10 awesome (and not-so-awesome) things I learned while becoming a cord-cutter
The path to freedom isn't always smooth.
By Michael Simon
TechHiveMar 15, 2019 3:00 am PDT
Image: Getty Images/MikeyLPT
After years of reading, research, and really close calls, I finally made the plunge. I canceled my Comcast Triple Play bundle, disconnected the coaxial cables running all over my house, and returned the boxes I’ve been renting for the last two years. That’s right, I’m officially a card-carrying cord-cutter.
I’m only in the first few days of my new cord-free world, but I can already tell the road ahead will be equal parts bright and bumpy. While I expected some separation anxiety after years of cable TV bills, I naively didn’t realize just how different it would be without Comcast or Cox or FiOS supplying the channels. I ended up choosing DirecTV Now for my streaming needs, but I researched and tested a couple of them before settling on it. Here are 10 things I’ve learned so far:
Choosing a streaming TV service is really hard
Signing up for cable is relatively easy. There are generally one or two providers with distinct pricing packages to choose from, and picking one simply depends on price and channels. That’s not the case with live TV streaming packages. Channel offerings are all over the place, and you’ll need to make a list of the ones you can and can’t live without.
For me and my family, the must-haves included Food Network, AMC, Nickelodeon, Disney, and FX, and it wasn’t easy to find one that had them all. At the time, DirecTV Now fit the bill, but that’s not the case anymore, so thankfully I’m grandfathered into the package I picked. But it’s more than likely that you’ll need to sacrifice a favorite channel or two when you settle on a streaming TV package.
Yes, if you subscribe to every service, your streaming bill will be more than your cable one, but the beauty of cord cutting is that you only pay for what you need each month. I was already subscribing to Netflix, HBO, and Hulu under my Comcast plan, so even with upgrading my internet service from 250Mbps to 1Gbps and adding DirecTV Now, I cut my bill by around $50 a month.
Prices, channels will change without warning
Less than 24 hours after I signed up for DirecTV Now, the price changed. By a lot. My package increased by 25 percent, from $40 a month to $50 a month, and the add-on HBO option rose from $5 to $15. All said, my monthly bill increased by $20 in just 24 hours. Thankfully I’m able to keep the channels in my package, but if I had signed up just a day later, I wouldn’t have gotten any of the channels I wanted; namely, AMC, Nickelodeon, and Food Network. I’m used to cable changing packages and upping prices, but it’s shocking that AT&T raised it so much and took away so many vital channels at once.
The guide is really good
I thought the hardest thing for me to give up when I dumped my cable boxes would be the programming guide. I generally spend a lot of time browsing channels to find something to watch, and I feared the streaming TV service’s user interface and experience would be less than great, leaving me to rely on my own devices. I was wrong. The streaming services I tried out all had excellent guides with large previews, channel icons, and great navigation. I missed such features as the ability to automatically tune to a channel when something starts, which I had with the Comcast user interface, and I kind of prefer the old UI, but overall, I enjoy browsing now just as much as I did with cable.
Channels can take longer to find
The guide might be good for finding random shows, but it’s not so great for tuning to a specific channel. I never gave much thought to the order and arrangement of the channels in my cable bundle, but they were logical and smart, with food shows and kids networks lumped together. DirecTV Now, on the other hand, boils networks down to simple alphabetical listings, putting a greater emphasis on favorites and bookmarks. Under the Comcast guide, channels were logically grouped, local stations were near the top, and I could easily type in a number to jump to a channel. Now CBS comes after Cartoon Network. An alphabetical listing seems like a smarter option in theory, but I actually prefer the curated grouped lists.
Quality varies greatly between platforms
With my Comcast boxes, the experience basically depended on the type of TV each box was connected to. That’s not the case with streaming. The speed and picture quality of the DirecTV Now app on my Apple TV 4K is light years better than it is on my Fire TV Cube. The same goes for my Roku box and my Samsung smart TV. Then there’s simple connectivity issues. Some streams wouldn’t play HD, others constantly paused, and on some devices I couldn’t even tune to certain channels. So, depending on the source you’re using to stream, the experience could be good, great, terrible, or somewhere in between, even if they’re all hooked up to the same television.
Nickelodeon is a streaming unicorn
When shopping for a streaming service, I expected networks like AMC, HBO, and Disney to cost more. What I didn’t expect was Nickelodeon to be so hard to find. And with a 7-year-son, it’s pretty much a must-have. Since Nickelodeon doesn’t have its own pay service, and its content is locked behind a provider paywall, my options came down to DirecTV Now, Sling TV with the Kids Extra package, or Philo (which was missing local networks and numerous other channels I cared about). And after this week’s changes, it’s not even available on DirectTV Now anymore (though thankfully it’s grandfathered into my package). So if you have a kid who watches any of the Nick channels, Hulu + Live TV, YouTube TV, and PlayStation Vue are all out.
If there’s one thing you don’t have to worry about with cable, it’s the capability of the remote. Voice search on my Comcast remote was a surprisingly excellent way to find something to watch, and the standard keypad was an easy backup for quickly tuning to a channel. The Apple TV and Fire TV remotes are woefully inadequate, and even my Harmony universal remote doesn’t quite understand what’s going on inside the DirecTV Now app. Voice control is another issue. While most of the voice assistants will launch streaming apps without trouble, few of them are able to look inside to find stuff. DirectTV Now just recently added Siri search support in the TV app, which is nice, but most of your voice commands will go unheeded, even if you’re using the made-for-cord-cutters Caavo remote.
Cloud DVR isn’t as good as a hard drive
I was pleasantly surprised to find that most streaming services offer a cloud storage option that lets you record live TV and fast-forward through commercials. While it works on DirecTV Now, however, it’s nowhere near as fast and easy to navigate as the one on my X1 DVR. Granted it’s still in beta—as it’s apparently been for nearly a year—but shows stuttered and straight-up wouldn’t play, fast-forwarding speeds were unpredictable, and some recordings were truncated. And while third-party DVRs such as Tivo Bolt Vox and Fire TV Recast do exist, they’re designed for over-the-air broadcasts, not over-the-top streaming TV services.
Streaming is more customizable than cable
When I had cable, my wife, son, and I could all watch different shows in different rooms—provided we had boxes hooked up to each TV. And that was pretty much it. Sure, there were parental controls and accessibility options, but navigating them required a trip through complicated menus, and there was no control over what happened when I turned on the TV.
Live TV streaming gives you more control. DirecTV Now remembers the last show I was watching on any device, so I can flip on the game in another room without missing any of the action. I can set live TV to start playing when I launch the app or mute the audio. I can autoplay the next episode on demand. Granted, none of these are game-changing options, but they sure are nice to have.