Streaming offered us a world without cable contracts and the satisfaction of only paying for what we wanted to watch. But what price? If you cut the cord, you might not be able to watch local programs, live sports, or some “cable only” networks. A live TV streaming service might be what you need if you want some of what cable has to offer but don’t want to sign a deal. We tried out six of the most popular services and compared their features, costs, and ease of use to find the best one for different types of TV fans.

How to watch live TV online
It’s a lot like using Netflix to stream live TV. The signal comes to your phone, tablet, smart TV, streaming device, or game system like an Xbox or Playstation through apps. Most of the time, you’ll have a better time on the internet if your link is faster and more stable. Most apps that let you watch live TV require you to sign up and pay through a web browser. The app can then be turned on on your computer.

How much?
When I first started doing my research, I was surprised by how much more expensive live TV was than a regular viewing app like Netflix or Peacock. Whereas the latter cost between $5 and $20 per month, many live TV services cost around $70 and can cost more than $100 with extra perks, channel packages, and special extras. I also heard that base plans tend to be more expensive because it costs more to offer more networks, especially sports and local stations.

Local TV stations
Only two of the services we looked at didn’t have full coverage of local channels, and one of those didn’t even try to carry sports. That would be Philo, and as you might expect, it’s the cheapest. The next cheapest choice is Sling. It only has three local channels and is only available in larger markets, but it does have some of the best sports channels.

When you sign up with a local TV service, you’ll be asked for your zip code. This makes sure you get the ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC affiliates for your area. You can also get these stations for free, of course. Almost all new TVs have a radio frequency (RF) connection, also called a coaxial port. This means that if you buy an HD antenna, you’ll be able to get ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC stations that are broadcast nearby. And since the broadcast is digital, reception is much better than in the days of rabbit ears, when there was a lot of static.

About sports
One thing that blew my mind was how many different kinds of sports networks there are. It can be hard to figure out which network will show the game you want to watch. Google makes it easy for sports fans by listing upcoming games. If you click on one, the “TV & streaming” button will tell you which network is covering the event.

The only thing left to do is check if your chosen service has that local sports network. Even with add-ons and extra packages, some providers don’t have some station lineups, which is a shame. A lawyer would be needed to understand how streaming rights are negotiated, and networks leave and return to live TV providers all the time. Still, ESPN, Fox Sports, TNT, USA, and local stations cover most of the big sports events in the US.Cable networks in the past
There was a time when you could only watch Bravo, BET, Food Network, HGTV, CNN, Lifetime, SYFY, and MTV on cable TV. If you only pay for Max and Netflix, for example, you won’t be able to watch either of those. All of the options we tried have large lists of cable networks, but only DirecTV has all of the top 36 channels that Nielsen says people will watch the most in 2022.

Media companies keep merging, changing their names, or getting back into the streaming market, so you can find many cable networks on traditional video streaming sites like Peacock. There are separate apps for some stations, like AMC+. There are cheaper ways to watch live TV if all you want to see are shows that are only on cable. The fact that the Discovery+ app costs $7 per month and gives you 20 programs without ads made me very happy. Paramount+ has shows from many different networks, like MTV and Comedy Central, while Peacock has shows from Bravo and Hallmark.

There’s even a service called “Friendly TV” that streams A&E, Lifetime, Game Show Network, Vice, and about 35 other channels for just $7 per month. We didn’t test it for this guide because it doesn’t give you local access, news, or sports, and most people would be better off with the wider coverage of a cheap choice like Philo.

I should also add free ad-supported TV (FAST) streamers like Plex, Tubi, PlutoTV, and Sling Freestream, which let you drop in and watch a good selection of live networks for free. Some even don’t need a credit card. And if you have a Roku player or a Samsung TV, you can use the Roku Channel or the Samsung TV Plus app to watch hundreds of live stations.

How to watch free live TV online
I should also add free ad-supported TV (FAST) streamers like Plex, Tubi, PlutoTV, and Sling Freestream, which let you drop in and watch a good selection of live networks for free. Some even don’t need a credit card. And if you have a Roku player or a Samsung TV, you can use the Roku Channel or the Samsung TV Plus app to watch hundreds of live stations.

DVR stands for digital video recorder.
All of the options we’ve listed have cloud DVR storage, so you don’t need a separate box like you do with standard cable. You’ll either get unlimited storage for recordings that disappear after nine months or a year, or you’ll get a set number of hours (between 50 and 1,000) that you can keep forever. Most of the time, all you have to do is tell the DVR what you want to record, and it will save the next shows for you so you can watch them later.

You can watch recorded material whenever it’s most convenient for you, and you can also skip over commercials. On live TV or video-on-demand (VOD), on the other hand, you can’t skip them.

Most live TV subscriptions give you access to a variety of VOD material, such as movies and shows that are currently airing on the networks you pay for. Usually, this doesn’t include live events, local shows, or news programs. But you can watch individual episodes of shows like Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives or Sistas on BET. Just look for the show in the on-demand library, pick an episode, and hit play.

Levels, deals, and extras
A spreadsheet is the best way to compare price-to-offering rates. I… got three. Base plans cost between $25 and $75 per month. From there, you can add on packages, which are usually groups of live TV channels grouped by themes like news, sports, entertainment, or foreign. Those cost an extra $5 to $20 per month, and you can find them in the same guide as the rest of your basic live TV.

Then there are VOD add-ons that cost more, like Max, AMC+, Starz, or Showtime. You might already have these in separate apps. If you don’t, or if you’d rather have one bill and one way to watch, you can add them to many live TV subscriptions.

What we tried
When I start testing for a guide, I do study on the most popular and well-reviewed players in the category to figure out which ones are worth trying. Only six services really stand out in this space, so I tried them all. After setting them up on my PC, I downloaded them to a Samsung smart TV with the latest version of Tizen OS. I counted the local stations and regional sports coverage, and I took note of how many of last year’s best cable networks were present. Then I compared the prices, base packages, and extras that were offered.

Then, I looked at how the programming was set up in each app’s user interface (UI) and rated how easy it was to get around, from the top navigation to the settings. I looked for the same few TV shows on BET, Food Network, HGTV, and Comedy Central to test the search feature, since all six providers carry those channels. I took note of how helpful the searches were and how quickly they led me to Home Town season 6, episode 13.

I used the DVR to record whole series and single movies, and I watched VOD shows, making sure to test the pause and scan features. On each sports site, I looked for the same four upcoming NHL, NBA, MLS, and NCAA basketball games and used the record feature to save them so I could watch them a day or two later. Last, I wrote down any extra perks or annoying habits.

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