It sounds funny since “cord-cutting” is a relatively recent phenomenon, but it used to be pretty simple to ditch cable and switch to streaming. You only had a handful of streaming alternatives to the big cable companies.
But not anymore. Today, the number of options are multiplying so fast that it’s hard to keep up. There are niche streaming services like Pure Flix and Shudder for folks who want to dive deep into streaming a particular type of content.
There are bundles, like the one available from Disney+, that allow you to stream multiple services while paying for just one subscription.
And if that isn’t enough, there are also services like DirecTV Stream and Sling TV that let you stream live television while also browsing a huge catalog of on-demand content.
Channels and shows move around streaming platforms all the time, and prices can change at the drop of a hat. For more on this, subscribe to our newsletter on the business of streaming, the Stream Report.
We used to think streaming was easier than subscribing to cable (easier to cancel, easier to sign up, easier to manage), but that might no longer be the case.
Still, streaming is definitely What People Do these days. If you don’t subscribe to a streaming service, you miss out on incredible content (like the stuff we cover in the Popcorner). And if you do subscribe to a streaming service, you probably don’t also want to pay for cable.
That’s why this guide exists. In it, we’ll walk you through the streaming services we cover, how to distinguish between streaming services, and how to manage your modern streaming roster. Let’s dive in.
Why you should trust us
Flixed has been in the streaming service recommendation game for years. In 2016, our founder, Thenuka Karunaratne “realized that finding something good to watch on Netflix would often take longer than watching the movie/TV show itself.” He started Flixed to help people figure out what to watch and how to watch it as fast as possible.
Since then, we’ve developed a huge dataset on streaming availability across tons of streaming services. In our data, we track:
- what’s available on streaming services
- how much streaming services cost
- where streaming services are available
- and even, how popular their content is
Our internal content team works to evaluate streaming services with this data. We measure streaming services against each other based on their content, cost, and availability.
Plus, we ourselves are streamers who don’t use cable. Our content lead, Kelsey, manages a whole fleet of streaming services on her personal devices and also uses an OTA antenna and Sling TV to watch live TV. Our editor, Davan, is a huge watcher of all-things — including anime. (She wrote this great guide to the best streaming services for anime fans!)
For more detail on how we work, read this article about how we recommend streaming services.
What to consider when evaluating subscription-based services
No streaming service is identical — and that’s on purpose. Streaming services want to market themselves differently from each other to stand out in what’s become a very crowded market. So they all have different offerings and different price points — some even have pricing tiers within their offerings.
Generally speaking, streaming services break down into the following categories:
- On-demand services, like: Apple TV+, CuriosityStream, Disney+, Funimation, Hayu, HBO Max, Netflix, Paramount+, Peacock, Philo, Shudder, Starz, and Sundance Now.
- Live TV services, like DAZN, DirecTV Stream, ESPN+, fuboTV, Hulu + Live TV, Sling TV, Vidgo, and YouTube TV.
The lines between these types of streaming services are starting to blur, however. Many live TV services also have increasingly large on-demand catalogs. And many on-demand services are starting to explore live broadcasts.
When choosing what to subscribe to, there are far more questions to ask yourself than a simple, “Do I want to watch live TV or do I want to stream old TV shows?” Below, take a look at the top five questions you should ask yourself before subscribing to a new streaming service.
1. Do you want to watch local channels?
If you’re a big local news person — or you tend to watch local sports on live television — you should think through how you plan to access that content once you ditch cable.
The availability of ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC streams varies from service to service and from market to market. Other local stations like PBS or The CW aren’t available through these services.
If you want to get these channels but don’t want to pay extra for them, a great option is to purchase an antenna to take advantage of over-the-air broadcasts.
2. How important are cable channels to you?
You also need to decide which channels are the most important to you and your family. Channels like SyFy aren’t available on every service — but they’re increasingly available on most live TV services. HGTV was once not available on many platforms. But as of today’s writing, Flixed data shows it available on Sling, Philo, DirecTV Stream, fuboTV, and Hulu!
In addition, some streaming services offer tiered plans which may force you to pay a little more to get the channels you want.
3. Do you want any premium add-on channels?
Many of the services let you subscribe to premium movie channels like HBO and Showtime. When you do, you instantly get access to those movie channels’ own on-demand streaming services.
4. Do you want to be able to record live broadcasts?
If you usually don’t watch TV shows when they air live, then you’ll want a service with a high-capacity cloud DVR. Some services charge extra for this upgrade, while others let you record as much as you want.
5. Do you plan on using channel-specific apps to watch content on-demand?
Some channels, like Bravo and the MLB network, have their own apps for watching content when you’re away from home. Those apps tend to validate users through cable accounts, but they’re also starting to include streaming platforms like Sling and Hulu for validation.
If channel-specific apps are important to you, you’ll need to confirm the streaming services you’re considering work with that app. Not all of them do.
How to juggle streaming services
Let’s say that you’ve become a huge fan of The Last of Us, the most popular show of early 2023. You subscribe to HBO Max because that’s the only place to watch the show, but then then season ends. You aren’t interested in the rest of the content on HBO Max, so what are you supposed to do?
The easy answer: you cancel.
Unlike cable TV companies, you don’t have to pay streaming services for content you don’t want. Most streaming services make it relatively easy to cancel and restart your subscriptions.
Of course, they won’t make it too easy. Streaming services are working harder every day to create original content in the hopes that you won’t want to cancel. But with so much great stuff to watch, many people find that they’re better off bouncing among subscriptions.
All of this may seem like a lot of work. Once you get your system set up, though, it’s a piece of cake. Even better, the effort you put into managing subscription services pays off quickly. You’ll save money by only paying for the services you actually watch. At the same time, you’ll be able to justify subscribing to a service for just one show.
1. Do a streaming audit.
It’s been a while since we talked to someone who didn’t subscribe to any streaming platforms. The available data reflects that. In 2022, around 83% of American adults had a subscription to at least one streaming service, according to Leichtman Research Group.
So it’s unlikely that you’re reading this before subscribing to any streaming services. (Though if you’re in that 17%, all we have to say is a hearty welcome!)
We recommend starting with a list of all of the streaming services you already have. Consider:
- which tier you subscribe to
- how much it costs
- what you tend to watch on this service
- whether there are times of year when you use it a lot or not at all
When we say list these out, we mean list them out. At Flixed, we tend to use Notion databases and set reminders for just about everything. Our content team actually views our data in Notion, as well! You could create a table in Notion and feel just like our team! Otherwise, pen and paper works too.
2. Identify what’s missing.
Likely, you’ve turned to this guide for a reason. Either you think you’re subscribing to too many streaming services or you aren’t sure what to add to make your roster feel complete without cable.
When you look at the list of what you already have, ask yourself: is anything missing here? Take a hard look at your family’s habits. When do you turn to cable? Is it around awards season? Football season? Sunday morning cartoons? For the news? Just … when you’re bored?
Like in step one, list it all out and make a note of frequency.
3. Create a baseline.
First up: figure out which services you’ll want to keep year-round. Most likely, these will be the streaming services for which you pay nothing extra.
For many people, Amazon Prime Video is first on this list. If you signed up to Amazon Prime for the free shipping, you aren’t going to cancel just because their streaming platform doesn’t have anything new to watch.
You can also put some of the free streaming services on this always-on list. Whether it’s on-demand content from Tubi or live TV from Pluto TV, keeping these apps doesn’t cost you anything. Of course, the price of free is having to watch ads. Most people are okay with that since these services don’t run ads as frequently as the ads played by cable companies.
There will likely also be some free services paid for by your credit card companies. Some people, for instance, get their Peacock subscriptions covered by American Express. No reason to cancel these subscriptions if they’re free to you!
Live TV may be your other year-round expense. Many people like having the option to watch live news year-round. And for sports fans, some sort of live TV service that helps them avoid blackouts is a necessity.
4. Time your monthly subscriptions.
The most important thing you need to know about juggling streaming subscriptions is it only works when you subscribe month-to-month. You can usually get a good discount with an annual plan, but none of the services will refund your payment if you cancel.
Another thing you need to consider is the way each streaming service times its content releases. Netflix simply dumps every episode of a TV series all at once. On top of that, Netflix Originals almost never disappear from the catalog. If you’ve run out of new shows to watch and re-watching the 16 seasons of NCIS doesn’t sound appealing, then go ahead and pause your subscription for a few months. By the time you come back, there ought to be enough new content to watch.
In contrast, shows on HBO Max, Hulu, and Paramount+ may trickle out week by week over the course of several months. You’ll have to keep your subscription for the duration to keep up. On the other hand, if your budget is more important than avoiding spoilers, you can wait until the last episode airs before reactivating your subscription. That way, you only have to pay for one month to see the full season.
5. Set your annual budget.
Of course, for some people, the monthly cancellation system doesn’t make a ton of sense. Instead, they prefer to do this full audit of streaming content and habits and then pare down their streaming services to a number that feels manageable.
You might find that that’s where you land on the spectrum, and a monthly cancellation and resubscribe calendar doesn’t work for you. In that case, we recommend taking a look at your lists and choosing the streaming services that make the most sense to keep all year round. Reevaluate this list often, though, as streaming availability changes all the time!
If you go this route, though, when streaming services release new, buzzy TV shows and movies, you won’t need to worry about resubscribing.
Pro tip: Keep subscriptions all in one place
Rather than subscribing to each of your favorite streaming services directly, you can take advantage of aggregation services that put them all in one place. Amazon Prime Video’s Channels, Roku’s Channel Store and the Apple TV app provide a unified interface that makes it easy to start and stop your various subscriptions.
How to choose a streaming device
When Netflix first launched a streaming platform, the idea was for people to watch on their computers. But those days have come and gone. People watch so much content on streaming that they don’t want to crowd around a single laptop!
Instead, streaming devices allow users to watch streaming content on their televisions. Here are the main options:
- Streaming sticks look like thumb drives that plug directly into your TV’s HDMI port.
- Streaming boxes sit on a shelf next to your AV receiver and other home electronics and relies on an HDMI cable.
- Smart TVs come with everything you need built in.
Each form factor has its own advantages. Smart TVs keep things simple by reducing clutter and letting you use a single remote control. Streaming sticks are inexpensive and hide away behind your TV. Streaming boxes are more capable and often come with advanced features.
At the same time, each form factor has its own disadvantages. TV manufacturers have never done a great job keeping their smart TV systems up-to-date. Streaming boxes are pricier and add more clutter to your living room. Streaming sticks can be underpowered and have power cables that dangle beneath your TV.
Let’s dive into the product offerings in each category.
A streaming stick is a convenient, clutter-free way to add a device to your TV setup. It looks like a big thumb drive but instead of having a USB connection, it has an HDMI connector that plugs straight into the back of your TV. You will also need to plug a power cord into the streaming stick. Roku, Amazon’s Fire TV and Google’s Chromecast are the most popular streaming sticks on the market.
- The Roku Streaming Stick uses WiFi to stream HD-resolution video over your home network. It will also pass DTS surround sound to your home theater through the HDMI connection. You can search across channels and use Roku’s voice search through the included remote control.
- Amazon’s Fire TV Stick supports HD resolution as well as Dolby Audio surround sound over WiFi. A built-in microphone lets you use Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant to control your apps.
- Google’s Chromecast streaming stick works a little differently than its competitors Amazon and Roku. Instead of streaming directly to the device, you use a streaming app on your smartphone and send the video to your TV through the Chromecast device. Since all of the control happens on your mobile app, you don’t need a remote control.
You get more product choices with richer feature sets by going with a streaming box. The most important feature these devices offer is an ethernet port. This lets you keep a clean, high-bandwidth connection to your internet router.
- Apple TV uses the same powerful Apple processors you’ll find in the latest iPhones and iPads. As with all Apple products, however, those advantages come with a price. You’ll pay more for an Apple TV than you will for other streaming boxes.
- Roku has five streaming boxes that range in price from $30 all the way up to $100. The user experience across all the devices is the same, but you’ll pay for added features like 4K resolution or ethernet ports.
- Amazon’s Fire TV Cube has all of the features that come with the Fire TV Stick 4K, including 4K, HDR and Dolby Atmos. You can also use Alexa directly rather than relying on the remote control.
- NVIDIA’s Shield TV is the most popular Android TV streaming box on the market. The mobile processor that runs Android gets a big boost with NVIDIA’s Tegra X1 graphics processor. That horsepower delivers 4K and HDR video and supports both Dolby Atmos and DTS-X surround sound. What really attracts gamers to the Shield TV is access to the GeForce NOW game streaming service.
TV manufacturers have included “smart” features for years, but the experience has always been underwhelming. Companies that are good at making hardware aren’t always the best ones for developing user-friendly software. In addition, the cheaper TVs relied on inexpensive processors that couldn’t really handle modern streaming interfaces.
That’s changed over the years. Hardware has gotten cheaper and more powerful. In addition, some TV makers have simply accepted that they don’t want to be in the streaming software business. Many TVs now come with the Roku or Android TV systems already built in.
Using your TV as your streaming device lets you save money by not buying an extra device. It also eliminates clutter in your living room and reduces the number of remote controls you have to deal with. However, you may find several streaming services that don’t offer apps for your TV’s streaming platform.
- Samsung is such a large company that it can afford to develop its own software. More importantly, Samsung sells so many TVs that the larger streaming services are willing to develop apps for its proprietary system.
- LG bought the WebOS mobile phone operating system and turned it into a smart TV platform. Of the live TV streaming services, only Sling TV has developed an app for LG’s system.
- Sony decided to use Android TV as its operating system for streaming apps. That gives you access to the full library of Android TV-compatible apps.
- Chinese manufacturer Hisense decided to split the difference by making some models based on Roku and some models based on Android TV. Be sure you know which one is most compatible with the apps you stream.
- TCL is one of the fastest-growing TV makers. It chose Roku as its entertainment operating system, giving you access to everything in the Roku Channel Store.
- Vizio is an American company that manufactures TVs in China. A handful of streaming services — including YouTube TV, Hulu and Netflix — have developed apps for Vizio’s proprietary SmartCast operating system
Wild card option: Game console
If you’re thinking about using a game console as your streaming device, you probably don’t need to make a choice. You already have a PlayStation or Xbox.
Both game consoles have app stores where you’ll find live TV and on-demand streaming services. As with the other devices in this article, some services don’t develop apps for both consoles. You may be shocked to learn that PlayStation Vue works on almost every device except the Xbox.
Our takeaway: Stream smart to make ditching cable worth it
Streaming might be a little more complicated today than it once was, but it’s still very much worth it to be a streamer. You just need to take a close look at the market, evaluate your personal priorities, and make sure you have all the devices you need before cutting the cable cord and switching to exclusive streaming.
Kelsey Reynolds • Author
Kelsey Reynolds is Flixed’s content lead. She is based in Minneapolis. Kelsey holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Minnesota, and has spent her career writing and editing content about marketing, education, emergency preparedness, science, cannabis, and entertainment. When she’s not at her computer, Kelsey can usually be found working in her garden or walking her two dogs in the park.