I've finally cut the cord after two months of testing out all the major live-TV streaming services.
After testing out the best cable TV alternatives, I made some early eliminations based around quality, and even tested services I didn't plan on subscribing to, based on their limited number of channels.
In the process, I've learned that I'm something of a Goldilocks when it comes to live TV services: None is exactly perfect. But at least two of them were more than acceptable replacements for cable TV.
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Sling TV (Blue): $35 per month, 40+ channels
YouTube TV: $65 per month, 85+ channels
Hulu with Live TV: $65 per month, 74+ channels
fuboTV: $65 per month, 110+ channels
DirecTV Stream: $70 per month, 65+ channels
Philo: $25 per month, 65+ channels
So I called up Spectrum, set up an appointment to drop off my cable box, and actually followed through on it. I won't spoil the results of what I picked as a replacement this early, but I will note that I am loving the extra space I get in my bedroom without the cable box there.
To give you some context: This summer I realized it was time to cut the cord when I kept being disappointed by my cable box's archaic, fail-prone nature. My roommates, though, didn't want to give up their specific channels.
So when I unplugged my own cable box, its power supply and coaxial cable, I cut $25.37 out of their $127-per-month cable bill, which I'm no longer splitting. I'll even offer to show them how good life is without cable.
Yes, the ideal scenario is to rip cable TV's tendrils out of this apartment completely, but the roommates need the YES Network. And when I tested DirecTV Stream, formerly known as AT&T TV, I found out the only service with YES isn't good enough for me, and it gets really pricey with that network.
The biggest disappointment came when I tested Hulu with Live TV. Its ability to stream TV steadily wasn't there for me as buffering and stuttering abounded.
Then when I tested fuboTV, I was reminded that it doesn't have TNT — which is peculiar since that's a home for NBA playoff games and it's the sports-focused streaming service.
One friend told me that fuboTV is more of a soccer/futbol service than the "sports" platform it's marketed as. And then when I tested Philo, I learned how thin its offerings were, as it's lacking the major networks I need such as USA.
This left me with two choices. When I tested Sling TV, I found it to be good enough, especially considering the price. That said, I had a better experience when I tested YouTube TV, a pricier service that offers a greater number of channels.
What I like and dislike about YouTube TV
All respect to YouTube TV: Of all the services, I think its app is probably the best-organized and most polished.
Rewinding and fast-forwarding matter a lot to me, and that's arguably where YouTube TV shines the brightest, using the excellent content-skimming navigation that works so well on regular YouTube.
When you fast forward or rewind on YouTube TV, the "dot" that signifies your point in the programming lands where it's supposed to, unlike with the new Sling app and with cable-company DVRs, which always tend to overshoot by a few seconds or more.
You might not think that's a huge deal, but something I've learned while testing all of these services is that not everyone gets the little things right. I often ran into an odd problem where I'd have to open a show from the DVR section of an app to start it at the beginning (on Sling TV) or an inability to rewind live shows I'd been DVR'ing if I channel surfed away and back (on DirecTV Stream).
Those may sound like minor issues, but these live-TV streaming services are worse than cable carriers at this. And I'm trying to move forward, not backward.
YouTube TV also offers an unlimited DVR, something that Sling TV (my other top contender) does not. A new, $20 pricier, YouTube TV package also offers a feature I actually wish everyone else would include: downloading DVR content for when you're offline.
As I spend more time on subways now that I have some semblance of a real life even while the Covid-19 pandemic is still not over, I'm realizing this is something I could really use to catch up on my queue.
My one annoyance about YouTube TV is how its content has a small delay compared to cable, although this is something that YouTube still does better than the likes of Sling, DirecTV Stream and others. All "live TV" should be equally live, but I digress.
YouTube TV's $65 monthly starting price, though, is normal and pricey at the same time. That's because Hulu with Live TV has met YouTube at this price point (though that includes Hulu Originals), and fuboTV is also $65 per month, while DirecTV Stream starts at $70. That whole tier, though, seems exorbitant once you check out Sling.
What I like and dislike about Sling TV
Sling may not be perfect. I'll be the first to point out how its live content is often about 30 seconds behind YouTube TV's. That's annoying when you're watching stuff live with your friends online and the rest of the internet. There's also the aforementioned rewinding/fast-forwarding issue found in the new Sling app on Roku and Fire (the Apple tvOS Sling app has yet to catch up).
Sling also offers fewer channels than the rest (40+ in Sling Blue, while everyone but Philo has 65 or more). I'd need to spend $50 monthly for the Sling Blue + Orange package to get ESPN, which I could see myself wanting at some point.
But that said, and this is the real kicker: Sling TV Blue has every channel I need at $35 per month.
Here's the biggest shock of all: Sling has a channel I want that YouTube TV doesn't have. That's Vice TV, where I'm watching the Dark Side of The Ring documentary series.
Vice is only on Sling, DirecTV Stream (which is expensive and flawed), Hulu (again, not stable enough) and Philo (missing too many other channels).
Aside from that, Sling has the other major networks I need: Cartoon Network for Adult Swim stuff, Food Network for all things Guy Fieri, FX and AMC for prestige TV, FOX for Bob’s Burgers, NBC for when SNL books interesting people, USA for WWE, TNT for NBA playoffs and All Elite Wrestling (also coming to TBS in 2022).
Admittedly, those last three channels are the most important for me, personally, but man cannot subsist on pro wrestling alone.
Sling TV, I choose you (but I might not be loyal)
So, as you might have guessed, Sling TV is the service I'm going to keep paying for. At the end of the day, the TV itself matters more than the service.
I didn't want to pick Sling, though, because it was the boring answer. My colleague Kelly Woo already came to the same conclusion when she cut the cord.
While we have different tastes — she's watching Grey's Anatomy and the Bachelor/ette/in Paradise shows, while I watch men throw men at men — we're still going with the same service. Oh, and she's able to watch those ABC shows by connecting the AirTV Anywhere to add them into Sling (which doesn't have ABC).
But since I'm not 100% satisfied with Sling (those delays, the rewind and fast-forward issue), I don't know if I'll stick with them for the long run. This is the joy of month-to-month contracts for streaming services. Many shows don't run year-round, and when Dark Side of the Ring goes off the air, I might have different needs.
If I find myself wanting ESPN, then spending $50 for Sling Blue + Orange while I don't need the Vice channel may push me to go back to YouTube TV ($15 more per month for a TV experience I prefer? We shall see). That flexibility is a major reason why I'm cutting the cable in the first place.
Walking away from cable was faster than canceling DirecTV stream
As I noted in last week’s column, DirecTV made me wait online for 15 minutes for a customer service rep to try to talk me out of leaving (itself a five-minute process).
So imagine the smirk on my face when it took only 19 minutes to book an appointment with Spectrum and give them my cable box. Of course, the Spectrum clerk followed the same plan as the DirecTV Stream customer service rep, trying their best to convince me to un-cut the cord. But I smiled and said, "No thank you."
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 [email protected] 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.