How To: The 5 Best Streaming Cable Apps for Watching Live TV on Your Phone

The 5 Best Streaming Cable Apps for Watching Live TV on Your Phone

These days, it's easy to cut the cord. Thanks to a new crop of streaming TV apps, you can get the same service offered by a traditional cable subscription at a fraction of the price. After some extensive testing, we believe we've found the absolute best apps for cord cutting.

You can use these apps on your smart TV, laptop, desktop, and most set-top boxes, but we focused on the experience they offer on mobile. Nonetheless, we ranked the apps based on a combination of all their features, and we're aware that the channel lineup is likely your top concern, so we included a glanceable chart to help you compare their offerings. After the two charts below, you can scroll down to read our reviews for each individual service.

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Comparison Chart

Image by Jon Knight/Gadget Hacks

Key Comparison Points

  • Price: The price for the lowest and highest tiers offered by each service, not including add-on packages. For apps with only one option, such as YouTube TV and Hulu with Live TV, we placed the price in the base tier.
  • Channels: The number of channels included in each plan.
  • Number of Available Plans: The number of subscription tiers offered by the service. For some, a higher number here might be better, as it provides more options. For others, a lower number might be better, as there's less nickel-and-diming and confusing schemes to choose from.
  • Important Channels: Using data from Statista, we composed a list of the most viewed channels on cable networks. With this information, we counted the number of channels available within each app. Full chart below.
  • Premium Movie Channels: There are four major premium movie channels: HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, and STARZ. Typically, access requires an additional monthly charge, but some apps' plans will include one or more channels.
  • Regional Sports: Whether or not the service lets you access regional sports networks such as Fox Sports to watch your local teams.
  • Regional Sports Out-of-Network: The ability to watch local sports outside the region. Only PlayStation Vue lets you watch your local sports channels when you're away from home.
  • Free Trial: How long the free trial is for new users. All but PlayStation Vue offer a seven-day trial.
  • DVR Storage: The ability to record live television to watch later. All five services offer a DVR, but the amount of storage varies. We listed the highest available storage option for the cloud DVR service, though note that some of these services may charge an additional monthly fee for the max storage tier.
  • DVR Storage Expiration: How long DVR recordings will remain in storage before they expire and are automatically removed.
  • Fast-Forward Commercials: The ability to fast-forward through commercials while watching saved recordings.
  • Number of Simultaneous Streams: The maximum number of unique streams which can occur at the same time. Using the same account, how many members of your household can watch a different channel.
  • Max Resolution: The resolution of live television. Most channels output at 720p, with few channels supporting 1080p. Additionally, most sports channels support 60 frames per second (fps), which is ideal as the video is smoother thanks to doubling the standard number of frames.
  • Audio Format: The highest available audio quality for live television. Only DirecTV Now offers 5.1 surround sound on some channels.
  • Rewind Live TV: The ability to control the playback of live television. Pause and rewind should be available at any time, while fast-forward should only be available while behind the actual live feed.
  • Video on Demand: Access to video on demand content (VOD). VOD operates similarly to streaming services like Netflix and are managed by the networks and include un-skippable commercials.
  • Apple TV: Has official support for Apple TV.
  • Chromecast: Has official support for Chromecast and Google Cast devices.
  • Android TV: Officially supports Android TV devices.
  • Fire TV: Officially supports Fire TV devices such as the Amazon Fire Stick
  • Roku: Officially supports Roku products such as the Roku Streaming Stick.
  • TV Everywhere: Many channels have their own mobile apps that require your cable provider login credentials to access. While the majority of networks have an app, not all networks let you use a streaming cable app's credentials. Therefore, the higher the number, the better chance your favorite channel is supported. Check out this link to see specific apps.

Important Channels

One of the biggest factors in finding the right streaming cable service is the channel lineup, so we made a quick-reference chart of the important channels available on each service. Items marked in yellow indicate that you have to pay extra (more than a base tier package) to get access to that channel.

App 1: DirecTV Now: Best Channel Lineup

While DirecTV Now is the one of newest services on our list, it appears that AT&T (the new owners of DirecTV) study its competition thoroughly before entering this market space. The result is a well-balanced app that offers an unprecedented 134 channels on its highest tier and the second lowest base tier pricing.

When it comes to channels, DirecTV Now is your best option. Not only does it the base option offer 72 channels (the highest on our list), 30 out of the 32 "important channels" are available, which is the highest among the apps on our list.

DirecTV Now is the only app to offer Dolby Digital 5.1 surround audio for Apple TV devices. Furthermore, it also supports a maximum resolution of 1080p at 60fps. Both of these features require the channels to support the technology, but it is nice to know the app is future-proof. Do note, the latter feature is only available in the beta version.

The best value offer by DirecTV Now is the mid-tier plan, known as the Just Right plan. With this plan, you receive 92 channels at $50 per month. No other plan on our list matches this channel-per-dollar ratio (1.84). The next closest plan is YouTube TV, with 1.75 channels per dollar.

As with all things, DirecTV Now isn't perfect. It is the only app on our list that limits Chromecast support to Android devices. Only two simultaneous streams are available for free, with the third costing an additional $5 a month.

There is also no Android TV app, which is unfortunate. But the biggest downside is that you can't rewind or fast-forward live television on mobile devices. Instead, you're limited to pausing, and once you press play, it will return to the live feed, skipping anything you missed.

DirecTV Now is an excellent value for cord cutters. It has a wide array of channels, including many of which you've come to expect from traditional cable providers. With its support for 1080p at 60 fps and 5.1 surround sound, DirecTV Now stands alone as television slowly catches up. It's because of this value and feature set that we recommend it as the best choice for those looking to walk away from their expensive cable bill.

App 2: Sling TV: Best for Options

Sling TV is the best choice if price is your highest priority. While Sling TV isn't without its faults, it does offer the lowest pricing and the widest selection of plans, packages, and add-on channels. This makes it easy to pay the lowest price to get the exact channel lineup you want.

Sling TV starts at only $20/month, unmatched by any other app on our list (the closest competitor pricing starts at $35/month). It has two base-tier plans to choose from, and the second option only increases by $5. In fact, the most expensive plan is the same price as the base plan for other apps on our list. However, things can get pretty complicated fast.

Sling TV has two base-tier plans: Sling Orange and Sling Blue. Sling Orange is the cheapest base plan and offers 31 channels. However, Sling Blue ($25) has a different channel lineup and doesn't include the channels in Sling Orange. So if one of your must-have channels is on the Orange tier and another is on the Blue tier, you'll have to purchase both base tier plans for $40 a month. And that's before you start talking add-ons.

The two-plan systems introduce more problems — for example, the number of simultaneous streams. Technically, Sling Orange is only permitted one stream while Sling Blue is allowed three. The way it achieves four streams is by purchasing the Sling Orange + Blue plan and using both plans' maximum number of streams. What this translates to if one person is watching a Sling Orange channel (such as ESPN), no else can watch that channel at the same time. Instead, they are limited to three streams of Sling Blue channels.

Sling TV is also the only app that charges for access to the cloud DVR service. You must spend an additional $5 on top of the monthly fee to access the DVR, which has one huge limitation — you can't record any Disney-owned channels, including ABC, Disney Channel, and ESPN.

However, Sling TV isn't all bad. There is a number of advantages it has over the competition. For example, Sling TV is one of two apps on our list which doesn't delete recordings stored on the cloud DVR. Sling TV is also one of only three apps which includes access to all four premium movie channels.

If you are looking to save the most money on your TV bill, Sling TV is your best bet — as long as the channels you're after are on the right tier. It offers an unrivaled price while lacking little in terms of features. While it does make several compromises, these can be forgiven thanks to its flexibility.

App 3: YouTube TV: Best for Sports

Next, we have YouTube TV. The service, created by Google, offers live television at $40 a month. There are no multiple offerings — just one plan at one price. While there is a lot to love about YouTube TV, its channel lineup is somewhat lacking, especially with entertainment channels. Though it does make up for this with the best sports package available on a base tier.

Let's start with the channels. While YouTube TV has the second highest amount of channels in a base tier, it has the lowest number of important channels. Therefore, while you are getting a lot of channels, you might have a hard time finding something to watch.

YouTube TV also has the weakest lineup of premium movie channels. The only add-on available is Showtime. With shows like Game of Thrones on HBO and Power on STARZ, the lack of support is a huge disadvantage. Google tries to make up for this by including YouTube Red (a $9.99/month value), but original content here is still burgeoning.

Where YouTube TV really shines, though, is in its sports content. With the exception of NFL Network, all important sports channels are included in the base price of $40/month. You can even star your favorite teams and have all of their games automatically recorded.

YouTube TV is one of the only places where you can gain access to The Young Turks, a 24/7 YouTube-based news channel which YouTube TV has given their own live news channel. YouTube TV is also one of the only apps to support Android Oreo's picture-in-picture mode as well. Additionally, the guide is organizable, allowing to move channels around to your preference.

Until March 12, 2018, YouTube TV was $35. However, after adding some Turner properties such as CNN and Cartoon Network, the price increased to its current $40. I mention this as it could potentially occur again as YouTube TV tries to close the gap by adding more channels. However, customers who signed up for the $35 plan prior to March 12 were grandfathered in and will continue to only pay $35 indefinitely, so we expect this to happen again with any future price increases.

While YouTube TV may be one of the best services for smooth, consistent performance thanks to Google's servers, it lacks many key entertainment channels. However, if you are a sports fan and you watch most TV shows with on-demand services like Netflix or Hulu anyway, this is probably the service for you.

App 4: PlayStation Vue: Best for Big Families

PlayStation Vue is an interesting middle of the pack option. It does a few things surprisingly much better than the competition, including simultaneous streams and TV Everywhere. However, it is Vue's few shortcomings the ultimately forced its fourth placement.

Let start with the good. Vue has the second highest number of simultaneous streams at five. When you initially subscribe, Vue provides three simultaneous streams which can be used both at home and away from the house. Once you set up a home device, you will receive an additional two more in-home streams.

There are, however, some limitations. For mobile users, only three simultaneous streams can happen at the same time. Additionally, NFL games broadcast on channels outside of ABC or ESPN (so essentially, everything but Monday Night Football) are unavailable on your smartphone.

But Vue makes up for this by offering the largest number of TV Everywhere supported apps. In other words, you can sign into more network-specific apps with your Vue account than with any other service. Oftentimes, these third-party apps have much more content on-demand, including earlier seasons of current shows. This also provides a way to bypass simultaneous viewing restrictions, as most TV Everywhere apps don't count against your cap.

PlayStation Vue is the only app on our list which lets you watch local news and sports away from home. Typically, streaming apps will show you local news and sports based on your location. However, with Vue, if you are away on vacation, you can still watch your local team play on the same channel you would if you were home.

Vue is one of only two apps with unlimited DVR storage. Unfortunately, the recordings will expire after 28 days. Once this occurs, Vue will switch your recorded shows to on-demand versions, removing the ability to fast-forward past commercials.

Vue also supports 60fps, the ideal frame rate for sports watchers. However, the resolution is limited to 720p. Furthermore, unlike every other app, regional sports isn't included in the basic package, requiring you to upgrade to the $45 a month plan. Additionally, Vue is the only app that doesn't have access to Fox Sports Networks, significantly limiting access to local sports.

PlayStation Vue is very much deserving of it fourth place ranking. While there are some advantages, its limitations hold it back from receiving a higher placement. Its price is competitive, but the total number of channels isn't the greatest.

However, with its five simultaneous streams, high TV Everywhere support, and unlimited DVR storage, Vue is definitely an attractive option for larger families.

App 5: Hulu with Live TV: Best Balance

Similar to YouTube TV, Hulu with Live TV uses a one-plan-fits-all strategy. While there are some obvious limitations to this strategy, it does strongly push Hulu to a low price to remain competitive. The result is a service with a competitive price that offers a comparable product to the others app on our list.

One of the strongest features of Hulu is its channel selection. Hulu has the third largest number of important channels. Additionally, its overall channel amount is the second highest of all base tier options and is even higher than Sling TV's most expensive plan.

The base plan includes a DVR with up to 50 hours of storage which never expires. However, you can increase the storage capacity to 200 hours for $14.99. This same add-on, known as the Enhanced Cloud DVR, will also enable the ability to fast-forward commercials (the standard 50 hours doesn't allow this).

Hulu with Live TV is the only service to offer unlimited simultaneous streams. It does require a $14.99 add-on, and the unlimited streams are limited to devices on your home network. However, you do also get three additional streams for tv watching outside the home. To save some money, you can add both add-ons for $20.

However, the most significant advantage of Hulu with Live TV is access to Hulu's streaming library. As a Live TV member, you'll save the $11.99 price of Hulu with No Commercials. Not only does Hulu have a better catalog than most networks' on-demand libraries, but it has several exclusive series not found anywhere else. And if you want to use video-on-demand service, you also have access to that as well.

The reason for Hulu's fifth-place ranking is the fact that it's the worst offering when comparing shared features. For example, Hulu offers three of the four premium channels while three other apps provide all four. While live television streaming from Hulu has been upgraded to support 60fps, it is still stuck at 720p while some of the competition has upgraded to 1080p.

However, don't look past Hulu with Live TV. Not only is it a great app, but it's arguably the best valuet. At $39.99, you get access to Hulu's extensive catalog of videos (including exclusive content) along with live television. While you will probably need to spend the additional $20 for the two add-ons to get the most of the value, this price is still much lower than most cable bills and is contract-free, so you can leave at any time.

Conclusion

DirecTV Now is the best live TV app available for both Android and iOS. No other service offers as many channels on both their cheapest plan and most expensive. Most of the channels you watch will be here, including two of the four main regional sports networks. Furthermore, as cable television channels begin to upgrade their operations, you won't have to wait for your app to upgrade as well, as both 1080p at 60fps and 5.1 surround sound is already supported.

However, if you are looking for the best value, check out Sling TV. While it isn't as feature-packed as others on our list, it does offer a multitude of tiers and add-ons, which means you can potentially save the most money while still getting all of the channels you care about.

What do you think of our list? After reading this article, are you ready to cut the cord? Let us know in the comment section below.

Cover image and screenshots by Jon Knight/Gadget Hacks

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