New streaming services such as Disney+ shook up the market, and existing live TV services became more expensive across the board, forcing more folks to consider abandoning bloated bundles outright. At the same time, streaming devices took some big leaps forward, making cord-cutting more attractive for reasons beyond cost savings.
In keeping with annual tradition, I’ve rounded up my favorite developments of 2019 in the worlds of streaming and over-the-air TV. Here are TechHive’s fourth-annual cord-cutter awards.
Best new streaming hardware: Nvidia Shield TV
Nvidia didn’t need to do much to meaningfully improve its high-end Nvidia Shield TV streaming box. Just improving the previous version’s dreadful remote and riding on the back of Android TV’s improvements this year would have been enough.
The new Shield TV, however, goes the extra mile with an AI upscaling feature that makes HD videos look extra sharp on 4K displays, and the $150 starting price for the tube-shaped model is lower than before, if you don’t need the previous version’s media server capabilities. Even the new remote, while not perfect, raises the bar for streamers with backlighting and a programmable button. The Shield is still a great streaming box for geeks, but it’s also a great high-end player for everyone else.
Runner-up: Amazon’s second-generation Fire TV Cube, which delivers on the promise of a voice-controlled streaming box after the original fell short.
There’s no contest here. For all the hemming and hawing about Disney pulling content from Netflix, the House of Mouse has delivered something better. Disney+ has a far more extensive catalog of Disney, Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars films, every episode of The Simpsons, and a growing slate of originals such as The Mandalorian, all at a reasonable price of at $7 per month. There was never a time when all of this content was readily available on demand, let alone for a little more than the price of a single movie rental, which might explain why Disney+ passed 10 million subscribers on day one.
Runner-up:Frndly TV, whose $6-per-month package of The Hallmark Channel and a handful of other family-friendly channels proves that not every bundle has to be bloated.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, YouTube TV has only solidified its top standing among live TV streaming services this year. Yes, it did get more expensive this year (the service now costs $50 per month), but so did cable TV, satellite TV, and every other big bundle of streaming channels.
And with the impending shutdown of PlayStation Vue at the end of January, it no longer has as much competition. YouTube TV also improved its service this year by adding support for Amazon Fire TV devices, dropping DVR restrictions on CBS channels, and becoming the first live TV package to include local PBS channels.
Instead, the opposite has happened, as Viacom has infused its new streaming property with loads of new movies and TV shows through Pluto’s virtual round-the-clock “channels.” There are channels for classic MTV series, channels for beloved Nick shows, and even a marathon channel for American Gladiators, none of which have come at the expense of what people liked about Pluto before (such as the channel that shows Mystery Science Theater 3000 at all hours). Far from being ruined, Pluto has become an even better destination for background TV.
Best new use of an over-the-air antenna: Tablo Quad
Nuvyyo, the company behind Tablo DVRs, didn’t change the formula for its latest quad-tuner model, but it did add most of the features and improvements that were previously missing. An internal hard drive bay allows for tidier setups compared to plugging in an external drive, and Wi-Fi 5 support helps keep streams smooth over wireless network connections.
Tablo’s software has also continue to improve with automatic commercial skipping and a mini-guide for channel surfing. No other over-the-air DVR hits the all same sweet spots on price, features, and ease-of-use—save for Tablo’s dual-tuner model.
Best new streaming TV feature: Channels DVR for cable streams
With some clever trickery, Channels DVR has created a single service that records both over-the-air broadcasts and streaming cable channels to a desktop computer, NAS box, or Nvidia Shield TV. You still have to pay for access to the cable channels, whether it’s through a live streaming service like YouTube TV or a traditional pay TV package, but you’ll end up with a lot more flexibility and control than you’d otherwise get with a cable box or cloud DVR. For a certain type of cord-cutter, this is the holy grail.
Runner-up: Roku’s new “Bandwidth Saver” option, accessible through Settings > Network in Roku OS 9.2. Once enabled, it automatically stops streaming after four hours of inactivity, potentially saving you from hitting your data cap.
Most surprising embrace of cord-cutting: Charter Spectrum
You might not get warm and fuzzy feelings about Spectrum, but you’ve got to admit that the company’s efforts to retain prospective cord-cutters have gone further than most cable companies. Spectrum continues to offer an a la carte-style service to its lapsed TV subscribers, and this year it added cloud DVR and a $15-per-month bundle of non-sports channels. All of these services are available without a cable box, as you can use Roku players, an Apple TV box, Samsung TV, or Xbox One to stream them. Compare that to Comcast, which somehow hopes to lease its own hardware to cord-cutters instead.
After Disney announced its $7-per-month pricing for Disney+ in April—along with a $13-per-month bundle that includes ESPN+ and Hulu—a few funny things happened:
AT&T’s WarnerMedia settled on a price of $15 per month for HBO Max when it launches next year, not $16 to $17 per month as had been rumored.
Apple announced that Apple TV+ would cost $5 per month—half the rumored price—and that buyers of new Apple products would get a year for free.
NBC reconsidered plans to charge cord-cutters for its Peacock streaming service next year, and is now leaning towards making it free for everyone.
Maybe all those things would have occurred without Disney’s splashy entrance into the streaming wars, but I’d be willing to wager otherwise. The reality is that the much-bemoaned phenomenon of “subscription fatigue” has upsides, which come in the form of media companies competing directly for your money. They can no longer hide behind overstuffed bundles and hope you won’t notice their relentless demands for greater carriage fees. Disney+ is a reminder that the new rules are much simpler: Provide great programming at a reasonable price.
Now, I write this knowing full well that Disney is one of the primary instigators of higher pay TV bills. Even as Disney embraces the new world of direct-to-consumer streaming, it’s punishing those who stick with traditional TV bundles by continuing to raise the cost of channels like ESPN. But in squeezing one side to build up the other, Disney is doing more than anyone to hasten the TV bundle’s total collapse. That means a lot more companies worrying about subscription fatigue, and all the benefits of direct competition that come with it.
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.