TV has been changing for years. Gone are the days where it was just cable or “bunny ears” — we have a lot more options now. There’s satellite, cable, fiber-optic, and internet TV providers to choose from these days.
With all these options, the power changes hands from the TV service providers to yours; if you don’t like what you have, there’s always someone new to try out. So, you know what you want — TV that’s customized to you, with your favorite shows, sports, series, etc. — and you want it for a reasonable price.
TV providers have had to adapt and have risen to the challenge, giving you great choices. But with all those options, you now have a new problem: sorting through all the many providers (and types) to figure out which one’s going to give you what you want.
So with this post, we assembled the best TV service providers in one spot for you. Skim through them, then check out our guide further down of how to choose the best provider for you and the differences between the service types.
Best satellite TV providers: DIRECTV + DISH
When it comes to satellite TV, there are only two providers, which makes our job both easier and harder. DISH Network and DIRECTV have been matching each other punch-for-punch for years, with the slightest differences giving each an edge in a different area.
For example, DISH ranks higher for their price-lock guarantee and best-in-class DVR. DIRECTV, on the other hand, has more HD channels and a better sports package. Let’s explore those more in depth.
DISH - best for price
|Plans||Number of channels||2-yr contract price||No-contract price||View Plans|
|America’s Top 120||190||$59.99/mo.||$79.99/mo.||View plans|
|America’s Top 120+||190+||$69.99/mo.||$84.99/mo.||View plans|
|America’s Top 200||240+||$79.99/mo.||$94.99/mo.||View plans|
|America’s Top 250||290+||$89.99/mo.||$104.99/mo.||View plans|
|Flex Pack||50||N/A||$37.99/mo.||View plans|
Although initially DISH Network looks more expensive than competitor DIRECTV, DISH gets major points for their locked-in pricing guarantee for 2 years. Rather than having your rates hiked up after the first year (DIRECTV, ahem), it’s one flat rate throughout. You aren’t required to sign a contract, either, although you’ll save $15-$20 a month by doing so.
DISH has a wide selection of channels, including most locals, and while they’re sports packages don’t include NFL SUNDAY TICKET, they do have most college channels, like SEC, Pac-12, and Big Ten Networks. And even DISH’s base package has ESPN.
DISH also shines when it comes to their DVR: the Hopper 3. It’s the best-of-the-best, allowing you to record up to 16 shows at once, and 500 hours of HD content. The only downside there is you’ll have to tack on an extra $10 a month for the Hopper, plus $5-$10 for each additional receiver. But it’s worth it.
DISH’s customer service is iffy, with longer hold times. You can read more about DISH Network in our full review.
DIRECTV - best for sports
|Plans||Number of channels||Months 0-12||Months 13-24||View Plans|
|DIRECTV SELECT||155+||$35/mo.||$81/mo.||View plans|
|DIRECTV ENTERTAINMENT||160+||$40/mo.||$93/mo.||View plans|
|DIRECTV CHOICE||185+||$45/mo.||$110/mo.||View plans|
|DIRECTV XTRA||235+||$55/mo.||$124/mo.||View plans|
|DIRECTV ULTIMATE||250+||$60/mo.||$135/mo.||View plans|
|DIRECTV PREMIER||330+||$110/mo.||$181/mo.||View plans|
*Price are based off the 1st year of a 2-year contract. Increases in months 13-24.
Where DISH falls short is the NFL SUNDAY TICKET — but DIRECTV has you covered. Going alongside that, you get a-la-carte programming for most of the major sports leagues, like MLB EXTRA INNINGS, NHL CENTER ICE, and NBA LEAGUE PASS. And, when you go with the ENTERTAINMENT package, you get ESPN, TNT, and TBS, which carry just about all the professional sports and college basketball games.
DIRECTV also carriers more HD channels — you’ll find SD to be more the exception than the rule, here. For DVR, DIRECTV relies on the Genie, which gives you 200 hours of HD recordings. Not quite on par with the Hopper 3, but alright.
The biggest downside about DIRECTV is in their pricing model. At first glance, they look cheaper than DISH Network — and they are — for the first year. In months 13-24 of your contract (yes, contract-only) prices skyrocket, more than doubling in most cases. That comes pretty painfully if you aren’t expecting it.
Learn more in our in-depth DIRECTV review.
Best cable TV providers: Xfinity, Spectrum, + Cox
There are a lot of cable providers out there — Spectrum (formerly Time Warner), Cox, Optimum, etc. — but Xfinity, Spectrum, and Cox take top spots for us. And of those three, Xfinity wins overall.
Xfinity: best overall
*For the 1st 12 months with a 1-year contract.
Xfinity’s Digital Start begins at just $49.99 a month, and with the number of channels, plus the greatest percentage of coverage of cable providers, that makes it the best all-around package. With over a 140 channels, it’s pretty similar to DISH Network’s base-package, and is better than the next-closest cable provider (Spectrum) by about $10 a month.
In that package, you get a lot of great channels, including ESPN, TNT, and AMC, as well as a lot of locals. And unlike satellite companies, Xfinity offers both contract and contract-free options. They have a 1-year contract for $10 cheaper per month than the no-contract option, but if you like flexibility, $10 a month isn’t a bad tradeoff.
The biggest downside with Xfinity is extra fees. You’ve got:
- Regional sports fees: + $5/month.
- Broadcast TV fees: +$7/month.
- DVR fees: $19.95/month.
- Additional receiver/multiple TV setup fees: $9.95/month.
Those can add up quickly.
The other thing is customer service. Comcast has been deadlast according to the ACSI for years now.
Spectrum is your next best bet, and certainly the one to go with if you’re a no-contract kind of guy or gal. Although about 15 channels short of Xfinity’s base package, Spectrum’s Select costs $5 less per month ($15 if you look at Xfinity’s no-contract pricing) and still gives you great channels: ABC, ESPN, and Disney, to name a few.
And the Silver package gives you an even better price than any competitor for HBO, SHOWTIME, and CINEMAX.
But Spectrum’s biggest failure is in its clarity about DVRs. When you order, you have to specify if you want an HD-recording-capable DVR. If you don’t, you’ll get one that only records SD. But even so, when you get the HD DVR that you specified for, you only get 21 hours of HD recording and can only record 2 shows at once — so nothing to write home about.
If you want a truly-customized-to-you cable TV provider, Cox is the one to go with. Their Contour TV plan gives you a preselected base set of channels, including ones like ABC, FOX, and TBS (+ one premium channel). Then, you get to add “Paks” of additional channels — essentially add-ons.
It’s basically a partial-a-la-carte way of choosing the channels you want.
The big thing about this approach is the cost, though — each Pak is an extra $10-$16 per month, so when you add multiples, the price quickly climbs. Cox does have other plans, though, but the Paks/customization is limited to the Contour plan, so you’ll starting higher with those.
Plus, Cox charges higher for DVR services than Xfinity, even though their capabilities are pretty similar: Cox charges you $19.99 a month for the Record 6-HD DVR, which lets you record up to 6 shows at once; Xfinity’s X1 DVR does the same for half the price.
Best fiber-optic TV provider: Verizon Fios TV
When it comes to fiber-optic TV, there’s really only one provider that matters: Verizon Fios TV. Faster than traditional cable, with the most wide-spread fiber network — it’s pretty much a no-brainer if you care about 1) speed; and 2) using multiple devices.
Verizon Fios TV gives you no-contract options -- but you have to bundle your TV and internet together, which does contribute to make pricing higher. That said, it’s always nice to have flexibility to cancel your TV without repercussion.
Speaking of fees, Verizon does have a handful of extras. If you want a DVR, you’ll pay $13, $18, or $26 per month on top of your regular bill, depending on which DVR box you choose. And, there’s a “one-time charge of $179.99 (plus tax)” buried in the fine print.
Customer service is pretty great, too, taking top honors with the ACSI.
Best live TV streaming services: A lot of ‘em
There are a lot of Live TV streaming services — here are the ones we’ll look at:
- Sling TV
- DIRECTV NOW
- Hulu with Live TV
- YouTube TV
- PlayStation Vue
Sling TV: best for price
Sling TV focuses on the essentials of the spirit of cordcutting: save money, but don’t miss the shows you like. With a small channel selection starting at $25 a month, they’re a great bargain that concentrates on quality over quantity. Of course, you can get more channels by going with the Orange + Blue package, but now you’ll pay as much as competitors for fewer channels.
You can also add 20 different channel packages to whatever base plan you have for between $5 and $10 apiece, but again: quantity is not where Sling TV shines. Sling’s cloud DVR isn’t bad, though, giving you 50 hours of live content recording, although it only works on some devices and channels.
DIRECTV NOW: best for movies
DIRECTV NOW is a good alternative to DIRECTV itself — you get a big part of the DIRECTV experience without signing a contract or forking over setup fees. And like DIRECTV, DIRECTV NOW offers premium movie channels for just $5-$8 a month per channel — which is actually cheaper than picking up any of the channels individually online.
Plus, since there are no contracts, you can cancel at any time. DIRECTV NOW’s cloud DVR falls a little short though, with just 20 hours of recording available.
Hulu w/ Live TV: best for binging
Hulu with Live TV gives you a great combo: plenty of live channels, and on-demand streaming. Don’t care about what’s on TV? You can watch The Handmaid’s Tale, The Act, Brooklyn Nine-Nine -- whatever. You’ve got access to Hulu’s entire streaming library. Binge away.
But that said, Hulu doesn’t really offer any channel upgrades. Once you have Hulu with Live, that’s pretty much it — nothing more to see. Their cloud DVR does come with 50 hours of storage, which is okay-not-great; and it’ll cost you $14.99 a month extra to upgrade to the 200-hour storage bin.
YouTube TV: best for DVR storage
If you’ve been as disappointed as us with the cloud DVR options thus far, then welcome — you’ve finally arrived at the right provider for recording. With YouTube TV, you get an unlimited cloud DVR — you can record anything you want, making it perfect for you if you never watch anything live on TV.
Plus, you get a good number of channels to choose from, like abc, bravo, AMC, and Fox. You even get some good sports networks, like SEC, ESPN, and NBA TV.
Really the only big failure of YouTube TV is that they’re missing a few channels every one in a while, like VH1. And, the recording function of the unlimited DVR can be frustrating: the TV guide only shows the current show and what’s immediately after, making setting up farther in advance difficult.
fuboTV: best for soccer/sports fans
fuboTV is a little lesser-known and overally, they’re pretty average -- except when it comes to sports, particularly soccer. For example, you’ll get Fox Soccer Plus, FS1 and 2, ESPN Deportes, and more. Normal channels center around the basics, like tbs, FX, CBS, and the like.
So if you’re not a big sports fan and are looking for more than just basic TV, you may have better luck for the price with one of the other providers here.
But aside from sports, fubo has a pretty good cloud DVR setup. Although the standard is included in the monthly price and is just 30 hours of recording, $10 extra a month blasts you up to 500 hours.
PlayStation Vue: best user interface
Finally, last but not least, we have PlayStation Vue. The provider paid a lot of attention to detail when they designed their service: channels are clearly labelled and you can easily find on demand content (top right-hand corner). You can “favorite” shows and networks by clicking a simple check mark next to the icons in the top right corner.
With these little user-oriented details, PlayStation Vue feels more like traditional cable TV service, which is nice when paired with the features of online streaming.
PlayStation Vue also gives you unlimited recordings, with the caveat that they automatically delete after a month and you can only record one at a time.
One downside to PlayStation Vue, though, is that they aren’t much cheaper than cable or satellite — so if that’s your reason for cordcutting, they may not be the best option. Another downside is that they limit you to your in-home network by tracking your IP address — so say goodbye to signing in at your friend’s house or on the go.
Cheapest TV providers
So, you made it through all the TV providers, eh? Well, which ones are the cheapest, and which less so? From top to bottom, cheapest to most expensive:
|Provider||Service Type||Price (per month)||View Plans|
|Sling TV||Livestream||$25-$40||View plans|
|DIRECTV NOW||Livestream||$40-$75||View plans|
|YouTube TV||Livestream||$49.99||View plans|
|PlayStation Vue||Livestream||$44.99-$79.99||View plans|
|Hulu with Live TV||Livestream||$44.99||View plans|
|Verizon Fios||Fiber||$64.99-$89.99||View plans|
How to choose the best TV provider for you
Now that you’ve had a chance to skim through the wide variety of available providers, how do you approach actually sorting them? How do you choose the right type and specific provider for you and your individual needs?
Well, as you already know, there are 4 basic types:
- Fiber optic
- Digital streaming (internet)
Deciding which one is right for you and your situation comes down to considering and weighing a few things.
Decide which channels you watch
First, figure out which channels you actually watch. Do you really need 2 or 300 channels? Is 60 more in your range, or 120? According to a cordcutting.com survey, American respondents watch, on average just 5.7% of the channels included in their TV package. Men usually watched about 12 channels, and women just 10.
When you divide a TV package by that much-lower number, the price you’re per channel skyrockets.
So, think about the channels you watch on a regular basis, then compare providers to see which options include everything on your list without making you pay more for extras you won’t use. Once you have that list narrowed down, compare the perks of the remainders by order of what you value most — i.e. customer service, cheap monthly rates, premium channels, on-demand content, HD or SD, recording capabilities, etc.
Not all of these TV providers are going to be available in every state. Satellite pretty much is, and if you have good internet speeds, livestreaming will work for you. But cable can be more limited, and fiber optic is even more so. Run a quick Google search or visit the links provided with each TV provider to check availability for you.
Look for extra fees + expenses
Once you’ve narrowed providers down to those that fit your channel-needs (and are in your area), take a look at that monthly bill. But further, dig for additional fees. One-time fees for installation or equipment are common. But, broadcast fees, HD fees, or otherwise can surprise you — and keep doing so month after month.
Read the fine print on the provider’s website or speak in-depth with a sales rep before you sign any contracts.
Check for rate hikes
Next, as you’re scanning for additional fees, keep your eyes open for rate increases. Some providers hook you in with a great deal up front (ahem, DIRECTV), then increase the rates after a period of time. And since you’ve likely had to sign a contract, getting out of that is a pain that involves early termination fees — which can be nearly as expensive as riding the rest of the contract out at the new rate.
So check how big a jump that rate hike is going to be. It might not be so bad — or it might be double what you start out paying. But the good thing is, most companies will actually work with you to get another deal once that intro pricing is done; they’d rather keep your business at a lower rate than lose you entirely. You just need to call and ask.
How to understand your contract
Contracts are probably the most annoying part of dealing with TV providers. They typically give you better prices in exchange for signing, but they also lock you in for that designated period of time.
And with contracts come a myriad of things to think about: strict cancellation policies, sudden price changes, added fees…. How do you understand them all so you don’t get caught someplace you didn’t want to be?
Let’s dig in.
Early termination fees (ETF)
Cable and livestreaming don’t typically require traditional contracts — great (although some offer them). Both satellite providers do, however. Early termination fees (ETF) apply when you sign a long-term contract and want out before the end of it.
For example, if you want out of your DIRECTV contract, you’ll have to pay a fee for every month left in your contract. DISH rolls the same way.
So basically, if you want out of your contract, but you have 12 months left — ouch. With one of the two above, that’s at least $240 to do so. But it’s in your contract, so make sure to ask before you sign.
It’s been mentioned repeatedly, but the second-year price change for some providers can hurt. There’s not much worse than opening your bill after having service for a year and seeing it jump from $35 to $81, or worse.
The thing is, it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. If you’re careful and follow our steps laid out above, you should catch these ahead of time. While this practice is most common with DIRECTV, check with any other providers you’re considering.
Ask if there are going to be any price changes after your promotional period ends so you know ahead of time can factor it in.
Hidden fees suck. To name just a few, you’ve got:
- Activation fees
- Equipment fees (DVRs, receivers, dishes, etc)
- Installation fees
- Broadcasting fees
- Regional sports fees
- Premium channel add-on costs
Watch out for these. Some are one-time — like activation and installation fees — but others can be recurring — broadcasting fees, equipment leasing, etc. If you check for them, they won’t surprise you.
Satellite vs. Cable vs. Livestreaming TV
All 3 TV service types have the same goal: get you TV. How they do it is where the difference lies. This is another important part of your choice of provider, as availability can vary in some cases.
Plus, with streaming, you’ll need to make sure you have a fast internet connection that can handle it — otherwise, you’ll be left constantly staring at the “loading” screen.
Satellite TV is beamed to you from — you guessed it — a satellite up in orbit. A dish is mounted on your home that’s then wired into your house and ultimately, to your TV. To give you TV, a broadcast center receives signals from various programming sources, then beams those signals up to the satellite.
The satellite receives the signals, then sends them back down to earth. Your dish picks up that signal from the satellite (or multiple satellites), and sends it down the wires into the receiver in your house, which passes it to your TV.
This method of TV service does a few things. 1) If you live in a very rural area that has no cable available, you’ll be able to get service; and 2) You’re also able to get more HD channels — particularly movie channels — than either cable or livestreaming.
The downsides to satellite can be extensive, though. First, there’s extra installation fees, which makes sense — they have to mount a dish on your roof and wire it into the house to the receiver –, but even worse, bad weather can interrupt your signal.
Most (northern) satellite TV users will be able to tell you about at least once where they had to climb on the roof to knock snow of the dish during a football game, but a bad thunderstorm can knock out the signal for a while, too. So unfortunately, satellite just isn’t quite as reliable as other methods.
Cable is consistency. It’s pretty much as simple as that. Cable TV sends your TV programming by radio frequency signals through underground coaxial cables. Often, these cables also carry FM radio, high-speed internet, and telephone services, too. The signal travels to an outdoor cable box that the provider installs on the side of your home, which then sends the signal on to various rooms — and most importantly, to your TV.
Because these cables are underground, they don’t face the same interruptions to service from weather as satellite does.
While prices for cable typically start higher than satellite does, you don’t usually see the same 2nd-year price jump; plus, you get greater consistency, which is always nice and can be worth a little higher price.
What about fiber optic?
Fiber-optic is a new-tech form of cable. Rather than relying on copper coaxial cables to deliver the signal, fiber uses super-thin strands of glass plastic called optical fibers. Each strand is about 1/10th the thickness of human hair. Instead of radio frequencies, your TV programming (and internet) is sent using pulses of light.
This allows fiber-optic TV and internet to reach dramatically higher speeds than ordinary coaxial cables. It also allows cables to be stretched over dramatically longer distances than cable, without losing any sound or picture quality. Cable can’t say the same.
But, as this is newer technology, availability is pretty limited to major cities; for example, Verizon Fios TV is only available on the east coast, while Xfinity’s cable TV is more widely available across the country.
Left: Xfinity availability; Right: Verizon Fios.
Live streaming is pretty much the newest kind of TV service. Rather than relying on cables or satellite directly, it uses your internet connection to provide programming. That means you need fast internet speeds — if you live in a more rural area, your internet may not be fastest enough to smoothly livestream your TV.
Livestreaming also takes a more pick-and-choose approach to TV — you decide what programming you want, and how much you want to pay for it (to a point). So, you can get some pretty low prices without giving up any of the channels you watch the most.
But on the other side of that coin, your channels and options tend to be more limited. You can purchase add-on packages, but often these simply bring your price up to the same as satellite or cable anyway — and sometimes more.
Another thing to remember, too, is that livestreaming services don’t really bundle into the cost of your internet. Some wireless phone carriers will do so, but not usually internet service providers. So you’ll be paying for your internet + your streaming service.
Well, you made it all the way down here — so let’s recap, shall we?
- Best satellite providers: DIRECTV + DISH.
- DISH is best for pricing;
- DIRECTV is better for sports packages.
- Best cable TV providers: Xfinity, Spectrum, + Cox
- Xfinity is best overall;
- Spectrum is best for no contract options;
- Cox is best for customization.
- Best fiber-optic TV: Verizon Fios TV, for speed and customer support.
- Best live-streaming providers: Sling TV, DIRECTV NOW, Hulu with Live TV, YouTube TV, fuboTV, and PlayStation Vue
- Sling TV is best for price;
- DIRECTV NOW is best for movies and on-demand options;
- Hulu with Live TV is best for binging;
- YouTube TV is best for DVR cloud storage;
- fuboTV is best for sports;
- PlayStation Vue has the best user interface.
When you’re comparing services, consider:
- What channels you actually watch;
- What providers are available in your region;
- What kind of extra fees there are; and
- If there are going to be any price hikes in the future.