June 16, 2024

Mikayla Macfarlane

Serving technology better

The best live TV streaming services to cut cable in 2024

8 min read
A TV displaying the logos for Philo, Sling, Hulu, DirecTV stream, fuboTV, and YouTube TV apps.


Streaming TV has a lot going for it — you’re not beholden to a cable contract and you’re not typically paying for a bunch of content you don’t actually want. But if you only subscribe to Netflix and basic Hulu, you might be missing some of the perks of cable, namely live sports, local news and the spontaneity of linear (as opposed to on-demand) programming. Live TV streaming services simply require an internet connection and a screen capable of streaming. They also don’t come with contracts and typically cost less than cable (and some are even free). We tested out a dozen services to come up with the best live TV streaming services, depending on the type of TV watcher you happen to be.

What to look for in a live TV streaming service

How to stream live TV

Streaming live TV is a lot like using Netflix. You get access through apps on your phone, tablet, smart TV or streaming device and the signal arrives over the internet. A faster and more stable connection tends to give you a better experience. Most live TV apps require you to sign up and pay via a web browser. After that, you can activate the app on your device.

Price

When I started my cord-cutting research, I was struck by the price difference between live TV and a standard streaming app like Netflix or Peacock. Where the latter cost between $5 and $20 per month, many live TV services hit the $75 mark and can go higher than $200 with additional perks, channel packages and premium extras. The higher starting price is mostly due to the cost of providing multiple networks – particularly sports and local stations. And, in the past six months or so, every service except Philo and Sling has raised base plan prices.

Local channels

Only two of the services we tried don’t include full local channel coverage for subscribers and one of those makes no effort at carrying sports. That would be Philo and, as you might guess, it’s the cheapest. The next most affordable option, Sling, only carries three local stations, and only in larger markets, but it still manages to include some of the top sports channels.

When you sign up with any provider that handles local TV, you’ll enter your zip code, ensuring you get your area’s broadcast affiliates for ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC. Of course, you can also get those stations for free. Nearly all modern television sets support a radio frequency (RF) connection, also known as the coaxial port, which means if you buy an HD antenna, you’ll receive locally broadcast stations like ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC. And since the signal is digital, reception is much improved over the staticky rabbit-ears era.

Sports

One reality that spun my head was the sheer number and iterations of sports networks in existence. Trying to figure out which network will carry the match-up you want to see can be tricky. Google makes it a little easier for sports fans by listing out upcoming games (just swap in NFL, MLB, NHL and so on in the search bar). When you click an event, the “TV & streaming” button will tell you which network is covering it.

That just leaves figuring out if your chosen service carries that regional sports network. Unfortunately, even with add-ons and extra packages, some providers simply don’t have certain channel lineups. It would take a lawyer to understand the ins and outs of streaming rights negotiations, and networks leave and return to live TV carriers all the time. That said, most major sporting events in the US are covered by ESPN, Fox Sports, TNT, USA and local affiliates.

It’s also worth noting that traditional streaming services have started adding live sports to their lineups. Peacock carries live Premier League matches and Sunday Night Football. Max now airs select, regular season games from the NHL, MLB and NBA with a $10-per-month add-on. You can watch MLS games with an add-on through the Apple TV app, and Apple TV+ includes some MLB games. And finally, if you subscribe to Paramount Plus, you can see many of the matches you’d see on CBS Sports. While these options won’t cover as much ground as live TV streamers, they could scratch a sports itch without too much added cost.

A TV displaying the logos for Philo, Sling, Hulu, DirecTV stream, fuboTV, and YouTube TV apps.
Amy Skorheim / Engadget

Traditional cable networks

Dozens of linear programming networks were once only available with cable TV, like Bravo, BET, Food Network, HGTV, CNN, Lifetime, SYFY and MTV. If you only subscribe to, say, Netflix or Apple TV+, you won’t have access to those. But as with sports, standard streamers are starting to incorporate this content into their offerings. After the Warner Bros. merger, Max incorporated some content from HGTV, Discovery and TLC. Peacock has Bravo and Hallmark shows, and Paramount+ has material from Nickelodeon, MTV and Comedy Central.

Other channels like AMC+ have stand-alone apps. The Discovery+ app gives you 15 channels add-free for $9 per month. And a service called Frndly TV costs a mere $7 per month and streams A&E, Lifetime, Game Show Network, Vice and about 35 others. Of course, most live TV streaming options will deliver more sizable lists of cable networks, but just note that you may already be paying for some of them — and if all you need is a certain channel, you could get it cheaper by subscribing directly.

How to stream live TV for free

We also tested a few apps that offer free ad-supported TV (FAST) including Freevee, Tubi, PlutoTV and Sling Freestream. They let you drop in and watch a more limited selection of live networks at zero cost. Most don’t even require an email address, let alone a credit card. And if you have a Roku device, an Amazon Fire TV Stick or a Samsung TV, you already have access to hundreds of live channels via the Roku Channel, the live tab in Fire TV or through the Samsung TV Plus app.

Digital video recordings (DVR)

Every option we’ve included offers cloud DVR storage, so you don’t need a separate physical device like you often do with traditional cable. You’ll either get unlimited storage for recordings that expires after nine months or a year, or you’ll get a set number of hours (between 50 and 1,000) that you can keep indefinitely. Typically, all you need to do is designate what you want to record and the DVR component will do all the hard work of saving subsequent episodes for you to watch later.

Aside from being able to watch whenever it’s most convenient, you can also fast-forward through commercials in recorded content. In contrast, you can’t skip them on live TV or video-on-demand (VOD).

Most live TV subscriptions include access to a selection of VOD content including movies and shows that are currently airing on your subscribed networks. This typically doesn’t cover live events, local shows and news programming. But it does let you watch specific episodes of ongoing shows like Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives or BET’s Sistas. Just search the on-demand library for the program, pick an episode and hit play.

Tiers, packages and add-ons

Comparing price-to-offering ratios is a task for a spreadsheet. I… made three. The base plans range from $25 to $80 per month. From there, you can add packages, which are usually groups of live TV channels bundled by themes like news, sports, entertainment or international content. Premium VOD extras like Max, AMC+ and Starz are also available. Add-ons cost an extra $5 to $20 each per month and simply show up in the guide where you find the rest of your live TV. This is where streaming can quickly get expensive, pushing an $80 subscription to $200 monthly, depending on what you choose.

How we tested

When I begin testing for a guide, I research the most popular and well-reviewed players in the category and narrow down which are worth trying. For the paid plans, just six services dominate so I tried them all. There are considerably more free live TV contenders so I tested the four most popular. After getting accounts set up using my laptop, I downloaded the apps on a Samsung smart TV running the latest version of Tizen OS. I counted the local stations and regional sports coverage, and noted how many of last year’s top cable networks were available. I then weighed the prices, base packages and available add-ons.

I then looked at how the programming was organized in each app’s UI and judged how easy everything was to navigate, from the top navigation to the settings. To test the search function, I searched for the same few TV shows on BET, Food Network, HGTV and Comedy Central, since all six providers carry those channels. I noted how helpful the searches were and how quickly they got me to season 6, episode 13 of Home Town.

I used DVR to record entire series and single movies and watched VOD shows, making sure to test the pause and scan functions. On each service with sports, I searched for the same four upcoming NHL, NBA, MLS and NCAA basketball matches and used the record option to save the games and play them back a day or two later. Finally, I noted any extra perks or irritating quirks.

Here’s the full list of everything we tried:

  • Philo

  • Sling

  • YouTube TV

  • Hulu + Live TV

  • DirecTV Stream

  • FuboTV

Free ad-supported live TV:

  • Freevee

  • Tubi

  • PlutoTV

  • Sling Freestream

Best free live TV streaming services

Many standard streaming apps have added live components to their lineups. You’re paying for the service, so it’s not technically “free,” but you can get a dose of live TV without spending more than necessary. Peacock includes some regional NBC stations and Paramount+ subscribers can watch on-air CBS programming. The standard Hulu app has a live ABC news channel and Max now includes a live CNN outlet with its service.

Amazon Prime Video contains a live TV tab, as does the Fire TV interface. And, if you use Roku or Samsung as your smart OS of choice, their built-in, proprietary services include hundreds of live channels at no extra cost. Plus there are free apps from Plex and PBS — even NASA has a free streaming service.

But if you want a full suite of live TV networks, and don’t want to sign up for any paid service, there are a number of free ad-supported TV services that have live TV. Here’s the best of what we tried:

This article originally appeared on Engadget at https://www.engadget.com/best-live-tv-streaming-service-133000410.html?src=rss



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