Think of 2018 as the eye of the storm for cord-cutting. Although cable and satellite TV subscriptions continued their steady downward spiral, we didn’t see many drastic changes in cord-cutting hardware, software, or services.
Bigger changes could come next year, with new streaming services from Disney, AT&T, Apple, and possibly NBC Universal, along with retooled live TV packages from the likes of Hulu and DirecTV Now. While we wait for the next wave of cord-cutting to arrive, let’s celebrate what was largely a year of refinement for our favorite cord-cutting devices and services. Here are TechHive’s third-annual cord-cutter awards:
Best new streaming hardware: Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K
After a couple years of middling hardware, Amazon came roaring back in 2018 with the $50 Fire TV Stick 4K. For just $10 more than the standard Fire TV Stick, the 4K version is a vastly superior device, with much faster loading times, broad 4K HDR video support, and a new remote that (finally) includes TV volume and power buttons. Meanwhile, Amazon has continued to build first-class voice controls around its Alexa assistant, letting you launch movies, shows, and live TV channels with either the Fire TV remote or an Echo smart speaker.
The Fire TV Stick 4K still isn’t as simple to use as Roku’s streamers, and some interface annoyances remain, but it’s a much more interesting device overall, and one that’s well worth buying over the Fire TV Stick even if you don’t have a 4K TV.
While the price did increase to $40 per month (up from $35 per month at launch), that was a trade-off for the addition of Turner networks, which really helped round out YouTube TV’s sports coverage. All this cements YouTube TV’s status as the best live TV streaming service for most people (with the exception of Fire TV users, as Amazon and Google still refuse to work with one another.)
Most-improved TV streaming service: PlayStation Vue
PlayStation Vue seemed like a dead streaming service walking earlier this year, hemorrhaging live local channel support and drawing uncertainty from Sony leadership as subscriber numbers stagnated. In recent months, however, Sony’s live TV service seems to have bounced back, more than doubling its count of live local channels, earning top-notch reliability scores, adding new features to its apps, and becoming the first live TV service to integrate with the home screens of Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV. All of this came after Vue beat out other live TV services in an industry-wide customer satisfaction survey. There’s never been a better time to be a Vue subscriber, and—once more, with feeling—you don’t need a PlayStation console to get on board.
Best streaming service that didn’t raise prices: Philo
The conventional wisdom around live TV streaming services is that they’re all unprofitable, which helps explain why YouTube TV, Sling TV, DirecTV Now, and PlayStation Vue all raised prices this year. Amazon also hiked the price of Prime subscriptions from $100 to $120 per year, and Netflix raised prices at the end of 2017, reflecting their sky-high spending on original and licensed content.
Meanwhile, sports-free streaming bundle Philo continues to charge $16 per month for its base package, and $20 per month for an expanded lineup. The service even added new channels, such as The Hallmark Channel. The Philo experience has improved as well, with new apps for Apple TV, Fire TV, and Android TV this year, and new features such as a grid guide on TV devices and multiple profile support. Maybe the real problem is that we’re paying way too much for sports and broadcast networks.
Runner-up: Hulu, which did move some live channels into a new Entertainment add-on this year, but still charges $40 per month for live TV, $8 per month for on-demand shows, and $12 per month for ad-free on-demand service.
Best new use of an over-the-air antenna: Tablo Dual Lite
While it might not have the brand recognition of TiVo, Nuvyyo still makes the best over-the-air DVR for most people with the Tablo Dual Lite. Tablo does not plug directly into your television, but instead streams broadcast channels through your Wi-Fi router to the Tablo app on other devices, such as Roku, Fire TV, and Apple TV. That means you can set Tablo up with a single over-the-air antenna wherever reception is best, and then watch all your live channels and recordings from anywhere in the house. The Dual Lite isn’t much different from previous Tablo models, but the new hardware has better Wi-Fi connectivity and is much cheaper at $140. Factor in a hard drive and a lifetime Tablo guide subscription, and you can build a whole-home DVR for just a little over $300.
Runner up:Amazon’s Fire TV Recast, which would probably be the winner if it worked with more than just Fire TV, iOS, and Android devices.
While most streaming devices try their hardest to upsell you on apps, subscriptions, and a la carte movie rentals, Roku has doubled down on giving you free stuff to watch. This year, Roku added a new “Featured Free” section to its home screen, pulling in ad-supported videos from apps such as NBC, Fox, Sony Crackle, and Pluto TV. You can also use Roku’s voice search to track down free movies and shows, and you’ll find even more free videos in The Roku Channel. Roku isn’t being altruistic—the company is building a business around TV advertising—but no other platform tries harder to keep you from paying more money.
2018 was a big year on the cord-cutting front for Amazon, and not just because of the aforementioned Fire TV Stick 4K. Amazon also wasn’t afraid to try new things, such as the Fire TV Recast (the most polished over-the-air DVR to date) and the Fire TV Cube (a streaming box with hands-free Alexa voice controls built in).
As a result of these efforts, Amazon is offering the closest thing yet to a complete, a la carte cord-cutting solution. With a Fire TV streamer or smart television, local channels via the Recast, and add-on subscriptions through Amazon Channels, you can get plenty of TV for a lot less than cable, much of it through a single billing system and interface. That all adds up to a strong vision for how TV should work in the post-cable era.
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.