The Best Web-Based Live TV Service for You

There are lots of options for watching live network TV online.
Samsung/NBC

Things are getting exciting for cord-cutters, especially in the United States. There’s never been more competition, or more options, for users who want to get their live TV over the web. That includes live sports and local TV channels in most markets.

But with all that competition, it can be hard to know which service is the best for you. That’s where we come in. We’ve tested all of the major offerings: YouTube TV, Hulu + Live TV, DirecTV NOW, PlayStation Vue, and Sling, and broken down which ones excel in which areas.

We should note that, of course, everyone’s tastes will differ. These services cover a lot of the same channels, but if one offers a channel you can’t live without and the other doesn’t, obviously you shouldn’t take our recommendation and miss out on the shows you want to watch.

Also, be aware that some services don’t have contracts with every local ABC, CBS, Fox, and/or NBC affiliate, and so may not have access to all of your local broadcast channels. The links above all go to the master channel list for each service: use them as a quick aid to your choices.

Luckily the nature of these services is much more consumer-friendly than conventional cable or satellite TV. All of the services in this guide offer free trials for a week or more, and can be cancelled anytime with no punishing contracts or expensive hardware. It’s easy to switch to a different service if you’re unhappy with your first choice—you can even sign up for all of them at the same time, compare them during the free trial period, and cancel all but the one you settle on. And if you’re looking something specifically for a family with kids, be sure to check out our guide to kid-friendly TV services.

But enough preamble: let’s get to the show. Here are our selections for the best live TV services on the web.

The Best Overall Live TV Service: YouTube TV

YouTube TV is the best live TV service option at the moment.
YouTube

At just $40 a month for its single primary package, which includes live local channels and unlimited cloud DVR recording (yes, really unlimited), YouTube TV snags our pick for the best overall card-cutting service. While Sling beats it on price, it’s not nearly so flexible, and its oddball splitting of the low $25 tier will confuse and alienate a lot of users. It helps that YouTube TV also has one of the better user interfaces around, and is available on pretty much every platform you could want it, including Google’s ostensible competitors like Roku, Apple TV, and iPhones.

There are a couple of downsides to YouTube TV. It’s not yet available in every market in the US (and not at all internationally), though it covers the country for something like 90% of prospective users. Google’s original programming is also very lackluster—it tosses in YouTube Red, but that exclusive lineup doesn’t hold a candle to the likes of Hulu. YouTube TV doesn’t include an HBO add-on (though it does have Showtime and Starz), but that content is fairly simple to get on its own.

Even so, for most users who can access it and want a straight-up replacement for cable TV that’s simple and relatively cheap, YouTube TV should be the first place they look.

The Best Live TV Library: Hulu + Live TV

Hulu + Live TV offers the best selection of original programming and on-demand streaming.
Hulu

Hulu started out as a collaboration between some of the biggest media companies in the US, and it shows. In addition to the standard smattering of basic cable channels, Hulu + Live TV includes, well, Hulu, the nigh-endless collection of streaming shows that need no schedule in order to enjoy. Hulu also gets most network and some cable TV shows available for streaming on its service the night after they air on old-fashioned TV, no manual recording necessary.

Hulu has the best selection of completely original content on this list. In its efforts to fight off competition from Netflix and Amazon, Hulu has invested in a great variety of original shows that are exclusive to its service, including The Handmaid’s Tale, Castle Rock, Future Man, and Runaways. Hulu has even saved a few conventional TV shows canceled before their time, like The Mindy Project.

Hulu’s a little pricier than the competition, and its basic DVR is limited to just 50 hours. We’re also a bit miffed that the $45 entry fee doesn’t get rid of ads on the non-live portion of Hulu, which is much cheaper on its own. And the less said about Hulu’s messy user interface, the better. But those who want to consolidate their services can add HBO as well as the other, more typical premium cable TV options within Hulu + Live TV.

The Most Flexible Live TV Service: DirecTV NOW

DirecTV NOW has the most channel options among live TV services.
DirecTV

It’s no surprise that DirecTV’s alternative to its satellite TV service looks a whole lot like the confusing channel bundles you’d get twenty years ago. With no less than four standard programming tiers ranging from $40 to $75 a month, there’s a lot to take in when you first try it out.

But for all of that, DirecTV does offer the most channels among the services we tried, over 125 on the most expensive tier. And if that’s not enough, $5 a month more can add either HBO or Showtime (or both), one of the cheaper upgrade options for those premium channels. DirecTV NOW has the best selection of sports channels—to be expected, considering the company’s connections—and surprisingly, the best selection of programming for non-English content, including paid add-ons for Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, Korean, and Vietnamese channels.

DirecTV NOW’s DVR is pitiful at just 20 hours, and only two screens can use it at once without paying for an upgrade (and even then it’s only three). But if you can’t break yourself of the habit of hundreds and hundreds of channels to surf through, it’s probably the one you want.

The Cheapest Live TV Option: Sling

Sling offers the cheapest plans among all of its competitors.
Sling

Sling is objectively the worst option among this roundup in terms of selection, support, and interface. But it does have one advantage over its competitors: it’s dirt cheap. The cheapest tiers are both $25, often discounted to just $15 for a few months when you sign up for a new account. (Sling will also give you a free Roku when you pre-pay for a while.) If you want to check out live streaming TV for the least amount of money possible, this is the way to do it.

But you get what you pay for. Sling’s bottom tier is actually two tiers, Blue and Orange, with some (but not all) channels overlapping. Blue is better for local TV, while Orange gets ESPN…but frustratingly, NFL Network is only available on Blue. If you want both tiers it’ll cost you $40, at which point most users will probably be better served by YouTube TV or Hulu. Many of the channels built in to those services need to be added on to Sling in extra packages, and you have to pay to get any kind of DVR functionality at all.

In short, Sling is clearly lagging behind. It’s not terrible in terms of value, but the other services on this list are beating it in every other way.

Michael Crider Michael Crider
Michael Crider has been writing about computers, phones, video games, and general nerdy things on the internet for ten years. He’s never happier than when he’s tinkering with his home-built desktop or soldering a new keyboard. Read Full Bio »

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