This is the fourth part in my series on cutting the cord. If you're just visiting for the first time, you may want to start from the beginning. At minimum, I would strongly suggest you read Part 3: The Players where I discuss all of the major hardware, service, and streaming bundle alternatives available today.
So here it is – the answer to the questions everyone has been asking since I started this series on cutting the cord:
What did you do? What should I do?
This post will discuss all of the choices I made, and my rationale for making them. Everyone has their own preferences and constraints, so I'm not going to say that my solution will be perfect for you, but I do think I've selected the best alternatives given the alternatives available today. So let's get to it!
This was the easiest choice of all. I'm an Apple fanboy. My house is filled with iPhones, iPads, and MacBooks, so it's no surprise that I already had an Apple TV too – way before I decided to cut the cord. We've had one since the 2nd generation and it's been our primary way to watch Netflix and movies rented from iTunes for years now.
What I love about the Apple TV – particularly the 4K model – is that it's fast, flexible, and it gives me access to all of the services on the market. I can download apps for HBO, Showtime, Netflix, Amazon Prime, History Channel – you name it. Being an Apple family, we've also purchased about 20 movies from iTunes, and this is the only device (right now) that will allow us to watch those movies on the television.
It's worth clarifying that you don't need a 4K television to use the Apple TV 4K. I have a 50" Pioneer Plasma TV that I bought over a decade ago, and it's only 1080p.
There are a couple of downsides of this device, and they may be a dealbreaker for some of you. First, it's expensive. At $180 it's about 4x more expensive than the cheapest streaming boxes. Granted, it's way more powerful, but if all you do is stream Netflix, you may not notice it. Also, a lot of people hate the remote. I actually like it despite the various flaws, but it may drive some of you crazy.
If I were to give advice, I would probably say – if you're an Apple family, have purchased content on iTunes, or are serious cinephiles, get an Apple TV. For the rest of you, an Amazon Fire TV is probably cheaper and offers virtually the same experience.
No surprises here. Netflix is the Frampton Comes Alive! of streaming services – every suburban household in America has it. My kids display withdrawal symptoms if they're away from it for a few hours, and that new show that everyone at work is buzzing about? There's a 50/50 chance it's on Netflix.
Amazon Prime Video is a different story. I love The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and both Jack Ryan and Sneaky Pete were enjoyable, but the truth is, if this wasn't bundled with the free 2-day shipping on Amazon.com, I probably wouldn't have it. I rarely find much else I want to watch on Prime Video. They don't get very many new movies, and while their back catalog has a fair share of hits, they tend to be decades old. Honestly, the experience I typically have when I open the app is meh. It's probably an exaggeration, but it feels like nothing changes for weeks. The list of new and featured shows & movies is frozen in time. But, it's free, so … okay.
I can already hear many of you asking, "But what about Hulu?" Well, Hulu is great, and I can see why so many of you love it. I signed up for a free trial and binge-watched 11.22.63, then tried Future Man before I realized it was draining my IQ by the second. That pain aside, my real issue with Hulu is that it's primarily focused on television. That's fine, but there are very few broadcast TV shows I watch so it just doesn't make sense for me to subscribe.
It's true. I'm not subscribed to any of the premium channels.
The asterisk is that I'm not subscribed to any of them right now. That will change when the hit shows return though. I'll subscribe to Showtime next month when Billions season 4 starts. Then I'll cancel when it ends. I'll sign up for HBO when Game of Thrones starts in April, then cancel when it's over. But don't worry, I'll be back when Westword is back in season.
That's what I would recommend for most people too. It's so easy to subscribe and cancel these services now that it makes no sense to pay for them every month unless you're really watching them a ton. Save the cash.
For my family, this is what really allowed us to cut the cord and drop cable. YouTube TV essentially gives us the channels we care about for 1/4 of the cost of what I was paying to DirecTV. After using it for just over a month, I wish I had switched months ago.
YouTube TV, DirecTV Now and Hulu Live are all great alternatives, but a few things set YouTube TV apart for me.
First is the interface. It's clean, fast, and fairly intuitive. The channel guide shows me a preview of what's playing on each network, and how much time is remaining in the program. Better yet, the thumbnail shows where you are in the broadcast. So if TNT is showing Star Wars and we're 1 hour into the movie, the snapshot will be Luke training with his lightsaber on the Falcon. Super helpful. The Hulu guide looks pretty but has no preview. The DirecTV guide is clean and shows an image for each program, but it's album art – not a preview of the show itself. Also, the DirecTV app really struggled with rewinding a live program and crashed a few times on me while searching for shows. That's unacceptable.
Second, the unlimited DVR is game-changing. It's 2019. I don't want to worry about what I'm recording or how much space it takes up. Let me just pick what I want, and you make sure it's available. That's what YouTube TV does. Hulu and DirecTV have fairly severe storage limits that just seem punitive. DirecTV's DVR is also labeled as "Beta". Ugh. Another great feature of the YouTube TV DVR is that when you tell it to record a new show, it will also pull down all of the back episodes for the show. When I told it to record The Good Place, for example, it not only started recording all of the future episodes, but it also gave me all of the episodes that have already aired this season. Nice touch!
Third is the channel selection. DirecTV definitely seems to have the widest selection, but you're going to pay for it. What I liked about YouTube TV is that is included all of my local broadcast networks (as did DirecTV, but not Hulu), and it had most of the channels I care about for $40 a month. Every provider has trade-offs (No AMC on Hulu, no Golf Channel on DirecTV, etc.), but YouTube has the best mix overall for what we watch.
While I'm very happy with YouTube TV, it's not all peaches and cream. There are a few things that could be better. For example, it's not easy to channel surf. The guide makes it easy to find a program, but once you're watching there's no easy way to go up or down to the next channel. There's also no previous channel button or picture in picture. These aren't deal breakers, but they would be nice to have.
There also doesn't appear to be a way to delete a program on the DVR after you've watched it. It just continues to sit in your queue forever. I may not have to worry about storage space, but my inner neat freak would like to clean out the things I no longer care about. There also isn't a way to fine-tune what gets recorded. PTI, for example, airs multiple times per night and YouTube TV records them all – even though they're identical. I don't need 4 copies recorded each weekday. It would be nice to have an option to just record the first occurrence of a new episode. One other thing to note – the back catalog episodes of programs I mentioned above? They have unskippable commercials. You can completely time-shift programs that you've recorded, but any of the older episodes are video-on-demand, and you pay for the convenience of having them by sitting through the same handful of commercials.
Lastly, I'm not thrilled that we don't get Food Network or HGTV, and I'll need to figure out how to get the NFL Network before the Thursday games start next season.
Yeah, I do have a few gripes, but overall I'm really happy with the decision to cut the cord. Here are the only metrics you need to know:
If you're still on the fence, I say go for it. Keep paying your cable bill for another month if you want to have that safety net under you, but I think you'll find that life is pretty great with an extra few bucks in your pocket each month.
Thanks for taking the time to read through all four of these posts. I'm sure many of you will still have questions, thoughts, and suggestions after reading this. Feel free to tweet me and let's chat! If you've found this series helpful, please help spread the word by sharing it on your social channels. Thank you.