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The best streaming TV apps

Photography by Amelia Holowaty Krales

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Looking to ditch cable? Or maybe you’re already a cord cutter and are getting increasingly bored with what’s on Netflix or Amazon Prime Video. By now, you’ve likely heard about the handful of streaming internet TV services that offer many of the same channels you’d get from a cable package but with the freedom to watch them anywhere and across your devices.

Many of these apps might save you a fair amount of money compared to what you’re forking over to a cable provider. But the appeal is really more about flexibility and a more modern way of watching TV.

Because these services are so highly regional, the below recommendations only apply to the US. I’m also not factoring in every app like fuboTV or Philo.

Before subscribing to anything, I’d recommend getting an antenna to watch ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, and other channels for free at home. Some of these services have the option for mobile viewing, but an antenna is the best option at home. And maybe that’ll be enough to complement your current streaming options.

The best streaming TV experience: YouTube TV

Taking its time to roll out a live TV offering has served YouTube well; of all its competitors, the $40-per-month YouTube TV has perhaps the most intuitive and straightforward interface for channel surfing and quickly landing on something to watch. Across both mobile and TV apps, YouTube TV is a pleasure to use.

The service allows for three concurrent streams. In my experience, it has been rock steady without the random three-second rewinds or occasional buffering pauses that I see on other services. Many channels also stream at 60 fps, which is important for sports.

The channel lineup is decent, with the big four broadcast networks, ESPN, AMC, FX, TBS, TNT, USA, Nat Geo, E!, and many more included. Here’s what I get in New York:

What’s missing? All Viacom networks, HGTV, and the other dozen or so channels you’ll find in the top-tier bundles for PlayStation Vue or DirecTV Now. And unlike some of its competitors, YouTube TV doesn’t offer HBO as an optional paid add-on. There’s also the fact that it doesn’t work on Amazon’s Fire TV devices because of the continued rift between Google and Amazon.

YouTube TV gives you six individual user profiles, allowing everyone in your home to personalize their experience and choose their own favorite shows for automatic DVRing. Speaking of which, YouTube TV has one of the best cloud DVR offerings around, letting you save unlimited recordings for up to nine months.

For a long time, one big annoyance with the DVR was that many networks would quickly switch over to a TV show’s video-on-demand version (with unskippable ads) soon after it aired. But last week, YouTube finally put a stop to that. Now, you can opt for the actual recorded version of shows you DVR — with original commercials you can fast-forward through — for basically all networks except CBS.

Best on a budget: Sling TV

If all you really care about is streaming live programming, Sling TV continues to handle that job just fine and for a lower price than the major competition. The base Orange package starts at $25, and at that price, you’re getting ESPN, the Disney Channel, AMC, HGTV, and Viacom stations like Comedy Central.

You can choose Sling Blue (also $25) if networks like Fox, FX, and USA are more your taste. Both of them together are $40 / month, giving you a fuller channel bundle that’s more in line with the competition. Sling Orange allows for one stream at a time, while the Blue package allows for three. If you get both, you can do four concurrent streams. The company also offers a number of add-on channel packs for more money each month.

Sling TV still offers a relatively bare-bones experience and isn’t focused on individual user profiles like Hulu or YouTube TV. Your money gets you live channels and some video-on-demand content. But the Dish-owned company has regularly been putting work into refining its app design. There’s now a traditional, easy-to-navigate grid programming guide. Unfortunately, Sling TV’s Cloud DVR feature costs an extra $5 per month, and you’re blocked from recording certain channels like ESPN.

It’s the budget choice, and it’s a fine one, but there are fuller experiences out there.

Other options

PlayStation Vue offers multiple channel tiers ranging from $45 to $80 for the Ultra package that includes HBO. You get 10 user profiles, can stream on up to five devices at once, and DVR recordings are available for 28 days. But despite its very sleek user experience, PS Vue is hindered a bit by iffy performance on some platforms and spotty availability of all big four broadcast networks; many markets just have one or two. The service has also abruptly dropped channels with little notice to customers, and having PlayStation in its name continues to be a confusing branding choice for an app you can watch on a Roku or Apple TV.

At $40, Hulu with Live TV is definitely worth considering if you want to combine live channels with Hulu’s massive catalog of content. It’s a very appealing package. Not everyone loved Hulu’s big redesign and new look, but it has gotten much better and more useful over the last year. It’s widely available, even on the Nintendo Switch, which none of these other services can say.

AT&T’s DirecTV Now is in something of a holding pattern before its major redesign that is expected sometime next spring. If you got in during the promotional period when the service first launched, there’s no better value out there. But for everyone else, it’s hard for me to come up with what separates it from YouTube TV, Hulu, or Vue. It’s got The Weather Channel, at least, which is oddly rare among these apps.

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