Only 3 major services let you stream live TV over the internet — here’s how they compare

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YouTube

The forthcoming YouTube TV service, in app form.

Everyone in the tech industry wants your eyeballs. More specifically, a growing number of tech companies want to attract the millions of people who have ditched cable with services that stream live TV channels right over the internet.

Alphabet’s YouTube group is the latest to jump into the fray, building on top of its uber-popular video site with a new YouTube TV service. Streaming player Hulu is about to roll out its competitor, too, while Sony, Dish Network, and AT&T are already fighting it out.

But, this being the TV industry in America, figuring out what’s what can be complicated. So to help you see which, if any, make sense for you, we’ve broken down the three existing live TV services (PlayStation Vue, Sling TV, DirecTV Now) and what we know about the two that are coming (YouTube TV, Hulu). We’ll update if any more shake-ups arise.

Let’s dig into the fine print:

But first, a quick note on what these services are not:

As we’ve noted before, none of the three live TV services we have today are really solving the cord-cutter’s conundrum — that is, getting the channels and shows you want, on time, whenever and wherever you want, without paying more than you have to for channels you’ll never watch.

They still look a lot like cable packages, in other words; they’re just smaller cable packages, delivered over the internet, with slightly cheaper starting prices.

There are other issues beyond that. The on-demand selection is very similar across every service, and almost exactly like what you’d get with a cable subscription. On-demand and live content still feel stuck in separate silos. (Hulu and YouTube could change this, though.) They all have gaps with their channel selection. (This excellent CNET list has a full breakdown.) And, most significantly, they’ve all had bugs and technical issues.

As it stands now, if you’re looking for cable, you should just buy cable. It’s reliable.

 

That said, here’s what these services do offer.

While none of these services stream perfectly, they’re not unusable. All of their interfaces are clean and easy enough to navigate, even if they could be faster. And when they work, they do give value to those who can’t quit the cord completely. They cover gaps that a hodgepodge of Netflix, Hulu, and insular streaming services cannot — most notably with sports, and, you know, watching popular shows as they air. Plus, they are more affordable.

As more and more people cut the cord, they’ll make more sense, and they should improve, even if they don’t take a wrecking ball to the TV industry’s current power structure. They already seem to be growing, and they’re expected to pick up as the market continues to shift.

Sling TV

1. How much does it cost?
$20 a month for the base Sling Orange package, or $25 a month for a Sling Blue package with more channels.

For $40 a month, you can buy the Orange and Blue packages together, mainly because the two do not totally overlap in terms of channel selection. (More in a sec.)

From there, you can tack on a bunch of smaller specialized bundles of channels for anywhere from $5 to $15 a month per bundle. We recommend looking through those on Sling’s service page, because there’s way too many to list here.

2. How many channels does it have?
Sling Orange has 30 channels. Sling Blue has about 40ish channels depending on where you live, but again its lineup doesn’t include everything in Sling Orange. The add-on bundles can incorporate a few dozen more channels, but those vary wildly in terms of popularity.

3. What major channels are not included?
CBS is completely absent. ABC is there, but only in a handful of markets, and only for an extra $5 a month. There’s no option to add Showtime, either — and for the kids, there’s no main Nickelodeon channel.

It’s also worth noting that, while Sling does carry Fox and NBC, they’re only included in the Sling Blue package, and they aren’t available in every market. Check that you’re covered before you buy.

 

4. Does it include ESPN?
Yes, but only in Sling Orange. There, you get ESPN, ESPN 2, and ESPN 3 by default. This is the main thing that prevents the Orange and Blue packages from overlapping.

5. What about local sports and non-ESPN sports networks?
This is a bit of a mess.

While Sling Blue doesn’t have ESPN, it does includes Fox’s regional sports channels, although they can vary by region. (A bunch are covered, so check Dish Network’s FAQ page for specifics.) Dish recently announced that Sling Blue will also add NBC’s regional sports networks by early April, but only in the California, Bay Area, Chicago, and Mid-Atlantic markets to start.

As for other national sports channels: Only Sling Blue includes Fox Sports 1, NFL Network, and NBC Sports Network. Alongside Sling Blue, you can add a separate “Sports Extra” package that includes the NFL’s RedZone channel, NBA TV, NHL Network, and others for $10 a month.

If you have Sling Orange, though, that “Sports Extra” package costs $5 a month, doesn’t include RedZone, and throws in a few more deep-in-the-weeds sports channels. That, again, comes in addition to the main ESPN networks, which Sling Blue does not have.

Did we mention these services still feel like cable subscriptions much of the time?

6. What about HBO?
HBO is only available as an add-on to one of the core bundles. It costs $15 a month on its own, the same as HBO’s standalone HBO Now streaming service.

7. What devices does it support?
You can check Sling’s support page for the full list, but the big no-show is Sony’s PlayStation 4. Otherwise, Roku, Apple TV (2015), Amazon Fire TV, Chromecast, iOS, Android, Android TV, Windows, macOS, Xbox One, and the like are all aboard.

8. Does it have DVR, so I can record shows I missed?
Yes, but it’s in beta, and as of this writing only a handful of beta customers can use it on Roku, Android, and Amazon devices. It also maxes you out at 100 hours of recording time. And a handful of channels cannot be recorded for the time being.

9. Can I pause and rewind live TV?
Yes, technically, but a good chunk of channels — including ESPN, CNN, TBS, Cartoon Network, AMC, and others — do not support the feature, and can only be watched live.

10. How many people can use it at once?
With Sling Orange, you can only have one active stream going at a time. With Sling Blue, that’s bumped up to three concurrent streams. With the $40 a month Orange and Blue combo package, it becomes four concurrent streams.

11. Any other extras I should know about?
Sling is particularly stacked with Spanish-language channels, albeit through a $5 add-on.

PlayStation Vue

1. How much does it cost?
It depends. In most markets, Vue’s entry-level package costs $30 a month. Tiers with more channels are then $35, $45, and $65 a month. Around some major cities, though, Vue starts at $40 a month, with those higher tiers at $45, $55, and $75 a month.

There’s a catch to all of this, which we’ll get into below. In any case, beyond the base tiers, there are a handful of add-on channels that range from $2 to $15 a month.

2. How many channels does it have?
Vue’s entry-level “Access” tier has about 45 channels. The next “Core” tier has about 60 channels. Then there’s an “Elite” tier with 90 channels. Finally, an “Ultra” tier takes the Elite package and adds HBO and Showtime.

3. What major channels are not included?
Sony dropped its partnership with Viacom last November, which means Vue has no way to stream Comedy Central, MTV, Spike, Nickelodeon, or any other Viacom property. Those are the biggest outright absences.

As with Sling TV, Vue’s relationship with the big four networks is complicated. If you live near the handful of cities where Vue starts at $40 a month — NYC, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, Philadelphia, Miami, and San Francisco — you’ll be able to watch CBS, ABC, Fox, and NBC live.

If you live in another market, Vue is cheaper, but you can only watch shows from those networks on-demand, a day after they air. You might get one or two of those channels live, but you won’t get all four. Again, check where you stand first — or just buy an antenna.

This is another reminder that none of these services have shifted the balance of power away from media giants and cable companies.

4. Does it include ESPN?
Yes. Even in its base Access tier, PlayStation Vue includes both ESPN and ESPN 2.

5. What about local sports and non-ESPN sports networks?
The Access tier also includes Fox Sports 1 and NBC Sports Network.

Jumping up a tier adds other national channels like the NFL Network, but it also adds regional sports networks from Fox, NBC, and the like. This should cover most people, but it’s worth remembering that markets are different, and exactly which games those networks are allowed to air can vary by zip code. Not every gap is guaranteed to be filled yet.

6. What about HBO?
HBO is only available as an add-on to one of the core bundles. It costs $15 a month on its own, the same as HBO’s standalone HBO Now streaming service.

7. What devices does it support?
Though it has “PlayStation” in the name, Vue works with boxes beyond Sony’s PS4 and PS3. The only big absentee is Microsoft’s Xbox One. (Imagine that!) Otherwise, Roku, Apple TV (2015), Fire TV, iOS, Android — they’re all supported.

8. Does it have DVR, so I can record shows I missed?
Yes. YouTube will soon join it, but right now Vue is the only live TV service with a full DVR feature available. With few exceptions, you can record whatever show you want to the cloud.

The limitation, though, is that you can only save each recording for up to 28 days after it airs.

9. Can I pause and rewind live TV?
Yes. And though it doesn’t cover every channel — particularly some CBS affiliates — it’s generally more widely available than it is with Sling TV.

10. How many people can use it at once?
You can have up to five separate streams going at a time. That’s more than any other service.

11. Any other extras I should know about?
In our testing over the past few months, PlayStation Vue has had the fewest technical hiccups. Your mileage may vary, and all that, but that, combined with the fullish feature set, makes it feel like the most polished service thus far.

Vue also works with more “TV Everywhere” apps than Sling TV or DirecTV Now. That means you can use your Vue credentials various streaming apps that normally require a cable login.

DirecTV Now

1. How much does it cost?
DirecTV Now’s entry-level “Live a Little” tier costs $35 a month. The next “Just Right” tier costs $50 a month. Then a larger “Go Big” tier costs $60 a month. Finally, a “Gotta Have It” tier goes for $70 a month.

You can then add HBO, Cinemax, or Starz for a separate monthly fee on top of that.

2. How many channels does it have?
The base tier includes a little over 60 channels. The Just Right tier raises that to around 80 channels. Then the Go Big tier brings it to about 100 channels. Then the final tier includes about 120 channels.

On a pure cost-per-channel basis, this makes DirecTV Now the densest service of the bunch.

3. What major channels are not included?
CBS, again, is entirely absent. (Not coincidentally, CBS would love you to pay $6 a month for its own CBS All Access service.) There’s no option for Showtime or the NFL Network, either.

As for the other three major networks, it’ll once again depend on where you live. Only a small selection of major markets broadcast all three of NBC, ABC, and FOX live — some carry two, others only get one. It’s worth using AT&T’s channel lookup tool to see if you need an antenna. Generally speaking, Vue covers a few more people in this regard.

If your area doesn’t carry one of those networks, DirecTV Now airs it on a 24-hour delay.

 

4. Does it include ESPN?
Yes. Even in the base tier, you get ESPN and ESPN 2 by default.

5. What about local sports and non-ESPN sports networks?
The entry-level tier also has Fox Sports 1, but, as with Vue, you need step up a level to get regional sports channels from Fox and NBC. Again, while it has a good chunk down, its coverage is far from flawless, so use the lookup tool to be sure you have what you need. Even then, it’s hard to talk in absolutes when it comes to licensing agreements for each market.

Various other sports networks are included in the higher tiers, but as noted above, there’s no NFL Network or RedZone. There’s also no NFL Sunday Ticket, even though DirecTV sells that as part of its standard satellite TV service.

6. What about HBO?
HBO is only available as an add-on to one of the main tiers. However, it only costs $5 a month here, which is $10 cheaper than it is with Sling TV or PlayStation Vue.

7. What devices does it support?
Apple TV (sans NBC channel support), Fire TV, Android, iOS, and Chromecast (but only for Android phones).

AT&T has said support for Roku devices would come early in 2017, but it’s not live yet. There’s nothing for Chromecast on iOS, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, or Android TV, either.  

8. Does it have DVR, so I can record shows I missed?
Not yet. Aside from the technical issues it’s faced, this is probably the biggest knock against DirecTV Now. AT&T says it plans to add some sort of DVR to the service sometime this year, however.

9. Can I pause and rewind live TV?
You can only pause, not rewind or fast forward. Again, this is an area where DirecTV Now lags behind Sling TV and, especially, PlayStation Vue.

10. How many people can use it at once?
DirecTV Now only supports two concurrent streams from a given account. That’s on the lower end of things.

11. Any other extras I should know about?
If you use subscribe to AT&T’s mobile service, you can stream DirecTV Now over a mobile connection at no cost to your data cap. This is a practice called zero-rating, and the way AT&T approaches it may or may not be killing the open internet. But it’s a nifty perk if you can take advantage of it.

Also, for what it’s worth, DirecTV Now has faced the most technical issues in our testing. Things have calmed down a bit, but don’t be surprised if you come across a hiccup or two.

What we know about YouTube TV so far

1. How much does it cost?
$35 a month. YouTube says it might introduce additional tiers for higher prices, but right now it looks like it’ll just have one simple offering at launch.

2. How many channels does it have?
For now, there are 43 channels, plus the original (and youth-focused) YouTube-created shows that come with a YouTube Red subscription. You can add ShowTime and Fox Soccer Plus separately on top of that. And, naturally, you’ll still have the billions of everything YouTube videos to browse alongside the live stuff.

3. What major channels are not included?
For now, there are no Viacom channels (Comedy Central, MTV, Spike, Nickelodeon), no AMC (and thus no “The Walking Dead”), no Turner channels (TNT, TBS, CNN), no Discovery channels, and no A&E.

Some of those aren’t on one or two other services, but YouTube thinks it’s too expensive to replicate the traditional TV bundle with a service like this — and it does have plenty of YouTube content already — so it’s going skinnier as a result.  

Notably, YouTube does have all four of the major networks. We can’t say how restricted ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox may be until the service is live, but the fact that they’ll all be there in some capacity should give it a slight leg up over Sling TV and DirecTV Now.

 

4. Does it include ESPN?
Yes. YouTube says it’ll include ESPN, ESPN 2, and ESPN 3. It’ll also have a few other ESPN properties — ESPNU, ESPNEWS, the SEC Network — that are reserved for pricier tiers with its rivals.

5. What about local sports and non-ESPN sports networks?
Aside from the ESPN channels, you get Fox Sports 1, NBC Sports Network, Big Ten Network, and CBS Sports Network by default. But there are no Turner channels, remember, so you’ll miss, say, NBA games on TNT or playoff baseball on TBS.

YouTube says it’ll have regional sports stations from both Fox and NBC, too, but we’ll have to wait and see exactly how far that coverage will go. Judging by YouTube’s competitors, it seems safe to expect some markets to miss out here and there.

6. What about HBO?
Nope. YouTube does not have any deals with HBO owner Time Warner, hence the lack of Turner channels. You’ll have to use HBO Now separately.

7. What devices does it support?
For now, YouTube says the service will work on Android, iOS, Chromecast, and smart TVs with Google Cast built-in. The company says further device support will come later in the year, but right now, those with Apple TV, Fire TV, Roku, PlayStation, or Xbox devices will have to go mobile. That’s not great.

8. Does it have DVR, so I can record shows I missed?
Yes. Not only that, YouTube says its DVR won’t have any storage limits, and that it’ll save your recordings for up to nine months. That should give YouTube the most robust DVR of the bunch.

9. Can I pause and rewind live TV?
Yes. But again, the extent of the feature won’t be clear until we’re able to use it.

10. How many people can use it at once?
YouTube says you’ll be able to have three streams going simultaneously.

YouTube is also touting the fact that you can have up to six different accounts with one subscription, each of which get their own DVR and content suggestions. PlayStation Vue allows for separate user profiles, too, though, unlike YouTube TV, it makes you all share one username and password. So it should be good for families.

11. Any other extras I should know about?
YouTube TV will not launch nationwide; to start, everything here will only be available in major markets like New York, Los Angeles, and other places where it’s negotiated the rights to live local broadcasts. (Similar to Vue in certain markets.)

What we know about Hulu’s live TV service so far

While we’ve gotten a sneak peek at Hulu’s upcoming live TV service, and it has released some details publicly, but we still don’t know enough about it to do a full rundown like the ones above just yet. Still, here’s what we’ve learned so far:

• It’ll cost “less than $40” a month.

• It’s still called “Hulu” — the live TV bits will just be integrated into a newly designed Hulu app.

• There should be at least 35-40 channels available, if not more. It’s not clear if they’ll be split up into separate packages, though, or presented all-in-one like YouTube TV.

• Hulu has signed content deals with CBS, Fox, Disney (which owns ABC and ESPN), Time Warner (TNT, TBS, Adult Swim, etc.), A&E Networks, and so on. Given that Hulu is part-owned by CBS, Fox, and Disney, that’s not a shock.

• Fox’s regional sports broadcasts will be included in some capacity, though we can’t say how far its coverage will extend, and what other regional networks will be included.

• Bloomberg reports that Hulu has added NBCUniversal’s cable networks (E!, Bravo, etc.), but it has not yet signed NBC itself.

• Bloomberg also reports that Hulu doesn’t have a deal with Viacom. Like YouTube TV and PlayStation Vue, it may be without Comedy Central, MTV, and the like to start.

• You can have up to two concurrent streams, which isn’t a lot. Hulu has told us that there’ll be a paid option to add more, but it’s not clear how that’ll work.

• There will be a cloud DVR, but it won’t be unlimited. Again, there’ll be a paid option to add more, but it’s not clear how that’ll work.

• Like YouTube TV, Hulu’s service aims to mash its existing on-demand library in with the new live programming and the deals it’s struck with content companies.

• You can pause and rewind live TV, but not with every channel.

• It’ll be available on iOS, Android, Apple TV, Chromecast, and Xbox One. Hulu says Roku support will come later in the year. That still leaves some holes, though.

• There’ve been multiple beta tests thus far, but we can’t say when the service will go live besides sometime in “the coming months.”

So, which one should I get?

It’s close, but if you need to pick today, we’d go with PlayStation Vue. It’s been the smoothest, technically speaking, in our testing; it’s not hard to navigate; it works on most devices; it supports the highest amount of concurrent streams (i.e., it’s good for a family); its channel lineup, while not flawless, compares well to the others; and it has a full-fledged DVR in place today.

The big knock is that it can get pricey — you may have pay $45 a month for regional sports depending on where you live, though that goes down to $35 in other places. That’s not so bad compared to DirecTV Now, but Sling and YouTube could undercut it for some.

If you just want the cheapest package possible, Sling TV’s Blue package is very competitively priced for a bundle with regional sports, but it’s still rolling some of those local channels out, is missing ESPN, and hasn’t fully implemented its DVR. It’s generally had more technical issues than Vue, too. Still, it’s getting at the right idea by curating more tightly and lowering costs.

It’s harder to recommend DirecTV Now right now given its lack of DVR and the technical issues we’ve had in testing. But the HBO discount is good, and if you use AT&T, being able to stream it on mobile at no cost to your data cap is an advantage — as troubling as it may be.

But again, none of these are perfect or truly groundbreaking. If you aren’t beholden to the cable-lite idea Sony, Dish, and AT&T are selling, you may still be better off saving cash and mixing Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now, or what have you. And even if you do buy into the skinny bundle concept, it’s worth waiting to see what YouTube TV and the new Hulu service are like.


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