The best ways to watch March Madness without cable

Cord-cutters now have plenty of options for watching the NCAA Tournament, but not all are equal.

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Just a few short years ago, watching March Madness without cable was a second-rate affair. There wasn’t a single, easy way to get every game, and cord-cutters often had to deal with substandard frame rates and unreliable streams.

These days, we have plenty of options for viewing the NCAA Tournament. Still, you’ll need to choose wisely if you want to get a similar (or better) experience than what you had with cable. Read on for everything you need to know about streaming options, multi-channel viewing, frame rates, and more.

The quick rundown

If you just want to know how to watch March Madness without cable and don’t care about specific features, here’s what you need to know:

  • The first and second rounds will be spread across CBS, TBS, TNT, and TruTV.
  • The Sweet 16 and Elite 8 will be split between CBS and TBS.
  • The Final Four and Championship will air on CBS.

And here’s how you can get those channels:

  • Complete March Madness coverage is available through PlayStation Vue ($45 per month), DirecTV Now ($50 per month), Hulu with Live TV ($45 per month), YouTube TV ($40 per month), and FuboTV ($45 per month), assuming they carry your local CBS affiliate. Use the links for each site above to check local coverage in your area.
  • CBS is available for free with an antenna, or for $6 per month with CBS All Access.
  • TNT, TBS, and TruTV are available without CBS as part of AT&T WatchTV ($15 per month, or free with certain AT&T unlimited wireless plans) or Sling TV ($25 per month with Sling Blue, $30 per month with Sling Orange and Comedy Extra).
  • The free NCAA March Madness Live app will let you watch up to three hours of live coverage on TNT, TBS, and TruTV at no charge, even on TV devices such as Roku, Fire TV, and Apple TV. (CBS games are also available for free, but only on mobile devices and laptops.) The three-hour limit applies to each device you have, so you could switch between multiple devices to maximize your free viewing time.

Split-screen viewing

The thrill of March Madness—at least in the opening rounds—is in keeping tabs on multiple games at the same time. To that end, you have a couple of options for watching simultaneous games in a split-screen view:

PlayStation Vue now allows you to watch up to four live channels at a time on Apple TV, or up to three channels at a time on PlayStation 4. To enable this, just press-and-hold the select button on any channel, choose “Watch in Multi-View,” then select your channels. You can then long-press any channel to reposition it on the screen.

NCAA March Madness Live lets you watch up to three games simultaneously on Apple TV, but only for games on TBS, TNT, and TruTV. For those channels, you can watch up to three hours of coverage for free, after which you’ll need to log in with a pay TV subscription. (For live TV streaming services, you can log in with a PlayStation Vue, Hulu with Live TV, or YouTube TV account.)

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PlayStation Vue can show four games at a time on Apple TV, or three at a time on PlayStation 4.

Even if your device doesn’t support split-screen, you may want to give the March Madness app a try, as it lets you quickly open a sidebar to switch between games. That can be faster than thumbing through the channel guide of whatever live TV service you’re using. Alternatively, you can switch between recent channels on YouTube TV by scrolling down from any live channel, while Hulu with Live TV provides quick access to recent channels in its grid guide.

60-frames-per-second support

The NCAA tournament is as good a time as any to revisit which live TV streaming services support 60-frames-per-second (fps) video, which provides the same smoothness of motion you’d get from cable or an antenna. (If you’re uncertain how 60fps and 30fps compare, this video does a good job of highlighting the difference.)

Here’s a rundown:

  • Sling TV: 30fps on TBS, TNT, and TruTV
  • PlayStation Vue: 60fps across all channels
  • Hulu with Live TV: 60fps on TBS, TNT, and TruTV, but not CBS
  • YouTube TV: 60fps on all channels
  • DirecTV Now: 60fps on all channels
  • FuboTV: 30fps on TBS, TNT, TruTV, and CBS
  • CBS All Access: 30fps only
  • NCAA March Madness Live app: 60fps 

One more disclaimer: If you have an older Roku, Fire TV, or Chromecast, you may not be able to watch in 60 frames per second due to the limitations of the hardware.

Of course, if you have an antenna connected directly to your television, you’ll always get 60 frames per second with live sports (or, if you want to get technical, 60 fields per second for 1080i broadcast channels like CBS). Some networked TV tuners such as HDHomeRun and Amazon Fire TV Recast will support 60fps as well, but others, such as Tablo and AirTV, will not.

So what’s the best way to watch the NCAA Tournament overall? My vote would be on PlayStation Vue through an Apple TV, as it supports fast frame rates and multi-channel viewing, any service that provides 60fps video, and a quick way to switch between live channels should do the trick when you’re trying to monitor your brackets.

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