Chromecast, Roku, Apple TV: streaming away cable TV

Your cable bill: it could be more than $100 a month. Is it worth it?

If you have doubts, it’s probably not. Fortunately, it’s easier than ever to become a cord cutter. There is life after cable. So let’s explore your options in a cable-free world.

First, though, see if you fit the ideal profile for cord cutting: you should not be a live sports fanatic (cable still excels at live sports choice). You should be flexible about how you get your news. And you should live somewhere near broadcast stations that you like to watch. Generally, it’s easier to live with over-the-air (OTA) television when you live in an urban area – when you’re close to many OTA signals.

Also, in general, the less television you watch, the easier it is to live without cable. But you already knew that.

Still interested? Follow this path to cutting the cord:

See which signals you can receive over the air

Start by visiting antenna web.org. Here, you’ll type in your address. The website will show you which signals are available over the air, and then will suggest a type of antenna for best reception. This website is brought to you by the Consumer Electronics Association and the National Association of Broadcasters, both of these groups wants you to watch lots of TV (one of them, the NAB, hates the cable industry).

You could also borrow or buy an antenna, connect it to your television (disconnecting your cable) and rescan your channel list from the TV’s setup menu. You’ll soon know which channels you can get. You may want to play around with antenna placement and rescan a couple of times. Use information from antennaweb.org to match your reception against available channels. You’ll want to focus on the channels that you’re most likely to watch, such as network affiliates. But you’ll also marvel at all the signals that you didn’t know about, many of them in foreign languages.

If you live near your stations, you can probably make do with an inexpensive indoor antenna. Here’s a roundup of some of the most popular models, courtesy of Lifehacker. Most cost less than a single month of cable. Another good resource is the Wirecutter, which did a nice roundup of antennas for urban viewers.

Get a streaming device

Next you’ll want to be able to pull in programming from the Internet for display on your TV. For that, you’ll need either a “smart TV” or a streamer, such as the Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV or Google Chromecast. I purchased a streamer because the performance of my Samsung Smart TV wasn’t very good (it is, however, an otherwise terrific TV). Streamers connect to your Internet signal either via Ethernet or Wi-Fi, and send the output to your television on an HDMI cable.

Which streamer? This depends on the programming you’ll want to watch, though most streamers will work with Netflix. Roku devices connect with most services, and the Roku 3 gets great reviews. Apple TV integrates beautifully with Apple products and features, but maddeningly doesn’t support Amazon Video or the new Sling TV service. If Apple is faulted for having control issues, Mozilla is taking an opposite tack, developing an open source streamer called the Matchstick. It’s too early to know what kind of support the Matchstick will get (it’s scheduled to ship in February), but the device will retail for only $25, so it may be worth a look.

Get your subscriptions

Now that you’ve got your antenna and streamer, it’s time line up some subscriptions. Netflix streaming ($7.99/month) is good for feature films and series television, all of which are commercial-free. Hulu Plus ($7.99/month) is good for current and recent television (and also includes the outstanding Criterion Collection of feature films). Hulu includes the participation of all of the networks except CBS (though some CBS shows, such as The Good Wife, are available). Hulu shows about half as many commercials as broadcasters.

Sling TV is a brand-new streaming-only service from Dish Network. Sling costs $20/month and functions like a mini-cable package, offering ESPN, ESPN2, TNT, TBS, Food Network, HGTV, Travel Channel, Cartoon Network, Cartoon Network/Adult Swim, Disney Channel, ABC Family, and CNN. Sling also offers two $5 add-on packages: one for kids and one focusing on news and information.

There’s a surprising amount of free video available for streaming. Don’t overlook the PBS app, which simply requires that you register with your local station. Other subscriptions, including specialized packages, are available from the home screen of your device. This is where you’ll find baseball and other enthusiast streams. Unfortunately the easiest way to know which subscriptions are available is to test-drive the device or pay a call on an early-adopting friend.

CBS, the strongest of the over-the-air networks, has chosen to go it alone, and offers its All-Access app for $5.99/month. HBO Go is currently available to cable TV subscribers, but is likely to soon be available as a stand-alone service for cord cutters.

Given the ubiquity of fast Internet service and the proliferation of mobile devices and tablets, it’s likely that streaming television will grow. But since streamers don’t really cost much, and can take advantage of software updates, you’re not risking much by adopting today.

Saving money is one compelling advantage of cutting the cord, but you’ll also love being able to watch your shows on your schedule. Streaming services function very much like a DVR, only they record every show, and your roommate can’t erase your favorite episode.

If you have a favorite streaming device or online video service, share your tip in the comments below.