You don't need to put together an extremely detailed accounting of this right from the get-go, but it's helpful to keep what you want in mind as we examine the services and devices that promise to deliver it. All of the cord cutting world's services and devices are setting out to solve certain problems and deliver on certain promises. You should have at least a vague idea of whether you care about the problems they address or should be excited by the promises they make!
In general, streaming hardware all works the same way. The device connects to both the Internet (via Wi-Fi or Ethernet) and your TV (via HDMI), streaming content from channels that are either free or require a monthly subscription. You browse through channels directly on your TV screen via a remote. A large part of the appeal here is that you choose which channels you want to subscribe to. Netflix and Hulu Plus, the most popular channels (available on the Apple, Roku and Google devices) provide access to a robust selection of movies as well as current and past TV shows.
We've covered the first in depth already, but our discussions of that all-important second thing are spread across hundreds of posts. Our how-to pieces, of course, offer some great answers to the question of how to watch TV without cable. But, when it comes right down to it, our reviews and many of our news pieces are focused on how to watch TV without cable, too. So are lots of our email newsletters and many of the external links we include in our Friday Round-Ups. That adds up to a lot of posts to answer one seemingly simple question, and all of that information can seem a bit overwhelming.
Cable-replacement streaming services work exactly the same as having cable — live channels presented in real time — except they come streaming over the Internet rather than via an analog wire. The upside is that you don't have to give up the channels that you love. Sling TV carries multiple ESPN stations, plus Cartoon Network, TBS, Bloomberg, CNN, History and dozens of others. PlayStation Vue offers SyFy, Spike, USA, VH1, Fox News, Nickelodeon and more. You can also record programs to watch later on PS Vue, just like you would with a cable DVR box.
It’s really not that big of a shock that a major TV provider has inconsistent customer service at best. We pitted DIRECTV and DISH against each other in the customer service department, and DISH falls short on the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI1). From our experience, you can expect longer hold times with DISH’s customer service department.
“I’m really disappointed in the slow deterioration of popular film offerings from the Big 3 (Hulu, Netflix, Amazon). I remember when they started up, Netflix had an amazing selection. But now it seems like they never have any of the films I’m looking for. I have Amazon Prime, but any of the movies I really want to see inevitably require that I pay extra to rent them. The number of B and C-grade movies that are on these services is quite remarkable. That’s a lot of chaff to pad their offerings.” ― Susan Houston
DirecTV Now has deals with all four major networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC), and some customers will be able to access local feeds of these channels. There's more to DirecTV Now than local channels, of course – it divides its service up into paid tiers with different numbers of channels available. You're free to get whichever bundle calls to you, but you'll only need the smallest one (“Live a Little,” which costs $40 per month) to get all of the major networks that can be streamed in your area. You may also be able to snag regional sports networks if you move up to the “Just Right” package ($55 per month) and beyond. Read our review of DirecTV Now here.
Sling TV offers two base channel monthly packages: Sling Orange ($25) and Sling Blue ($25). Sling Orange offers popular channels like ESPN, but is limited to a single stream — meaning subscribers can only view on one device at a time. Sling Blue offers many of the same channels as Orange along with a whole lot more, but is also missing some key channels, ESPN among them. On the flip side, Sling Blue offers NFL RedZone as part of the Sports Extra add-on package, a must-have channel for NFL fans. Viewers can sign up for both packages and get a discount, bringing the total to $40 per month.
Note: Several premium cable channels offer standalone monthly subscriptions to their original programming for people who don’t subscribe through cable or satellite providers. The most popular of these are HBO Now ($14.99/mo.), Showtime ($10.99/mo.) and Starz ($8.99/mo.). These (and others) are also available as add-on channels to Amazon Prime Video; of those three, only Showtime is cheaper as an add-on ($8.99/mo.).
The reason? The recent emergence of new streaming services like Dish Network’s Sling TV, which includes a sampling of the most popular “basic” cable channels, and HBO Now, the only streaming service to include HBO shows, has coincided with Amazon and Netflix coming into their own as producers of serious television. The result is that virtually every class of TV watcher can find most of what they need without paying a cable bill.
Both the EPG Jr. and EPG Sr. allowed cable operators to further customize their operation locally. Among other functions, the listings grid's scrolling speed could be changed and local text-based advertisements could be inserted. Each text-based advertisement could be configured to display as either a "scroll ad" (appearing within the vertically scrolling listings grid between its half-hour cycles) or as a "crawl ad" (appearing within a horizontally scrolling ticker at the bottom of the screen). If no advertisements were configured as "crawl ads," the bottom ticker would not be shown on-screen. The on-screen appearances of both the Jr. and Sr. versions of the EPG software differed only slightly, due primarily to differences in text font and extended ASCII graphic glyph character rendering between the underlying Atari and Amiga platforms.