Xfinity vs. CenturyLink, Roku v.s. Hulu vs. YouTube TV and others — cutting the cord requires planning, decisions and flexibility. And you may save some money. Here’s one local resident’s journey through the maze of options.
Like a lot of people, I’d been thinking about cutting the cord for some time. But it wasn’t till my cable bill jumped by $46 over a two-month period — a 23 percent increase — that I got motivated enough to make the move.
I’d been more or less satisfied with cable over the years. But the bills kept going up. And I’d been forced to buy hundreds of channels to get the few I actually watch.
Cord-cutting — dropping cable, phone-company or satellite TV in favor of streaming live TV over the Internet — sounded fantastically liberating. No more contracts, no more nickel-and-dime taxes and fees. No more dealing with the impenetrable bureaucracy of a de facto monopoly.
Ultimately, though, it turned out to be like everything else in life. There are trade-offs, and experience is different from promise.
I did wind up saving money. Overall, my bill dropped by a third to $120 a month for combined Internet and TV. I only get 45 channels for that, but — major point — it includes all the channels I want. My TV access, in other words, hasn’t suffered.
But cord-cutting is complicated and confusing. Plans vary so much from one provider to the next — and keep changing on almost a monthly basis — it’s impossible to compare apples to apples.
Little word-of-mouth guidance exists. I found it was hard to poll my friends about which plan works best because few if any had taken the step themselves.
Then there’s the learning curve. New software, new hardware and a new way of thinking about TV.
Finally, because streaming TV operates from your home wi-fi system, you may need to adjust where your router is. And in any case, you’ll experience glitches in setup and performance that can test your patience no matter how much money you’re saving.
Still, it’s apparent that lots of people are looking to cord-cut. eMarketer, a research firm that tracks this sort of thing, estimated that 22 million cable, telco and satellite pay-TV users cut the cord in 2017, up a third over the previous year. There’s a lot to go — 196 million adults still watch pay TV. But that number is dropping by 2 to 3 percent annually and could well accelerate if cord-cutting gains momentum.
With the above caveats in mind, here’s how things went in my case.
First, let’s be clear what we’re talking about. Cord-cutting does not mean you can ditch your cable or phone provider altogether. You need a fast broadband connection to stream TV.
For years I had a bundle deal with Xfinity (previously Comcast) for both TV and Internet. Its expiration left me not only paying more for TV, I also had to start paying separately for HBO.
Friends were quick to advise me to go back into the barrel and negotiate a lower rate. But I’m frankly tired of having to do this. Cable rates should be published and cable bills broken down charge by charge, so we all know what we’re paying for. Instead there’s a lot of hocus-pocus. Ultimately I felt I wasn’t getting programming commensurate with what I was paying, no matter what my rate.
Besides, an alternative appeared. A postcard arrived from CenturyLink offering blistering-fast fiber-optic Internet access for $85 a month, about the same as I appeared to be paying on my Xfinity bill (which, again, doesn’t supply actual numbers in a bundle deal). I would get speeds up to a gigabit (1,000 mbps), in contrast to Xfinity’s 30-to-50 mbps (a rate I seldom came close to achieving, especially on painful downloads of software updates).
One other thing caught my eye about CenturyLink’s deal: Under a “Price for Life” offer, the $85 rate was good forever, as long as I paid my bills and didn’t change address. No contract was required. I could cancel at any time.
A couple things to note: Fiber isn’t generally available yet in Seattle. Where it isn’t, cable may be the only viable option for broadband. Also, CenturyLink offered me cheaper plans at $55 (for 40 mbps, since lowered to $45) and $65 (for 100 mbps, since lowered to $60) for slower speeds. I felt the bump-up was worth the extra money, and still do.
Within a week, CenturyLink had me set up with a new wi-fi modem/router offering 2.4GHz and 5 GHz bands. The latter, as you might suspect, is typically faster. CenturyLink offers a modem for outright purchase or for lease at $10 a month. I did the math and bought the modem for $100. To ease the bite, CenturyLink allowed me to prorate purchase over three months. A promotional rebate of $50 (since raised to $150) also eased the bite.
I’d survived the first half of my cord-cutting escapade — securing fast Internet. It was time to choose a streaming TV service.
Next: Where’s my show?
In the past, nearly every streaming service I’d looked into — AppleTV, Roku, Hulu, Amazon Fire — had a deal-breaker. Most did not offer livestreaming of MSNBC, my favorite news network. I surmised this was because Comcast owned MSNBC and didn’t want to share.
I bought an AppleTV box only to discover I couldn’t download apps onto it (today’s models offer download capability). I got an Amazon Fire stick only to discover Google was pulling its YouTube app (I surmised because Amazon and Google are competitors in the streaming arena. Today the workaround is to open YouTube in a browser on Amazon’s Fire stick).
Roku’s box seemed redundant given what I already had, and Hulu was simply a black box. You cannot find out what Hulu offers till you register, and registering requires giving it your credit card for a free 30-day trial. The first time I signed up, Hulu did not offer live MSNBC. It does today.
My odyssey presented a major frustration with cutting the cord — researching which plan to go for. Most guidance on the web was of little help. Print reviews on tech sites and YouTube video reviews struck me largely as recitations of features and programming, without walking me through the user experience. And since things like features, cost, and lineups keep changing, most reviews focusing only on those factors were already out of date.
Moreover, new services keep popping up, while existing ones keep morphing. All offer a free trial, although you have to be careful to cancel before it expires to avoid a credit-card charge. I looked into but didn’t test PlayStation Vue, DirecTV Now or fuboTV.
Eventually I narrowed down my choice to Sling TV, a longtime proven player, and YouTube TV, a newcomer with Google’s weight behind it.
At first Sling looked quite a bit cheaper at $20 a month. But that’s just for a basic plan. There were $5 upcharges for what I wanted, including MSNBC and DVR capability. When I added them, I was just $5 a month short of YouTube TV’s $35-a-month flat fee, which covered the channels I wanted. Sling had an added drawback: DVR storage was limited to 50 hours. With YouTube TV, I got unlimited storage.
I decided to go with YouTube TV.
In return for registering, I got a free one-week trial. It let me watch TV on everything except a TV. To do that required Google’s Chromecast “dongle” — a gadget that plugs into a TV’s HDMI port. Since I have two TVs, I needed two dongles. They cost $35 apiece.
Note if you’re an Apple user: You may want to sign up for YouTube TV on your computer, not your iPhone or iPad. If you do the latter, you’ll be billed $5 more a month extra for the privilege of using Apple iTunes’ automated billing service.
Also note that YouTube TV keeps adding devices, meaning you may not need a dongle. Roku owners, for example, recently gained access to the YouTube TV app. You can also cast YouTube TV over Apple’s AirPlay, although it requires a few extra steps.
Setting up Chromecast was the easiest part of the whole cord-cutting adventure. I downloaded the Google Home app onto my phone, attached the dongle to my TV and paired the phone with my TV. I was up and running almost immediately.
The app’s user interface is simple and straightforward, offering a search bar for programming and livestreaming icons for most channels. You poke the channel you want to watch. There’s a plus sign to poke if you want to “DVR” it — save it (and future episodes) to your YouTube TV library. You can also do this with movies, although you have to wait till they show on one of YouTube TV’s networks.
In most ways, YouTube TV behaves normally. Typically I can turn the TV off and, when I turn it back on later, have the same station still playing.
But it can be glitchy. Early on I had to power down the dongle, in effect rebooting YouTube TV. This is similar to unplugging, then plugging back in, a modem or cable box — a procedure we’re all familiar with.
There’s often a delay changing channels. The sound and image don’t activate as fast as with cable. It doesn’t bother me, but might others — my wife, for instance.
Occasionally YouTube TV won’t respond to the phone’s input. The workaround is usually to de-select the TV from Chromecast, then reconnect. It’s another nuisance I tolerate where others might not.
I do like using my phone as the TV remote. First, I always know where my phone is. I don’t have to paw through a bowl full of remotes (7 at last count) to get the right one. Or go wandering around the house trying to find where I left the remote. (Sometimes I have to wander to find the phone, but that’s rare.)
Second, the phone’s touch screen is so much nicer than squinting at a bunch of tiny buttons for the mode or function I want. Finally, I can still use my phone for everything else the phone does while I’m watching TV, simply switching back to YouTube TV if I want to pause, change channels, etc. And wow, it’s so nice to be able to type normally in searches rather than using a dorky remote-control interface (YouTube TV also recognizes voice search).
But there are gotchas. Such as no continuous fast forward or rewind feature. You’re limited to skip-intervals each way (typically 10, 15 or 20 seconds), which adds up to a lot of poking. Also, there’s no mute feature. To mute I have to use the TV’s remote or the reduce-volume button on the iPhone, which is a pain.
The only other caveat I’d mention has to do with tech karma. I have it. My loving wife does not. More than once I’ve received a frantic phone call telling me the TV won’t work. Typically it’s something that wouldn’t happen to me, and that I can resolve over the phone.
Still, my sense is that streaming’s user-friendliness in most aspects falls well short of cable. (I also had to deal with frantic spousal phone calls with cable, but it was usually a remote-control issue where the wrong button got accidentally pushed.)
I asked YouTube TV chat support about my connectivity issues and was given a list of potential fixes, including ensuring that the dongle isn’t more than 20 feet from the wi-fi router. If you measure, 20 feet is both longer and shorter than it sounds. In my case, the kitchen TV is farther than 20 feet and has the added drawback of two walls to negotiate. Given those factors, I can tolerate the occasional reboot.
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It’s something to keep in mind, though, depending on where your own home’s router and TV(s) are positioned.
As for lack of fast-forward and mute, my friendly chatter said I was out of luck — while promising Google’s crack innovation team would take into consideration my input.
Overall, I’m happy. The cheaper bill and pluses of streaming outweigh its “bleeding-edge” annoyances.
But that’s me. Chances are your preferred combination of pricing, channel lineup and availability will be different. Avid sports fans, for example, may want to check out fuboTV streaming or just stick with cable, which is the primary option for Root Sports.
Not to discount Sling TV or Hulu, they have the benefit of running on top of just about any streaming setup. In other words, you don’t need a box or remote — you simply install and activate it on the streaming device you already use such as Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire and so on. Devices with their own remotes don’t typically have the same latency and flakiness issues.
My view is this: The downsides to streaming will get fixed as cord-cutting catches on. Commercial-free and mute options will appear. More channels and bundling deals will be offered. Just since I subscribed, YouTube TV has added Turner network’s constellation of channels, including CNN and Turner Classic Movies.
I also anticipate a shakeout in the marketplace. Right now, choice overload is an impediment to more customers cutting the cord. There are just too many services and options. Friends say it’s a worm’s nest that isn’t worth the bother, even if it winds up saving them money.
And be forewarned — the savings may narrow with time. All those improvements will come with upcharges. Already YouTube TV’s rate is going up this month by $5, reputedly because of the Turner package’s addition. (If you sign up before Tuesday March 13, you get to keep the $35 rate, as do existing customers. For now.)
Ultimately streaming may wind up costing the same as, or even more than, old-timey cable. Cord-cutters may end up wanting to solder that cable back together.
As my final aside, there’s this. Two days after CenturyLink installed its service, I got an email from Xfinity alerting me to the possibility of interruptions in transmission. The cable folks were going to be in my neighborhood, upgrading service. Because I no longer was using cable, I just smiled.
Ain’t competition grand?