It's easier than ever to watch TV as a "cord cutter." You can buy specific shows on iTunes, subscribe to Hulu to watch new episodes the day after they air, sign up for Netflix to binge watch entire seasons roughly a year after broadcast, or use some combination of services to ensure you always have something to watch. The only thing missing was live TV--and now a bunch of services are trying to fill that gap.
Perhaps the best known are DirecTV Now, Hulu with Live TV, PlayStation Vue, Sling TV, and YouTube TV. All have the same basic premise: letting you watch sporting events, news broadcasts, and other live videos. Almost everything else about the services, from where they are available to how much they cost, is different. Here's what you should know about each one before you decide to commit to any particular service.
DirecTV Now is AT&T's stab at a live TV service. It has two distinct advantages over the other members of this list: a recognizable brand, given the roughly 21 million people who subscribe to DirecTV's satellite offerings, and the option to bundle it with other AT&T services. DirecTV Now starts at $35 per month, but paying for it alongside an AT&T Plus Unlimited Data Plan (which actually offers 22GB of wireless data before the company starts to slow down your connection) knocks $25 per month off that price. That offer can be mighty tempting if you already pay for AT&T's wireless.
If you're interested in DirecTV Now anyway, you can sign up for a one-week free trial at its website. The service is said to offer access to more than 120 channels, depending on where you live, and you can add premium services like Cinemax, HBO, and Starz for an additional fee. It's compatible with Android, iOS, Amazon Fire TV, and Chromecast devices. You can also stream via modern versions of Internet Explorer, Chrome, and Safari.
Hulu With Live TV
Just announced today, Hulu with Live TV (opens in new tab) is an expanded version of Hulu's existing service. Now, instead of being restricted to new episodes of specific shows the day after they air, you can use the service to watch live TV. It's a natural step for Hulu--the inability to watch live sports or news segments was one of the main things preventing the service from replacing traditional TV. Unfortunately, the service is a lesson in compromise.
Hulu with Live TV offers fewer channels--"more than 50," depending on your location--than many of its competitors. It also costs a bit more than competitive services, especially if you bundle DirecTV Now with the AT&T Plus Unlimited Data Plan, with its $40 per month price tag. You're also restricted to just two accounts with the basic plan; other services on this list offer anywhere between three (Sling TV) and six (YouTube TV). It has a DVR, unlike DirecTV Now, but its 50 hour capacity is smaller than the unlimited storage-slash-saving offered by YouTube TV and PlayStation Vue.
Hulu does have the advantage of supporting many devices, offering access to a limited commercials plan of its normal service, and allowing you to add more storage, support for more simultaneous devices, or Showtime access to your service. (No HBO, though, which means no Westworld.) We suspect Hulu with Live TV is more about convincing existing Hulu subscribers to upgrade than getting Sling TV or YouTube TV users to switch.
One thing you'll notice with many of these services: They don't offer PlayStation 4 support. Perhaps that comes down to focusing on other platforms, but it might also have something to do with PlayStation Vue, which is Sony's take on live TV. Much like AT&T's decision not to count DirecTV Now usage against data limits, Sony's ability to offer PlayStation Vue as the PS4's only live TV service might be considered an unfair advantage, especially considering that more than 60 million units of the console have been sold. That's a lot of multimedia devices going to waste.
You'll also note that PlayStation Vue is by far the most expensive service available. Its basic "Access" plan starts at $40 per month--just like Hulu with Live TV--and the other "Core," "Elite," and "Ultra" plans cost $45, $55, or $75 per month, respectively. Each one adds more content: Access is billed as "popular live TV," Core adds sports, Elite adds movies, and Ultra bundles all of that with access to Showtime, HBO, and other premium channels. (Standalone channels, such as HBO, Showtime, and Cinemax, can also be purchased or bundled with each other for lower monthly fees.)
PlayStation Vue supports a variety of platforms. Besides the PS4 and PS3, it's also available on Android, iOS, Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, Roku, and Chromecast devices. You can stream simultaneously on five devices--but note that you can only stream on one PS4 or PS3 at a time, so if you were hoping to use two consoles at once, you're out of luck. Using the mobile versions of the service also requires you to set up a "home location" with a non-mobile device. Don't sign up for PlayStation Vue while you're traveling; you're just going to end up with a bill and a lot of frustration.
Sling TV (opens in new tab) is the most configurable, and perhaps cheapest, of these services. You choose from one of two options when you sign up: Sling Orange, which offers access to 30 networks for $20 per month, and Sling Blue, which offers access to 45 networks for $25 per month. Then you choose from a variety of add-ons that cost between $5 and $10 per month and allow you to watch shows from more sports, comedy, news, or lifestyle channels or premium offerings like HBO, Showtime, Starz, and Cinemax. You can also add non-English channel packs for roughly the same price.
This means you have more control over exactly what channels you want. Are you a sports buff who also cares about what happens on the next season of Game of Thrones and likes to watch Italian shows? Then you just have to choose Sling Blue, add HBO and Italiano Mini, then install Sling TV on all your compatible devices. If none of that appeals to you, just go with Sling Orange and ignore the add-ons. Whereas other services push you towards plans with the option of a few extra features, Sling TV comes closest to living up to its promise of saving you from the TV bundles.
It's also compatible with a large number of devices, from smartphones and desktop computers to set-top boxes and the Xbox One console, so chances are good that you'll be able to watch Sling TV without having to worry about what hardware you own. In our experience, however, that breadth of focus can introduce its own problems. Local channels are frustratingly limited, you can't use the Cloud DVR service to record everything you want, and the PC app stopped working properly every time Nvidia released new drivers. One could perhaps characterize Sling TV as a jack of all trades and master of none.
Finally we come to YouTube TV. The service debuted in April with 39 channels, support for up to six accounts, unlimited cloud DVR, and a bundled YouTube Red subscription to offer ad-free videos on the main YouTube platform, all for $35 per month. (You can, as has become a trend, add premium channels like Showtime for an extra $11 per month.) YouTube TV currently supports Android, iOS, and Chromecast devices, as well as the latest version of Chrome. The only rub: You can sign up for the service only if you live in the few U.S. metropolitan areas where it's available.
Those locations are Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, and the San Francisco Bay Area. If you live anywhere else in the U.S.--or in another country--the only thing you can do with YouTube TV is sign up to be notified when it expands to your area. All of this makes YouTube TV a quintessentially Google service: It offers free cloud storage, emphasizes Google's target platforms, and is currently restricted to a few locations with the promise to expand in the future. Here's to hoping this one doesn't get dropped like Google Fiber did back in August 2016.
If you live in one of those areas, however, YouTube TV might be enticing. The unlimited storage is welcome, support for up to six accounts makes it easy to keep everyone's taste in TV separate, and bundling YouTube Red can remove all those obnoxious ads from YouTube without making you feel guilty for using an ad-blocker. Yet the service is currently defined more by its limitations--from its relatively paltry list of supported devices to its limited availability to its meager channel access--more what it does right. Maybe that will change with the new, faster YouTube framework.
Comparing Them All
Unless the decision is made for you, whether it's because of the lack of services for the PS4 or geographic limitations, there's no clear winner here.
DirecTV Now can be the cheapest service, and it has the most channels, but it's also the hardest to experiment with and becomes significantly less appealing if you don't want to have anything to do with AT&T. Hulu with Live TV is currently in beta, so it might change as time goes on, but right now it feels more like an add-on to the core Hulu service than a compelling alternative to other services. PlayStation Vue is your only option if you have a PS4, and only DirecTV Now has more channels, but it's also expensive. Sling TV is expansive but can spread itself too thin. YouTube TV seems more like YouTube dipping its toe into the live TV waters than a bona fide service that's going to stick around for the long term.
Choosing from among these services depends on your priorities, but at least now you have a little more information to help with your decision.
|Service||DirecTV Now||Hulu with Live TV||PlayStation Vue||Sling TV||YouTube TV|
|Base Price (Monthly)||$35$50$60$70||$40||$40$45$55$75||$20$25||$35|
|Add-Ons (Monthly)||N/A||Enhanced Cloud DVR: $15Unlimited Screens: $15Enhanced Cloud DVR + Unlimited Screens: $20||N/A||Cloud DVR: $5||N/A|
|Premium Channels (Monthly)||Cinemax: $5HBO: $5Starz: $8||Showtime: $9||-Cinemax: $15-Epix: $4 (Included with $55 and $75 plans)-Epix + Showtime: $14 ($12 for PlayStation Plus members)-Fox Soccer Plus: $15 ($13 for PlayStation Plus members)-HBO: $15-HBO + Cinemax $22 ($20 for PlayStation Plus members)-Machinima: $2||-4 Extras Deal: $10-Arabic Mini: $10-Best of Spanish TV: $5-Brazilian Mini: $15-Caribe: $5-Chinese Mini: $5-Cinemax: $10-Comedy Extra: $5-Deutsch Mini: $5-Espana: $5-Francais Mini: $5-HBO: $15-Heartland Extra: $5-Hindi Mini: $5-Hollywood Extra: $5-Italiano Mini: $10-Kids Extra: $5-Lifestyle Extra: $5-Mexico: $5-News Extra: $5-Showtime: $10-Sports Extra: $10-Starz: $9-Sudamerica: $5||Fox Soccer Plus: $15Showtime: $11|
|Platforms||Amazon Fire TVAndroidApple TVChromecastChromeInternet ExploreriOSSafari||Amazon Fire TV (TBD)AndroidApple TVChromecastChrome (TBD)Internet Explorer (TBD)iOSRoku (TBD)Safari (TBD)Samsung TVs and Blu-ray players (TBD)Xbox One||Amazon Fire TVAndroidAndroid TVApple TVChromecastChromeInternet ExploreriOSPlayStation 3PlayStation 4RokuSafari||Air TVAmazon Fire TVAndroidAndroid TVApple TVChannel MasterChromecastChromeInternet ExploreriOSLeEcoLGMacOSRokuSafariWindowsXbox OneXiaomi||AndroidChromecastChromeiOS|
|Local Channels||Yes (Limited)||Yes (Limited)||Yes (Limited)||Yes (Limited)||Yes (Limited)|
|Cloud DVR||No||Yes, 50 hours or 200 hours with add-on||Yes, shows are kept for 90 days||Yes, 50 hours or 100 hours if participated in beta||Yes, unlimited|
|Bundles||Bundle with AT&T Plus Unlimited Data Plan to save $25 per month||Includes limited commercials plan for core Hulu service||Discounts on premium channels are offered to PlayStation Plus members||None||Includes a subscription to YouTube Red, which removes ads from YouTube|
|Simultaneous Streams||Two devices||Two devices, or more with Unlimited Screens||Five devices, no more than one PS3 or PS4 at a time||-Sling Orange: No-Sling Blue: Three devices-Sling Orange + Sling Blue: Four devices||Three devices|