The Best Live Streaming Service

A subscription with a cable company can feel like a one-sided relationship. You may not have many providers to choose from, leaving you with no recourse for annoyances like rate hikes. But over the past couple years, a number of companies have developed live streaming services that use your internet connection to provide access to the same TV channels for a fraction of the cost.

The best live streaming service that we found is DirectTV Now. Its cheapest package — dubbed “Live a Little” — includes 72 channels for only $35 a month. And unlike a lot of providers, that’s not a hollow number: The package includes all of the big four networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC) as well as almost all of the most popular cable channels. In fact, of the top ten channels consumers say they’d most want in a streaming service, DirecTV Now's "Live a Little" package includes all ten, something that no other similarly priced bundle can claim.

Sports was the one area where another provider edged out DirecTV. If the only thing that’s keeping you attached to your cable bill is live games, check out Playstation Vue. Whether you’re a fan of the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, or college sports, PlayStation Vue's "Core" package carries just about every channel for $44.99 per month. Notably, this includes coverage of your local teams: PlayStation Vue has more regional sports networks under its umbrella than any other service on the market.

If sports and local networks aren’t as important to you, Philo offers a number of popular cable channels for an incredibly low $16 a month. While it is missing some big names, like FX, TNT, and ESPN, it does outshine larger competitors with its other channels. The Discovery Channel, History, A&E, AMC, and Food Network are all included — a lineup and value that only DirecTV Now could rival.

Our Picks for the Best Live Streaming Service

Best
Overall
DirecTV Now
DirecTV
DirecTV's "Live a Little" bundle ($35 per month) offers more sought-after channels at a better price.

No matter which way you look at it, DirectTV Now is the service that most closely replicates a cable package — at about a third of the price. The $35 “Live a Little” package has all of TiVo’s top ten most wanted channels, 18 of the top 20, and 42 of the top 50. Of the eight channels that DirecTV Now was missing, two were premium channels HBO and Showtime (available for an extra $5 and $8 respectively), two weren’t available on any streaming services (PBS and Ion), and the others — Oxygen, Travel Channel, and Weather Channel — are available if you move up a tier.

No one else was even close. Of similarly priced options from competitors, Hulu and Playstation Vue tied for second with 14 of the top 20 channels and 30 of the top 50.

If you’re worried that “most popular channels" won’t necessarily cover your interests, DirecTV Now also impressed us in terms of sheer quantity: Its “Live a Little” package includes 72 total channels.

If you're looking to level up, DirecTV does have three other package options, but generally, a provider's cheapest package (in this case, "Live a Little") is by far the best deal. As you upgrade, you pay more per channel, and the channels that get added are generally of lower quality. Streaming companies do tend to withhold a few key channels from each level that are essential for very specific viewers, like the Big Ten and SEC networks for college sports fans. But for the most part, moving up a tier means paying for obscure channels like Comedy.tv and Justice Central, the self-described home for the “sassiest and savviest judges in all of court television.”

DirecTV-Now-for-TV-Streaming

DirecTV Now is also the cheapest option for anyone who wants to add premium channels like HBO and Showtime. HBO is only $5 extra per month, and you’ll get access to its HBO Go service, which streams the entire HBO catalog on-demand (and costs $15 a month directly from HBO). Cinemax is also available for $5 a month, while Showtime and Starz both go for $8. This was by far the cheapest add-on pricing that we saw from any provider.

Hulu
Sling
Playstation Vue
DirecTV Now
YouTube TV
FuboTV
Philo
HBO
$4.99 for first six months; $14.99 after $15 $15 $5 N/A N/A N/A
Showtime
$8.99
$10
$10.99
$8
$11
$10.99
N/A
Starz
N/A
$9
N/A
$8
N/A
N/A
N/A
Cinemax
$9.99
$10
$15
$5
N/A
N/A
N/A

DirecTV Now does fall behind its competitors in a couple of areas. It's the only company that doesn’t offer any kind of DVR service — which feels inexcusable given that Playstation Vue, YouTube TV, and Philo all offer unlimited storage for free. The good news is DirecTV Now is aware of this, and a solution is ostensibly in the works. No date has been set, but some sort of DVR service should be forthcoming. (And if you’re interested in a purely on-demand experience, we cover the best options in our review of the best streaming services.)

The other minor issues with DirecTV Now are its simultaneous streams and device compatibility. You can only use two devices at the same time, compared to five for Playstation Vue and three for YouTube TV and Philo. If you're part of a large family with diverse entertainment needs, this could be a dealbreaker. (And unlike most providers, you can’t pay extra to increase the number of streams.) Device compatibility isn’t as robust as we'd like, either: You won’t be able to use DirecTV Now with Playstation or Xbox.

That said, DirecTV Now offers easily the best value on the market. Its channel selection is head and shoulders above the rest, and it’s $5 cheaper. If you need any more arm twisting, DirecTV Now is also running a promotion right now where new subscribers can get the first three months of a “Live a Little” subscription for only $10 a month.

Best For
Sports
PlayStation Vue
PlayStation Vue
Stream the widest selection of both national and local games with the Core package ($44.99 per month).

If you’re part of the 91% of sports fans who only keep a cable subscription to watch live games, Playstation Vue is a slightly better option than DirecTV Now. At $44.99, the Core package has every channel need to stream live sports, from the NFL, MLB, NBA and PGA Golf to NASCAR. It doesn't have every possible channel for NCAA football and basketball games — conference-specific channels like the PAC-12 and ACC networks are missing — but these are also absent in most cable subscriptions.

For football fans, Playstation Vue carries all four of the local networks, plus ESPN and the NFL Network. You’ll never miss a game, and you’ll have tons of gridiron programming to keep you busy between Sundays. It's the same story with MLB and NBA games: All the channels that show nationally televised games — ESPN, ESPN 2, FS1, TBS, and TNT — as well as the league-specific channels NBA TV and MLB Network.

Sport-Percentages-2-for-TV-Streaming

Of course, for most sports fans, following local teams is just as important as catching national games. Regional sports networks broadcast live games for leagues like the MLB, NBA, and NHL. Again, Playstation Vue had more of these channels than any other provider. They have deals with both Fox Sports and NBC Sports, which cover the vast majority of regional markets. You should definitely run your zip code through its website before signing up, but Playstation Vue had the right regional sports networks in all of our test runs.

Best
Skinny Bundle
Philo
Philo
You won't get ABC, CBS, Fox or NBC, but for just $16 per month, Philo offers 37 quality channels, from the Discovery Channel to Food Network.

If you’re looking to drastically reduce your cable bill, Philo is the best service for streaming on a budget. Its 37 channel package is only $16 a month (the cheapest option we found), and we were impressed with its high-quality programming. You won’t get any of the big four networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC ), but its selection outside of those held up against much bigger names. Cable classics like the Discovery Channel, History Channel, A&E, AMC, and Food Network are all included, a lineup that only DirecTV Now could match.

The other major player in the “skinny bundle” corner is Sling. At $20, Sling Orange offers 31 channels compared to Philo’s 37 for $16. Even without the small price difference, we found Philo’s channel selection a lot stronger. Both providers share a lot of overlap, but Philo separates itself with favorites like Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, TLC, Nickelodeon, MTV, and TV Land.

Philo also provided some really nice bonus features for such a cheap price. It comes with free unlimited DVR storage, although it will only store each program for thirty days. You can also stream on three devices at one time (the second highest number we saw after Playstation Vue’s five).

Of course, there is some downside to choosing a smaller provider. Philo doesn’t have any deals with premium channels, so if you want HBO or Showtime, you’ll have to purchase them directly, which costs nearly as much as Philo’s entire service. Philo also has the worst device compatibility we saw: Roku is the only major company that it works with. You can also use either a Mac or PC (and Apple or Android phones) to stream Philo, but if you already have a streaming device you're committed to, this may feel like a cumbersome workaround.

How to Stream Live TV

Streaming is a better deal than cable option for most people: It’s substantially cheaper, you don’t have to lock into contracts longer than a month, it often comes with free perks like DVR storage and simultaneous streams, and you can use it anywhere with an Internet connection. On the downside, it may mean investing in new equipment if you’re a first-time streamer.

You’ll need a streaming device, smart TV, or gaming console.

The first thing you’ll need to start streaming video is a reliable internet connection (more on that below) and a way to access that internet connection. Most TVs sold in the past few years are connected to the internet and can download apps for streaming, and this is by far the most popular option for streaming content. TiVo’s survey found that 26.8% of respondents use their smart TV for this purpose. Coming in second are gaming consoles — specifically Xbox and Playstation — at 21.9%. If you don’t already own one of these streaming-ready pieces of equipment, a cheaper option is to invest in a streaming device like a Fire TV or Roku.

These devices usually cost around $50, plug into your TV’s HDMI port, and connect to your home’s WiFi or Ethernet to provide access to streaming apps. In our review of the best TV streaming devices, we found the Amazon Fire TV to be the best in class.

What if my TV doesn’t have an HDMI port?

If your TV is more than ten years old, you might find that it doesn’t have an HDMI port. This leaves you with three options: Buy a new TV, Buy a Roku Express+, or invest in an HDMI to AVI converter.

If you're partial to your current TV set, the Roku Express+ costs $35, and is the only streaming device on the market that works with the yellow, red and white composite jacks that you’ll find on older TVs. (Although we weren't impressed with Roku streaming devices when we tested them.)

The other option for old TVs is to purchase a converter. The New York Times recommends a model from Cirago that goes for $70, but there are several cheaper models on Amazon for around $20. This option allows you to use any streaming device rather than being stuck with Roku. Just be aware there have been some complaints about some older TV models and converters not working well together.

Make sure your internet is fast enough to handle streaming.

According to the FCC, you’ll need at least 5-8 Mbps download speeds to stream in HD, and 25 Mbps for 4K Ultra HD. And that number will need to be higher for every additional device you’re using at the same time. If you’re not sure how fast your internet is, Ookla’s Speedtest.net is a great way to measure your connection.

An Ethernet connection is better than Wi-Fi.

If waiting for videos to buffer is the bane of your existence, consider an Ethernet connection. Although WiFi has gotten significantly faster over the years, Ethernet is still the more consistent option for streaming video. Unfortunately, your TV will have to be relatively close to your wireless router for this to work, but the result is a much more reliable connection.

Our Live Streaming Service Review: Summed-Up

Live Streaming Provider
Best...
DirectTV Now
Overall
Playstation Vue
Sports
Philo
Skinny Bundle