The Best Live Streaming Service
How We Found the Best Live Streaming Service
20 hours of research
7 services tested
3 top picks
The Best Live TV 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. The best live streaming services give you another option: the same TV channels you love for a fraction of the cost.
How We Chose the Best Live TV Streaming Service
Live cable channels
The best live TV streaming services provide more flexibility than cable. You can live stream tv channels as they air while paying a month-to-month fee — no need to sign a long-term contract, and no need to pay a $200 penalty if you want to end your contract early. For this review, we didn't look at popular streaming services like Netflix or Amazon Prime Video, which only stream on-demand content (You can read about those options in our review of on-demand services). In all, we found seven options that qualified as "live tv streaming services."
After finding our contenders, we graded each live TV streaming service on the quality and number of channels they offer. Each service offers a different range of channels, but it's not always easy to figure out which package is actually the best deal. Companies tend to pad their offerings with obscure channels to make the raw numbers sound better. The 90+ channels in Playstation Vue’s Ultra tier sounds great, but that includes three different Hallmark channels, plus obscure offerings like Hi-Yah TV (a channel dedicated to kung-fu movies). That combination might be perfect for some, but we wanted to figure out which streaming service offered channels that most people would be interested in.
Enter TiVo’s 2017 Q4 Trends Report. Four times a year, TiVo surveys over 3,000 U.S. and Canadian adults on their TV-viewing habits, asking each respondent, “Which channels would you be interested in including in your TV package?” Unsurprisingly, broadcast TV networks ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox are the top four most desirable channels. (ABC grabbed the number one spot with 66.6% saying they’d want it included in their ideal package.) We assigned scores to each of the 92 channels that respondents listed — the more people who wanted the channel, the higher its score.
Top ten most desired channels offered by each service
Of course, the reason most people turn to streaming TV in the first place is to save money. TiVo’s survey confirmed as much, with 83.1% of unsatisfied customers citing price as the top reason. With this in mind, we divided each streaming service’s channel score by its monthly subscription cost. That gave us a good idea of which ones were actually offering a better value than cable companies, and which ones were just pretending to.
According to research from PricewaterhouseCoopers, a remarkable 91% of sports fans who have cable keep it only to watch live sports. We wanted to find a streaming service that would let viewers cut the cord without missing out on their favorite league games.
Here, we turned to the Harris Poll’s survey, which asks 2,252 American adults which sports they follow. Then we assigned scores to each league — NFL, MLB, NCAA football, car racing, NBA, NHL, men’s soccer, NCAA basketball, and PGA Golf — based on their popularity. We checked which channels air live games from these leagues (and how often), giving us a corresponding score for each channel. Channels that show live NFL games earned more points than those airing men's soccer, for instance. Again, we added up these scores to find the providers with the most to offer live sports fans.
DVR and simultaneous streams
A number of live TV streaming services also include perks like cloud DVR storage and simultaneous streams. Cloud DVR lets you record programs and watch them on demand at your leisure, a useful feature for anyone with a schedule that’s not accommodating to TV networks. Simultaneous streams let you watch on multiple devices from the same account, nice for anyone with kids or a significant other who can’t agree on what to watch.
Cloud DVR storage and simultaneous streams
|Cloud DVR storage||
200 hours for $15/mo.
500 hours for $10/mo.
Unlimited for $15/mo.
Three for $5/mo.
Three for $6/mo.
No matter how many channels you have, it's not a good deal if you have no way to play them. Most of our seven providers were fairly device-agnostic: You can access them using just about any streaming device on the market. If you’re new to streaming TV, you can check out our review of the best streaming devices here.
Device compatibility by streaming service
|Amazon Fire TV||✔||✔||✔||✔||✘||✔||✔|
The 3 Best Live Streaming Services
Why we chose it
DIRECTV NOW has the best lineup of any streaming service, and it’s not particularly close. The $40 “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. 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.
And 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.
High-value base package
If you're looking to level up, DIRECTV NOW 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. TV 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.”
Cheap premium networks
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.
Cost to add on premium networks to each service
Points to consider
Stingy DVR storage
DIRECTV NOW does fall behind its competitors when it comes to its cloud DVR storage. It was very late to the game with this feature, only adding it in May 2018 when most streaming services had included it for years. It currently offers 20 hours for free, and will store content for 30 days. In comparison, Philo, PlayStation Vue, and YouTube TV all provide unlimited storage with their plans.
Not compatible with gaming consoles
Device compatibility isn’t as robust as we'd like, either: You won’t be able to use DIRECTV NOW with Playstation, Xbox, or Nintendo Switch. While it does work with most smart TVs and streaming devices, it’s still not ideal for anyone who likes to use their gaming console as their main entertainment hub.
Why we chose it
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 $50, the Core package has every channel needed to stream national sports games, from the NFL, MLB, NBA, and PGA 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 you won’t find these in most cable subscriptions, either.
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 — plus league-specific channels NBA TV and MLB Network.
Regional sports networks
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 than any other streaming service. It has 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 RSNs in all of our test runs.
PlayStation Vue also has some of the most generous supplemental features we saw from any live TV streaming service. We loved how it comes with unlimited cloud DVR storage. Running late for the big game? You can schedule a recording from your phone so you don’t miss a minute of action. You can also stream on five devices at a time — two more than any other streaming service.
Points to consider
Missing popular channels
We think PlayStation Vue is the best option for sports fans, but it does have some noticeable gaps for anyone who wants a more well-rounded TV streaming experience. Out of the top 25 most sought after channels in TiVo’s survey, PlayStation Vue is missing History, A&E, Comedy Central, Lifetime, and The Weather Channel from all of its packages.
Why we chose it
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. Its selection held up against much bigger names, with cable classics like the Discovery Channel, History Channel, A&E, AMC, and Food Network all included — a lineup that only DIRECTV NOW could match.
Best skinny bundle lineup
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 30 days. You can also stream on three devices at one time (the second highest number we saw after Playstation Vue’s five).
Points to consider
No local or sports channels
Philo is dirt cheap for a reason: It doesn’t include a lot of the channels that keep people tethered to live TV. You won’t get any of the big four networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC ), or any channels that broadcast live sports. It would be impossible to keep prices so low if they did — ESPN charges $7.21 per subscriber, by far the most of any network, and nearly half of Philo’s entire monthly fee.
No premium networks
Unfortunately, Philo doesn’t have any deals with premium channels. If you want HBO or Showtime you’ll have to purchase them directly, which costs nearly as much as Philo’s entire service.
Guide to Live TV Streaming
How to stream live TV
Check your zip code
While ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC are the most sought after channels, each provider’s offerings will vary by location. ABC could be available to live stream in San Diego but available only on-demand in Omaha, or not at all in San Antonio. The same goes for regional sports networks. If these channels are important to you, we recommend checking your zip code on each provider’s website before signing up. We ran zip codes for Seattle, Cleveland, New York, Los Angeles, and Boston and found that DIRECTV NOW, Hulu with Live TV, Playstation Vue, and YouTube TV all had the big four networks in these regions, while our other finalists were more hit or miss.
Connect your TV
Most TVs sold in the past few years can connect to the internet and 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.
Ethernet is better for streaming than WiFi
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 TV. 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.
Live TV Streaming FAQ
What internet speed do I need to stream live TV?
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.
Can I stream on an old TV?
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.
Can I live stream NFL games?
The NFL airs its Sunday games on CBS, Fox, and NBC, plus Monday Night Football on ESPN and a handful of Thursday night games on the NFL Network. If your live streaming service carries these channels, you’ll be able to watch the games live. Unfortunately, you’ll only get the games that would normally air in your market. If you’re a Browns fan living in Seattle, for example, the only way you’ll be able to catch Cleveland games is through NFL Sunday Ticket — available exclusively through DIRECTV for $239.96 for the entire season.
The Best Live Streaming Service: Summed Up
Three for $5/mo.
Our Other TV Reviews
Live TV streaming is just step one on the path to a world-class entertainment setup. Check out some of our other reviews on how to step up your TV game: