If you’re ready to cut the cord, we can help. Getting started in the wild and wonderful world of streaming is an exciting—at times confusing—adventure, especially if there are specific shows you want to see and you’re not sure how to do it. Whether you just want to Netflix and chill or get started streaming live TV, our cord-cutting guide will help you ditch cable once and for all—and save some serious money in the process.
The ultimate cord-cutting guide
The first thing you need to know about streaming: The strength of your internet connection is paramount to you having a good experience. (Here are some basic tips on how to get faster Wi-Fi.) Streaming high-definition content, the standard for modern services, requires a lot of data, so you’ll also want to check to see if your internet package has any data caps that you should be aware of. You don’t want to stream Stranger Things in 4K on Netflix only to learn you went over your data cap by a hundred gigabytes. (If you’re curious, here’s how much data Netflix uses.)
If you’re planning on upgrading your home theater in the future, it may be advantageous to go ahead and get a streaming device that can support 4K now, so you don’t have to buy a new device when you finally make the switch.
Cord-cutting guide: The best devices
Unless you have a smart TV, you’re going to need a device that streams content for you. If you already have an Xbox or PlayStation, your console already has a host of wonderful apps, including streaming TV services and movie apps, ready for your use. (Note: If you have a PlayStation, your live streaming TV options will be limited to the PS Vue network.) For everyone else, here are your best options depending on your needs.
Best budget streaming device: Roku Express
The Roku Express is a wonderful device, capable of delivering beautiful 1080p HD video across every major service for just $29.99. Roku just refreshed its entire line, bringing five times more processing power to the device, which makes it a suitable for everything from watching high-definition movies to streaming live TV. It even comes with a remote (though it doesn’t feature the advanced voice control options of other models). Roku’s smartphone app can also turn your iOS or Android device into a full-featured remote with some cool features, like the ability to listen to your TV through headphones plugged into your phone for night-time viewing. Heck, it can even turn your TV off and on for you and control the volume. Photo via Roku
Best streaming device for old TVs: Roku Express+
The Roku Express+ comes with everything you read about the standard Roku Express. The difference is that this model includes a composite cable for those older TVs that might not have an HDMI input yet. If you travel a lot and stay at the kind of hotels that have Wi-Fi but still use old TVs, the Roku Express+ is a true delight. And, yes model also comes with a remote.
Best 4K device: Roku Streaming Stick+
Looking for the absolute best streaming experience, complete with 4K Ultra HD and HDR support? Look no further than Roku’s Streaming Stick+. This little wonder comes with a point-anywhere remote with built-in voice controls, power and volume control options for your set, support for Roku’s smartphone app, and a range extender that gives it four times the wireless range of other sticks. When you’re trying to stream 4K video off a wireless connection, that power matters. In our tests, the Roku Streaming Stick+ is the finest streaming experience available on the market. It’s worth every penny.
The best of the rest: Amazon Fire and Google Chromecast
You might’ve noticed a trend by now: Roku reigns supreme when it comes to streaming devices. But if you already subscribe to Amazon Prime, it’s worth taking a look at Amazon Fire Stick. Amazon offers almost as many streaming channel options as Roku, and while its devices require a Prime subscription to fully utilize, that subscription includes access to Amazon’s massive streaming library of documentaries, 4K Ultra HD movies, and Amazon originals. Each Amazon Fire TV Stick also comes with an Alexa voice remote, allowing you to search for shows and even order a pizza via command all from the comfort of your sofa. While we’ve personally enjoyed using Roku over the Fire TV Stick, Amazon’s devices are solid streaming options worth your review. Worth noting: Amazon’s app is available on Roku, so you can access its library if you have a Prime membership.)
As for Google’s Chromecast, it’s a serviceable option, but it doesn’t offer the same flexibility or value as Roku or Amazon devices.
Cord-cutting guide: Live TV streaming
When it comes time to cut the cord, there are two kinds of services you might need: live TV streaming and on-demand streaming. Live streaming content offers you a package of channels similar to what you might get from your local cable company. Some live TV streaming providers also include on-demand movies and shows. Then you have on-demand services like Netflix, which offer movies and shows that are available whenever you want to watch them.
Best live TV streaming budget option: Philo
Cost: $16 per month
For just $16 per month, Philo gives you 37 channels of top-notch entertainment, from MTV and Comedy Central to BBC America and Viceland. While its lack of news options is frustrating, Philo’s less-than-a-movie-ticket price keeps the pain at bay. If you can’t live without the ability to channel surf but don’t want to pay an arm and a leg, Philo is your best bet. But note: The only way to stream right now is via a Roku, iOS or Android device, or your computer. (You can read our full coverage of Philo here.)
Best all-around live TV streaming package: Hulu with Live TV
Cost: $40 per month
Offering 50 channels, including all the major news networks and ESPN, for just $40 per month, Hulu with Live TV is the app to beat—especially when you consider it offers built-in cloud-DVR and a subscription to Hulu’s standard streaming service (an $8/month value). That means you have access to Hulu’s full library of on-demand movies, shows on Hulu, documentaries, anime, and must-see Hulu originals. Working on almost every device, with the exception of the PlayStation, that streams media, Hulu with Live TV is the gold standard for options, quality, and selection. Add-ons like HBO and Showtime are available for a nominal fee. (Read our full coverage of Hulu with Live TV here.)
Best live TV streaming channel listings: DirecTV Now
Cost: $35-$70 per month
Downsizing isn’t for everywhere. The best deal in regards to channel selection in the streaming world right now comes from DirecTV Now. Starting at $35 for 60 channels and topping off with a $70 package that gives you 120 channels, including Showtime and HBO, DirecTV Now really can’t be beaten. Working on nearly every device on the market, with the exception of PlayStation, DirecTV Now gives you news, entertainment, sports (including ESPN), and the familiar grid interface you remember from cable in an affordable package. (Read our full coverage of the DirecTV Now here.)
That’s a lot to take in, right? Here’s everything you need to know about live TV streaming in one helpful infographic.
Cord-cutting guide: On-Demand streaming
Best streaming service for the whole family: Netflix
You name it, Netflix has it: must-see movies, horror, comedy, indie flicks, rom-coms, anime, kids movies, nature documentaries, movies based on true stories, standup specials, TV shows, thrillers, 4K movies and TV shows, and more. Over the last few years, Netflix has pushed heavily into producing original content, leading to a slew of incredible series, documentaries, docuseries, and movies.
Best budget streaming service: Hulu
Cost: $7.99 – $11.99
Netflix has the edge when it comes to movies and original content, but Hulu is where it’s at for TV. Unlike on Netflix, where you have to wait months—if not years—for a full season of a show to make its way to the service, shows appear on Hulu after airing, allowing you to stay up to date on all of your favorites. Hulu’s also the best budget service because it offers a version of its service—albeit with ads—for $7.99 a month, and unlike Netflix, you can add HBO, Starz, and Showtime to your subscription. Hulu has also made serious strides with its original series, most notably The Handmaid’s Tale, and it has the most robust anime library of the big three streaming services.
Biggest streaming movie and TV selection: Amazon Video
An Amazon Prime subscription pays for itself. It comes with free two-day shipping on Prime products, and it unlocks Amazon’s Video library, which includes Hollywood blockbusters and its own library of original streaming series. Amazon is also full of hard to find ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s classics. In fact, there are so many titles it can sometimes be overwhelming. Then there’s the TV shows section, which includes everything from Rosanne to HBO’s library, meaning you can catch up with The Sopranos or Eastbound and Down whenever you want. You can also add extra channels like Showtime, Starz, and more to your subscription for an extra fee. The only real downside is its underwhelming family content.
Best free streaming service: Crackle
Want to start streaming but don’t want to pay for it? Crackle is a wonderful compromise. It’s a free ad-supported streaming network with a diverse collection of free movies and TV shows for you to enjoy. Think of Crackle like a TNT afternoon movie marathon programmed by a drunk college student. Do you want to watch Bad Boys II, Talladega Nights, and a direct-to-video sequel to Joe Dirt? Crackle knows you do. That’s why it made a sequel to Joe Dirt. Crackle’s movie library is rotated out monthly (here’s our regularly updated guide to the best movies on Crackle) and augmented by an odd mix of classic sitcoms, like Mad About You, and odd blink-and-you’ll-miss-them one-season network TV shows, such as the brilliant Action and the less-brilliant Kidnapped. Crackle has also started producing its own shows, with the bleak drama Startup standing out as a particular high point. Don’t like it? Don’t complain. It’s free.
Photo via Roku
Editor’s note: This article is regularly updated for relevance.