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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? Our experts break it down.

Cable or streaming TV? How to choose?

Streaming TV is newer and shinier, but is it better than cable or satellite? All three services deliver live and on-demand television to your eyeballs, but there are subtle—and sharp—differences.

Cable TV and satellite TV have tons of channels and better video quality. But live TV streaming services are more affordable, flexible, and customizable. Let’s dive into the nitty-gritty.

Cable vs. streaming TV pros and cons

Cable and satellite TV

Higher channel counts
Better video quality

Streaming TV

More affordable
More no-contract options
More customizable choices

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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: $69.99–$75.99/mo. (70+ channels)
  • Philo: $25.00/mo. (63+ channels)
  • fuboTV: $69.99–$74.99/mo. (111–166+ channels)
  • Sling TV: $40.00–$55.00/mo. (30–50+ channels)

Compare those costs and channel counts to cable:

  • Spectrum: $49.99/mo. (125+ channels)
  • Xfinity: $49.99–$89.99/mo. (140–220+ channels)
  • Cox: $53.00–$138.00/mo. (75–140+ channels)
  • Optimum: $30.00–$115.00/mo. (50–420+ channels)
  • Sparklight: $42.00–$99.75/mo. (20–100+ channels)

Pro tip: Our industry report How Has the Cost of Cable and Streaming Changed? gives more insights into how pricing continues to rise (even with on-demand streaming services like Netflix).

Not to leave out satellite TV:

  • DISH: $79.99–$109.99/mo. (190–290+ channels)
  • DIRECTV: $64.99–$139.99/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-best costs

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-best contracts

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-best channels

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 video quality: Cable and Satellite

cable vs streaming-best video quality

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.

Speaking of choices . . . We here at CableTV.com really like Sling TV because of its variety of channel add-ons and cheap base price.

In fact, we gave Sling TV our Editor’s Choice award for best channel add-ons because you can really choose which channels you want and which channels you don’t want (for an affordable price).

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

cable vs streaming-best choices

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:

Provider Tech Type Editorial Rating Price Channels Details
YouTube TV Live TV streaming 4.5/5 $64.99/mo. 100+ channels View Plans
Netflix On-demand streaming 4.3/5 $9.99–$19.99/mo. Most/best original content View Plans
Spectrum Cable 3.5/5 $49.99/mo. 125+ channels View Plans
DISH Satellite 4.1/5 $79.99–$109.99/mo. 190–290+ channels View Plans

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

Final take

Live TV streaming offers your favorite channels at more affordable prices than cable TV or satellite TV. We recommend you get an internet plan with at least 25 Mbps internet speeds for streaming TV.

If you can’t get fast internet speeds where you live, you’re better off sticking with traditional cable TV or satellite TV. They may be more expensive options, but they offer better video quality—and none of the buffering you’ll suffer trying to stream on slow internet.

Cable vs. streaming TV FAQ

Are streaming services better than cable?

Yes, streaming services are better than cable, as long as your internet speeds are fast enough for streaming. You can still watch all your favorite live channels while paying less than most traditional cable TV plans cost, especially once you factor in hidden cable TV fees.

Can streaming TV replace cable?

Yes, streaming TV can replace cable if you have a strong internet connection. You can get all your favorite live TV channels and on-demand shows with streaming TV.

What are the disadvantages of streaming TV?

  • Slow or weak internet connections may lead to buffering issues.
  • Most live TV streaming is limited to 720p video quality.
  • Some live TV streaming services don’t offer local channels.
  • The prices of affordable on-demand streaming services can add up if you get too many.

Is streaming TV really cheaper than cable?

Yes, streaming TV is usually cheaper than cable. Even affordable cable plans, like Spectrum TV ($49.99 a month), come with hidden broadcasting fees and equipment costs that add up to more than live TV streaming services like YouTube TV ($64.99 a month).

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