As a member of the FIRE community, and also as someone who embraces new technology, I would seem to be a likely candidate for cord-cutting my TV service. And yet, so far, I have stuck with traditional TV solutions — Comcast Xfinity cable service for many years and AT&T DIRECTV satellite television for the past 13 months.
I also subscribe to Netflix and Amazon Prime and watch TV shows and movies on both. Those two streaming services already have more than enough content to keep a TV viewer busy for perpetuity. If I were OK with limiting my TV show selection to just those services, then cord-cutting would be a foregone conclusion. Even if I were to add one more service (e.g. Hulu or HBO NOW), cord-cutting would still be cheaper than subscribing to a traditional TV service.
Unfortunately, my viewing habits are eclectic, and the shows I want to watch come from so many different sources that Netlfix + Amazon + Hulu would still not be a complete solution for me and the rest of my family (my wife and two teen kids).
For us, a complete cord-cutting solution would require a subscription to a live TV streaming service with cloud DVR functionality. Some of the popular solutions in this space are:
These services typically offer about 40 to 70 TV channels and a software-based DVR which stores recordings in the cloud. They are intended to replace traditional cable or satellite services and their hardware-based DVR boxes.
I moved to a new house in June of 2018, leaving behind the Comcast service of my previous home (Comcast is not available in my new area). I considered cutting the cord then but instead opted for a one-year promotion with DIRECTV satellite service for a package with 185+ channels. When my promotion expired in June, I was excited to finally become a cord-cutter. Instead, I negotiated a new package with DIRECTV.
What is this insanity? Why am I bucking the popular trend of cutting the cord? I have plenty of reasons. Let me enumerate them.
One caveat: many of my data points are not from direct experience but instead from reading countless articles about live TV streaming services on expert sites such as CNET, Tom’s Guide, and Cord-Cutter Confidential.
1) Picture Quality
In addition to our various computers, iPhones, and iPads, we have two big-screen TVs. One is a fairly old Vizio 55-inch 1080p Full HD TV in our bedroom (which is connected to a modest 5.1 surround sound system). The other is a newer LG 65-inch 4K OLED HDR TV in our home theater room which also has a pretty decent 7.1 surround sound system. The LG TV has about the best picture quality you can buy with today’s technology. I watch most of my TV shows (and movies) in the home theater on the LG.
The reason I mention the details about my equipment is that most of the Internet streaming live TV services offer video at a resolution of only about 720p HD. Moreover, reportedly, the real-life video quality is often worse, closer to a DVD (480p). On a high-end 4K TV, such low resolutions looks REALLY bad. To meet the needs of any decent home theater, you really need at least full 1080p HD quality and ideally 4K quality (with HDR color if possible).
The bottom line: today’s live TV streaming services do not offer reliably good enough picture quality for modern big-screen TVs. Please note that I am talking ONLY about live TV Internet streaming services; traditional video-on-demand streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon offer reliable picture quality and also ample content in 4K HDR quality.
By contrast, my DIRECTV DVR is capable of outputting a 4K video signal to my TV. Some of the channels available on DIRECTV are only at 720 lines of resolution but many are at 1080 lines, and DIRECTV also includes three channels of 4K HDR content (two of which are free). I have to say that the 4K HDR picture quality from DIRECTV exceeds what I typically see from Netflix or Amazon. The crisp resolution and vibrant colors leap off the screen!
2) Sound Quality
Currently, from what I’ve researched online, most live TV streaming services do not offer 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound. Instead, they offer stereo sound, which means on your nice home theater setup, you would have to listen to your shows in stereo or at best in Dolby Pro-Logic (a 30-year-old analog surround format which is not nearly as immersive as newer formats).
For anyone who cares about sound quality, Dolby Pro-Logic just does not cut it. By contrast, DIRECTV offers Dolby Digital 5.1 sound on virtually all channels, which is the minimum needed for a good home theater experience.
Again, to be fair, Netflix and Amazon offer even better 7.1 Dolby Digital surround sound for some content on their video-on-demand services.
3) DVR Limitations
From everything I’ve read, the cloud DVRs you get with live TV streaming services are rife with limitations.
- Some have time limits and keep your recordings for only so many days.
- Some have storage limits which allow you to retain only so many hours of recordings.
- Some limit your ability to fast forward commercials.
That last point is a real deal-breaker for me since I have no patience for watching commercials and always time-shift my shows so that I can skip the ads. In the past, some of the live TV streaming services would replace your cloud DVR recording with an “on-demand” version of the show which prohibits fast-forwarding. Recent news reports I’ve seen suggest that this practice may be falling out of favor. For example, YouTube now allows fast-forwarding of any of your recordings.
By contrast, if you have recorded a show to your hardware DVR from your cable or satellite provider, they place no limits on how you play the recording. Also, unless you record an insane amount of shows and run out of hard drive space, you can keep your recordings for as long as you want.
Over time, the live TV streaming services have been raising their prices. Money savings was one of their biggest selling points when the services first hit the market. Now, with higher prices, they are starting to lose their cost advantage over traditional service providers.
As I mentioned earlier, I recently renegotiated my DIRECTV package. Below are the essentials of my new deal, which is good for a year (after which time I’ll have to renegotiate again).
- My service agreement is month to month (i.e. I did not have to agree to a new long-term contract).
- My monthly service, with all fees (e.g. hardware for two TVs) and taxes, for their Select package of 155+ channels (including two 4K channels) costs around $57/month.
- Because I also get my Internet service from AT&T (via their U-verse fiber service), I receive a bundle discount on my Internet bill of $10 per month. Were I to cut the cord and get my TV service elsewhere, I would lose this discount.
So, factoring in my Internet discount, for all intents and purposes, I am paying $47 per month for my DIRECT satellite TV package as opposed to $45-50/month for a cord-cutting live TV streaming service.
For essentially the same price as cord-cutting, I am getting a solution which is more flexible, has more channels and is vastly superior technologically (picture quality, sound quality, DVR functionality).
That is what I call a no-brainer — and the reason why I have not yet cut the cord.
In the end, I am too big a TV and movie junkie for any one solution to meet my entertainment needs (especially when also considering the viewing habits of the rest of my family). Hence, I combine a slew of different services and technologies to fill my watch queue while still trying to optimize for cost where I can.
Below is what my current solution looks like:
- DIRECTV satellite service – for TV shows my family watches week to week and occasionally for spectacular 4K content (e.g. the recent nature documentary “Dynasties”).
- Netflix – for their great original content and deep (but diminishing) well of older series and movies.
- Amazon – for a few of their Amazon Originals TV series and the occasional movie.
- Redbox – for renting new release movies that my son and/or I want to watch right away before they hit streaming. (With their frequent promotions, Redbox disc rentals are far more affordable than renting new releases from Vudu, FandangoNow, Amazon, Google, Apple, etc.)
- Hoopla and Kanopy – for the once in a blue moon occasion when these free streaming services (integrated with your public library) actually have a movie I want to see. (Word of warning: to date, the picture quality has been pretty lame compared to Netflix or Amazon standards.)
- Rotating streaming service – at any given time, I may also subscribe to one other streaming service to catch up on their exclusive content:
- HBO NOW
- CBS All Access (strictly for Star Trek)
- In the future, Apple TV Plus and Disney Plus also may join the rotation.
For many people, I suspect that managing so many services would seem too complicated. For me, personally, I have the time (thanks to FI), and I enjoy the intersection of technology, entertainment, and bargain hunting as a hobby.
- ChooseFI: Pay Less for TV: The 3 Best Cable Alternatives
- Cord-Cutter Confidential (Jared Newman):
- CNET: YouTube TV vs. Sling TV vs. DirecTV Now vs. Hulu and more: Live TV channels compared
- Tom’s Guide: Best (and Worst) Cable-Replacement Services
- Digital Trends: Best live TV streaming services: PlayStation Vue, Hulu, Sling TV, and more
February 2021: I finally cut the cord! The reason? Changes in my viewing habits as well as changes to the ecosystem of streaming services (e.g. the arrival of Disney+, HBO Max, AMC+, etc.).
Do you have direct experience with one of the cloud DVR live TV streaming services? What does your TV service solution look like? Please share in the comments. (Note: I moderate all comments so you may experience a delay before your comment appears on the post. For any SPAMMERS out there, don’t waste your time submitting as I will reject your comment.)