Best Live TV Streaming Service: Hulu vs. Sling vs. Vue vs. YouTube TV
Here’s my current situation: I pay $140 for a cable and internet package. I only use the cable to watch live sports. I rely heavily on Netflix, Showtime, and HBO for other shows.
I can get my internet separately for $50.
I’m paying $90 for cable that I hardly use.
Due to MLB blackout rules (and the other three major sports), I can’t just buy the MLB package because the local sports games will be blacked out.
So, I set out to find the best live streaming service to lower my cable bill.
- Access to the Celtics and Red Sox (I’ll need the Boston regional sports channels).
- Nice Apple TV app.
- The ability to use at least two concurrent streams (preferably three) for my roommates and me.
I’ve reached some conclusions after trying five live TV services for a month.
None of the services are close to a finished product. Most aren’t even available in all areas or they’re still operating under the “beta” title.
Sling, DirecTV, and PlayStation Vue are trying to just recreate the cable product and make it streamable. This is pointless!
People aren’t cutting the cord because they want to stream. They’re cutting the cord because the current cable setup is a mess. You’re paying for a bunch of garbage you don’t want while getting a terrible experience and awful customer support.
TV needs to be reimagined.
In an ideal world, you’d only pay for the channels you want in a true a la carte.
Also, you should be able to buy the MLB package and watch your teams without local blackouts.
None of the above is possible and it won’t ever happen.
We’re stuck with this current landscape.
Like live TV service providers, this post isn’t a finished product. I’ll be updating it as things change.
#5 – Bad at everything.
DirecTV Now (F)
- DirecTV is only $10 if you already have AT&T as your cell phone provider. That’s a great deal! (But it looks like that deal is just for the first year. Do you really want to bundle your stuff together in contracts? The whole point of these new live TV streaming services is to have more control.)
- The channel lineup is solid (click here).
- The HBO add-on is only $5. You won’t get a price that low anywhere else.
- This is where this review should stop and start: their stream doesn’t work. You’ll get an “Error 40” notice frequently and won’t be able to watch anything. If you can’t WATCH what you’re paying for, channel lineups and features are worthless. I am not the only one with these issues. But there is hope DirecTV will improve. They’re newer to the streaming space and are still figuring things out. There were nights when all of my other live streaming services were working perfectly, but DirecTV wouldn’t play.
- The interface is a mess and does a bad job curating shows. There’s also a frustrating interface problem: on my Apple TV remote, touching anywhere near the trackpad changes the channel. While it’s a unique feature, I’d like the ability to disable it. It’s not for me and reminds me of traditional old school TV, where the channel order actually matters.
- DirecTV has all of the licensing deals already (they’re the biggest cable company in the world), but there’s no package where I can watch the Red Sox. You can get your local Fox and Comcast regional sports channels, but if your team has its own channel (like the Sox or Yankees), you’ll be out of luck.
- DVR is coming to DirecTV NOW, but there’s still no definitive timeline.
- You’re only allowed two concurrent streams, which is comparatively low. It’s fine, but my problem is there’s no way to pay for more. On DirecTV’s site, they recommend you buy a new account if you want more than two streams. What?
- You can pause, but you can’t fast forward after pausing; you can only press play.
#4 – Awful if you like sports.
- Sling TV might be your best bet if you’re NOT into sports and still want cable. Sling Blue is $25/month, Sling Orange is $20/month, or you can get them together for $40/month. Sling broke up channels into the smallest possible packages. You can pay a la carte for additional channels. (Compare the Sling packages here.)
- It’s not a big deal for me, but I love the inclusion of all of the other languages. Unfortunately, you can’t watch from outside the United States.
- There is no other live streaming service that’s more compatible than Sling. Name a device and Sling is compatible with it.
- You can change the stream’s video quality by adjusting the amount of bandwidth allowed. Typically, you’d want your streaming service to figure out your internet strength on its own, then stream in the best video quality possible without interruptions. But in certain cases, you might want to lower the quality so you can have multiple streams going concurrently.
- Customer support was super responsive in the chat (although I hate one of their policies).
- Because Sling doesn’t focus much on sports, they don’t have to worry about your location as much. You can log on from any location in the U.S. without it questioning you. This is awesome if you’re a traveler. Another benefit of not caring about your location is that it’s easier to share your account. (I’m not advocating sharing an account but realize a lot of people do this. Some providers like HBO don’t care but some do.)
- You can’t pause live TV. This is a feature on all of the other services. It doesn’t make sense because Sling has DVR capabilities. What am I supposed to do when I have to go to the bathroom?
- You might be able to catch your sports teams with Sling, but it’s not likely you’ll see everything. They only have some of the regional Comcast channels (SN Mid-Atlantic, CSN Chicago, CSN California, and CSN Bay Area). With Sling, I couldn’t watch the Celtics, Bruins, or Sox.
- They don’t have a traditional guide with the grid, which is fine, but scrolling through channels and lineups isn’t easy. The interface is awful.
- You can’t record any Disney channels (including ESPN). It must be a licensing issue, but none of the other services have this problem.
- I tried out Sling for the 7-day trial. I didn’t plan on keeping it because I can’t watch any of my sports teams, so I maxed out the channels. On day 9, I realized I forgot to cancel. I was charged $60. Sling has a strict no refund policy. At the very least, I should be given a prorated refund for the 28 unused days. I had already deleted the app and have no intention of using the service again, so I’m out $60. This situation is completely my fault: I knew the rules going in and just spaced it. But this is terrible business and unfortunately the norm in old school business sectors without much competition (cable and phone).
- There are no profiles. You’re stuck with a DVR and settings filled with everything the rest of your household likes.
#3 – Potential but not ready.
Hulu Live TV (C+)
- Hulu with Live TV is a completely different take on how TV should be. I admire their boldness. They use huge fonts and focus on getting content in front of you through a curation process, rather than just showing channel names. (Keep in mind, it’s not traditional, so it might take some getting used to.)
- It’s great at recommending new content to watch.
- You get Hulu Limited Commercials for free. So if you’re already a Hulu member, Hulu with Live TV is only $32/month.
- You can change your location four times each year. You’ll need this if you plan to travel way outside of your area. With DirecTV and Vue, if you’re in a different city, you can’t even open the app without calling customer support and telling them you’ve moved. For instance, I was trying out live TV services while on vacation in Milwaukee but used my New Hampshire zip code to sign up. I couldn’t use the services. I called to change my location, but once I got back to New Hampshire, I lost service again.
- There are push updates you can turn on to alert you when to watch a certain game. Let’s say a guy is in the 8th inning of a no hitter in a game you wouldn’t normally care about. Hypothetically, Hulu would alert you and with one tap you could watch the end of that game.
- You get a universal experience on all the apps. It’s perfectly in sync.
- It’s still in beta, and they admit it’s more of an experiment than a finished product. I wish their “experiment” was a little cheaper. For the most part, things went smoothly, but I noticed with sports there was a latency issue when the screen moved quickly. This has to be fixed before I can consider Hulu.
- It only works with limited devices right now. There are no Roku or Amazon Fire TV apps yet (they’re coming).
- I like to follow Twitter commentary, follow my fantasy players, and check scores of other games while I watch sports. This was hard to do with Hulu because it’s a solid minute behind live.
- You can pause TV, but once you do, you can’t fast forward at all.
- With the DVR, you can’t fast forward commercials either.
- You only get two simultaneous streams. For $15, you can get unlimited streams.
- Viacom channels (MTV, Nickelodeon and Comedy Central) aren’t available on Hulu. But it’s not the only streaming service without them.
- For some reason, there’s no AMC either.
- You can get so deep into their threaded menu that you can’t find your way back.
#2 – Old school but solid.
Playstation Vue (B)
- PlayStation Vue is the most polished live service around. I’ve had nice clean streams, and all regional sports teams are available.
- You can stream with five devices at once with all of the packages. If you want to see your local sports teams, it’s $45/month; if you don’t care to see them, it’s $40/month.
- You can set up your favorite channels to show up first on the guide list.
- You can watch from your web browser without downloading an app.
- If you want to watch local sports teams, Vue is probably your best bet. They give you the Fox and Comcast regional sports channels (depending on your location). For me, this was the only service that had NESN (Red Sox & Bruins games) and CSN (Celtics games).
- The search and recommendation tools are some of the best in the business.
- It’s compatible with almost all devices.
- Poor branding. Sony should’ve called it Vue instead of PlayStation Vue. Leave off the PlayStation part; it creates a lot of confusion. For a long time, I didn’t know you could watch PlayStation Vue on non-PlayStation devices, and others don’t realize this either.
- Vue looks like traditional cable with the ugly guide setup. (You might like this, but I don’t want to be reminded of the terrible cables of the past. I’m looking for TV to be reimagined.)
- You can’t use it if you leave your city without calling customer support.
- After a live show’s over, sometimes there’s a four-second pause before the new show starts back up. That’s cool, but here’s where it became an issue for me: unlike shows, sports go over their scheduled time all the time. For example, I was watching the Sox and it went into extra innings. Once the scheduled three hours had eclipsed, Vue thought a different show was on because that’s what the guide said, but the game was still on. It broke up the flow of the game.
- In my tests, Vue streams were smooth on every channel except my local sports channels. This was frustrating! It made me wonder if all the live streaming services struggled to stream the local sports channels, but this hypothesis was proven wrong when YouTube TV gave me a perfect NESN and CSNNE stream.
#1 – Great stream and price.
YouTube TV (A)
- YouTube TV’s Cloud DVR is amazing. You get unlimited storage and your stuff is stored for nine months. Shows are easy to find, record and watch. Also, unlike Hulu, it allows you to skip commercials. YouTube TV is by far the best in terms of DVR.
- The interface on the phone is amazing and it’s loaded with on-demand content. It’s set up with three tabs: Library (your DVR), Home (a way of finding stuff to watch through searching and curation), and Live (a beautifully set-up guide).
- You get six accounts. Everyone in your household gets their own account for DVR.
- Membership is simple; it’s $35/month. That’s a great price for the content and the three simultaneous streams you’re getting.
- Streaming inside the Chrome browser is great.
- This is the only service with which you can see and change your picture’s resolution as a show’s playing.
- You’ll get your local sports teams in almost any location. The sports setup is great. It lists all of your local teams with the full schedule and standings. You can click one button to record every game, no matter the channel. (This reminds me of Hulu, where they’re more concerned with the content rather than the channel.)
- You can log on from a different location without issue, as long as you log on from your home zip code once a month.
- All of these other services dish out a free 7-day trial; YouTube TV gives 14-days to test things.
- The stream quality is impeccable.
- There’s no Apple TV app, nor does it look like there are plans for Google to make one. You can watch on the iOS app and use AirPlay. The AirPlay worked flawlessly, but you can’t use your phone while you’re in AirPlay mode, so it’s not ideal.
- There’s no Amazon Fire TV or Roku apps. I think they will make these eventually, but there’s no timeline.
- Like Hulu, YouTube TV has no Viacom channels.
- There are no Turner channels. (That means no TBS, TNT, TruTV, CNN, Cartoon Network, etc.)
Which one is for you?
Firstly, is there a good alternative to cable?
I don’t recommend DirecTV Now unless you’re looking to bundle it in with your AT&T account for $10. It’s awful. It maxes out at two concurrent streams, has a terrible interface and never has a clean stream.
If you can get all the channels you want with the Sling Blue or the Sling Orange packages, you should go with them, because you won’t find a cheaper option than their $20/month.
I wanted Hulu with Live TV or YouTube TV to win this battle because I like where they’re headed (by not thinking like traditional cable companies).
Hulu isn’t ready for primetime yet.
In the original version of this post, I said YouTube TV wasn’t ready because it wasn’t in enough cities or on enough devices. Now YouTube TV is in most cities. It’s still not on enough devices, but YouTube TV is so much better than its competition that I bought a $35 Chromecast just so I could use it.
If you don’t need the Viacom or Turner channels (I don’t), YouTube TV is the way to go. With YouTube TV, you’re getting a great price, perfect stream, local sports teams, great DVR, and TV like you’ve never seen before. (I’ll officially declare YouTube TV the winner once there’s a Roku and Apple TV app.)
But right now, PlayStation Vue is the best bet for most people. You’ll get the old fashioned guide, great channel lineup, five streams at once, great compatibility, and a solid stream.