
Check device support
Just like the DVR, device support is another feature that absolutely should be taken into consideration. After all, if planning to use a Roku player as the main device to stream live TV on, then the device owner will only be able to access live TV streaming services that come with Roku support. The list of supported devices, both inside and outside the home, can affect the decision of which service is best for an individual or household, and even for those that have yet to decide on their main living room device.
Knowing the service you want to get live TV through will be able to accommodate all your devices before signing up can go a long way to improving the overall experience, and ensuring issues don’t pop up at a later time.
Check the number of streams
Another limitation to be aware of is the number of streams. Besides accessing a service on different devices, streaming allows multiple users to watch live TV at the same time on different devices. This is 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.
Generally speaking, most services will offer access to at least two simultaneous streams, allowing more than one person to watch at the same time. While services may offer more than two streams, some of them may charge an additional fee for the additional streams, increasing the overall monthly cost in the process.
Furthermore even if a services allows subscribers to stream on an unlimited number of devices at the same time, that’s likely only to be the case when streaming on the home network. In other words, the same service is likely to greatly reduce the number of available streams when watching live TV or on-demand content while away from home.
Knowing both the soft and hard simultaneous streams limitations of a service should make it easier to choose the right live TV streaming service for everyone that will be sharing a subscription.
Best live TV streaming services
In this section we’ll look to provide some insight into what is likely to be a better option for certain types of users. That said, the information in this section should only be used as guidance to help narrow down the list.
Best live TV service for the price
This is likely to be the question most people new to streaming want an answer to. Unfortunately, it is also the hardest one to answer. With so much variation in channels (and features), it is almost impossible to create a level playing field where all services can just be reduced down to the monthly cost.
Of course, what can be looked at is the price in general, as services that are too expensive to begin with can automatically be ruled out. On that basis, and excluding the free live TV services, here’s how much the cheapest plans from the major live TV streaming services currently cost – starting with the cheapest:
|Service||Current price p/m|
|Hulu Live TV||$70|
Best live TV service for content
Again, content mostly comes down to how much you are willing to spend, considering most live TV streaming services will let you continuously add content for a price. However, if just discussing the main packages from the main live TV streaming services then Hulu Live TV is likely to be one of the best live TV streaming 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. In other words, subscribers also get access to Disney Plus, ESPN Plus, and the basic Hulu catalog at no additional cost. These subscriptions cost between $7.99 and $9.99 per month each, resulting in a significant saving compared to subscribing to each one on top of a live TV plan.
Best live TV service for families
For those interested in a service that’s likely to cater to all members of a family or a household equally, Hulu Live TV is a good option for the reasons mentioned above. With Disney Plus, ESPN Plus and basic Hulu included, there’s plenty of content available for individual family members as well as families in general.
However, YouTube TV is also a very good option for families to consider. Firstly, YouTube TV allows a single TV subscription to be split into six sub-accounts, effectively allowing up to six different family or household members to have their own individual account. Where YouTube TV really comes into its own for families, however, is the cloud DVR.
Not only does YouTube TV offer an unlimited DVR with its base plan, but the DVR is specific to each sub-account. Essentially, every household member gets their own unlimited DVR that isn’t affected by the recordings made by other members. This can be majorly beneficial to families, with each person only having to navigate and manage their own recordings and libraries.
Choosing a live TV service: summary
The main takeaway from this guide is that no single thing defines a live TV streaming service, and that also means that there’s no one best live TV streaming service overall. The right streaming service for an individual or household will be the one that checks the most boxes for that individual or household. While the previous “best” section looked to identify services based on one feature or another, it is just a starting point. From there, consumers are encouraged to check whether the rest of the points made in this guide also work for their individual situation and streaming needs.
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.
Published Jan. 2020, updated Jan. 2023