We recently had to renew with Dish Network and upgraded to their Hopper system. This took several hours on the phone, a customer service agent that was deceptive (to put it as nicely as possible), and several different jumps in price, always given in different UoMs (per month, per year, per day, "but only for the first 9 months", etc). In the end we ended up with a "special" "promotional" rate of almost $150 per month averaged out over our contract period. It was then that we decided we'd had enough.
If you're here, then you're probably looking to drop these absurdly high fees for generally mediocre service in favor of streaming TV. Amazon or Roku probably lured you in with the idea of an easy switchover, only to leave you dazed at the myriad streaming options and wandering if they really cover actual TV channels or if this will be a full-on paradigm shift. Or possibly a Sling TV ad caught your attention and left you wandering how to use it or if you can get all the other channels that they're missing.
I'm not going to pretend that this is a fully definitive guide. Instead, I'm going to share what I learned on our journey, which ended with us saving $100 per month and not losing a single channel we cared about.
To stop your head from spinning let's give you a framework to think within. Your current setup has two components (from your perspective). You have some sort of display, most likely a TV but possibly a monitor or projector. Then you have your service contract with Dish, Direct TV, or your cable company which comes with a 'black box' that connects to your TV.
To move to an internet / streaming based system you're going to need to worry about three components. The first is the TV or monitor. The second is the streaming unit (the software / channel store) which usually comes as some sort of packaged unit (like Roku or Amazon Fire TV). The third is the streaming services themselves (and you will likely need to signup for more than one). Those are your three requirements and you'll need to check off each of those boxes to make this work. It should go without saying that you'll need high speed internet as well.
Let's look at each of these in depth and walk through everything you'll need and how to choose it.
You're already familiar with a TV and how it works. However, I want to take a moment to note that sometimes the TV and the software and channel store come together. This is usually called a Smart TV, but don't rely on just that moniker. If you buy a "smart TV" make sure you understand what software comes with it, and that it's going to meet your needs (for that, see the next section). A smart TV can still be used like a dumb TV, so you can still buy an external streaming unit if the smart TV doesn't meet your needs. If the smart TV does meet your needs (like one that comes with Roku), then you don't need to worry about buying a streaming unit.
Let's backtrack that and simplify a bit in case you don't want to get into all the technical details. If your smart TV comes with Roku built-in you're almost certainly okay. If it doesn't you'll either need to do some research or pretend it's a dumb TV and connect a streaming unit to it.
There are a number of streaming units on the market today, but the two foremost at the time of this writing is Roku and Amazon Fire TV. The streaming unit connects to your internet connection (usually wirelessly) and connects to your TV (usually via an HDMI cable). The streaming unit is the software that is used to navigate the different streaming services, change channels, and your choice here will determine what remote you have as well. User interface can be an important part of how happy you are with your entertainment system so I recommend you spend some time here trying out each option if you can.
If you choose Amazon Fire TV or Roku you can be reasonably certain that they will support all of the streaming services you need, though you should double check if you have any unusual needs. If you're going with a different streaming unit, I strongly recommend you check each and every streaming service you'll need to make sure you'll be able to get all the channels you want. There's nothing worse than paying out hundreds of dollars and setting up a new system just to find out it won't work for you.
Each TV needs to have it's own streaming unit. This can get expensive, but luckily the options are relatively inexpensive. For $60 or under you can get a Roku 2 or Amazon Fire TV Stick right now. This is a large one-time fee, but these units do not require any monthly upkeep.
We chose to standardize on Roku, as we already had several TCL TVs with Roku built in. Given the high quality of their low-cost models, it even made sense to just replace one of our dumb TVs with a new TCL 3800 rather than pay $60 for a stand-alone streaming unit. Then we had two other "dumb" TVs that we hooked up to Roku 2 streaming units. We standardized because it made it easier on everyone going from room to room, but there is no real need. You could certainly hook up one TV to an Amazon Fire Stick, another to a Roku 3, and another to an Amazon Fire Box.
This is the part that seems to trip people up. The streaming unit that you purchase doesn't actually provide any content itself. It's just acting as an interface for you to get to the content. Think of the streaming unit like your web browser. Without the internet it's useless. It doesn't have any real content; it's just a vehicle to let you navigate and consume web pages. Well the streaming services are like web pages in this metaphore. Streaming services provide the content. And unlike normal TV where you have one list of a bunch of channels, you could have several different streaming services each with a few of their own channels.
If you're cutting cable, you have a lot of money to work with. Keep that in mind. Paying $30 per month for a streaming service can seem like a lot...until you compare it to the $100 you were paying before. Remember to add in all the little hidden fees that the cable company charges for extra TVs, DVRs, upgraded HD service, taxes, fees, more fees, even more fees, etc. Look at your entire cable or satellite bill, because that's what you're saving when you cancel your service.
First off, let's start by trying to replace what we're losing by cutting cable. I've found two services that seem like they do a reasonable job of doing that: Sling TV and Playstation Vue. We chose Vue; Sling TV restricted how many TVs could be on at a time and didn't include enough channels that we liked.
I recommend you sit down in front of your TV, open the guide, and then go through each and every channel. Write down the name of any channel you ever watch on a piece of paper. Now, create two columns beside that list. Then go to SlingTV.com and PlayStation.com/Vue and next to each channel put a check if it's included in the base package, and if it's included in an upgraded package write the package name. When you're done you'll know what service to go with, what package you want, and what channels you're missing. You can sign up for both services but they are generally redundant and that will eat up a lot of your budget.
Now you will likely have a small list of channels that weren't included in the two biggies above. For each one go to Google and type in "[channel name] streaming [streaming unit]". For instance, my first search was "Free Speech TV streaming Roku"; a bunch of results told me that there was a free Roku app to stream this, so I just need to go into the channel store on my Roku and download the Free Speech TV app. Then we tried "C-Span streaming Roku". This one was a little tougher. No app for it, but there's an app called Nowhere TV that apparently streams it. Continue to do this and you'll find that you can probably gain back almost every single channel you like to watch. And in the end you'll probably be paying less than half of what your cable bill cost.
Next I recommend that you consider spending some of your remaining budget on a service like Hulu Plus, Netflix, or Amazon Prime. They're lacking in many ways, but do offer some nice additional choices (especially movies) that will save you from ever having to rent from a video store again. And Amazon Prime comes with free shipping on those new TVs and streaming units that you're about to need to buy, which pays for your first 6-12 months of service right there!
We already had high speed internet. I assume most people do. If not, you'll need to sign up for cable, DSL, or FIOS.
The big question here is about internet speeds. HD video seems to be clocking in at 3-5 Mbit for us. Keep in mind that's Mbit, which is a unit of speed, as opposed to MB which is a unit of size. If your internet plan quotes you a speed and that number is 200 or less then it's probably in Mbit. If the number is over 200 then it's probably in kbit which means you'll need to divide it by 1000 to find out your speed in Mbit. Yep, that's right. If you have a 768 dsl connection that's only 3/4 of a Mbit. Cable and FIOS should handle several TVs on at the same time at HD quality. DSL will depend on download speed and may drop you back to SD quality. Be careful about Satellite internet. Test your download speed; some services come in under 1Mbit. Satellite also seems to have extremely high latency. These can both cause problems with streaming TV and movies.
If you have the capability it would be stupid not to run a test before cancelling your cable service. Get at least one TV setup with a streaming unit and sign up for all of the streaming services you are going to want. Then spend one month using nothing but your streaming services.
If you get by without having to revert to your cable then that's great! You can cancel your cable service now. If you run into problems then you can easily just cancel your streaming services and go back to cable without having had to pay a cancellation fee or sign a new contract or get new equipment.
I figure it's fair to look about 2 years out, because you don't necessarily know what will happen after that. Though it's nice to be setup for success for the future. So I took all of our up-front costs, divided them by 24, and then worked out a 'monthly fee' to compare to our cable bill. Here's how our numbers looked:
|TCL 32S3800 TV||1||$165.00||$165.00||$6.88|
|Playstation Vue Slim||$29.99|
|Netflix (which we already had)||$12.00|
So we cut our bill down from $150/month to $66.03/month. In addition we got a new, bigger TV out of it, as well as access to all kinds of extra streaming content on 3, previously dumb, TVs. Not only that, but after those first 24 months we're down to $53.98/month because we've now paid off the hardware costs.
We did lose a little content. We gave up FX, but only because it wasn't worth paying $10 to upgrade Vue to the "Core" package just for that. We lost Discovery, Hallmark, and Lifetime, but we were okay with that. BBC was tougher to give up, but we get access to much of what was on there through Hulu Plus.
On the other hand, we now have access to tons of movies and shows on-demand. 98% of our TV-watching habits are unchanged. And we took $20/month of the money we saved and use it to buy premium on-demand content or DVDs that we couldn't afford before.
Even if our monthly costs had stayed the same I'd still do it. For almost $1000 per year? No question at all...