Millions of viewers have given up on traditional cable or satellite TV; “cutting the cord,” as it’s known, can save you a nice piece of change if you do it right. Or you could end up spending as much as you did on your old TV service, and even much more.
BRING ON THE BROADBAND
For many cord-cutters, it begins with broadband. Much of the best TV is online these days, so you can bypass cable or satellite services if your Internet service is good enough. Unfortunately, about half of Americans have access to only one high-end broadband provider, so there’s little competition to keep them honest. Also, many have to make do with sluggish DSL services over old-school phone lines. To determine your options, visit Broadband Now, a website where you can enter a ZIP code and get a list of Internet providers in your area.
How much speed will you need? A single high-definition video stream requires about five megabits per second, while a 4K stream wants about 25 megabits per second. A low-end DSL account is barely adequate for standard HDTV. Besides, you have other members of the household wanting to do other things at the same time — playing Fortnite, perhaps. Aim for a service that can stream at least 25 megabits per second.
How much will you pay for this bandwidth? Verizon Communications currently offers a 100-megabit-per-second bare-bones connection for about $40 a month. Comcast is offering 250 megabits for $60 a month or 400 megabits at $80 a month. But remember that these are all promotional rates, priced low to rope you in but only good for a year or two. After that, expect to pay more.
The same goes for deals meant to dissuade cord-cutters by offering nice prices for both Internet and cable TV. One Comcast starter bundle costs $80 per month for two years and includes 150 megabits, 125 TV channels, and telephone service. A 100-megabit connection with 10 TV channels costs $50 per month.
Next you’ve got to feed Internet video to your TV. Most recent TVs connect directly to the Internet via an Ethernet cable or WiFi, and have built-in software apps for tuning in popular streaming video services like Netflix.
Or you can use a streaming media device that plugs into the set. You might already own one; the capability is built into popular videogame consoles like the Microsoft Xbox and Sony PlayStation.
Otherwise, you can buy a dedicated streaming device. One of the most popular, the Chromecast from Google, costs just $35. It’s a simple, bare-bones device that easily connects to the household WiFi network and the TV’s HDMI port, and can be controlled through a smartphone app.
The Roku Streaming Stick Plus, at $70, is a step up in quality. It includes support for 4K video, and a remote control that lets you tune in channels by speaking rather than mashing buttons. Amazon.com’s $70 Fire TV player is also 4K compatible, and includes Amazon’s popular Alexa system, which is much more versatile than other speech-controlled systems. For instance, you can tell Fire TV to tune in “House of Cards,” and then place an order for Chinese food.
The priciest of the bunch,the $179 Apple TV, might be the best option for a household full of iPhone and Mac users. Apple TV includes 4K compatibility, Apple’s Siri voice command system, and easy viewing of all the family videos and photos you’ve already stored with Apple’s iCloud service.
You can spend a little or a lot to connect your TV to the Internet, but at least you’ll only have to spend it once. This changes when choosing what you’ll watch.
CABLE WITHOUT CABLE
Maybe you can’t stand your cable company, but want to keep watching your favorite cable shows. Consider a virtual cable service, which uses the Internet rather than traditional cable technology to deliver the channels to your home.
Companies like Comcast spent billions to run cables into our homes. But virtual carriers just piggyback on your broadband service. That makes it relatively cheap to launch these services, so there are a bunch to choose from.
The leading virtual cable service, Sling TV, has about 2.2 million subscribers. Another 1.5 million subscribe to AT&T’s DirecTV Now, There’s also Sony’s PlayStation Vue service, Google’s YouTube TV, and Hulu With Live TV.
Sling TV is the low-cost leader, with a package of about 30 channels for $25 a month. The others deliver around 50 channels for $40 to $45 a month. They include channels you might actually want to see, like ESPN, cable news stations, and the NFL Network. They also offer at least some live programming from the big networks — ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox — but access is spotty, and depends on which service you pick and the region where you live.
Virtual cable can save you a meaningful amount of money, especially if you can make do with Sling TV’s basic plan. But for some of us, enough is never enough. Even the virtual cable companies offer the option to add premium cable channels like HBO or Showtime, for an extra fee. And that’s just the beginning.
These days, dozens of TV providers exist solely on the Internet. Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video are the most famous. These services started out showing old movies and TV reruns, but today they spend billions on producing original films and series, many of them good enough to win Oscars and Emmys.
Many people can’t imagine doing without them. But signing up for all three will lay waste to your wallet. Netflix costs from $7.99 to $13.99 a month, while Hulu costs $7.99 to $11.99. Amazon Prime Video is part of that company’s Prime buying service, which offers many benefits besides video, and costs $12.99 a month or $119 a year. Sign up for all three, and your monthly video bill goes up by around $40.
And now old-school broadcaster CBS is aiming for the Netflix audience with All Access, a stream that carries movies, CBS network TV shows, as well as unique programs available nowhere else, like “Star Trek: Discovery.” All Access costs $6 a month, or $10 for a commercial-free version.
How do you know which service has the shows you want to see? Just punch up a search engine like JustWatch or Reelgood which tracks the offerings of the major streamers. Say you’re a “Twilight Zone” buff. A quick search reveals that Netflix and Prime Video offer most episodes of the show, but only Hulu and CBS All Access have the hour-long episodes from Season Four.
The top streamers cater to mainstream tastes, but a host of niche networks cater to more specialized tastes. For those who love old Hollywood movies, there’s Filmstruck. Fans of British TV can watch BritBox. Devotees of Asian entertainment can log onto Crunchyroll, and for family-friendly religious fare, there’s PureFlix.
Expect to pay $10 to $15 per month for any of these streaming services. Choose carefully, and the bill won’t go too high. But combine a few of them with a virtual cable package, and you may find you’re spending as much on TV as ever.
YES, FREE TV IS A THING
But who says we must pay for our pleasures? When you watch an over-the-air TV broadcast, all you’re paying for is the electricity.
It’s the video version of going vegan, and for millions of Americans it’s just as exotic. A recent survey from the National Association of Broadcasters found that 29 percent of Americans didn’t even know that free TV is a thing.
Well, it is, and all you need to join the fun is a good antenna, either mounted on the roof, or attached to your living room wall. According to the home improvement website HomeAdvisor.com, you can expect to pay about $300 to install an outdoor antenna, but you only have to pay once. Indoor antennas are much cheaper at $50 or less, but may not pick up as many channels.
Speaking of channels, which ones are available where you live? Just ask the Federal Communications Commission. It’s got a webpage that tells you which stations are in range. All you need to enter is your ZIP code. According to the page, Boston residents should be able to get about 20 broadcast channels. That’s a tiny fraction of the video universe, but for some of us, it’s all we need. That, and a library card.Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.