For cord-cutting, 2021 was a year of dust settling.
The TV industry has begun to accept the steady decline of cable, and most major media and tech companies have now entered the streaming wars with services like Disney+, Apple TV+, HBO Max, and Peacock. 2021 was more about building on those services than launching new ones.
Likewise, our streaming devices and smart TVs haven’t reinvented the wheel or come up with urgent reasons to upgrade from what you already have. With the latest Roku, Fire TV, and Apple TV devices, the improvements are largely incremental.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t find any achievements worth celebrating. After yet another year of writing this weekly column (and newsletter), let’s keep up with annual tradition and recount the best of what cord-cutting had to offer in 2021:
Apple didn’t need to do much to cement the Apple TV 4K’s position as the best premium streaming box you can buy, but it made the adjustments that count. This year’s refresh includes a vastly superior remote, with a hefty aluminum case and—thank goodness—a proper directional pad. The new remote complements Apple’s speedy hardware, while tvOS remains both blissfully free of banner ads and full of useful features. If you have $180 to burn on a streaming box, this is the one to get.
Honorable mention: The Roku Streaming Stick 4K, which has firmly established itself as the best mid-range streamer for most people.
Best new streaming service: Discovery+
This year didn’t bring any other major contenders to the streaming wars, so Discovery+ gets the nod by default. That said, the service fills a useful niche in the cord-cutting landscape, providing a vast library of reality shows—or comfort food TV, as they say—for $5 per month, or $7 per month with no ads. Perhaps that explains why Discovery’s direct-to-consumer business has soared to 20 million subscribers this year.
After a series of half-measures and baby steps, Sling TV gave its interface a major overhaul this year. The home screen is easier to read; the grid guide shows quick record options and program descriptions; the DVR menu has its own navigation bar section; and the on-demand menu now has useful content filters. While the service hasn’t been immune to price hikes—its base packages jumped from $30 to $35 per month in January—it’s still roughly half the price of most other live TV streaming bundles, and now it has a competitive app to match.
Runner-up: ESPN+, whose growing stable of sports programming now includes all out-of-market NHL games. (Those used to cost $145 per year on their own, versus $70 per year for ESPN+.)
Best new streaming TV feature: Roku’s wireless earbud support
Roku isn’t the first company to support Bluetooth headphones in its streaming players, but its implementation beats all the others. Through the Roku mobile app, up to four people can connect Bluetooth earbuds or headphones for private listening, and a recently launched TV sync feature eliminates audio lag. That means you can keep your AirPods or other earbuds paired to your phone while listening to what’s on TV.
Runner up: Netflix’s “Play Something” button, which shuffles through recommendations based on your viewing habits. Fire TV users can even say “play something on Netflix” using their voice remotes.
Extra nerdy honorable mention: Channels DVR’s Virtual Channels feature, which lets users turn their recorded movies and shows into custom, round-the-clock streaming channels. Read more about Channels DVR here.
Price hikes have become an inevitable part of streaming TV, especially among the live channel bundles that are subject to ever-higher TV network carriage fees. But let’s give Philo credit for handling its own price hikes with class.
When the sports-free streaming bundle raised prices to $25 per month in June, it allowed existing customers to keep their current pricing. Philo’s original subscribers are still paying just $16 per month, and those who signed up between May 2019 and June 2021 are still paying $20 per month. Philo also sweetened the deal for customers who do pay the higher price, giving them a DVR with one year of storage instead of the previous 30 days. It’s a rare but welcome example of a streaming service that rewards customer loyalty.
Best new use of an over-the-air antenna: Tablo HDMI
Nuvyyo’s Tablo over-the-air DVRs are fine products overall, but the way they compress broadcast signals has always made them a non-starter for videophiles. This year’s Tablo HDMI line addresses that problem by playing local channels at their native quality, so video looks the same as it would directly from an antenna. The DVRs can send video directly to a TV over HDMI, but they can also stream uncompressed video to the Tablo app on Roku, Fire TV, and Android TV devices.
Tablo’s other models are still worth considering for their broader streaming device support, and other options such as Channels DVR are better for power users, but Tablo’s HDMI DVRs are the simplest way to get high-quality over-the-air video onto multiple TVs throughout the house.
Most surprising embrace of cord-cutting: Comcast
While Comcast certainly isn’t getting any awards for its overpriced, data-capped internet service or its sneaky cable TV fees, it’s seemingly unafraid to imagine a world in which its own pay TV service is irrelevant. The software in Hisense’s 43- and 50-inch XClass TVs is based on Comcast’s X1 and Flex set-top box software, with powerful voice search features and a decent selection of streaming apps, and you needn’t be a Comcast customer to buy one.
None of this will stop Roku, Samsung, and others from dominating the smart TV landscape, but at least give Comcast credit for trying to compete outside the safe confines of its regional monopolies and duopolies.
In memoriam: Locast
For nearly three years, Locast streamed local channels for free in a growing number of U.S. markets, charging just $5 per month to remove periodic interruptions. It did so by relying on a loophole in copyright law that allows non-profit groups to retransmit local stations without the permission of broadcasters. TV networks naturally disagreed with that approach and sued Locast in 2019, though the service continued to operate and expand to new markets in the meantime.
During a year in which visiting the theater often felt like a health risk, WarnerMedia gave us what we’ve always wanted: All the studio’s biggest movies hit HBO Max on the same day as their theatrical releases in 2021, from Mortal Kombat and The Suicide Squad to Dune and the upcoming The Matrix Resurrections. While the gutsy move angered a lot of folks in Hollywood, it made HBO Max considerably more appealing on a year-round basis.
Sadly, WarnerMedia is abandoning the day-and-date strategy in 2022, but the industry as a whole is now moving to shorter theatrical windows of around 45 days, down from the old 90-day standard. Now that HBO Max has given us a taste of watching new movies at home, it’ll be hard to go back.
Thanks for reading the seventh-annual Cord Cutter Awards here at TechHive. Check out my Cord Cutter Weekly newsletter for even more insights on streaming and over-the-air TV.
Jared Newman has been helping folks make sense of technology for over a decade, writing for PCWorld, TechHive, and elsewhere. He also publishes two newsletters, Advisorator for straightforward tech advice and Cord Cutter Weekly for saving money on TV service.