The Ultimate Cord Cutter’s Guide
- View Original
- May 16th, 2016
Cable TV was once the ultimate entertainment necessity. The over-the-air days of VHF/UHF television signals couldn’t keep up with the voracious viewers who needed more, more, more channels. Having a cable directly pumping all that content into your home became the norm, and the cable providers—which likely provide your high-speed broadband Internet access as well—knew they had you on the hook.
Of course, they didn’t factor in that the Internet they were providing would become their worst enemy. Services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video are just the most well-known names in what’s become known as “cord cutting”—doing away with pay TV and using Internet-based services to get all your “television” programming. No more paying a huge monthly fee for thousands of hours of TV you don’t watch. Instead, pay individual services for a la carte programming. It’s almost like paying for just what you watch. Almost.
Cable companies, of course, are freaking out. In 2010, Experian claimed that 4.5 percent of all US households were already at cord-cutter status; as of 2015 that number had climbed to 7.3 percent. And the percentage is higher if there are millennials in the house.
It’s almost ironic that the cable companies probably don’t lose those people entirely as customers, since most of them need a hefty Internet pipe to get the same quality of TV over the Internet. If you don’t have high-speed Internet, cord cutting is probably not for you.
In 2015, the FCC redefined what really constitutes “broadband” speed in the US as 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download speeds, up from 4 Mbps, which was the standard since 2010. At the time, that put 17 percent of the population (55 million households) without true broadband. In the FCC’s 2016 Broadband Progress Report, it said 34 million US citizens (10 percent) lack access to such speeds; 23 million of those people are in rural areas.
But, in theory, to be an effective cord cutter, a 5Mbps download connection should be enough. If you’ve got that, you’re already on your way. Here’s what else you need to become a full-fledged cord cutter with access to (almost) everything you’d get via regular cable TV.
Antennas and DVRs
Before we get to into the apps/hardware you need to make it as a cord cutter with Internet only, there is something else to consider. While you can get a lot of what’s available on the major networks and several cable channels using apps, you simply can’t get it all. That goes especially for the major networks. But, most of them are still broadcasting over the airwaves in HD—you just need an HD antenna.
Best of all, modern HD antennas don’t have to go on the roof of the house or look like you’re signaling space. They’re simple affairs you set up next to the TV or flat units you hang in your window. (Outdoor antennas remain a viable option, however.)
Before you jump on the antenna train, determine if you have over-the-air HD as an option in your home. Visit AntennaWeb or TV Fool for a listing of the stations broadcasting near you. If you can get your new antenna in a window facing the nearest broadcast transmitter, all the better.
Just don’t be surprised if you don’t get any stations, or just a few. It happens.
Top-rated HDTV indoor antennas include the Moho Leaf Metro ($20) or the Antennas Direct ClearStream Eclipse ($40), both non-amplified antennas that hang in a window and plug directly into a TV tuner, or the TERK Amplified Indoor HDTV Antenna ($49). You might want amplification unless you’re living right next door to the local broadcast tower. But they don’t make the signal stronger coming in the house; they make an already low signal strong enough for the TV tuner to use. Even some of the flat antennas have amplification options; they’ll up the cost. Setup is easy, but you’ll have to play with the antenna position in the window to maximize reception—just like fiddling with rabbit ear antennas in the 1970s.
You can use an HDTV antenna to watch live TV, sure, but this isn’t the 1970s. You want a DVR, and there’s one in particular made just for this setup, the TiVo Roamio. Not only is the Roamio a DVR with the amazing TiVo interface, which costs $14.99 per month, it also has Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video built-in (those still cost extra), and just got a 1TB upgrade. Others include the Nuvyyo Tablo (with 2- or 4-tuner models) and Channel Master DVR+.
Maybe better yet: DVR functions are in or coming to the game consoles like PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. The latter already has some over-the-air (OTA) viewing, but reports are that Microsoft has internal DVR testing of OTA recordings underway. Don’t expect all the DVR bells and whistles from these and you probably won’t be disappointed.
Media Hubs and Smart TVs
There are a lot of ways to watch streaming TV as a cord cutter.
The options for screens include your phone, tablet, computer, or TV itself. In fact, all of these are perfectly capable of being totally self-sustaining: just download the apps for the services you want. Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon are all available on iOS and Android. On the PC, just visit their respective websites.
To be honest, if you’ve got a decent laptop and a nice HDTV, with an HDMI cable between them you have all you need to be a cord cutter. Just stream on your laptop and watch on the big screen. Or use your phone; the apps out there for casting or mirroring what you see on the phone to the TV are too numerous to mention. AllCast is a particularly good option.
Then there’s the HDTV itself. In the world today, you’ve got regular old TV sets, and the more modern “smart TVs,” which have built-in apps (and app stores) and networking to get on the Internet. You can use them to download most of the cord-cutting apps you’d want.
If you don’t have a smart TV, there are many, many media hub options. You might already have one, in the form of a game console: Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, and Nintendo Wii all support streaming apps. Several Blu-ray players also have media hub options.
Media hubs have two other main forms: a thumb-drive sized unit that plugs into the HDMI port on the TV, or a larger media hub the size of a CD player.
Our ongoing Editors’ Choice products for the small “stick” media hubs include the Google Chromecast ($35 + mobile device with supported apps for operation), Roku Streaming Stick ($44.99), and the Amazon Fire TV Stick ($39, pictured above).
If you’re thinking about a larger unit that promises faster performance and perhaps even on-board storage, you want the Amazon Fire TV ($99) or maybe the (finally!) revamped Apple TV. Roku makes an entire line of products like this, but our analysts haven’t cared for some of the latest.
Every single one of these products supports the holy trinity of cord-cutter video streaming apps: Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video. Other than that, if you’ve got a specific service you want to watch, be careful. Buying any media hub (or console) doesn’t guarantee access to every service. Just ask PS4 users who have Comcast cable—the cable company blocks them from using the HBO GO app, and HBO Now isn’t an option on that console.
Know Your Cord-Cutting Services
The key to being an effective, Internet-only cord cutter is knowing what apps are available on your hardware of choice, knowing the programming available on those services, and just how much they’re going to cost you. Here’s the list of apps you should have for almost complete programming coverage (at least of primetime TV across networks and cable channels).
Netflix is the grand-pappy of online streaming. It started as a DVD-by-mail rental service, and while that’s still part of its business, streaming is what it’s known for now. It’s got a slew of original shows: House of Cards, Master of None, Orange is the New Black, Love, Bloodline, BoJack Horseman, Grace and Frankie, Making a Murderer, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Marvel’s Daredevil and Jessica Jones (and soon Luke Cage and Iron Fist), Chelsea, Narcos, and more—it’s debuting what feels like a new series every week, plus movie originals staring Pee-Wee Herman, Adam Sandler, and Ricky Gervais. It has “rescued” shows that were killed too soon, like Arrested Development, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Trailer Park Boys, and Longmire. Still not sure if we forgive them for Fuller House [Editor’s Note: How rude!].
The problem with Netflix is that the catalog of films and TV shows is constantly in flux as the studio and networks play games, look for better terms, or set up exclusives on other services. You can’t always guarantee an entire series or movie will be there forever. But it doesn’t seem to care, as original programming is making it a destination, giving it not only market share, but mind share, the likes of which only HBO can rival.
Here’s a complete list of devices with Netflix support. For more, read Netflix Tips to Boost Your Binge-Watching.
($7.99 per month, with some free content; $11.99 to go commercial free; $20.98 with Showtime add-on)
Hulu is literally owned by companies that run three of the major TV networks. So it’s the place to go to find the latest TV shows from ABC, NBC, and Fox (plus the CW)—the day after the show airs.
To view these shows on apps with media hubs, consoles, or smart TVs (complete list here), you have to have the premium subscription (which used to be called Hulu Plus, but is now just Hulu). Hulu carries many shows from other sources, like Syfy, that can only be viewed on the Hulu website via a browser, for some asinine reason.
It has a few original shows. It started with some weak entries like Deadbeat and Mascots, nothing with the originality-cache of shows from Netflix, Amazon, or HBO—that was until it debuted Casual, which got the critics interested and earned Hulu its first Golden Globe nomination. Now it’s debuting shows like The Path and 11.22.63, and announced a series based on the classic A Handmaid’s Tale. It’s also made itself the exclusive place to watch the entire back catalog of classic shows like South Park and Seinfeld, the original CSI, and a bunch of Cartoon Network/Adult Swim shows. It has a smattering of movies, but really it’s about the TV shows.
The catch with Hulu is, even when you’re paying, you still get advertising! Or you used to. Last year, it finally introduced a commercial-free option for $4 more a month.
For an extra $8.99 a month, you can add access to all Showtime content via Hulu—commercial free! That includes live access to the Showtime East and West Coast feeds. And that’s cheaper than the standalone Showtime service (more on that below).
The big network missing from Hulu is CBS. More on that below, too.
Hulu also has big plans: it wants to stream live TV feedsfrom ABC, ESPN, Disney Channel, Fox, and FX. It’ll probably cost around $40 more per month.
For more, read Hulu Tips for Streaming TV Fans.
Amazon Prime Video
(Part of a $99 annual or $10.99 monthly Amazon Prime account, or $8.99 for just streaming video service)
Previously called Unbox and Amazon Video on Demand, Amazon Prime Video is a nice hybrid of an all-you-can-eat streaming service like Netflix, plus a video-on-demand store.
In taking on Netflix, Hulu, and HBO, Amazon provides its service “free” to anyone with an Amazon Prime account, which is best known for giving customers free two-day shipping—but you can also get it for $8.99 a month as a standalone service, with none of the other Amazon extras.
Amazon has also invested heavily in creating original TV shows, and often asks viewers to vote on the pilots they’d like Amazon to develop into full seasons. To date, the best known is multi-award winner Transparent. Other great shows include Catastrophe, Bosch, Mozart in the Jungle, and The Man in the High Castle. Amazon has plenty of other movies and TV series; it even has a deal with HBO to carry a slew of its older shows. (Sorry, no Game of Thrones.)
Hulu having Showtime as an add-on seems almost quaint when you see the add-on services Amazon has: Showtime, Starz, Seeso, Comedy Central Stand-up, and a lot of lesser-known options. They cost an extra $3.99 to $8.99 a month, depending on the service.
For more, read Amazon Prime Video Features You May Not Know.
CBS All Access
($5.99 per month)
When you’re the No. 1 network, you get to do your own thing. That’s why CBS launched its own streaming service. Access is via the website or apps on Roku, Chromecast, Apple TV, Fire TV, Android, and Xbox 360 (but not Xbox One). On iOS there is a general CBS app, and with it you can watch week-old shows for a while, or access new shows if you’ve got an All Access account. You get one week to try All Access free before the fee is applied.
That six bucks a month, however, gets you access to some of the most popular shows on TV the day after airing, including The Big Bang Theory, Mom, 2 Broke Girls, Elementary, Survivor, Amazing Race, even daytime shows. There are also a few thousand old TV shows streaming here, such as Cheers, all the versions of Star Trek, Brady Bunch, The Twilight Zone, and Hawaii Five-0. You can insert your own joke here about how the Tiffany Network is for your grandparents.
The crown jewel is coming: in 2017, the first new Star Trek TV show in years will debut on the network—and then all subsequent episodes will be streaming only on All Access.
($20 per month for basic package)
Consider Sling TV the best hope you have to get all the rest of that cable content you want—you know, the channels that aren’t always the top of anyone’s fave list, but still highly desirable.
The service, owned by Dish Network, is entirely Internet-based and gives you access to programming from 20+ channels including AMC, CNN, HGTV, Cartoon Network, History Channel, Disney Channel, TNT, Food Network, TBS, FreeForm (formerly ABC Family), Adult Swim, IFC, A&E, and others, and perhaps most importantly, ESPN and ESPN2. It’s also available on a decent number of devices: iOS and Android apps, Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Chromecast, and Xbox One (not 360).
It’s not available over the Web like many other services, but there are apps for MacOS and Windows. There are also $5-per-month extra channel packs for sports, entertainment, kids, and news/info junkies, and Spanish speakers. There is an HBO add-on for $15 more a month.
Last month, Sling added a “multi-stream” beta service that lets you watch content on up to three devices simultaneously. The $20 monthly service also — for the first time — gives Sling TV customers access to channels from the Fox Networks Group, including local broadcast news in select markets, Fox Sports, FX, and National Geographic.
This could be a dream come true for the cord cutter who misses all that non-network programming. But beware, this isn’t like a la carte viewing of shows. It’s actually showing you live TV, though some of the channels let you go back and watch anything from the last three days. At least you can jump back to the beginning of a show you’re currently watching. But don’t expect Netflix-like control over what you see. There is at least one DVR that has built-in Sling TV support—the Channel Master DVR+—but it still won’t “record” shows from the service to play back later.
($14.99 per month)
HBO GO has been around for a while, and is a great streaming service, but it’s only available to existing HBO subscribers with a cable plan. It has no limits on concurrent streams, though, so plenty of people without pay TV use shared passwords for their Game of Thrones fix.
With HBO Now, though, the need for a pilfered password is removed. Anyone with Internet and supported hardware (almost everything, with the exception of PlayStation 4) is able to subscribe and watch original HBO programming like Thrones, Veep, Girls, and Silicon Valley, plus the entire back catalog of shows: The Sopranos forever!
HBO GO will still be there for existing subscribers—no need for them to pay for HBO again.
For more, check out 9 Secret HBO NOW and HBO GO Features.
($10.99 per month)
You could pretty much assume that if HBO is going to do a standalone streaming service, so will its rival Showtime (owned by CBS). You can subscribe directly using the apps on Amazon Fire TV, Roku, PlayStation Vue, Apple TV or iOS, or Android—the cost is $10.99 a month after a full one-month trial. That’s access to shows like Penny Dreadful, Billions, Dice, House of Lies, Shameless, and Homeland, plus the Showtime backlog of stuff like Dexter and Nurse Jackie, plus any movie, sports, and comedy specials on the service. Coming soon: the revival of Twin Peaks.
As we mentioned before, you can add Showtime to Hulu and Amazon Prime Video for only $8.99 a month. (Considering you then don’t need a new app/interface and it’s saving you $24 a year to get all the same content, that’s a no-brainer. The only downside is waiting until the day after to get new shows.) Here’s a list of devices supporting Hulu+Showtime.
You can try Showtime streaming—including the live East and West Coast feeds—for 30 days before getting charged, be it for standalone service or on Hulu or Amazon.
Showtime already has a service called Showtime Anytime, which is analogous to HBO GO, in that it’s limited to use by current subscribers to the cable channel.
($8.99 per month)
The premium cable channel Starz—home of some great shows like Power, Ash Vs. Evil Dead, Outlander, and The Girlfriend Experience—is great to add-on to Amazon Video for just $8.99 a month. If that’s not your bag, it’s now got mobile apps on iOS and Android, Roku, Xbox 360 and Xbox One—and the cost is the same.
(requires participating cable package that include FX, FXX, and FXM)
FXNow is like HBO GO—you need an existing cable subscription for it to work, and the provider has to be participating. It’s not really a cord-cutter option in that way, because you can’t pay a standalone price for it (but naturally, lots of users share passwords, so it ends up working quite well for some). It works on almost all streaming devices and consoles. If you want to pay for cord-cutter FX, you need to go through Sling TV.
You might not need it. FX’s older shows, like Justified, The Shield, and Damages, typically end up on other services like Netflix and Amazon. Existing series like The Americans, You’re the Worst, Fargo, The Strain, American Horror Story, Archer, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia typically show up about one year after they originally air. If you lack patience, FXNow has them all right after they air.
($9.99 per month)
If YouTube is a staple of your cord-cutting experience—and with millions of hours of video uploaded every second, it probably should be—then maybe this paid experience will be to your liking. After a one-month trial, that 10 bucks a month gets you completely ad-free YouTubing—plus access to original shows behind the paywall. These aren’t TV shows in the classic sense, but originals created by YouTube stars like PewDiePie and Rooster Teeth.
Pretty ubiquitous among the streaming hubs, Crackle offers an eclectic selection of content for free, mostly with commercials. Really bad commercials cut in at odd moments in movies—sometimes in the middle of a scene—as if an algorithm handles it rather than a human editor. The movies tend to be pretty craptacular with occasional gems (currently it’s got Philadelphia and The People vs. Larry Flynt in rotation); if it didn’t have Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee it would probably not be worth launching.
There are also a number of networks that have mobile apps. They include A&E, Comedy Central, Nick, Food Network, History Channel, Lifetime, PBS, PBS Kids, Smithsonian Channel, and TNT. Some are available on hubs or consoles; check each individual app store. Many of them pull an HBO GO—you’ll need to be a cable subscriber to access content.
TV isn’t all shows and movies. What about the big games? How do you stream those? As mentioned above, for ESPN-aholics, Sling TV is probably the best bet. You’re not going to find SportsCenter on other services, though you can watch clips at the ESPN website.
Individual leagues have their own ways of doing things. The National Hockey League has services to watch out-of-market games on devices like Roku, PS4, or phones and tablets. Major League Baseballs’ At Bat apps for iOS, Android, and Kindle Fire show all the games from opening day to the World Series for a fee of $2.99 a month or $19.99 for the year. MLB.tv streaming is available on some consoles and media hubs, and costs as much as $129.99 per year. The National Basketball Association (NBA) has streaming games through its website. For NFL fans waiting patiently for the return of football, this year DirecTV started offering NFL Sunday Ticket over the Internet for as little as $41.99 for six months. There’s also NFL Game Rewind, where you can watch full replays of games via the Web or apps.
The problem with the sports streaming is on-purpose blackouts. If a team has an exclusive deal with someone—like a local broadcaster—your game might not be viewable on the service you’ve paid for.
Consider the Cord-Cutting Cost
Cord cutting has its conveniences, but will it really save you cash?
Consider that the average cost of paid television in the US has gone up 39 percent from 2010 to 2015; the monthly average in September 2015 stood at $99.10. That’s $1,186.20 a year.
Now consider all of the services we’ve mentioned above, not even factoring in the cost of buying a media hub or smart TV if needed. Assuming you need subscriptions to all of them to get as thorough a cross section of channels as you’d get with cable, it’s not cheap. Remember, all these prices are before applicable tax.
That total is not inexpensive. And if you get subs with all the premium channels currently with streaming options, it costs more than the average cable—though perhaps not more than your local bill with the same extras. Also, that’s not factoring in other costs like DVR subscriptions for cable users, or adding new services for cord cutters as they become available, or the games you miss out on not having a slew of sports channels. Take it all into account if you want to go cable-TV free.