I’ll just come right out and say it: I hate the American Heroes channel. This isn’t because I’m British, which I am, or because I hold anything against those in uniform—quite the opposite. I don’t like it simply because I’ve never watched it—it’s channel 229 of the 900 channels that my cable bundle, at roughly $180 a month, provides—yet I pay for it. The same goes for Oxygen, HGTV, Ovation, SoapNet, Cartoon Network, and Fox Deportes.
By now you’ve no doubt heard of “cord-cutting,” the term for ditching traditional cable for some form of Web-only TV viewing. But if you’re like me, going rogue with your at-home entertainment has always been just a little too daunting. “Most people out there don’t realize how low-risk this is,” says Greg Scott of cordcutterguide.com. “It’s not like you’re becoming a vegetarian. Just about everything is online these days. And trust me: you won’t be alone.”
In fact, nearly 13% of TV-watching households now live without cable—a number that will skyrocket in the days and months ahead after HBO debuted its long-awaited streaming subscription service last month in partnership with Apple—and some of the biggest tech players are making it easier and cheaper than ever to pay exclusively for the things you want to watch. Apple is reportedly planning its own Internet-TV service to launch later this year. The savings? Let’s put it this way: If you budget a one-time outlay of under $400 for the equipment, expect to pay less than $30 each month to watch every one of your favorite shows, on any device. That’s $150 a month staying in your pocket.
So here’s how to finally join the streaming masses, in four easy steps.
Step 1: Make sure you’ve got the bandwidth
Test your Internet downloading rate on testmy.net or speedtest.net to ensure your Internet speed is streaming worthy. You’ll need a connection of 10MB per second or higher, which is now pretty standard among providers. To make the most of that speed, swap the standard modem for a juiced-up alternative like the Motorola Arris SURFboard SB6141 (about $90), which works seamlessly with almost all the major Internet providers to access the max broadband speed. You’ll also need a top-tier Wi-Fi router—both Apple’s AirPort Express and TP-Link’s Archer C7 are about $100.
Step 2: Secure all the major broadcast networks, gratis
Can you get a cell phone signal at your house? If the answer’s yes, there’s a free and easy way to watch all the major networks: an antenna. In fact, according to Nielsen, 96 of the 100 most popular shows on TV are accessible for free. And don’t worry about looking cheap when you have company, because today’s new aerial antennae aren’t exactly rabbit ears—they’re the size and thickness of a sheet of paper. Two can’t-miss brands, the Mohu Leafpaper and the Winegard Flatwave (both starting at $25), can be hidden behind a picture frame. If you want the option of recording content, invest in a Channel Master, the streaming version of a DVR, which costs $249 and allows you to store recordings by plugging an external hard drive into an USB port. There are no monthly fees.
Step 3: Scoop up the rest from the Web
For access to TNT, TBS, or other cable-only channels, you’ll need some new hardware with a single function: converting media streaming on the Internet into a format that can be displayed on a standard flat-screen TV. Never before have there been so many options here.
There are “dongles,” or mini hardware, which plug into the HDMI port on your TV that you operate using smartphone apps. They include Google’s Chromecast and Amazon’s Fire TV Stick. There’s also Apple TV and Roku’s box, a bit bigger, like mini cable boxes, which come with their own remotes. At $35, Chromecast is cheap and effective for basics like Netflix and league-specific sports apps, such as MLB.TV—but for now that’s about it. Apple TV ($69) and Amazon Fire ($99) offer all those things and a wider selection of content, including FX, PBS, and UFCTV.
But my personal favorite is the Roku 3. At about $100, it has a superfast video processor and a handy headphone jack in its remote, so you can watch TV even when your girlfriend’s snoozing. In other words, it’s the perfect tool for our current era of binge-watching TV.
Step 4: Get back in the game
Until now, the biggest downside to cord-cutting was the dearth of live sports available without a cable subscription. For years, the major network affiliates usually offered local games to each area, but all the major sporting events or out-of-market games were off limits to anyone without a bundle. Thankfully, according to Tom Galland, author of Dump Your TV, the brand new Sling TV, an “over-the-top” service debuted earlier in the year by satellite provider Dish, is a “lifesaver” for sports fans.
Sure, it’s $20 per month for just a dozen channels—including A&E and the History Channel—but it has one essential: ESPN. “The only downside is that you can’t pause the live TV to run to the bathroom, but I hope they’ll give in at some point.” If you combine this with one Netflix subscription ($7.99/ month), you’ll be saving loads of money. And you’ll never have to deal with Time Warner customer service ever again.