Cutting the Cable: A Practical Look at Streaming TV Quality vs. Cost

To cut the cable (or satellite) or not to cut… that’s the loaded question. Should you switch to streaming TV? Many of us are sick and tired of high-cost comprehensive cable and satellite TV plans. It’s a nasty system, loaded with unnecessary costs because content providers like that sports megalopoly often charges the distributors (cable and satellite companies) for each of their customers, regardless of whether a particular household even subscribes to that content. So, if Shady Cable Unlimited Monopoly Inc. (SCUM) has one million customers, but only 500,000 of them choose the Sportsball Limited Investment Media Enterprises (SLIME) channel, SCUM is likely paying SLIME for all one million regardless. And guess who pays for that? All of us!

And let’s not forget all the inefficiencies inherent in poorly-behaving practical monopolies like those cable companies. They can do enough high-priced damage on our monthly bills even before all those ugly content provider deals come into play. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had precisely one cable option for the 17 years I’ve lived in my current home. I can tell you with certainty I’m not getting any cost-saving benefit from market competition.

Enter Streaming

Seeing opportunity in our frustration, equally big and poorly behaving tech conglomerates have created a new way to watch TV—streaming over the internet.

While cable and satellite use some sort of dedicated pipeline to beam TV shows into our homes, streaming companies send similar show and movie content over a regular old internet connection, just like the information we download from websites, email, games, etc. Sounds nifty, but does it work as well as dedicated TV options like cable and satellite?

A Loose Technical Analogy

If you consider the technical side of things, the promise of streaming being “just as good” as cable (or satellite) seems shaky. With a dedicated cable provider, the provider has the entirety of their cable (or satellite transmission) bandwidth to fill with nothing but the TV show stream going to your home. If you envision the cable from SCUM’s home office to your house being a water hose, nothing else occupies space in there except the “water” (TV shows) delivered by SCUM.

Now, envision that same hose as your internet connection. First, the hoses are all different sizes. Some of us have gigabit connections (large hose), while others have much smaller pipelines, more like a straw. Regardless of the hose size, when we stream, the same amount of video content has to fit through there.

Also, that hose is shared with lots of other internet stuff going on. You know, email, websites, your kids’ video games and online chats, your smart refrigerator talking to the neighbor’s Tesla—that kind of stuff. So, the streaming TV content has to share the available bandwidth with everything else going on.

So, the common sense prediction seems like it may be technically impossible for the absolute video quality of streaming television to equal the quality of a direct delivery system like cable or satellite. Perhaps. How do things pan out in reality?

What You Need

One big benefit of streaming is… no more cable boxes! Skip the monthly rental fees. You can buy (at a reasonable cost) devices to receive live TV broadcasts streaming over your existing internet connection and connect them to your televisions. I’ve been using an Apple TV 4K box in the den and Amazon Firestick 4K devices for the bedrooms, kitchen and backyard when we get motivated to watch by the firepit. Both work pretty well and are easy to learn. My son’s family uses Roku, and it works well for them.

The benefits are numerous. These devices not only receive all sorts of streams (YouTube TV, Hulu, Netflix, HBO, ESPN, Amazon Video and many more), but you own them—no more monthly fees. While the Apple TV was more expensive, I found the Firesticks on sale for about $22 each. Keep an eye out; they are on sale frequently. Most of these devices just tap into WiFi, so no cables are required. The higher-end ones can accept an ethernet cable connection for faster speed and improved reliability if you prefer, but you’ll have to string a wire between your internet router and the device.

Cutting the Cable

I work from home and kinda need a fast and reliable internet plan, so ours is a 1.2GB offering. It works pretty well, considering the idiosyncrasies of cable company reliability. When it works, it is measurably fast.

Being on the higher end of internet speed, I figured we had a safe foundation from which to make the leap from Xfinity cable TV to streaming, so we signed up for a Hulu Live account and lugged all those cable boxes back to the Xfinity store.

How’s Streaming Been Working?

How’d it work? After a few months, I’d give streaming an overall “B” on the report card. It definitely works—most of the time.

It didn’t help the cause when, days after we started, Hulu experienced a massive nationwide disruption. Nothing like watching the same 20 seconds of a football game play, rewind and repeat for hours on end. That was interesting.

Once that was resolved, we had a seemingly never-ending stream of glitches with Hulu. It did work, but there were more little hiccups than I was willing to tolerate, as I was spoiled by the pretty good reliability of cable TV. It was all little stuff, like skips, pauses, sound anomalies, and losing frames during fast-moving video content. That last one was particularly noticeable when watching football. Players running would look just a bit off-kilter from frame loss.

The Hulu glitches actually exposed another major benefit of streaming. Since there’s no proprietary infrastructure (like cable boxes) and services are usually month-to-month, you can switch at a moment’s notice. We switched to YouTube TV as an experiment and found (for us) that it seemed to be more stable with fewer glitches. It’s important to notice your mileage may vary depending on your internet service and the always-evolving technical capabilities of each service. Next week, Hulu may perform better than YouTube TV. Guess what? We don’t care because, in five minutes, we can switch back or to something altogether different should we so choose.

What Are We Saving?

The old cable plan, with our assorted options, came in somewhere around $240 per month. Our revised fast internet-only plan now costs about $110 per month. Our streaming bill is another $75 for the same channel lineup we had under cable. Do that math, and we’re saving about $55 per month. You can certainly save more if you go with a lesser internet plan, and prices vary all over the country, so check your own figures to see exactly how much you’ll save. Then, you can evaluate the quality vs. cost tradeoff analysis that makes you happy.

Parting Shots

For some reason, people are as emotionally invested in their choice of TV providers as their preferred presidential candidate. Asking someone who’s switched to streaming is kind of like asking a Crossfitter about their life. You’re likely to hear nothing but how awesome it is. I suppose we all become invested in our choices.

In my case, I really don’t have a dog in this fight. I simply don’t care who delivers my TV service, but admittedly, I’m a bit snobby about the quality. I want it to work and show a smooth, high-quality picture. As for the price, I’ll decide if the savings warrants the quality I’m getting. If something is way cheaper but has lower quality, I may choose it anyway if the cost is low enough.

The bottom line? We’re keeping streaming TV… for now. What will the future bring? Who knows? I do enjoy saying the $50+ per month, but I’d be lying if I said streaming offered the same picture quality and reliability as cable. It’s not as good. But it is cheaper. Your mileage may vary, but that’s been our experience. So far.

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