The Motherboard Guide to Cord Cutting
Look how much better their life is now that they’ve cut the cord. Image: Amazon.

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The Motherboard Guide to Cord Cutting

You've always wanted to cut the cord—here's how.
April 27, 2016, 2:00pm

Let's face facts: Nobody likes their cable company.

Sure, you still need the likes of Comcast and Time Warner Cable for home broadband, but thanks to a collection of new services and devices from companies like Sling TV, PlayStation Vue, Roku, and Chromecast, you can now reliably watch popular channels like ESPN, HBO, and—one of my favorites—Food Network at home or on the go all without having to pay hand-over-fist to do so.

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Trouble is, trying to figure out what service does what, where, is kind of a hassle!

That's why we've spent the past few weeks putting together the Motherboard Guide to Cord Cutting, a brief primer designed to help people who may have heard of these devices and services, but who perhaps don't have all day to spend trolling subreddits researching what device does what and what service carries what.

In this guide, Motherboard will help answer a wide variety of questions ranging from the super basic (What is cord cutting, anyway?) to the slightly more obscure (Wait, you can still use over-the-air antennas?). The way I see it, I'm a huge nerd and have spent an inordinate amount of time over the past several years closely following all the important developments when it comes to cord cutting: devices, services, startups worth paying attention to, and where all of this is going—fun stuff, to be sure, but not exactly easily understood unless you put the time in.

So enjoy the guide, and please feel free to reach out to me on Twitter (@nicholasadeleon) if you have any additional questions.


THE BEST DEVICES FOR CORD-CUTTING

Roku

Roku and streaming video go hand-in-hand. The company makes several different devices that are all capable of streaming a wide variety of different services, including the usual suspects like Netflix and HBO Now as well as more obscure fare like WWN Live professional wrestling. Roku's devices can be split into two broad categories: set-top boxes that are about the size of a hockey puck, and a smaller device, about the size of a pack of gum, that plugs into your TV's HDMI port.

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The new Roku Streaming Stick. Image: Roku

As of April 2016, Roku sells four set-top boxes: the Roku 1 ($49), Roku 2 ($69), Roku 3 ($99), and Roku 4 ($129), with each successive model offering more capability. The top-of-the-line Roku 4, for example, is the only model that supports 4K Ultra HD, but that's only useful if you have just such a TV (they're still a little expensive). Meanwhile, the bottom-tier Roku 1 is the only model that supports old school RCA inputs—the yellow, white, and red cables you may have used to hook up your VCR to a TV 15 years ago.

The sweet spot for Motherboard readers (and your relatives if they bug you about this kind of thing) is likely the new Streaming Stick. At $49, it's practically a steal for the cord cutter merely looking to watch Game of Thrones on HBO Now and kill some time watching Seinfeld reruns on Hulu. Not only does it support 1080p HD, fast 802.11n Wi-Fi, and Roku Feed (which alerts you when new movies you might be interested in), but its accompanying mobile app lets you listen to movies and TV shows via your smartphone's headphone jack. That way you don't audibly disturb your roommates or family members when you're streaming.

Amazon Fire

Amazon also has its own streaming set-top box and streaming stick sold under the Fire TV moniker. The Fire TV ($99) and Fire TV Stick ($49) both support a similar range of streaming content from the usual suspects like Netflix and HBO Now. They also both support voice search using the included remote control, letting you search for movies and TV shows without having to peck away at an on-screen keyboard. Both the Fire TV and Fire TV Stick also support Alexa, Amazon's Siri-like digital assistant technology. With Alexa (which is activated by pushing a button on the included remote control), Fire TV users can do things like check weather and sports scores and control certain home automation devices (like compatible light switches).

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So what's the difference between the two? Well, an extra $50 buys you 4K support with the Fire TV as well as 2GB of built-in storage so you can download and play games. Amazon even sells a $139 Gaming Edition Fire TV that includes a dedicated controller and two popular side-scrolling platform games, Shovel Knight and Disney DuckTales: Remastered. The more expensive Fire TV also includes a faster processor, so you're less likely to see lag as you scroll through menus.

But if you ask me, if all you're looking to do is stream video for a few hours before heading to bed there's little reason to spring for the more expensive of Amazon's two devices. Well, unless you're fortunate enough to have a 4K TV.

Apple TV

Apple's streaming device is called the Apple TV (starts at $149), and it, too, includes access to the usual suspect of streaming services. Unlike previous models, the Apple TV that launched in the fall of 2015 also includes its own dedicated App Store, opening up the possibility for more and more third-party apps like Plex (which places on your big screen TV all the videos and photos stored on your PC).

Now, $149 is on the expensive side if all you're looking to do is stream video, but Apple's key selling point here is Siri voice search, letting you search for movies and TV shows merely by speaking into the included remote control. This worked well enough in my testing, but Apple doesn't have a monopoly on voice search, with Amazon and Roku all supporting the feature in one way or another. It's nice to have, but not what I would call crucial.

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So why even bother with an Apple TV? One word: iTunes. It's not unusual for major Hollywood movies to be available to buy or rent from iTunes before they're available for "free" on the likes of Netflix, so having access to the iTunes Store may be a huge boon for some people—particularly if you've already bought iTunes movies in the past and want to watch them again on your big screen TV. Of course, competing, if lesser known, digital stores like Amazon Video and Vudu also tend to get movies before they hit the likes of Netflix, so the iTunes advantage isn't entirely bulletproof.

Chromecast

Google's Chromecast, a small device that plugs into an HDMI port on your TV, works a little differently than other streaming devices. In a way, you can think of Chromecast as a wireless, more modern version of connecting your laptop to your TV using an HDMI cable.

Google's handy little Chromecast. Image: Google

Available for $35, Chromecast lets you wirelessly output the content of select apps on your phone or tablet to your TV, opening up the ability to watch House of Cards, Hulu's 11.23.63, and CNN election coverage (via Sling TV) on the big screen. There are no bells and whistles here like voice search or 4K support, but if price is your one and only concern then a Chromecast may just do the trick.

Are there any drawbacks to the Chromecast? Well, there's no included remote control, so if the idea of controlling Netflix using only your smartphone or tablet is a turnoff then you may want to look elsewhere. Chromecast also requires an active Wi-Fi connection, something that may not be available, say, in your hotel room or your weekend cabin in the woods. Beyond that, however, in terms of value-for-money, it's difficult to overlook what Google has created.

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Gaming Console

If you're a gamer you may not even need a dedicated streaming device. Starting with the Xbox 360 generation, video game consoles began supporting streaming apps, all but obviating the need for another device in many cases. The current consoles, the Xbox One and PS4, support many of the most popular services, like Netflix, Hulu, and —with the notable exception of HBO Now, which as of April 2016 is available on the Xbox One but not the PS4.

The Sony PS4. Image: Sony

Of course, not everyone is a gamer, so not everyone has a console sitting next to their TV ready to stream. You also won't find more specialized features like being able to search for movies and TV shows with your voice. But if you do so happen to have one handy, you may be able to get around needing any other device.


THE BEST STREAMING SERVICES FOR CORD-CUTTERS

It was only a few years ago that leaving cable behind for an internet-only diet of entertainment would have seemed crazy, if not altogether impossible. Those days are long gone, however, with services like Netflix and Hulu not only offering a fully stocked library of classic movies and TV shows but now offering compelling original content of their own, from House of Cards all the way to 11.22.63. And more recent developments mean that, for about $20 per month, you can score a good number of worthwhile cable channels, like ESPN, Food Network, and VICELAND on your big TV or mobile device.

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Figuring out which of these services is right for you, however, can be kind of a slog. Here's a handy breakdown of what service carries what content and how much you can expect to pay.

1:1 Cable Replacements: Sling TV and PlayStation Vue

Cutting the cord means saying goodbye to cable (and its high prices), but what if you still want to watch the odd episode of House Hunters on HGTV, Chopped on Food Network, or Premier League soccer on the weekend? If that's the case you'll find exactly what you're looking for with Sling TV and PlayStation Vue, which carry an assortment of cable channels for (in some cases) much less than what you'd pay Comcast or Time Warner Cable for.

Food Network live on Sling TV. Image: Sling TV

Let's start with Sling TV. It starts at $20 per month, and grants access to about two dozen live cable channels including Food Network and HGTV, AMC (Fear the Walking Dead, anyone?), TBS (Conan), and, yes, VICE's very own VICELAND. More channels are available for an additional fee: You can watch Barcelona and Real Madrid games on BeIn Sports for an extra $5 per month, and you can get HBO for $15 per month. These are the live channels just as they'd appear if you were watching via regular cable--though the commercials can be weirdly loud for some reason.

One of the best parts about Sling is how widely available it is, with apps on most major platforms including Android, iOS, Roku, Xbox One, Chromecast, Amazon Fire, and PC/Mac.

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PlayStation Vue is similar to Sling TV in that it includes access to a variety of live cable channels that are delivered over the internet. Vue, naturally, is available on the PS3 and PS4, as well as Amazon Fire and iOS (which supports Chromecast streaming, too).

Browsing favorite channels on PlayStation Vue. Image: Sony

The major differences between the two services is channel selection and the fact that Vue supports DVR functionality while Sling TV does not. While Sling out of the box supports about two dozen channels, Vue can access three different tiers of channel packages called Access (60 channels, $39.99 per month), Core (75 channels, $44.99), and Elite (100 channels, $54.99). Most of what you'll find on Sling is on Vue, but Vue adds channels like TLC, USA, Syfy, and NBC Sports.

Yes, at the higher tiers Vue can really add up in comparison to Sling TV, but the extra channels make it easier to be a cord cutting sports fan, with NBC Sports carrying Premier League soccer, Formula One, and the NHL for example. USA also airs WWE Monday Night Raw if you're into that kind of thing.

Think of services like Sling TV and Vue as a kind of middle ground between eliminating cable completely from your life and still being able to watch the occasional episode of Conan or an FC Barcelona game.

On-demand movies and TV shows: Netflix / Hulu / Amazon Video

Netflix and Hulu hardly need any explanation, but it's clear that the $10 per month services are the cornerstones of any cord cutter's strategy to wean off cable. Both services include more licensed content than you're likely able to watch, including past episodes of hit shows like Friends and Seinfeld, but are equally known at this point for original content like House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, and 11.23.63. Apps for these services are everywhere, so no matter the device you plan on using you'll be right at home.

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The familiar Netflix user interface. Image: Netflix

Amazon Video is slightly different in that, until earlier this month, it exclusively came bundled with Amazon Prime, Amazon's $100 per year subscription service (which also includes free two-day shipping on many items). But Amazon on April 18 made it so that you could subscribe to the video service without any of the other Prime bells and whistles for $8.99 per month. In addition to having its own library of licensed and original content—be sure to give The Man in the High Castle a shot—it includes an iTunes-like digital library of movies and TV shows that you're able to rent or buy. Given the estimated number of people with Prime, there's a half-decent chance you may have access to Instant Video right now. Use it!

Single-Purpose Offerings: HBO Now, Fubo, WWE Network, CBS All Access, etc.

If the idea of replicating the cable TV experience with a couple of channels doesn't interested, great! There's plenty of other content out there for a cord cutter to chew through.

WWE Network in action. Roman Reigns as far as the eye can see. Screenshot: Nicholas Deleon/Motherboard

Take HBO Now. For $15 per month, you get access to current shows like Game of Thrones and VICE on HBO, plus older shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm, all on-demand on just about any device you can think of (well, except the gaming consoles). So, if all you're missing from your entertainment diet is finding out if Jon Snow is dead or not, a quick subscription to HBO Now may be all you really need.

There are other single-purpose services to be aware of. One that's near and dear to my heart is WWE Network, which includes all past and current pay-per-view events (like WrestleMania and the Royal Rumble) for $10 per month. It's also available on just about every platform under the sun, making it easy to watch as fans hate every single thing that Roman Reigns does inside the ring.

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Other sports have their own single-purpose streaming services as well. There's MLB.tv, which includes access to all regular season games, and MLS, which does the same. NFL Game Pass is more limited, but does include full replays of games after they air.

One relative newcomer is called Fubo.tv. It's strictly for soccer fans, and at $10 per month includes all Spanish, Italian, French, and Portuguese league games on just about any device.

Mobile-only: T-Mobile BingeOn, Verizon Go90

Streaming video isn't limited to services designed to be watched on TV. In fact, the ultimate cord cutting power move may be to drop entirely the likes of Time Warner Cable and Comcast, eliminating cable and broadband altogether. That's where a service like T-Mobile's BingeOn comes into the picture.

BingeOn is a feature for T-Mobile customers that lets you watch select streaming services, including mainstream favorites like Netflix, Hulu, Sling TV, and YouTube, without cutting into your (likely measly) data allotment for the month. So assuming you have a strong enough T-Mobile signal, you're able to watch everything from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on Netflix to WrestleMania on the WWE Network without a home broadband connection and without paying expensive data fees.

The problem with BingeOn, as we've reported ever since it was announced in the fall of 2015, is that it flies directly in the face of the principles of net neutrality, or the idea that all data should be treated equally. With BingeOn, yes, you get access to select streaming services effectively for "free," but what about all of the other services that aren't covered by the program? Doesn't that effectively condition T-Mobile customers to watch those and only those services? It's a complex issue to be sure, but one to at least keep in the back of your mind.

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T-Mobile isn't the only wireless provider offering "free" data to select video services. Verizon is reportedly spending quite a bit of money trying to turn Go90, a mobile app that includes exclusive video content, into a success among millennials. The app, which is available for Android and iOS, doesn't eat into Verizon customers' data allotments, and includes full episodes of shows from networks like Comedy Central (including The Daily Show with Trevor Noah) and MTV (Teen Mom). There's even a handful of live sports offerings here as well, including Spanish and Italian league soccer. (Your friends here at Motherboard and VICE also have quite of bit of videos on the app.)

AT&T is also developing its own mobile-friendly streaming video service in partnership with DirecTV (which it bought in 2015 for nearly $50 billion in 2015), but it's not expected to be released until later this year. The service is expected to offer just about everything that would normally be available via a DirecTV subscription, except it'll be available via your smartphone and many of the streaming devices discussed elsewhere in this guide.

Over-the-Air Options

Assuming you live in an area where you can receive over-the-air TV signals—the website AntennaWeb is a great resource to check what stations are available in your area—you'll need an antenna made by companies like EnergyPal and Mohu. (Amazon even makes one under its AmazonBasics brand, which also sells everything from batteries to dog poop bags.) Expect to pay anywhere from $20 to $50 for an antenna, which is then plugged into your TV. Once plugged in, you're able to pull in all of the free, over-the-air broadcast networks that are available in your area.

Here in New York, I'm able to pull in all of the major broadcast networks, giving me access to prime time TV like The Blacklist and Modern Family as well as major sporting events like NFL football on Sunday and the occasional UFC card.

One of Tablo's handy over-the-air DVRs. Image: Tablo

Installing an antenna is only part of the fun. To really take your cord cutting game to the next level you might want to get something like the TiVo Roamio OTA or a Tablo DVR. Both of these devices work just about the same as the DVR that your cable company might supply, and let you record over-the-air TV shows for later viewing. You can also then stream recorded shows directly to your mobile device.

So what are the drawbacks to going the over-the-air route? First, this is old school live TV; you have to be in front of your TV live, in real time, as you watch, say, The Voice. (That's why getting a DVR may be a good idea for people not quite ready to give up on the concept of time-shifting.) Second, depending upon your location, over-the-air TV can be a little fussy. For example, I need to put my antenna in different locations inside my apartment when I want to watch the different broadcast networks. The antenna location that picks up NBC flawlessly doesn't pick up ABC very well at all, and to watch Fox is a third location.

In other words, be prepared to play around with the location of your antenna.

This is part of The Motherboard Guide to Cord Cutting. Follow along here.

Update: May 4, 2016: Hulu said this morning that it, too, is developing a streaming video service that will allow users to watch live television channels over the internet. The service is expected to launch in 2017 and will offer both cable and broadcast channels. Hulu has not said how much the service will cost, but the New York Times reports that it will be around $40 per month, or around the same price as Sony's PS Vue starting tier.