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Best streaming service for live TV: Hulu, YouTube TV, more

There are two kinds of paid streaming services: Live TV, such as Sling TV and YouTubeTV, and video-on-demand, such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. Here's what to look for in live TV packages.

There are two kinds of paid streaming services: Live TV, such as Sling TV and YouTubeTV, and video-on-demand, such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. Here's what to look for in live TV packages.

Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, we've spent more time than ever watching TV at home. You might think that would be good news for the cable companies, Nope. More people than ever are dumping cable and satellite TV for streaming. 

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Why? Because people want to save money. At the same time, though, 60% of viewers are paying for both cable TV and one or more streaming channels. That's because they want both their regular channels and fresh, new offerings from video-on-demand (VoD) streaming services such as CBS All Access's Star Trek: Discovery; Disney+'s The Mandalorian; and Netflix'sThe Queen's Gambit. 

Guess what? With today's streaming services you can have the best of both worlds. There are two kinds of streaming. The first, and oldest, is VoD, from such providers as Amazon Prime Video and Netflix. Increasingly, there are free, with commercials, VoD services such as Crackle, Peacock, and Pluto TV. Then, there are the live TV streaming services including AT&T Now, Philio, and Sling TV. Combine them and you can get all your old channels and fresh new shows for less money than you're paying your cable or satellite TV provider today. 

But, you need to be careful. Back in 2009, when I first cut the cable cord, I saved over $100 a month and still got to watch all my shows. Just over ten years later, my internet video streaming bills are closing in on cable TV-level bills. 

Why? Internet streaming is copying the tired, old cable business models. Almost all the live TV services saw price increases in 2020, and I expect we'll see even higher bills in 2021. 

Sure, the delivery technology is different. Instead of a set-top box, you use a streaming device, such as my own favorite, the 2020 Roku Ultra. Or you can just buy high-end TVs with full-featured streaming built-in. But the bills are increasingly getting closer. That said, you can still save money. 

To make use of any of these services you'll need broadband internet. If you're living on your own, you may be able to get by with as little as 10 Mbp. If you're sharing your home with others and/or you want to watch 4K videos, I recommend you have at least a 25 Mbps internet connection. Not sure how fast your connection is? Run the Ookla Speedtest.

And, by the way, you won't lose anything by switching from a cable box to a Roku or Amazon Fire TV 4K stick. The only real difference between conventional cable and internet TV is that live streaming sports lag 15 seconds to a minute behind live broadcasts.

With no further adieu, let's first take a look at the live TV services.

Live TV Streaming Services

Before we dive in, you should realize that these services' pricing, channel lineup, DVR capabilities, and how many streams you can watch at one time are all subject to change. They're also the most important factors to consider before subscribing to a service. So, even if one service sounds perfect for you, go directly to its site and make sure that you'll still be getting what I'm describing in this story. 

For the most part, all of these support the most popular streaming devices. For example, no matter which service you subscribe to, an Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV Cube, Roku Express, or Google Chromecast will almost certainly support it. But if you're using a more obscure streaming gadget, such as an Nvidia Shield TV Pro or Tivo Stream 4K, it might not work with your preferred service. Smart TVs also frequently don't support newer streaming offerings. The moral of this story is before subscribing make sure the service will work with your hardware. 

Fortunately, most of these services give you a free 7-day trial period. Before signing up for a trial though check the fine print. You don't want to end up paying for a service that doesn't work for you. 

Besides these factors, most of these services offer a variety of premium channels for additional fees. To see which services offer what channels at any given moment, again, check the service's site. You can get a good idea of what's what though from ZDNet's sister site CNet's Top 100 channels comparison chart.

AT&T TV Now (DirecTV Now)

AT&T customers will like it, others should keep looking.

AT&T TV Now

As a long time DirecTV satellite customer, I wanted to like AT&T TV Now. I couldn't. I always found it to suffer from buffering problems. It's gotten better over the years, but its offerings and price got poorer.

In the early days, it came with a great 100 channels for $35 a month. That was then. This is now. Today, its Plus package base price is $55 a month for 45-plus channels. The company also offers AT&T TV Now Max, with over 60 channels, for $80 a month. Both offer access to local ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC channels in most, but not all, areas. Of all the major streaming services, it offers the least number of channels for your money. 

The Max offering's best feature, as its name hints, is it includes HBO Max. Other nice features include 500 hours of cloud DVR service and three simultaneous streams.

But now for some confusion. AT&T also offers another streaming service, AT&T TV. They are not the same thing. AT&T makes it really hard to tell them apart. It even uses the same app. But A&T TV is more expensive and has long-term contracts. Between the two of them, AT&T TV Now is the service you want. 

If you're an AT&T customer, you may want to subscribe to this service, but the rest of us can do better.

$55 at AT&T

fuboTV

Are you ready for some "football," where the stars names are Ronaldo, Messi, and Kabe? Then check out fuboTV

fuboTV

Are you a serious sports fan? And when I say "serious," I mean besides watching the US favorite trilogy of football, basketball, and baseball. Do you want to watch the English Premier League, F1 Racing, and cricket? Yes? Then, you should check out fuboTV

That said, fuboTV has some holes in its lineup. For example, it no longer carries TNT and TBS, both of which show a lot of sports. It also doesn't currently include the MLB Network or the Fox regional sports networks. Still, if your sporting tastes run to European sports, you'll find a lot to like here. 

Besides sports, fuboTV is a full-fledged streaming service with all the usual stations. It also offers your local ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC channels in many places. Its Family plan offers 100-plus channels for $65 a month. For $80 a month, you get over 150 channels.

The basic DVR capability and number of streams you can play simultaneously used to be on the small side. Until recently, you only got 30 hours of cloud DVR time and two streams. If you wanted 250 hours of video storage you had to pay $10 more a month, and if you wanted to have three streams, it would run you an additional $6 a month. For now, both of these additions are included in the base price.

Put it all together and you have the best streaming service for European soccer fans and other non-mainstream US sports. Personally, I'd like to see them add Willow TV, the cricket-specific streaming service, but that's a small matter unless you're a serious cricket fan. FuboTV is also a good, general-purpose streaming service in its own right.    

$60 at Fubo TV

Hulu + Live TV

The one and only combination live TV and VoD service has its pluses and minuses

Hulu + Live TV
https://www.hulu.com/live-tv

Hulu + Live TV's big selling point is it's the one service, which combines both live TV and a video-on-demand (VoD). It's a powerful package. Besides great original content, such as exclusive titles like The Handmaid's Tale, it also has a large catalog of other on-demand shows and movies. On top of that, you get over 65+ live and on-demand channels. 

Its channel selection has some blanks in it. Some favorites such as the AMC, the CW channels Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, and VH1 are only available in extra-price add-ons. On the other hand, basic sports are well covered with the ESPN and Fox sports networks. Like most of the other services, it gives you access to local ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC channels in most areas. 

Hulu + Live TV's interface and performance has been consistently improving over the years. I find it the easiest live TV service to use. 

Hulu + Live TV's combination of on-demand video and live TV is nice, but its price is going up. For now, it's still $55 a month, but on December 18, 2020, it will be going up to $65 a month. For that, you can also stream two sessions at once and get 50 hours of cloud DVR storage. If you want more, for $10 a month you get 200 hours of cloud storage. With this Enhanced Cloud DVR, you can also record multiple shows at the same time, and fast-forward through any content in your DVR. For another $10 a month, you can play more than two streams at once. But, unlike the other services, you can't easily stream outside your home. As Hulu puts it, "Our Live TV plans are intended for single-home use.

Finally, if all you want is Hulu VoD streaming, it's still available. The cheapest version of the ad-supported streaming library is only $6 a month. The no-ads version is also available for $11.99.

Until recently, I'd recommend Hulu + Live TV for most people. But, with its added costs, I think you should take a long, hard look at its offerings and its rivals before paying for a subscription. 

$55 at Hulu

Philo

Philo offers the best, cheap streaming TV deal

Philo

Short on cash? Not all that interested in sports? If that's you, then Philo is the service you want. For only $20 a month you get over 60 channels.

But you won't get any local or sports channels. Still, if you like popular entertainment and lifestyle shows with just enough news -- BBC World News and Cheddar News -- to keep you informed, Philo is well worth checking out.

Philo also boasts exceptional DVR capabilities. Most Philo's channel TV shows and movies are available on-demand for 72-hours after their first live airing. It also gives you unlimited DVR storage. Once stored, however, you'll only have a month to watch the shows. Still, that's a sacrifice I'm willing to make for unlimited storage. You can also fast-forward your way through your saved shows. 

The service also enables you to watch three different streams at the same time. If you go over that, the oldest stream stops working.

Philo may not offer some popular networks, especially sports, but you can't beat the price and its cloud DVR functionality is second to none. For what it offers, I quite like Philo. 

View Now at Philo

Sling TV

Sling TV is the oldest and in many ways still the best live TV streaming service

Sling TV

Sling TV has an ala carte approach to channels that separates it from its competitors. While the others tend to offer only one or two packages, Sling TV offers two basic packages -- Blue and Orange -- and a wide variety of packages bundling up to a dozen-related channels.

This is a mixed blessing. I like it because it lets me get only the channels I want while others may find it confusing. It starts with two $30-per-month channel packages. Some channels are available on both Sling Orange, over 30 channels, and Sling Blue, over 45 channels. Orange is basically an ESPN/Disney package, while Blue offers a Fox/NBC package. Your best deal, if you want a broad selection of channels, is to combine them for $45.

What you won't get though is local CBS and PBS channels. For those, Sling TV urges you to use an over-the-air (OTA) antenna. Indeed, Sling TV has its own streaming devices, AirTV 2 and AirTV Mini streaming devices to watch both Sling TV and your local channels. I've used and liked them both. If you already have an antenna you can buy them by themselves. If you need an antenna Sling TV offers them as a bundle with an indoor HD antenna.

Sling TV's packages, besides such common offerings as Showtime channels, cost from $5 or $10 monthly. For example, the $10 Sports Extra comes with 15 channels including NBA TV, ESPNU, ESPNEWS, NHL Network, and several college sports networks. While the $5 Hollywood Extra offers 7 channels including -- for my way of thinking -- the essential Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and ReelZ. 

Unfortunately, Sling TV's DVR starts with a quite limited 10 hours of recording time. That's nothing like enough. For 50 hours of storage and the ability to prevent shows from becoming automatically erased, you must pay an additional $5 a month.  

Your streaming options are… interesting. Sling Orange only lets you stream one channel at a time, while Sling Blue allows for three. If you get the package, you can stream four shows at once. 

Personally, I've liked Sling TV since it pioneered live TV streaming back in 2016. I like the interface, I like its speed, and I like that I can fine-tune my channels so I get just what I want. It's combined Blue and Orange price is still well below that of its main competitors. For my money, Sling TV is today's best streaming service. 

$30 at Sling TV

YouTube TV

YouTube TV has the most channel choices and a great DVR, but it's pricey.

YouTube TV

I used to love Google's YouTube TV, and I still like it a lot. But, there's this one not so little problem. The price-tag. At $65 a month, YouTube TV is starting to close in on cable prices.

That said, there's a lot to love here. With over 85 channels, it offers more of the most popular channels than its competitors. It also enables you to watch not only your local ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC channels in most areas, but your local PBS stations as well. 

The service also just added its first add-on package: The $11 a month Sports Plus package. This includes NFL RedZone, Fox College Sports, GolTV, and Fox Soccer Plus.

YouTube TV unquestionably has the best cloud DVR. It comes with unlimited storage and a generous nine months to watch recordings. You can stream up to three simultaneous shows at once. 

If it wasn't for the price, I could easily recommend YouTubeTV for everyone. As it is, if you're not hurting for money, it's still an excellent choice.

$65 at YouTube TV

Best of the best

Everyone has different needs. Here are my thoughts on which service is best for who.

  • Best all-around: Sling TV, with YouTube TV right behind it. If you like storing movies and series for watching later, YouTube TV takes the lead.
  • Best for a budget: Philo easily gives you the most for the least money.
  • Best all-in-one live TV and VoD: Hulu + Live TV is the only contender.
  • Soccer and other European sports fans: FuboTV
  • AT&T Customer: AT&T TV Now

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