Editor’s note: David Pierce joins The Wall Street Journal as our new Personal Technology columnist, alongside Joanna Stern. Follow him on Twitter @Pierce and sign up for their column email alerts here.
A couple of weekends ago, my life became a cable-cutter infomercial.
On the morning of Super Bowl Sunday, my remote stopped connecting to my Comcast CMCSA 1.13% cable box. After an hour spent mostly waiting for Comcast customer service to “send signals” to my box, I finally had help—in the form of a Tuesday morning appointment. With kickoff coming a bit sooner, I fired up my Roku and opened YouTube TV, the live-TV service from Alphabet Inc.’s GOOGL 1.60% video giant. Other than a brief hiccup when my Roku rebooted itself, all things Super Bowl streamed flawlessly for the next eight hours.
People who watched the Super Bowl on Hulu and Sony Corp.’sPlayStation Vue, two of YouTube TV’s competitors, encountered a compelling endorsement for cable, though. Both services suffered outages during the game, including one during the thrilling final moments.
Super Bowl snafus aside, streaming live TV from the internet works far more reliably now than it used to. Between the five big names in the space—the other two are AT&T Inc.’sDirecTV Now and Dish Network LLC’s Sling TV—you can get everything from a $ 20-a-month bare-bones replacement to a $ 75 option that almost resembles your cable lineup.
My current pick in the shifting landscape is YouTube TV. It recently released apps for Roku and Apple TV devices, and on Wednesday added TBS, CNN and more to the service. (The others have recently added new channels, too.) It’s raising its price to $ 40 a month on March 13 to accommodate for the new lineup—but that’s still a far cry from the $ 100 or more that people on average pay for cable, according to the media analysis firm Leichtman Research Group.
So far, the best thing about ditching satellite or cable is a sweet release from the constant, throbbing pain of dealing with your cable company: annoying set-top boxes, inscrutable bills, limited mobility. But in some ways, especially channel count and that vague-but-important sense that it’ll always work when you need it, cable still feels like the safer bet.
Here are the four biggest benefits of internet TV:
Signing up for internet TV is like joining Instagram: Download the app, get a username and password, off you go. The apps work on your phone and your iPad, in your web browser and (usually) on the box you already use to get Netflix in your living room. You’ll use a different remote to watch TV now, but in many cases your viewing experience won’t change much.
Not all services are equally portable, however. PlayStation Vue doesn’t let you stream some channels when you’re away from your home Wi-Fi. Similarly, if you want to stream to a TV via a device such as a Roku or Apple TV, Hulu’s service only works in your own home, though this limit doesn’t apply to mobile devices.
You probably watched only a fraction of the 487 scripted shows that aired in 2017, not to mention the decades of content also readily available. Every time you open their app, Hulu and YouTube find you new stuff—if you watch football they’ll recommend more football. But YouTube TV also guessed that my “Parks and Recreation” affinity might transfer to “Party Down.” Which it did.
At a minimum, every streaming TV service lets you save and quickly find your favorite shows and channels. They tend to split content into categories—Kids, News, Sports, etc.—but the best recommendations are the ones just for me: They know I prefer Colbert to Fallon, ESPN to FS1, and the Warriors to the Cavs.
I like seeing these services finding ways to blend live, on-demand and recorded content. I’ve made heavy use of PlayStation Vue’s Recently Watched menu, which combines live and on-demand content.
These services tend to be far more modern in design than your average, blocky white-on-blue cable interface. They use large images and bold text to help you surf. Lots of services let you watch shows while searching for other content. And these apps all work well on the phone’s smaller screen.
PlayStation Vue and DirecTV Now still use those clunky, side-scrolling programming guides, which are especially hard to parse on mobile. They also don’t offer much else to help you find stuff to watch. DirecTV is expected to launch a redesign soon.
Here’s a tip: When you first sign up for an internet TV service, go in and immediately pick your favorite handful of shows, so the system starts automatically recording all new episodes. You can even record shows you won’t find on demand.
YouTube TV lets you record as much as you want, and keep it all for nine months. PlayStation Vue keeps unlimited recordings for 28 days. Hulu and Sling store just 50 hours of video—Sling even charges you $ 5 a month for the privilege. DirecTV Now doesn’t offer recording yet, though it says the feature is coming.
If you could combine the best parts of each service—Sling’s price flexibility, Hulu’s on-demand content, YouTube TV’s interface and recording powers, PlayStation Vue’s device compatibility, DirecTV Now’s channel selection—your internet-TV Voltron would be nearly perfect. Over time, they’re all likely to copy each other. Still, for now you have a bunch of solid options and no truly great one.
Among them, though, YouTube TV feels the most ready. It combines live and recorded TV with the massive YouTube library, so I could watch an episode of “The Good Place” then dive into bloopers and late-night interviews with the stars. Now that it’s available on the Roku I use every day, YouTube TV has become my go-to internet TV service.
Yet it doesn’t work on Amazon’s popular Fire TV devices. (Come on, Amazon and Google, can’t we all just get along?) Its updated 60-ish channel lineup still doesn’t include HGTV or Comedy Central.
Even as programming gaps continue to shrink, no service can replace all of cable. Nearly every one of the 100 most popular channels exists somewhere, but no service has them all. And by the time you get close, that $ 20 Sling plan you thought you were signing up for turns into more like $ 50 or $ 60 before you even get to HBO or Showtime.
Cable and the other traditional pay-TV providers may be more expensive and frustrating, but at least they offer everything. And Comcast, Verizon and the rest are watching their new competition. Soon, you’ll likely get many of the features of internet TV with your existing subscription, once they feel the pressure to compete.
Where does all that leave you? Maybe still paying your cable bill for a while, if it isn’t too high. If it is, call your cable company and threaten to leave. Reps can often find a way to reduce your monthly fees.
But if you’re willing to miss out on a few shows, and suffer through the occasional outage, you can already get a TV experience that’s much more fun and modern—and mobile—than cable, and usually saves money, too. We’re heading toward the future of TV. It’s just buffering a little on the way.
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Write to David Pierce at firstname.lastname@example.org