Tale of the tape: What's the best video streaming service?

Youtube TV, Hulu, Netflix, and Sling TV fight for your eyeballs.

Is your cable TV bill too damn high? Or maybe you don't have cable but want to watch the cool new shows. Well, you can find solid alternatives to cable these days, and we're not just talking about Netflix (Android, iOS). With a collection of video apps on your smart TV or with an inexpensive streaming hardware hooked up to it, you can watch, pause, and record live channels and wade in an ocean of live and on-demand video. In fact, there's so much to choose from now that you probably need a guide just like this one to figure out what you should try.

Caveat: There is no do-everything service (yet)

We're not gonna lie, cable TV still isn't easily replaceable. But we're getting close. If you're willing to subscribe to more than one streaming service, and you can live without a few channels or TV shows, then you can stitch together a small collection of apps that get you much of what you give up with cable -- most likely for less money.

The best live TV streaming service: Sling TV (Android, iOS)

Sling isn't as clear of a winner as we would like. Its new DVR features are still rolling out to users; live local channels (from ABC, NBC, Fox, and so on) are limited to select markets; and it doesn't carry CBS. But starting at $20 a month, it's arguably the best streaming value. Sling offers a 7-day free trial, and you get major channels like AMC, CNN, and Comedy Central. And Sling may be the best value for live sports as well, with ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPN3 in the base package, and Fox, NBC regional sports channels, and the NFL Network available as add-ons. While the base tier limits you to one stream, other packages lets you stream to three devices at once.

sling tv channel slice

PlayStation Vue (Android, iOS) comes in a close second -- with its generous DVR features and larger pile of channels -- but it costs more. The basic service starts at $40 a month if your area qualifies for local channels and goes up to $75. And while you can stream on up to five different devices at once, there's a complex set of rules depending on if you're using a mobile device, PlayStation console, or a streaming box like a Roku or Apple TV.

Hulu's live TV service is in beta -- and the company says to intends to expand the service -- so let's give you a quick intro:

You can access the beta within the regular Hulu app, if your device is compatible. Hulu offers a 7-day free trial, with a basic subscription costing $40 a month. As part of the package, you get access to all of Hulu's on-demand catalog in addition to live TV. If you want live TV and no commercials in the on-demand content, that's another $4 a month.

"On-demand" doesn't cover whatever live TV that you tag for DVR recording -- that still gets commercials, and you can't skip through those unless you pay an additional $15 a month, which also expands your DVR from 50 hours to 200. Interestingly, Hulu does not mention any expiration on these recordings, so it apparently works like the DVR that you'd get from your cable company. You can stream Hulu's live TV to up to two devices at once, or pay an additional $15 a month for unlimited streaming at home -- and up to 3 devices "on the go," which means a device that's not connected to your home network but still lies within Hulu's regional service area for live TV.

Since Hulu's new service is still in beta, and its pricing scheme is a little complicated, we're sticking with Sling TV for our recommendation, for now.

DirecTV Now is also worth considering, but you need to spend $50 a month to add regional sports networks, whereas Sling TV bundles that at half the cost.

Best DVR system: YouTube TV (Android, iOS)

First, why not pick YouTube TV as the best for live TV? Sure, it excels at search, has a broad selection of sports channels, and is a value at $35 a month, for up to five users per household and up to three simultaneous streams. You can tune through your browser or the mobile app, but it's streamable to your TV just through Chromecast. (If you need Google's streaming hardware, the company will send you one for free after you pay your first month's subscription.) And it's available in just a handful of major markets. Right now, YouTube TV comes with too many caveats to be recommendable.

youtube tv

That said, we have to give Google props for keeping your DVR'd episodes for nine months, whereas Vue holds them for only 28 days. Once you've tagged a show to be recorded, YouTube TV will automatically add future episodes to your DVR library, and it frequently offers an on-demand library of past episodes (the largest of the services that we tested, in fact) to help you get caught up. Google also currently offers a generous 30-day trial, while Sling TV gives you seven days and Vue gives you just five.

The best complement to live TV streaming: Hulu (Android, iOS)

Netflix and Hulu are the biggest players in on-demand video. They're very similar on the surface, but Hulu pulls in much more recent TV content. Netflix has to wait until a show is out on DVD or Blu-ray before it's cheap enough to add, while Hulu can give you an episode that's only a few days old (and they're working on releasing their own live TV streaming service this year).

hulu mobile screenshot

Netflix is still definitely worth trying because of original content like Stranger Things and House of Cards, and it does have third-party shows and movies that Hulu does not. However, we do recommend Hulu's $12 a month tier, which completely removes ads. It's a separate $4 charge that you can add or remove at any time. The ads and the slight premium over Netflix are the price you pay for getting access to recent TV episodes. And Hulu limits your account to one stream at a time (Netflix does 2-4 streams, depending on your subscription level). But Hulu does have one of the most accurate recommendation systems out there.

Amazon Prime Video (Android , iOS) is bundled with a Amazon Prime subscription (Android, iOS) or available separately for $9 a month, and it has great original content like Sneaky Pete and Bosch. But you have to know exactly what you're looking for, because browsing navigation is sub-par; there isn't as much organization, and the recommendations aren't as accurate. Since Netflix and Hulu also have larger libraries, it's hard to argue for Amazon Prime Video as a separate monthly subscription, but it's a valuable add-on to the $99 annual Amazon Prime service.

The best streaming device: Roku Streaming Stick

There are devices like it, but none have the Roku Stick's combination of service compatibility, remote-control functionality, and excellent companion mobile app (Android, iOS). We also prefer the sticks over Roku's streaming boxes because the sticks don't require a video cable and can slide into a pants pocket (though the AC adapter may be more of a challenge). You don't get the Ethernet or USB ports of the boxes, but they're that much cheaper at $49 and more portable.

roku mobile screenshot

Runner-up: Chromecast. At $35, the Chromecast is a great value. It has almost all of the usual on-demand streaming services (Amazon being the most noticeable absence), and it's the flagship device for YouTube TV. And you can easily mirror content in the Google Chrome web browser (Windows , Mac, Android, iOS) onto your TV screen.

plugging in chromecast streaming device

The downside is that there is no remote control. Instead, you use an app on your phone or tablet (Android, iOS) to navigate content. This is arguably better for discovering new things to watch, but it can be clunky when you just want to pause, fast forward, or rewind something.

About Tom McNamara

Tom is the senior editor covering Windows at Download.com.