The beginner’s guide to cord cutting

From a certain angle, cord cutting can seem remarkably complex.

Instead of having a few TV providers to choose from, you must deliberate between countless streaming services, all of them constantly changing. You also have to weigh the merits of various connected TV platforms, each with their own array of smart TVs and streaming sticks. Adding an antenna to the mix only adds further complication.

But those choices are also what make cord cutting great. Competition among streaming providers has led to a bounty of high-quality TV at reasonable prices, along with on-demand access to practically every movie and TV show imaginable. Meanwhile, streaming devices keep getting better and cheaper, with features that were never possible on clunky cable boxes. Having personally cut cable TV service in 2008, I’d never want to go back to the way things used to be.

I don’t think cord cutting needs to be complicated, either. After writing about this topic for more than seven years—at TechHive and my own Cord Cutter Weekly newsletter—I’ve come up with a handful of simple steps for freeing yourself from cable or satellite TV.

Follow the guide below, and you’ll be well on your way to a better, cheaper kind of television:

Pre-check: Is it right for you?

Although I’m an enthusiastic cord cutter myself, I’ll acknowledge that it’s not for everyone. Before you go down this path, consider the following questions:

Are you paying upwards of $80 per month for TV? Most cable replacement services start at $65 per month, so if you’re not paying a lot more than that for cable or satellite TV, cord cutting may not be worthwhile. While it’s possible to spend at lot less—or even nothing—on streaming TV services, doing so will require a greater deal of sacrifice.

Do you have home internet service? If you already have high-speed internet at home, cord-cutting will probably make financial sense. Adding home internet service just to cut cable TV, on the other hand, will likely be a wash.

Are you just tired of cable? Cord cutting isn’t strictly about saving money. It’s also a way to see fewer ads, unclutter your living room, set up TVs anywhere in the house, and avoid the annual ritual of haggling for lower rates.

The big one: Are you willing to be flexible? Despite its virtues, cord-cutting is not a magic solution that gives you the exact same experience as cable for less money. You’ll need to be comfortable using tech products and apps, and you may have to give up some programming to unlock the greatest savings. The more you’re able to learn and adapt, the happier you’ll be and the more money you’ll save.

If the answer to all four questions is “yes,” you’re a great candidate for cord cutting. Otherwise, expect some bigger hurdles along the way.

Know the basics

A (roughly-drawn) overview of a basic cord-cutting setup.

Cord cutting consists of a few basic elements:

Streaming services: To replace cable or satellite TV, you will subscribe to one or more online video services. These can include on-demand video services such as Netflix or a bundle of live TV channels such as YouTube TV or Sling TV. There are also plenty of free sources of streaming video that you can rely on as well.

Streaming devices: Once you’ve subscribed to some streaming services, you’ll access them by downloading their apps onto your TV. You can do this directly through a smart TV, or on a separate streaming device plugged into the HDMI port on any TV.

A home Wi-Fi network: This will allow all of your TVs to receive streaming video from the internet. As a rough guideline, I suggest a minimum home internet speed of 10 Mbps for a single TV, or 25 Mbps for 4K video, plus an extra 10-25 Mbps for each additional TV that you expect to be playing at the same time. If you regularly have three people watching on separate TVs simultaneously, for instance, your internet service should at least offer speeds of 30 Mbps.

An antenna (optional): You don’t need an antenna to cut the cord, but if your reception is good enough, it can be helpful for receiving local broadcast channels—ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, CW, and PBS—without subscribing to a big TV bundle.

If you’ve got a grasp on the basics, jump ahead to the next section. Or, click on the frequently-asked questions below for more details.

Nope! Just buy a separate streaming device, such as the Roku Streaming Stick 4K or Amazon Fire TV Stick, and plug it into your TV’s HDMI port. (If your TV is so old that it doesn’t have an HDMI port, it’s probably time to upgrade. You won’t believe how cheap they’ve gotten.)

Each TV must have its own way to stream, whether that’s through its own smart TV functions, or through a separate streaming device. For instance, if you have four TVs, and only two of them have up-to-date smart TV software, you’ll need to buy a pair of streaming devices for those TVs. But unlike cable, there are no rental fees involved.

Visit speedtest.net on your phone and hit the “Go” button. Run this test in all the areas where you have TVs installed, and consider running it in the evening, when internet demand is likely to be greatest. Again, you’ll want speeds of at least 10 Mbps in the vicinity of each TV to ensure a smooth streaming experience.

Each smart TV or streaming device must be connected to the internet. Most likely, you’ll connect over Wi-Fi, hence the importance of checking your internet speeds in each room where your TVs reside.

If your TV is near your router, or your home has ethernet connections wired throughout, that’s great. Several streaming devices have ethernet ports so you can get a stable internet connection from your router without the vagaries of Wi-Fi. But given the availability of affordable routers—including mesh systems that blanket your home in Wi-Fi—you needn’t go out of your way to wire up your home with ethernet ports.

No, though you may need to upgrade your Wi-Fi router if your internet speeds are dropping off as you get further away from it. If everything’s working fine, and you’re not switching internet providers, I’d suggest keeping the equipment you have until you’ve finished the cord cutting process. After that, you can consider buying your own equipment to avoid rental fees.

Probably not, as wireless carriers limit hotspot use even on their “unlimited” data plans. T-Mobile and AT&T, for instance, only provide 40 GB of high-speed hotspot data per month on their most expensive plans, which means you’d only be able to watch about 18 hours of HD video per month before burning through your data cap. And that’s without using the hotspot for anything else.

Step 1: Pick a bundle (or don’t)

Now that we’ve got the basics covered, you can look into replacing your cable bundle with a streaming one. With services such as YouTube TV, Hulu + Live TV, and FuboTV, you’ll get a big bundle of live channels, along with cloud-based DVR service for recording shows and skipping commercials.

Here’s a chart I put together with an overview of these services and their features (click to enlarge):

To be clear, these live TV streaming services aren’t necessary to cut the cord, but they’re the easiest way to approximate what you have with cable or satellite TV, and right now they’re the only way to get cable news, many major sporting events, and live feeds of specific cable channels. If you’re interested in craftier ways of cutting the cord that can save you more money, skip ahead to Step 2 below.

To find a bundle that matches your channel needs, I suggest using The Streamable’s Matchmaker tool. Type in the channels you want along with your zip code, and you’ll get a list of live TV streaming services that match.

The Streamable’s Matchmaker tool.

The results are thorough and easy to read, but I’d skip the top “best choice” row and go straight to the checklist underneath for a full list of results. You can also click on each service for details on DVR features, simultaneous streams, and more.

For more details, click on the frequently-asked questions below.

In terms of a physical DVR box, no. All of these live TV bundles have cloud-based DVRs, which store your recordings online so you can access them on any device. They also allow you to skip through commercials (though Hulu + Live TV charges $10 per month extra for this privilege).

Yes. Each service lets you watch on several devices at the same time, though the exact number of simultaneous streams varies by service. There are no limits on the total number of TVs, phones, and other devices you can connect.

Within the United States, yes, but note that Hulu + Live TV only lets you watch on connected TV devices from your “home” location. You can only change your home location four times per year. I’ve got more details on this question in this TechHive article.

Because nearly all of the most popular channels on TV are owned by a small number of major media companies, and they’re not interested in letting you buy some of their channels without paying for all the rest. If you want specific cable channels, you’ll need to get them as part of a bundle.

Step 2: Add some streaming services

Compared to live TV streaming, on-demand services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu are a simpler way to cut the cord. You don’t have to deal with weird DVR rules, commercial-free viewing is often the norm, and there are no arcane restrictions on where you’re allowed to watch. These services are also much cheaper than a channel bundle, so you can save more money.

Still, these services generally differ from what’s available on cable. They don’t offer major live sporting events, nor do they carry live streams from cable news networks or most other cable channels. Some new TV shows may be exclusive to cable as well, though that’s becoming rarer as networks bring more more of their biggest shows to streaming services.

For help deciding between these services, check out MyBundle.TV. This free tool lets you enter your favorite cable channels, and in addition to recommending live streaming services that match, it’ll suggest cheaper services with similar content. It also has a search tool for looking up movies and shows on each individual service.

MyBundle.tv will suggest standalone services based on your channel preferences.

Granted, if you subscribe to every standalone service that’s available, the costs will quickly exceed your cable bill. Here’s what I suggest instead:

  • Pick one or two services that you’ll subscribe to year-round. Netflix and Amazon Prime are solid options. So is Disney+ if you have kids.
  • For other services, subscribe for a month and immediately cancel after signing up. You’ll still get the full month so you can binge-watch the best shows, and you won’t get billed at the end.
  • Take advantage of seasonal sales and comeback deals. Many streaming services will offer hefty discounts to new or returning subscribers. Paramount+ (formerly CBS All Access) is almost always available for free.
  • Lean on free streaming services for more content. Many of them offer quality news programming—including local news in many areas—along with linear “channels” that replicate the kind of background TV you had with cable.

Not without elaborate workarounds such as PlayOn and Channels DVR. For most users, the on-demand nature of services like Netflix should obviate the need for DVR.

Yes, but the coverage is mostly different from what’s on cable channels. ESPN+, for instance, offers hardly any of ESPN’s live sports coverage. And while you can subscribe to league-based services such as MLB TV and NBA League Pass, those only provide out-of-market games.


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Optional: Get an antenna

If you get solid antenna reception in your area, you can get major broadcast networks—ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox—for free, along with local PBS stations and rerun-centric subnetworks such as MeTV.

While an antenna isn’t necessary to cut the cord, it can be a useful supplement to on-demand services, and for live TV streaming services that don’t offer local channel coverage, such as Sling TV and Philo. You can even connect an over-the-air DVR such as Nuvyyo’s Tablo to record broadcast shows.

Here’s how to get started:

  • Use AntennaWeb’s address lookup tool to locate broadcast channels in your area.
  • For antenna recommendations, TechHive has tested a bunch of them, but you might not have to spend big on a name brand if you’re within 15 miles of major stations. A cheap, flat-panel, indoor antenna may do the job.
  • Some trial and error may be necessary in terms of antenna type and placement. If you buy an antenna and get poor results, be prepared to return it and try a different one.
  • If you’d like to record broadcast channels, I’ve reviewed most over-the-air DVRs here.
  • Lastly, beware of companies that exaggerate or outright lie about the mile range of their antennas. Even with a powerful, outdoor, directional antenna, 60 miles is pretty much the maximum for reception—and that’s under ideal conditions.
Antennaweb’s station lookup tool.

Step 3: Pick your devices

Once you’ve selected your streaming services, you can finally choose a streaming device to watch on. Again, this may not be necessary if you already have a smart TV, you’re happy with its performance, and it has all of the apps you need. If your smart TV software is outdated, however, you can always plug in an external streaming player instead of replacing the entire television.

I won’t provide an exhaustive guide here, but will offer a few quick recommendations:

  • Roku’s Streaming Stick 4K ($50) is my default device pick for cord-cutters. It’s inexpensive, it’s easy to use, and it has broad app support. It’s also future-proof if you decide to get a 4K HDR TV, and does a great job highlighting free content.
  • Chromecast with Google TV ($50) is more forward-thinking than Roku, with a home screen that recommends things to watch instead of just a sea of app icons, though it’s not quite as polished overall.
  • Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K Max ($55) is a speedy streaming device with excellent Alexa-powered voice controls, but I find its actual on-screen menu system to be overly cumbersome.
  • Apple TV 4K ($180) is the slickest streaming device on the market, with speedy menus and powerful Siri voice commands, and it never distracts you with ads on its home screen like Fire TV and Roku do. That polish comes at a price, though.

Step 4: Don’t overthink it

At some point, the best thing to do is to stop fretting and take the plunge.

After all, there are no long-term contracts binding you to any particular plan, so switching between them is trivial. You can spend a month with YouTube TV, then switch over to FuboTV or Hulu + Live TV if you’re not satisfied. Alternatively, you can try a skinnier bundle like Sling TV or Philo or experiment with not having a bundle at all. If you’re feeling especially brave, you can try grabbing local channels from an antenna and set up an over-the-air DVR.

You even have some wiggle room on the device side. Not happy with the streaming device you picked? Don’t be afraid to exercise the free return policies from wherever you shopped. Feeling let down by your smart TV’s built-in software? Just plug in an external streaming device—like the aforementioned Roku Express 4K+ or Apple TV 4K—instead.

Worst-case scenario, you can even go crawling back to cable. You might even be able to finagle a new promo rate to make up for having to swallow your pride. (With Spectrum, you might also get offers for cheaper streaming-only plans that aren’t available to existing cable TV customers.)

All that really matters is that you take the first step and have some willingness to experiment. Cord-cutting might seem like a complex task on the surface, but the biggest obstacle is really just inertia.

Thanks for reading!

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