The pile-up of cable alternatives in 2020 is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, the programming gaps that early cord-cutters had to suffer through—no live sports, waiting for episodes to appear on streaming platforms, whatever the hell HBO was doing—have been replaced by a monsoon of options. Now, besides old-timers like Netflix and Hulu and Amazon Prime, you've also got Disney+, Peacock, Criterion, Mubi, Quibi, and whatever the hell HBO is doing.
The result is that there's very little you'll miss out on by canceling cable, but also a bewildering array of streaming services, with some of the best high-profile ones pulling content from some of the stalwarts. And for every hit—the Disney+ bundle with Hulu and ESPN+—there's an enormous, Quibi-shaped miss.
So we picked through the pile to figure out the best streaming services, and put together a monthly plan that covers a wide swath of programming and is still cheaper than cable. And we also tossed in a few of our own favorite cable alternatives. We binged until our eyes turned red, and this guide for how to cut the cord is what we have to show for it.
The 5 Essential Cable Alternatives
For $80 a month, you get live sports, Star Wars, and all the prestige TV you can handle.
Why it's good: Sling TV, owned by Dish Network, gives you access to exactly the same kind of live programming as you get from installing one of those satellite dishes—including that strangely soothing spreadsheet of channels to surf—for only $30 per month. This includes access to all the prestige channels you expect, but is also a solid source for live sports, both national and local (depending on your plan). In addition, the service has a deep list of on-demand programming you'll struggle to find anywhere else (when one wants to watch new episodes of Good Eats, find them on Sling).
How much it costs: Sling has three plans, because it still can't escape its cable roots. Sling Orange and Sling Blue both cost $30 a month. Both have slightly different channel options, but the biggest difference is that only one person can watch at a time with Sling Orange. You can get access to all of the company's channels with the $45 a month Sling Blue + Orange plan. (Sling has a free tier, but it has no live TV and comes with ads.) This is expensive, but cheaper than most other live TV streaming services. A Hulu subscription that included live TV would cost $55 a month and a YouTube TV subscription that would cost $65 a month.
Disney Bundle: Disney+, Hulu, and ESPN+
Why it's good: Disney, proud owners of ABC and ESPN, stole a page from the old cable playbook and bundled together three streamers—and frankly, it's a hell of a deal that's only improved since it launched in November.
Disney's app is the only place you'll get access to the Disney, Pixar, Marvel, National Geographic, and Star Wars movie and TV show catalog, so you're damn near obligated to subscribe if you have a kid. Hulu is Hulu, forever offering a solid suite of in-season network shows and original programming. ESPN+ is, well, ESPN, but over the internet. Sure, you get access to some original shows, but the headline feature is that it's the main place to go in order to watch MLB, NHL, and MLS games.
How much it costs: $13 a month. Separately, Disney costs $7 a month, Hulu $6 (or more), and ESPN+ is $5. So you basically get ESPN for free.
Amazon Prime Video
Why it's good: Because, despite the slightly funky feeling you get when you think of Jeff Bezos, you probably still haven't canceled your Prime subscription. Which means you already pay for Prime Video. It has a library of compelling original content (if you haven't seen Fleabag yet, go, now), a solid roster of critically-acclaimed indie movies, and an unexpectedly strong bench of recent blockbusters. The library isn't as deep as that of other services, but it does feature a high concentration of movies you might actually want to watch.
How much it costs: “Free” if you're already a Prime subscriber—or $9 a month if you're not, and for some reason want to pay for Amazon Prime Video yet get none of the other perks.
Why it's good: It's HBO, but more. Where that HBO GO login you “borrowed” from your last roommate's parents gets you all of HBO's glorious-but-finite original programming, HBO Max is going toe-to-toe with Netflix. We're talking all of HBO's bangers plus 600 movies and a whole roster of programming from parent company WarnerMedia. This includes a bunch of Warner staples (e.g., the entire Harry Potter franchise), many movies from Studio Ghibli, and shows from Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, Tru TV, TBS, and TNT. It also includes Friends, which might matter to you. In short, it's a massive, quality-packed library that could become your go-to app after a long day.
How much it costs: $15 a month. But! If you already pay ("pay") for an HBO GO or HBO Now subscription, you can most likely log into Max, no extra fee.
Why it's good: Netflix remains the 900-pound gorilla in the room. Even as upstart streaming services like Disney+ and Peacock pull their programming off the app, it continues to offer sizable back catalogs of shows you love, or will come to love, as well as the hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of original content that Netflix produces. Every few months, one of these releases sucks up all the air in the world and becomes the only thing anyone on your Twitter feed will talk about. You could live without Tiger King or Love is Blind, but it's hard to make a case for cutting the cord that doesn't involve Netflix.
How much it costs: $13 a month for HD streaming on up to two devices at once. You could pay only $9 a month for one screen and no HD, which seems mildly masochistic. Families may want the $16 premium plan: four screens at once and full 4K Ultra HD.
Worthwhile Specialty Services
They're not for everyone—but maybe one is for you?
In a pre-coronavirus world, Peacock TV was set to be the exclusive place to stream the Summer Olympics live from Tokyo. Instead it launched in mid-July to mild fanfare at best. Unless you really love the idea of being able to stream The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon or Late Night With Seth Meyers a few hours before they air, the NBCUniversal service doesn't offer a huge advantage over other streaming services. But Peacock will soon become the best place to stream the back catalog of NBC comedy. The service will launch with every episode from 44 seasons of Saturday Night Live, will get Parks and Recreation this October, and become the exclusive home of The Office next year (which won't be available on Peacock's free tier). You will be able to access some shows through Peacock that did not originally air on NBC, like Grey's Anatomy, but the service is most worth it those that miss Michael Scott. The Premium plan costs $50 per year (a little over $4 per month), but has ads. The $100 Premium Plus tier nixes ads on almost everything, but not everything. If you want to try out the service now, make an account to access the free-tier. You'll see ads and won't get access to the entire catalog, but it'll help you decide whether you actually want to put money down.
The Criterion Channel
$11.00, Criterion Channel
If you have hard opinions on aspect ratios and the rankings of Tarantino's catalog, you'll probably want Criterion. While you can find a few of their films on HBO's platforms, you'll find almost all of them here. From Fellini and Kurosawa classics to spectacular foreign films and can't-find-'em-elsewhere movies, the Criterion Channel feels like a film class where the only homework is watching more great movies.
MUBI made a name for itself by offering a limited selection of 30 rare movies for a 30-day period of time, wiping the slate clean and starting anew each month. Fun idea, but limiting, so this year MUBI started offering an additional modest library of arthouse selections. Compared with those from Criterion Channel, MUBI's offerings skew a bit more recent, with films made in the last 20 years. You'll find lots of films from directors like Claire Denis, Yorgos Lanthimos, and Raj Kapoor, The draw is still the excitement of trying to catch a movie before it falls out of rotation, but having a stable library as a backup makes MUBI's monthly fee more palatable.
You've been targeted by the Instagram ads, so you know the drill—each MasterClass original features an expert explaining the fundamentals of their genius. Spike Lee teaches you about filmmaking, Gordon Ramsey teaches you home cooking, Judy Blume teaches you how to write, Hans Zimmer teaches you film scoring. That said, some of the best are by experts on subjects you had no clue you needed to know more about (like this FBI hostage negotiator). The production value is off-the-charts and the advice is unimpeachable—though hopefully you never have to negotiate a hostage situation.
All the Gear You Need
Affordable TVs and streaming sticks, ahoy!
The Best Smart TVs
Almost every new TV, even the relatively cheap ones, ships with a built-in streaming platform that should allow you to access most, if not all, of the services we've listed above. If you're looking to replace your TV, these are two cheap TVs we think you should consider.
TCL was one of the first company's to crack the budget TV game and consistently make high-value TVs that offer excellent picture quality at a remarkably low price. This set, from the company's 2019 line, is one of the cheapest with QLED technology, which gives you a more vibrant, color-accurate picture. Plus, the 6-Series comes loaded with Roku software, which means it's just as easy to use as our favorite streaming stick.
$400.00, Best Buy
Vizio's M-series TVs are the middle children in the company's wide product line. All of them have a QLED system, and 90 local dimming zones (which means better contrast). Vizio uses a proprietary smart platform that isn't as intuitive as the Roku system on the TCL set above, but it's fine enough.
The Best Media Streamers
If you have a TV you already like, but it's too old to have built-in smart functionality, get a streaming stick.
A Roku Stick is the easiest way to add support for streaming services to an older TV or projector. Setting up individual streaming services is a one-time hassle, and Roku's wise ways take over from there. You can scroll through the offerings on a specific streaming app, use the built-in Roku search function, or simply use your voice (the brilliantly simple remote has a mic).
$180.00, Best Buy
All the pleasures of a Roku Stick, now with added audio oomph. It's affordable and incredibly simple to set up, giving you two upgrades in one (trust us, your TV's speakers could use the help).
Don't think your couch, ficus, and flatscreen setup deserves to be called a “home theater?” Let's fix that.
Originally Appeared on GQ