The Best Live Streaming Service
How We Found the Best Live Streaming Service
7 Streaming Services Tested
20 Hours of TV Analyzed
3 Top Picks
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.
How We Chose the Best Live Streaming Service
We graded seven live streaming services on the quality and number of channels they offer.
The best live TV streaming services provide more flexibility than cable. You can stream traditional 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 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."
The 7 Live TV Streaming Services We Tested
- DirecTV Now
- Hulu with Live TV
- Playstation Vue
- YouTube TV
Each service offers a different range of channels. FuboTV caters to European soccer fans, with over ten channels dedicated to the sport. Philo and Sling specialize in skinny bundles that start at $20 or under, but lack major networks like ABC, CBS, and NBC. The other four aim to provide the same range you'd get from traditional cable TV at a much lower price — research shows the average U.S. cable bill currently sits around $100, while services like Hulu with Live TV, Playstation Vue, and YouTube TV all start at $40.
But it's not 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. In some cases it's because the company is targeting specific viewers: FuboTV offers 11 different versions of beIN Sports, an international sports network focusing on soccer, because it’s going all in on that audience. But other times, the numbers-padding is more blatant. The 90+ channels in Playstation Vue’s Ultra tier sounds great, but include 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 service offered channels that most people would be interested in.
We used third-party research to score each channel’s desirability.
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 channel that respondents listed. The more people who wanted the channel, the higher its score. Most providers offered at least one of the four top local networks; some stayed competitive by then loading up on a lot of middling options. Sling Orange + Blue, for instance, only included Fox out of the big four, but its channel package received roughly the same score as YouTube TV, which has all of the four. That’s because Sling loaded up on second-tier channels like A&E, Food Network, and History Channel, which YouTube TV was missing.
But when we tallied the total number of points earned by each provider, DirecTV Now blew the competition out of the water. Its “Live a Little” package ($35) includes 42 out of the top 50 channels (including all of the top four). For comparison, Hulu and Playstation Vue have 31 of the top 50; Sling has 26; YouTube TV has 25; FuboTV only has 23.
Of course, the reason most of us are are looking at these services 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. Through this lens, DirecTV Now looks even better. Its "Live a Little" package starts at $35 — $5 cheaper than its closest competitors — on top of offering a higher number of sought-after channels. (Philo’s 37 channel package was another incredible value, with a $16 price tag and substantially more quality channels than its skinny bundle competitors.)
For sports fans, we isolated the channels that air live games.
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 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. DirecTV performed decently, but when it comes specifically to sports, Playstation Vue had the edge, offering every single channel that shows live games from the NFL, MLB and NBA to NASCAR.
We made sure our favorite providers also had cloud DVR storage and wide device compatibility.
Channel selection and price are the most pressing considerations when choosing a provider, but a couple of other factors will impact your viewing experience.
Most significant is the number of streaming devices that each service is compatible with. 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. There's just one notable exception: Philo is only available through Roku or an internet browser.
A number of 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.
YouTube TV was the clear winner in these categories: It offers unlimited DVR storage with no expiration date, and allows you to stream on three different devices at the same time. Playstation Vue also fared well, with unlimited storage and an impressive five simultaneous streams. Unfortunately, Playstation Vue’s DVR only keeps your recorded content for 28 days.
Our Picks for the Best Live Streaming Service
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 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.
|$4.99 for first six months; $14.99 after||$15||$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.
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.
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.
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.