If you don't want to be tied down to an expensive cable TV package, you have plenty of choices. Netflix offers a huge catalog of movies, TV shows, and original programming, with Amazon and other tech companies rushing to catch up with original programming of their own. Services from Hulu, YouTube, AT&T, and Sony offer tons of live channels. Premium networks like HBO, Showtime and Starz can all be bought as stand-alone packages. You can even get decent sports coverage with subscriptions directly from your favorite professional sports league.
But there's one big problem with this slew of streaming services: they can be pricey, too. Many stand-alone services run about $15 per month, and cable replacement packages featuring a bundle of on-demand channels typically run $40 or more per month. (And prices are rising: DirecTV Now, PlayStation Vue and SlingTV have all recently bumped prices by $5/month.) If you subscribe to several services — which you might need to replace a traditional cable plan — you could be paying just as much as you were for cable. While streaming services can be convenient, with easy access to on-demand content and live programming from anywhere, today you'll get the same access with most cable packages.
Fortunately, there's another option for budget-minded shoppers: "skinny" streaming bundles that offer a limited number of channels for a budget-friendly price. These bundles usually include plenty of the major cable networks you want to watch — but they often skimp on sports and local programming that make other services so expensive. Services can be a bit feature-light, too, only letting you stream to one device at a time and not offering DVR services for programming you can't watch on demand.
Still, these packages can be perfect for viewers who don't need every channel — and if sports or local programming are must-haves, there are workarounds. So is a skinny bundle the right streaming choice for you? Let's take a look at the best streaming services you can get for $25 or less per month.
Price: $15/month, bundled with some high-end AT&T wireless plans
Number of channels: 31, with six more to be added soon
AT&T already offers DirecTV Now, which offers 60 live channels for a fairly modest $40/month price. However, the just-introduced WatchTV is currently the cheapest streaming option on the market, offering half the channels for less than half the price. For those who use AT&T as a wireless provider, the service is included with some unlimited plans, which may or may not be worth it depending on your needs.
The service includes some notable cable networks, like AMC, BBC America, Cartoon Network, CNN, Discovery, HGTV, TCM and TBS, with Comedy Central and kid-friendly Nicktoons and TeenNick coming soon. Also convenient is the fact that you can watch on most devices, with support for iOS and Android devices, as well as Apple TV, Fire TV and web-based streaming. (Roku, however, is notably absent.)
But despite a pretty solid set of features, WatchTV is missing some important pieces. It lacks some key programming, like Disney channels, local channels and sports programming. It also doesn't offer any kind of DVR, so if whatever you want to watch isn't available on-demand — and not everything is — you have to watch it live or not watch it at all. It can also only stream to one device at a time, which makes it a poor choice for families that might want to watch multiple shows at once.
If you can handle the downsides, though, WatchTV is a great bargain.
Philo and Philo Plus
Price: $16/month for Philo, $20/month for Philo Plus
Number of channels: 40 for Philo, 49 for Philo Plus
Until WatchTV came along, Philo was the best budget pick out there — and it still offers stiff competition for WatchTV. For just $1 more, the basic Philo package offers most of the same channels and includes a few extras like Science, Travel Channel and TV Land. However, it misses some popular channels like CNN, Cartoon Network, TBS and TCM. Philo Plus adds an extra nine channels, but no huge draws. (See the full channel lineup for a complete list.) And like WatchTV, it's missing Disney, local programming and sports. It's limited by the devices it can stream to, with only iOS and Android devices, Roku and web-based streaming supported currently (though Apple TV and Fire TV should be coming this summer.)
However, Philo has some notable advantages. A cloud DVR will record as much as you'd like (though it will only store it for 30 days) and you can watch on up to three devices at once. Both features add a lot of convenience, which could make it the perfect choice despite a less than stellar channel lineup.
Sling TV Orange
Number of channels: 29
Though Sling TV's Orange plan offers the smallest selection of channels for the highest price, it may offer more of the channels you want. It's the only budget-friendly service that includes ESPN (as well as ESPN2 and ESPN3) as well as the Disney Channel. On top of that, it has network staples like AMC, CNN, Comedy Central, Cartoon Network and more. You can also boost its channel offerings for an additional cost. Add-on channel packages for $5 each can give you more kids, sports or news programming, so you can tailor the plan to your interests — but be careful, because this can make the cost balloon.
The service also offers more ways to watch than the competition, supporting iOS and Android devices, as well as Apple TV, Android TV, Chromecast, Fire TV, web-based streaming and a number of smart TVs. That's convenient since the other streaming services keep their options rather limited.
But it has downsides, too. It only lets you stream to one device at a time and DVR service is only available for an extra $5 (for 50 hours of storage). Still, the just-right channel lineup may be perfect for you — even if you have to add an extra $5 (or $10) to get all the channels you want.
Cable TV Replacements for $25 or Less
|AT&T Watch TV||Sling TV Orange||Philo||Philo Plus|
|Price per month||$15||$25||$16||$20|
|Number of Channels||31||30||37||46|
|Sports Channels||No||Yes, ESPN||No||No|
|DVR||No||Yes, for $5 per month||Yes||Yes|
|Number of Device Streams||1||1||3||3|
What if I really need sports or local programming?
Streaming services that offer local programming can be pretty pricey, but you can access local programming easily with an HD antenna. These affordable gadgets are simple to set up, and there are no big rabbit ears to fiddle with. In fact, most of these antennas are slim panels that mount on an indoor wall. The only hard part is finding the best place to install it — after that, all you have to do is plug them into your TV to enjoy all of your local channels.
Our favorites are the Mohu Leaf 30 ($39.95 on GoMohu.com, (check price on Amazon), which will pick up stations up to 30 miles away and the Mohu Blade (currently on sale for $39.95 on GoMohu.com, check price on Amazon) which has a larger 40-mile range. The Mohu Leaf is paper thin and can be hung and painted to match your walls. The Mohu Blade can be mounted below your TV, like a soundbar or placed on a tabletop. Just bear in mind that if you're particularly far from town, you may need something stronger. Check the FCC's reception map to see which channels you'll likely be able to pick up.
[Image credit: couple watching TV via BigStockPhoto, AT&T. Philo, SlingTV]