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Cable vs. Streaming TV: Which is Better?

It’s newer and shinier, but is streaming TV better than cable or satellite? We break it down.

Cable or streaming TV? How to choose?

Should you spend your hard-earned bucks on good ole reliable cable TV, or new-ish internet-based streaming TV? Both deliver live and on-demand television to your eyeballs, but there are subtle, and some sharp, differences between the two. (Psssst: most of our cable notes also relate to satellite TV.)

To quote one of the great philosophers of our time, “Any way you want it, that’s the way you need it, any way you want it.” Steve Perry may not have been talking about TV, but the sentiment still applies to your entertainment—wait for it—journey.

We’re here to walk you through the pros and cons of both, so don’t stop believin.’ (Last Journey reference, promise.)

Cable vs. streaming: cost

In the early days of live TV streaming, this was an easy one: streaming is cheaper than cable. But, with top services like YouTube TV and Hulu + Live TV regularly raising their rates, that price gap is closing. Side-by-side, though, live TV streaming still has the edge:

  • YouTube TV: $64.99/mo. (100+ channels)
  • Hulu + Live TV: $64.99–$70.99/mo. (70+ channels)
  • Philo: $25.00/mo. (63+ channels)
  • fuboTV: $64.99–$74.99/mo. (109–156+ channels)
  • Sling TV: $35.00–$50.00/mo. (30–50+ channels)

Compare those costs and channel counts to cable:

  • Spectrum: $44.99–94.99/mo. (125–200+ channels)
  • Xfinity: $49.99–$89.99/mo. (140–220+ channels)
  • Cox: $25.00–$69.99/mo. (75–140+ channels)
  • Suddenlink: $79.99–$129.99/mo. (225–290+ channels)
  • Sparklight: $15.00–$84.00/mo. (27–100+ channels)

Not to leave out satellite TV:

  • DISH: $64.99–$99.99/mo. (190–290+ channels)
  • DIRECTV: $64.99–$134.99/mo. (160–330+ channels)

Data as of post date. Offers and availability may vary by location and are subject to change.

Worth noting: Both cable and satellite providers will raise their monthly rates after one or two years of service while you’re still under contract (more on that in a minute). Streaming TV providers’ rates also tend to go up year-over-year, but you’re free to drop those services at any time (read: no contracts).

Winner on cost: Streaming

Cable vs. streaming: contracts

With the exception of live TV streaming service AT&T TV, no streaming provider locks you into an annual contract; month-by-month service and payment is still the rule for streaming TV.

Cable and satellite service, as mentioned previously, require a one- or two-year contract, in most cases. Some will nearly double their price after the first year of a two-year contract, which seems like a bait-and-switch even when it’s lined out in the fine print. (Always check the fine print.)

However, some cable and satellite services do offer no-contract options (like Xfinity), but they’re usually more expensive. Streaming will likely reach this Hungry Hungry Hippos phase of in-your-face money grabs eventually, but right now it’s relatively transparent.

Winner on contracts: Streaming

Cable vs. streaming: channels

Only a couple of live TV streaming services have crossed the 100-channels threshold, while cable and satellite TV providers offer multiple plans featuring up to 200 or even 300 channels. They may not be extra channels you actually want (like home shopping and audio-only music networks), but cable and satellite easily win the quantity challenge.

Cable and satellite also beat streaming TV when it comes to sports channels. It’s slowly catching up, but live TV streaming still doesn’t offer uniform distribution of sports channels across different services—there’s always at least one missing (like NBA TV on Hulu + Live TV, or NHL Network on YouTube TV, or any sports channels on Philo).

Attention, local sports fans: If you rely on RSNs (regional sports networks) to watch your home teams in action, cable or satellite TV is a better bet than live TV streaming. Cable and satellite offer more RSNs in more areas; streaming is inconsistent in RSN inclusion.

Sports channels on cable and satellite, on the other hand, are easy to get—even if it means subscribing to a more expensive plan. And don’t forget the NFL SUNDAY TICKET, which is exclusive to DIRECTV through 2022 and maybe beyond.

Winner on channels: Cable and Satellite

Cable vs. streaming: video quality

While on-demand streaming services like Netflix and Prime Video can reach 1080p HD and even 4K video
quality, live TV streaming is mostly limited to 720p video quality. If your internet service or Wi-Fi signal isn’t strong, it can be lower than that and even start—brace for the “b” word—buffering.

With few exceptions, like cable-to-source distances or dish vs. bad weather instances, live cable and satellite TV deliver consistently higher-quality 1080p and 4K picture definition. The difference can be barely perceptible to non-pro TV viewers, but the distinction between 720p and 1080p tends to leave pixel perfectionists perturbed.

Winner on channels: Cable and Satellite

Cable vs. streaming: choices

Streaming TV really shines when it comes to options: cable or satellite service only offers one branded live TV option (with some add-ons for more money), whereas streaming TV gives you several live TV apps and services to choose from, and you can quit them at any time to try another. Say, if you’re not impressed with Sling TV, you can bail and try YouTube TV, but you’re stuck with Xfinity’s TV service.

Streaming on-demand apps open a whole other universe of options. There are thousands of apps in thousands of genres in the Roku Channels store alone, many of which are free with no monthly charges. With cable and satellite, you’re limited to the 50 to 300 channels in your package. Streaming is à-la-carte TV.

Winner on choices: Streaming

Streaming, cable, and satellite recommendations

We’ve reviewed and rated our favorite TV services at CableTV.com—these are our editorial best overall picks in streaming, cable, and satellite:

Tech Type Editorial Rating Price Channels
Live TV streaming 4.5/5 $64.99/mo. 100+ channels Learn more

View plans
On-demand streaming 4.3/5 $8.99–$17.99/mo. Most/best original content Learn more

View plans
Cable 3.5/5 $44.99–94.99/mo. 125–200+ channels Learn more

View plans
Satellite 4.1/5 $64.99–$94.99/mo. 190–290+ channels Learn more

View plans

Data as of post date. Offers and availability may vary by location and are subject to change.