The Complete Guide to Cord Cutting

complete-cord-cutting-guide

What is Cord Cutting?

For many people, the arrival of the cable bill is an unpleasant monthly ritual. With the swipe of a pen or a click of a mouse, a generous sum of money disappears into the void to cover subscription costs, equipment rental fees, and taxes.

Over the past decade, households across the country have been joining in a movement to sever ties with their cable companies and contracts. Instead they’re looking elsewhere to satisfy their TV and movie-watching needs.

Not only are these “cord-cutters” saving a lot of money and ditching long-term contracts, they are gaining access to an entirely new and more convenient way of watching television.

What Will You Find in This Guide?

Our aim was to put together the most exhaustive resource on how you can still get the programming you want at a much cheaper price. In the sections below, we will delve into local channels, streaming services, streaming devices, DVR, sports content, internet and more.

Ready? Let’s go!

Why Cut the Cord?

In short: Traditional Pay-TV has a high cost, long commitment and you don’t use what you pay for. Alternative options offer you most of what you like for less.

Cost of Traditional Pay-TV

A late-2016 study shows the average monthly spend on pay-TV service (cable or satellite) is $103.10. Sure, the advertised prices start off low, but when you add in multiple TVs, renting equipment, HD and DVR fees, and taxes, the price surges. Not to mention when the promotional period ends and your bill gets jacked up, which brings us to…

Traditional Pay-TV Require Long-Term Commitments

The tactic cable and satellite TV companies have long used is offering a one or two-year price in exchange for a one or two-year commitment. After the promo period your bill gets a lot more expensive, and cancelling early often comes with early termination fees. Either way you lose.

It’s no wonder the average satisfaction rate for pay-TV providers in 2016 was 63%. It’s been a long time since I was in school, but I’m pretty sure that’s a D-. A sneaky high schooler with a fine tip pen may be able to turn that into a B+, but the subscription television industry isn’t so lucky.

You’re Paying For Channels You Don’t Watch

If you think about the shows you actually watch and the networks they’re on, it’s probably not more than 5-10 channels. If any of those are local broadcast networks like CBS, NBC, ABC or FOX, you could be getting those for free. We get mad at the cable TV overlords when they hike up our rates, but in their defense, that’s what we once told them we valued – tons of channels. And for every channel in your TV package, they have to pay for, which means they have to extend the cost to you.

We get mad at the cable TV overlords when they hike up our rates, but in their defense, that’s what we once told them we valued – tons of channels. They have to pay a fee for each and every channel in your TV package, which means they have to extend the cost to you.

Streaming Services Offer the Right Combination of Convenience, Choice and Price

Now that we’re all experiencing information overload, we’d rather have access to just the things we watch. We want low prices, ability to cancel at any time, and we want to watch them anywhere on any device. If this sounds familiar, cutting the cord and living the cable-free life may be just the thing to both cut costs and improve your overall television-watching experience!

Local Channels

What do The Voice, NCIS, Wheel of Fortune, and The Big Bang Theory all have in common?

All of them can be watched for free. Sometimes we forget that many of the shows we like are on CBS, NBC, ABC and FOX, which don’t require a cable or satellite subscription at all. Now you’re probably saying, “Yeah, but I DVR all that stuff”. Well, we have a solution for that in a few paragraphs below.

While it could seem like a step backwards, over-the-air television plays a huge role in the cord-cutting lifestyle. For nearly a decade now, the old rabbit-ears that used to allow viewers access to local channels have been almost rendered obsolete. The analog signals these antennas used to receive have been replaced with a digital. You can watch your local broadcast channels in stunning 1080p quality with a cheap HD antenna.

Which Antenna Should You Get?

If you’re a cable or satellite TV subscriber, it’s probably been a while since you hooked up an antenna and scanned for local TV signals. If you don’t have an antenna laying around, you can use this handy TV signal locator tool. It not only gives you a list of channels that can be received at your address but strength of signal measurements and which direction you should aim your antenna for optimal reception.

tv signal locator

Let’s use this TV signal report, which is based on my home address. Notice the following:

  • It spit out 51 different signals reaching my house
  • Many of these signals are duplicate channels because networks broadcast from all sorts of different areas. Today’s antennas are powerful to pick them up.
  • It’s color coded:
    • Green means I can get these channels with almost any HD antenna. The ranges are all about 20 miles from my house because these stations are broadcasted in Milwaukee
    • Yellow means you’ll probably have to user a better antenna or place it in a better location (the attic) to get these signals. In my situation, these signals are coming from Madison
    • Red means I’d probably need a roof-mounted antenna
    • Gray means good luck, it will be hard to pick them up
  • The directional map shows me where to point the antenna to pick up these stations

I’m getting all of the major broadcast networks (CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX, PBS, CW) in green, so I can disregard the yellow and gray.

When you generate your signal report using a site like TV Fool, see which color category your local networks fall within. This color code corresponds to the type of antenna you would likely need to receive the channel. Keep in mind, where the antenna is positioned and how many obstructions lie between the antenna and the open air will impact the antenna’s effectiveness. As a rule of thumb, the higher the antenna and the fewer obstructions, the better the signals you will receive.

After getting some signal locator data, the next question you need to answer is how strong of an antenna do you need.

Passive HD Antennas

channel master cm 4001hdFor the channels broadcasting closest to your address, a simple passive antenna should suffice. In operation, these antennas are the closest relatives to the old “rabbit-ears” from the analog signal days. In appearance, however, most of these antennas look like flat, plastic office folders. This flat design has proven to be quite effective in grabbing digital channels out of the air; but it also means you need to be purposeful in how you aim them.

Operation is simple. You plug the antenna into the coaxial port in the back of your TV (or analog-to-digital converter if your TV was made before 2007), mount the antenna to a wall or window, scan for channels, and you’re good to go.

Some of the best models like the Channel Master CM-4001HD and the surprisingly solid AmazonBasics Ultra Thin 35 mile HD Antenna can be picked up online for less than $20

Amplified HD Antennas

If the broadcast signals you are trying to pick up are a bit farther away or your antenna has a handful of walls or other obstructions between its position and the open air, the next step up from the passive antennas is an amplified antenna. Many of these antennas are similar in design to their passive counterparts, but they require electrical power (either through USB or an AC adapter).

This added power can often be the boost needed to turn an in-and-out signal on a passive antenna into a clear and crisp one. It is worth noting that in some cases, passive antennas can actually outperform their powered counterparts if there is excessive noise interfering with a signal. This tends to be the exception rather than the rule though.

Not surprisingly, the addition of power comes at an additional price; however, it won’t break the bank (especially when compared to the cost of the cable-box rental you’ve been paying for!). Some of the best models like the Mohu Curve 50 and the Clearstream Eclipse are quite affordable at under $75.

Ultimately, antenna height and position are still the most important factors in getting the best signal quality, even with the extra electrical boost of an amplified antenna.

Outdoor HD Antennas

If you live far away from the nearest broadcast towers, outdoor antennas are the best option. These antennas are designed to withstand the elements and deliver the strongest reception possible, free from the structural and electrical obstructions that can hamper the performance of their indoor cousins.

For outdoor antennas, the same rules apply: higher is better, and active is typically stronger than passive.

Prices for outdoor antennas vary widely based upon size and strength. You can buy serviceable models like this one by 1byone for as little at $29.99, or larger, stronger models like this one from Channel Master for just under $150.

Both of these outdoor, roof-mounted options will get better reception than indoor antennas. However, if you’re less than 30-35 miles away from the broadcast towers, you’re probably fine with the ease and low cost of an indoor model.

Streaming Services

Over the past five years, there has been a steady increase in web-based streaming services that provide users with libraries of on-demand video content in exchange for a moderate subscription fee. The one you’re probably most familiar with is Netflix. You pay a low monthly price and can cancel anytime.

For most cord-cutters, the void left by a cancelled cable subscription can be filled by one or more streaming options. Ultimately, it comes down to the shows and movies you are looking for and how much you are willing to pay.

Be warned, just like with cable-based on-demand services, content like movies, TV shows, documentaries tend to come and go as the agreements between the major studios and subscription services ebb and flow. It is not uncommon to shift between different combinations of services in response to the content you want to see. The good news is that, unlike cable, you typically are not bound by expensive, long-term contracts trying to lock you to particular services. If you choose, you can play a much more active role in selecting the content that comes to your televisions.

It’s important to divide streaming services into two camps: 1) On-Demand Content and 2) Live TV

The On-Demand players are the ones you’re most familiar with: Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime. The new wave of streaming services like Sling TV combine the simplicity of Netflix with the ability to watch and record live television like you would with Comcast or Directv.

Let’s first talk about the On-Demand Streaming providers:

On-Demand Streaming Providers

Not all streaming services are created equal. Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu represent three of the biggest players in the game. If you are looking to find a streaming service filled to the brim with content, these three represent the best places to start.

Netflix

netflixOnce upon a time, Netflix was simply a mail-order DVD rental service with a small content streaming component on the side. Now, Netflix represents, in many people’s view, the gold standard for streaming content services. A recent survey of 1,211 households in the United States showed that 54% of adults subscribe to Netflix.

Price: $7.99/month (1 screen); $9.99/month (2 screens); $11.99/month (4 screens). Netflix’s pricing structure changes depending upon how many screens you want to be able to use the service on at the same time.

Free Trial: Netflix offers users a one-time 30-day free trial

Subscription Term: Month to month

Content: Netflix offers a large selection of movies, television series, documentaries, children’s content, and comedy specials, as well as a growing stable of original content.

Verdict: If you are looking to keep your subscription costs down by signing up for only a single streaming service, Netflix is a great choice. Similarly, if you are looking for a service to form the basis of a larger streaming service collection, Netflix fills that role nicely. At roughly 54% household penetration, Netflix is used by both pay-TV subscribers and cord-cutters alike.

Netflix is really leaning into their original content these days. This is great because many of them are excellent, but it also comes at the expense of a slowly diminishing movie and TV series library.

Netflix Summary
ItemDescription
Price$7.99/mo (1 screen)
$9.99/mo (2 screens)
$11.99/mo (4 screens)
Free Trial30 days
Subscription LengthMonthly
ContentOriginal Series, Past TV Seasons, Movies

Hulu

huluPrice: $7.99/month (with commercials); $11.99/ month (no commercials)

Free Trial: Hulu offers users a one-time 7-day free trial

Subscription Term: Month to month

Content: Hulu’s library focuses primarily on television, although there is also a modest assortment of movies available on the site. Where Hulu is trying to corner the market is in regard to recently-aired TV shows. Rather than waiting months or, in some cases, a year for the latest episodes of your favorite show to hit Netflix or Amazon, Hulu offers it the next day. Next day availability is where they’ve carved out their niche among the streaming video giants.

Verdict: If you want to keep up with current seasons of your favorite shows and watch them on-demand, Hulu is a great option worth considering. Especially when you consider most pay-TV subscribers are watching their content from the DVR rather than live. With Hulu you just have practice a little patience by waiting until the next day to watch your show, rather than the night it aired.

Hulu Summary
ItemDescription
Price$7.99/mo (commercials)
$11.99/mo (no commercials)
Free Trial7 days
Subscription LengthMonthly
ContentCurrent TV Seasons, Past TV Seasons, Original Series, Movies

Amazon Prime Video

amazon prime videoOver the past few years, Amazon has transitioned Prime Video from a digital video marketplace to a full-blown streaming service. Amazon Prime Video is an interesting option for cord-cutters for both its price, the amount of content, and (when paired with a full Amazon Prime subscription) its loads of extra benefits.

The service has traditionally been linked to an annual Amazon Prime subscription (which also give users access to free two-day shipping, Amazon Music, unlimited photo storage, a Kindle lending library, and a lot more). While full-fledged Amazon Prime subscribers still have access to the video service, as of April 2016 Amazon has also started to offer it as a standalone monthly subscription.

Price: $8.99/month for Amazon Prime Video alone; $10.99/month for Prime Video along with the rest of the Amazon Prime subscription benefits for Sprint wireless customers; $99/annually for a year of full Amazon Prime

Free Trial: Amazon offers users a one-time 30-day free trial of Amazon Prime

Subscription Term: Available month to month or as part of an annual Amazon Prime subscription

Content: Amazon offers a large library of free streaming movies, TV series, documentaries, and musical content as a part of its Amazon Prime Video service. One of the strongest components of the Amazon Prime Video library is the wide array of children’s programming. While other players on this list have their share of commercial-free, on-demand children’s content, Amazon has really committed to the genre with a variety of quality, educational, and wholesome material for the little cord-cutters in your household. Additionally, Amazon has followed in the footsteps of Netflix and Hulu by offering original TV series and movies.

Verdict: Amazon is a modern corporate juggernaut. You will be hard-pressed to find a more robust package of retail services and media content than what you get with an annual Amazon Prime subscription.

Prime Video used to be just a small component of that package thrown in as a fringe benefit; but as evidenced by the way Amazon has chosen to break out the service with its own stand-alone subscription option, the company is making a hard run at industry-leading Netflix. Their commitment to original content was rewarded when “Manchester by the Sea” won for Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay at the 2017 Oscars.

Amazon Prime Video Summary

ItemDescription
Price$8.99/mo (standalone)
$99/yr (full Prime membership)
Free Trial30 days
Subscription LengthMonthly
ContentPast TV Seasons, Original Series, Movies

On-Demand Streaming Service Comparison

ServicePriceFree TrialSubscription LengthContent
Netflix$7.99/mo (1 screen)
$9.99/mo (2 screens)
$11.99/mo (4 screens)
30 daysMonthlyOriginal Series, Past TV Seasons, Movies
Hulu$7.99/mo (commercials)
$11.99/mo (no commercials)
7 daysMonthlyCurrent TV Seasons, Past TV Seasons, Original Series, Movies
Amazon Prime Video$8.99/mo (standalone)
$99/yr (full Prime membership)
30 daysMonthly or YearlyOriginal Series, TV Past Seasons, Movies

Live Streaming TV

As cord-cutting has risen in popularity, cable subscriptions have naturally begun to decrease. Many of the channel providers who rely on cable subscriptions as the cornerstone of their business model have had to take proactive approaches to carve out a niche in a world without cable to ensure their survival.

The benefit to the cord-cutting consumer is a rise in streaming “a la carte” options that allow users to create customized versions of the cable service they abandoned. In theory, you can create a customized mix of channels at a fraction of the cost of a cable plan and without all the bloat of channels you won’t watch. As with all services, however, some do a better job of this than others.

Sling TV

sling tv For cord-cutters who are leery about giving up access to cable mainstays like ESPN, major cable news outlets, and even HGTV, Sling provides a training-wheels approach to cord cutting. By subscribing to their monthly service, you can customize a plan that gives you access to many of the most-watched cable channels via high-quality internet streams.

Instead of renting a cable-box, you use a phone, tablet, computer or any number of commercially-available streaming devices to stream your channels.

Price: Varies by channel package – $20/month, $25/month, and $40/month options are available with various add-on options ranging from $5 to $15. The ability to use the service on multiple devices at once costs extra.

Free Trial: SlingTV offers users a one-time 7-day free trial

Subscription Term: Month to month

Content: Sling offers a solid selection of cable channels as well as local options in select markets. Some channels even offer on-demand options and show replays.

Verdict: If over-the-air broadcasts either aren’t enough or aren’t available in your area, Sling is a good option for maintaining access to traditional television channels.

Be aware, depending on the package and streaming options you are looking for, Sling’s price can start to add up (especially when you factor in your associated internet costs and the one-time purchases of any streaming devices you may need – more on these issues later). The good news is that without long-term contracts, you can literally add or drop services each month until you hone in on the package that strikes the right balance between price and channels.

DirecTV Now

directv nowPerhaps the most direct competitor to Sling TV is a mainstay of the subscription television market, DirecTV. Their streaming service, in many ways, lags behind the performance of Sling TV and users have reported various hiccups and outright crashes making the service’s reliability questionable.

Price: $35-$70+/month depending on the package

Free Trial: DirecTV Now offers users a one-time 7-day free trial

Subscription Term: Month to month

Content: DirecTV Now offers 4 tiers of channel packages, each with increasing numbers of channels for an increase in cost. Local Fox, NBC, and ABC stations (no CBS) are available in limited markets.

Verdict: DirecTV seems to still be a bit wet-behind-the-ears when it comes to their streaming TV service. Connection problems and service interruptions are still getting worked out. Additionally, users are still clamoring for things like DVR features and an increased on-demand selection. Unless there is a particular package of channels you are in love with, SlingTV is probably a better choice for now.

Playstation Vue

playstation vuePrice: $29.99/month (Access Slim, 45+ channels); $34.99/month (Core Slim, 60+ channels); $44.99/month (Elite Slim, 90 channels); $64.99/month (Ultra Slim, 90 channels plus HBO & SHO)

Free Trial: PS Vue offers users a one-time 7-day free trial

Subscription Term: Month to month

Content: PS Vue offers 4 tiers of channel packages, each with increasing numbers of channels for an increase in cost. Local Fox, NBC, and ABC stations (no CBS) are available in limited markets.

Verdict:

Hulu Live

hulu liveHulu Live Launched on 05/03/2017 with 50+ channels and on demand content.

Price:$39.99 per month

Free Trial: Probably, but not sure yet

Subscription Term: Most likely month to month

Content: Programming includes Live local and regional TV service,but it’s subject to availability—certain channels and some content may not be available everywhere or on all devices. The cornerstone of Hulu Live’s television content is produced by four major broadcast networks, ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC. These networks have partnered to develop Hulu in all of its incarnations. Available sports programming includes CBS Sports, ESPN, Fox Sports, NBC Sports and TNT, as well as regional sports networks available in many markets, News channels include CNN, CNBC, Fox News, Fox Business and MSNBC. Lifestyle programming includes Bravo, E!, Food Network, HGTV and Travel Channel. Other fan favorites like A&E, Cartoon Network/Adult Swim, Disney Channel, Freeform, FX, HISTORY, Lifetime, National Geographic, TBS, USA Network, Viceland and more are also included.

YouTube TV (Coming Soon)

youtube tvYouTube will offer a skinny bundle of 40 channels.

Price: $35/month

Free Trial: Probably, but not sure yet

Subscription Term: Most likely month to month

Content: Based on negotiations we know it will feature channels from CBS Corp., 21st Century Fox, The Walt Disney Company, Turner and A+E Networks.

VIDGO (Coming Soon)

vidgoVIDGO, a relatively unknown startup, announced its entrance into live streaming TV at CES in 2016. They’re promising lots of channels, first run movie titles, local programming in select markets, 30 days of cloud DVR, and multiple streams.

Price: TBD/month

Free Trial: TBD

Subscription Term: Month to month

Content: Local, sports, national, international

Subscribing to Individual Networks

Some of the top networks even have their own streaming services now. The two big ones to point out are CBS and HBO. CBS is consistently the top-rated broadcast network.

HBO Now

hbo nowPrice: $15 a month

Free Trial: HBO Now offers users a one-time 1-month free trial

Subscription Term: Month to month

Content: HBO Now offers a fairly robust collection of movies and television programs (including the entire catalog of HBO’s popular original content). New episodes of popular shows like Game of Thrones are available to stream on the service typically within a few hours of their original broadcast.

Verdict: HBO Now is ultimately a niche service for those who have come to enjoy keeping up with HBO’s lineup of original content. The movies and many of the back catalog television episodes available on HBO Now can be found on other services. Be warned, the delay between live airings of new episodes and their streaming availability could mean you miss out on live-Tweeting the latest bombshells in the Game of Thrones zeitgeist!

CBS All Access

cbs all accessPrice: $5.99/month (limited commercials); $9.99/month (no commercials)

Free Trial: 7-day free trial

Subscription Term: Month to month

Content: CBS All Access features original programming, like the brand new Star Trek Discovery series premiering this summer, alongside the latest CBS shows and an expansive back catalog of broadcast favorites. Local broadcasts are also available to stream (150+ markets), and that includes NFL games.

Verdict: While nearly every CBS show is available to watch via Hulu, CBS All Access is the only way to watch the current season of your favorite CBS shows. In fact, you’ll have access to the most current CBS shows 1-day after the original air date. If you’re not comfortable waiting to watch CBS shows or you don’t have a DVR set up to record the latest broadcasts, CBS All Access is a pretty attractive service at just $5.99 per month.

As time goes on, more and more networks are likely to follow the path of HBO, Showtime, and Starz and develop streaming services to try and remain afloat amid declining cable subscriptions.
As with all streaming options, take advantage of free trials to not only explore available content on each service, but pay close attention to things like quality and compatibility with your streaming devices of choice.

Another important thing to do is develop a way to keep track of when these services charge you each month. Not having a large cable bill is great, but if you forget to cancel free trials or fail to ditch a service you’re unhappy with before the auto-renew date, you’ll be stuck paying for a month of content you didn’t want (sound familiar?).

Purchasing TV Episodes & Season Passes

Streaming content is not the only option when it comes to getting your favorite movies and shows digitally. Several services offer you the option of renting specific titles (like the old cable company Pay-Per-View model) or actually purchasing your digital media content outright. In some cases, you even have the option to subscribe to season-passes for your favorite shows (usually at a discount) which allows you to keep up with new episodes as they are released. These services are ideal for cord cutters who miss a particular show. Instead of subscribing to a monthly service, you can the full season and watch it at your convenience.

One important thing to mention is that while it may seem like you are purchasing a digital video (similarly to how you would purchase physical media like a DVD or Blu-Ray), you are, in fact, leasing it from a service. In most cases, there is little guarantee that the access you purchased will be available in perpetuity. For these reasons, it is important to choose your digital video providers carefully as well as backup any videos you download offline if you have the option to do so.

There are several major players in the digital content marketplace and they all tend to carry a comparable content library (of course there will always be exceptions). That being said, it is still important to carefully consider which digital ecosystem makes the most sense for you. Depending on where you purchase your content from, you might not be able to download or, in some cases, even watch your content on some of your screens.

The Apple iTunes Store

If you are an “Apple person” with a wide array of Mac and iOS devices, the iTunes Store is a convenient option with a wide variety of content. Most videos are available in high-definition and can be either streamed or downloaded on iOS devices and both Mac and Windows PCs. As with the majority of the video services that allow you to download content, there are digital rights management (DRM) protections in place to help prevent piracy.

However, if you plan on using any other type of device besides an Apple product or PC (Roku, Android, Kindle, game console, etc.), you typically aren’t going to have access to your content at all without some fancy (read: illegal) file-manipulating magic. If this describes your situation, there are better, legal options at your disposal.

Amazon Video

Let’s face it, Amazon is willing to sell you just about anything these days; digital video is no exception. However, much like with Apple’s iTunes Store, there are limitations on how you can watch content you “purchase” from Amazon’s service.

One of the benefits of opting for the Amazon Video ecosystem is, unlike iTunes, there is a wide array of devices that are compatible with streaming and downloading content from the service. In most cases, simply downloading the Amazon Video app and signing in will put your entire “purchased” and/or rented library at your fingertips. Be aware, Amazon, like Apple protects their downloads with DRM which means the files you “own” still require an Amazon app to be played.

Google Play Movies & TV

For most users’ needs, Google Play’s video store lies somewhere in between Amazon and Apple’s offerings. Like the other two, there is a wide variety of available content to “purchase” or rent. Like Amazon, there are plenty of options for accessing that purchased or rented Google Video content on the devices you own. Be aware, while you can download purchased or rented content to a mobile device or Chromebook, you cannot download it to a computer.

Vudu

Vudu is the WalMart’s contribution to the digital video marketplace arena. Like all of the other services mentioned above, there is a large catalog of TV and movie content for users to rent or “purchase” a la carte or in season packs. There is even a rotating collection of free content available as a part of Vudu’s “Movies On Us” program.

One of the more unique features of Vudu is how it integrates with your existing DVD and Blu-Ray collection. If you have purchased a physical copy of a movie or show that came with a code for an “UltraViolet” digital copy, Vudu gives you the option to redeem said code, instantly adding a streaming copy of the video to your Vudu library. For discs in your collection that don’t come packed with an “UltraViolet” code, you can get a digital copy of most DVDs or Blu-Rays for a nominal fee on a per disc basis.

Device compatibility is fairly comparable to other services in this space, but iOS users should be wary of the Vudu app’s lackluster performance reviews on iPhones and iPads.

Unlike the previously mentioned services, videos are only available to stream from a user’s “My Vudu” library (unless they come from discs you converted using Vudu’s conversion service). This means if you are looking to take some videos on the road to watch without an internet connection, your Vudu videos aren’t coming with you.

You Don’t Have to Give Up Your Sports!

For many, sports represent the last thread keeping them tied to their cable provider. As a result, sports networks have increased their fees to cable companies because they know they are providing such a high value. In addition, as more people ditch cable and satellite TV, ESPN loses subscribers, which means they raise their price per subscriber to maintain revenue.

ESPN now charges $7.21 per subscriber per month.

Yep. Seriously. You read that right.

If you subscribe to a pay-TV package which includes ESPN, at least $7.21 is built into your bill regardless of whether you watch the channel or not. Kind of crazy when you figure you can get loads of diverse content from Hulu for just $7.99 per month. Again, just another reason why your cable bill keeps going up. One of the great benefits of streaming services creating original content is it increases options and supply in the marketplace, lowering costs for the consumer.

Get Sports Without Paying Through the Nose

If sports are a crucial part of your TV diet, your options become more expensive the more sports you wish to consume and the more out-of-market teams you want to watch. Here is a tiered look at how you can effectively cut the cord and still cheer on your favorite teams:

NFL Football

Games are shown on Thursday, Sunday and Monday. If your team is playing anytime on Sunday, you can catch the games for free on local broadcast TV on CBS, FOX and NBC. Monday night games are always shown on ESPN. Some of the Thursday night games are shown on NFL Network (others are on CBS).

Here are your best options to get ESPN and NFL Network at a good price:

  • Sling TV
    • Just ESPN: Orange package at $20/month (includes 30 channels)
    • ESPN & NFL Network: Orange + Blue package bundle at $40/month (includes 50 channels)
  • Playstation Vue
    • ESPN & NFL Network: Core Slim at $34.99-44.99/month depending on your location (includes 60+ channels)

NBA Basketball

Basketball gets a little trickier because unlike the NFL, NBA games are broadcasted on a large variety of networks depending on the team you want to watch. So here is a good overview of the sports networks that show NBA games, by streaming service:

Streaming ServiceABCCSNESPNFS1FS2NBA TVNBCSNTNT
Sling TV
DirecTV Now
Playstation Vue
FuboTV

Golf

Most golf tournaments are aired on CBS, NBC and The Golf Channel. Get The Golf Channel by subscribing to:

  • DirecTV Now: Go Big package at $60/month (includes 100+ channels)
  • Playstation Vue: Core Slim package at $34.99-44.99/month depending on your location (includes 60+ channels)
  • FuboTV: Fubo Premier package at $34.99/month

Can I Still Use My DVR?

Digital video recorders (DVRs) have revolutionized the way many people watch television. The ability to pause, rewind, and record television means that viewers are no longer confined by network schedules or forced to slog through annoying commercial breaks. Cutting the cord doesn’t mean you need to give up this luxury.

There are several options available to viewers looking to maintain DVR functionality in their new cord cutting lifestyle, depending on the type of content you want to record and watch later.

Hulu

If you don’t mind waiting until the next day to watch your program, Hulu is a great option. At just $7.99/month it’s a great deal. Not only can you watch current seasons, but you can often go back and watch previous full seasons. Personally, I’d throw in the extra 4 bucks per month and get it without commercials.

Sling TV or Playstation Vue

Both Sling and PS Vue offer a cloud DVR service. Cutting the cord doesn’t mean you have to give up DVR. You can get some of your favorite channels and the ability to record them at a low monthly rate.

DVR Equipment

Lastly, there are standalone DVRs that you can buy and record broadcast TV through your antenna. With this method, you could record prime time shows, kids shows and the football games on Sunday. All you have to do is connect your coax cable coming out of the wall to the DVR, then from the DVR to your TV.

Some higher-end models like the Tivo Bolt come with added bells and whistles like the ability to access your streaming service subscriptions (more on that later), 4k resolution support, the ability to watch shows at 130% speed with pitch-corrected audio, quad-tuners (so you can record up to 4 shows at the same time), and a smart commercial skip algorithm. Unfortunately, for all of these features, you’ll be on the hook for a $15 a month subscription and a full year commitment (sound familiar?).

The Channel Master OTA DVR+ is a much stronger offering for cord-cutters seeking to limit the shackles of contracts and recurring fees. At only $249 for the unit plus $55 for 1 TB worth of external storage (you can choose any external USB storage option depending upon how much space you need), the Channel Master option does not require any monthly fees or service plans. You buy the unit and it is yours to use, fully featured with dual tuners (watch one thing while recording another) and streaming content integration comparable to the Tivo Bolt.

Computer TV Tuner

For the techie DIY enthusiast, the most cost effective solution for your DVR needs may be repurposing a computer you already have. Using a TV Tuner (available in USB or internal card models) and software like NextPVR, you can build your own DVR solution for a fraction of the cost of the aforementioned retail models. We will talk more about these DIY-type builds in a bit.

Hardware & Equipment

Once you have made your decisions about the content you want, the next important step is figuring out how to actually watch it. Your cable company made life easy (and cashed in) by renting you cable boxes to deliver their content to all of your televisions. Part of cutting the cord involves figuring out how to get your content to the screens where you want to watch it. As with everything else, what you need depends largely upon what you want.

Over-the-Air Broadcast TV Signals

If your cord-cutting plan includes watching over-the-air broadcasts with an HD antenna, odds are you can simply tie in your new antenna to the coaxial wiring that used to run to all of your cable boxes. If your TVs were made within the last 10 years, you should be able to plug a coaxial cable into the TV’s coaxial jack, scan for channels, and be on your way.

For older TVs you will need an analog to digital converter for your TV to be able to interpret the new digital standard. For less than $30 you can get a model like the Mediasonic Homeworx HW180STB that not only will convert the signal correctly, but offers extra features like DVR capabilities (when user-provided USB storage is connected), the ability to output video using several formats, and a remote. Cheaper options with less frills can be found at just about any local or big-box electronics store for even less.

If you have TVs that are located far away from your HD Antenna, consider replacing your cable-splitter with a signal amplifier to ensure the sound and image quality does not diminish along long cable runs.

Internet-Connected Streaming Devices

If streaming services are part of your cord-cutting plan, you will need a way to bring those subscriptions to your screens. In some cases, between gaming consoles and internet-connected smart TVs, you may already have what you need. If not, here are some of the best options:

Roku

Roku has maintained a strong presence in the streaming market since the early days. What was once a brand built around a single, humble streaming box has expanded to include options that range from the powerful 4K-enabled Roku Premiere+ to the affordable, petite, and less conspicuous Roku Express. Roku technology has even been incorporated into some models of Smart TVs.

With all the available choices, the model of Roku you choose largely depends upon the features and interfaces you want the device to connect to. Prices range from $29.99 for the Roku Express to $129.99 for the 4K Roku Ultra. Regardless of your choice, however, you get a powerful streaming device that comes ready to work with nearly every streaming content provider out there.

The interface is sleek and easy to use. Navigation is a breeze thanks to an intuitive remote design that, in some cases, even includes voice-enabled searching. If you are looking for an easy way to “smarten-up” your TVs and get them ready for the cable-free life, Rokus are a solid choice.

Apple TV

If you’re already plugged into the Apple ecosystem, Apple TV may be your best bet for a fully-featured streaming device. If cost is a concern, however, Apple TV’s hefty $149 entry-level price tag may be a bit much to swallow, especially if you are looking to purchase multiple cable box replacements.

In terms of interface, Apple TV’s new tvOS is snappy, sharp, and easy to use. Apple mainstays like Siri, the App Store, and Apple Music are all featured prominently on the device.

An added benefit Apple TV has over Roku devices is the ability to mirror content from your Mac, iPhone, or iPad to the Apple TV. This makes it easy and intuitive to bring a web page, image, or video from your portable devices to the big screen.

While the streaming service compatibility and stylish features of the Apple TV are impressive, if you aren’t already an “Apple person”, a Roku device is probably a more cost-effective option.

Amazon Fire TV

Amazon’s foray into the streaming device market comes in two major flavors, the flagship Amazon Fire TV for $89.99 and the smaller, more affordable Amazon Fire TV Stick for $39.99.

The choice between the two options ultimately boils down to what you are looking for in terms of output ports and resolution. Both versions come with voice-enabled remotes and offer access to essentially the same content (there are some differences, but none that are particularly significant to those without cable subscriptions and/or an interest in gaming).

If you need dedicated Ethernet-in, audio-out, and/or 4K resolution, you need the more expensive Fire TV box. If you can get by with 1080p resolution and Wi-Fi internet capability, the Fire TV Stick will serve you just fine.

In terms of service compatibility, the Amazon Fire TVs tend to fall in line with the competitors. The ability to run DIY media-streaming program Plex (which the Roku cannot but the Apple TV can) is also a major plus for fans of more DIY-friendly media setups (more on that later).

If you are deciding between Roku, Apple, and Amazon streaming products, a lot comes down to personal preference with things like price, interface, and remote layout. They all do what they set out to do reliably enough to be an upgrade from the cable box life.

Video Game Consoles

An interesting alternative to dedicated streaming devices is using a gaming console as your de facto cable box replacement.

Dating back to the Nintendo Wii, Sony PlayStation 3, and Microsoft Xbox 360, game consoles have come equipped (to varying degrees) with the capability to connect to video-streaming services.

Modern incarnations like the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 offer enhanced performance and, in some cases, enhanced resolutions when compared to their last-gen counterparts. If you have one of these devices, you can save a few bucks and install the apps for your favorite streaming services right alongside your favorite video games.

Google Chromecast

I’m going to go out on a limb and assume you have a smartphone. If you don’t, I’m impressed you’re even reading this article. If you already have internet-capable devices like smartphones, tablets, or computers available in your home, Google’s Chromecast ($35) could prove to be an inexpensive way to use those devices as the sources for your streaming content. You plug the Chromecast into your TV’s HDMI port, supply it with some USB power, and connect it to your network.

Chromecast is unique in that it doesn’t come with a remote or any real interface to speak of. Instead, you use a Chromecast app to your mobile device or a plugin installed in your Google Chrome web browser to stream content directly to the Chromecast.

Once a stream is started from your secondary device and sent to the Chromecast, the Chromecast takes over the streaming duties using its internal Wi-Fi connection (the more expensive Chromecast Ultra also includes a wired Ethernet connection). Your smartphone remains in control of the stream, but it isn’t providing the horsepower driving your media anymore.

Chromecast is a great, cheap solution for bringing digital content to your TVs as long as the viewers in your household have devices to use to control their streaming content.

Smart TVs and Blu-ray Players

If you’ve purchased a TV or blue-ray player in the last 2-years, there’s a good chance you have access to wide selection of streaming TV apps. At the very least, you’re likely to have access to Netflix and Hulu. In order to access streaming services from your smart TV or Blue-ray player, you’ll have to make sure it’s connected to the internet.

Home Theater Personal Computers (HTPCs)

For the computer-savvy, you won’t find better compatibility and customizability than a home theater PC.

To include: android tv, raspberry pi, higher powered htpc options, tv tuners

Home Media Servers (Plex, Kodi – the legal uses) – thinking of cutting this since there is no real benefit without going into how to strip DRM out of downloaded movies and episodes or rip content from discs (which apparently are dicey legal territory)

Internet Service Providers (ISPs): Meet the New Boss

So you have your ducks in a row with whatever combination of devices and services you need to get the channels you want without the cable company’s wallet-draining contract. You’re almost there!

However, there’s one last thing that needs your attention: do you have a strong enough internet connection and home network setup to support all this streaming content? Thankfully, this isn’t as difficult a question to answer as you might think.

First Step: Calculate the Speed You Need

If you don’t fully understand download speeds, bandwidth, bits and bytes, here’s a very quick primer:

Videos take up space. The higher quality the video, the larger the file. When you watch something on Netflix, for instance, you are downloading the video in real time. The service stays ahead of where you are so the video doesn’t buffer (constantly starting and stopping). Again, the higher quality of video, the more data your network is trying to download every second. The faster your internet is capable of, the higher quality of video you can watch. Also, 2 or 3 people in your house all streaming video at the same time requires even higher internet speeds.

Streaming Service720p HD1080p HD4K Ultra HD
Netflix5 Mbps25 Mbps
Hulu3 Mbps6 Mbps13 Mbps
Amazon Video3.5 Mbps15 Mbps
DirecTV Now2.5 Mbps7.5 Mbps

We’d all like crazy fast internet, but location and cost are big factors. For some, 100 Mbps is available to them, while others who are a little more in the boonies may be stuck with 3 Mbps. Personally, I’m in the suburbs but near a fair amount of farmland, and it was never worth the cost to the cable company to install lines in my neighborhood. So I’m maxed out with AT&T U-Verse’s 18 Mbps.

If it’s just one or two of you in the house and you don’t think you’ll watch more than one stream simultaneously, you should be fine with at least 10 Mbps. If there’s more of you and/or you think 2 or 3 simultaneous streams are likely, you’ll want to be in the 15-25 Mbps range. Anything above that means you’ll be able to stream 4k content and handle lots of streams.

Second Step: Check Your Internet Speed

Fire up an internet speed calculator like this one and find out your download speed in Mbps. When you’re on wifi, where you are in your home, obstructions, and the device you’re using all play a factor in the final speed you’re getting. If you have a computer hooked up to the internet via ethernet (not wifi), this will give you the best indication if you’re getting what you’re paying for.

I’d also recommend checking the speed from various spots in your house from a laptop on wifi. You’ll notice the speed goes down a bit. This is okay and expected. To get the best internet speed throughout your house, make sure you have a good router. More on this in Step 4.

Third Step: Explore Internet Options in Your Area

Once you have an idea of what you need for internet bandwidth, the next step is to see who in your area can fulfill your data needs. In some areas, there is competition which will help drive down prices and give you an edge in negotiating for favorable monthly rates (if you are just taking the offer on the website or advertisement you could be missing out on a better deal – always pick up the phone!).

Conversely, other areas aren’t so lucky and may only have a single bandwidth provider who can fit the needs of your streaming needs. In a cruel twist of fate, you may even be stuck paying for internet service from (gasp!) your local cable company.

Regardless of the ISP situation in your area, there are some things to watch out for when signing up for internet service or adjusting your current contract:

Promotional Rates Expire

A lot of ISPs offer low introductory rates that expire at some point during your contract. Once they do, you are left with the decision to paying higher rates or eating a large fee to break your contract. Some providers offer month-to-month plans that don’t lock you into a contract, but typically you miss out on the discounts associated with a longer-term commitment.

The Grass Isn’t Always Greener

Before you jump to a new provider, assess how satisfied you are with your current ISP. If the service has been solid but you are going to need to make an adjustment to your current plan (like increasing your bandwidth), comparison shopping can still be a benefit.

More often than not, you can call your current provider and offer them the chance to either match or counter their competitor’s offer. In the end, you may be able to keep the provider you like and negotiate a better deal rather than going through the hassle of returning equipment and scheduling service calls with a new provider. Not all ISPs are created equal; if you’re happy with yours, there’s no reason not to make the effort to stick with them.

Beware of Bandwidth Caps

As more people switch to an internet-reliant lifestyle for their media content, ISPs have seen a spike in the amount of bandwidth they are pumping out to their users. Many of these companies are also players in the declining cable provider industry.

To help drive up profits (or in some cases balance out their losses), many ISPs are starting to institute bandwidth caps that charge their customers fees for going over certain data limits. These ISPs also have begun rolling out “unlimited data” plans at significantly higher rates. This is similar to the business model cell-phone providers have used for years.

Not all ISPs are going the bandwidth cap route, but it has been popping up both in the United States and worldwide more and more. Be sure you are reading the fine print of your current or prospective internet plan to ensure your new streaming lifestyle isn’t going to surprise you with a massive bill. After all, part of the joy of cord-cutting is saving money!

Fourth Step: Make Sure Internet Reaches All Devices

Even if you have all of your other bases covered, if you’re counting on the internet to bring content to your devices, you need to make sure it is actually getting there. This starts by taking a look at your router.

Most ISPs will offer you a router (and likely charge you a rental fee) as part of your internet service, while others give you the option to provide your own. If you have the option of providing your own router rather than paying to rent one, do it. This is almost always the best option.

If you are shopping for a router, there are some considerations to keep in mind to ensure you are able to stream content to your devices without hiccups:

Wired vs. Wireless Router

Unless you are lucky enough to have a home that is wired for Ethernet networking and all of your devices can take advantage of wired connections, you are likely going to need a strong wireless component to your networking plan. Given the wide range of wireless networking standards, you are going to want to choose a router that can “talk” to the widest array of devices. This means investing in a router that offers “a/b/n/ac” compatibility as well as “dual-band” signal broadcasting.

The Archer C5 and C7 models from TP-Link as well as the Nighthawk AC1750 from Netgear are solid choices for ensuring your network can not only communicate with your devices, but deliver to them a solid and steady stream of that internet bandwidth you’re paying for.

Addressing Wi-Fi Dead Spots

In some cases, even a great Wi-Fi router can’t quite reach into the depths of a basement or that corner bedroom with a strong enough signal for streaming video reliably. There are several options for solving this type of dilemma and ensuring you are casting a wide enough digital net to reach all of your wirelessly networked devices.

First and foremost, make sure your router is in the most ideal location for broadcasting throughout your home. Just like the HD antennas we discussed earlier, the quality of the signal your device receives dictates the quality of the sound and picture coming through your television. Typically, the most centrally-located position is best. The more walls and objects a signal has to travel through before reaching its destination, the weaker it gets.

If you don’t have the option to reposition your router (or you have but there are still dead spots), consider adding a Wi-Fi repeater or two into your network. These devices basically catch a Wi-Fi signal from your router and retransmit a boosted signal.

You will probably have the best results with repeaters made by the same company as your router, but it is certainly not a requirement. Some of these devices like the TP-Link AC750 can be found for as little as $20. Simple Wi-Fi repeaters like this can be quickly plugged into a wall outlet and set up from a computer or smartphone.

Other pricier options, like the Linksys AC1200 MAX Wi-Fi Gigabit Range Extender/Repeater offer a stronger, dual-band signal boost and speedy gigabit Ethernet ports for attaching wired devices.

Conclusion/Wrap Up

At this point comes the moment of truth; is cutting the cord the right decision for you and your household?

There are two key elements you need to assess for yourself when ultimately deciding between taking the plunge into the cord-cutter lifestyle or living with high (and likely rising) cable costs:

Is Your Content Available to Stream?

Can you assemble a combination of devices and services that will allow you to access the type and amount of television content you want to be able to consume?

To figure this out, make a list of the shows and types of content your household currently makes an effort to watch (not just what they watch when “there’s nothing else on”). Decide if there are any shows and/or channels that are considered “must-haves” and see if you can put together a combination of over-the-air and streaming content to meet those needs.

The next step is to ensure the TVs in your home have the ability to receive that content. Start by taking an inventory of the devices you already have, and then decide what, if any, additional devices you would need to add to replace the cable boxes you will be returning (and no longer paying to rent!).

Will Cord Cutting Save You Money?

Will cutting the cord save you money, cost about the same, or actually cost you more when compared to your current cable subscription?

Once you have made the considerations outlined above, it’s time for math.

Start with your current cable bill and figure out what a year of your current subscription costs. Be sure to include taxes, rental fees, and any expiring promotional deals that could add to the overall total.

The next step is to total up the hardware you would need to add to both access the content you want to watch (antennas and/or streaming devices), and the infrastructure to get ensure the content reaches to your devices (router upgrades, signal boosters, analog-to-digital converters).

After that, if you are opting to add streaming services to your cord-cutting strategy (rather than relying solely on free, over-the-air broadcasts), price out what the services you would want would cost over a 12-month span. Factoring in any additional ISP costs would make sense here as well if you are trying to create as true a comparison as possible.

Finally, compare the annual cable costs to the annual costs of your cord-cutting plan. If cutting the cord results in financial savings and a selection of content you are satisfied with, it’s time to start prepping for that cable cancellation call!

If you end up with a result that skews in favor of cable, it may be worth extending your projections from one year to two or more. Keep in mind, the hardware portion of your calculations represent one-time purchases that won’t be repeated each year (unlike device rentals that not only repeat, but often increase over time). Also, some cable companies will charge you for breaking a contract early. As such, some households will see much more significant savings the farther away from their cable subscription days they get. Depending on cancellation fees and the extent that you need to purchase new devices, you may actually end up spending a little bit more in your first year of cord-cutting before the real savings kick-in.

The decision to cut the cord and replace your cable subscription with other options involves a lot of considerations. That being said, once some of the key details like hardware and network optimization have been ironed out, the freedom to add and modify your content selections relatively inexpensively can be liberating.