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How to Watch TV Today

Our guide to get you into streaming

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A report earlier this year from Barclays, a Wall Street investment bank, suggested that more Americans age 50-plus are shifting away from broadcast and cable TV and getting their programs over the internet.
Micha Klootwijk/Alamy

It’s never been easier to cancel your cable or satellite TV service and instead watch sitcoms, dramas, specials, movies, sports and other programs from an internet-delivered service such as Netflix, Hulu, DirecTV Now or YouTube TV.

But that doesn’t mean everyone — especially those uncomfortable with technology — will find it simple.

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How streaming works

Instead of asking a TV provider, such as Comcast or DirecTV, to send you programs via their cable lines or satellite transmissions through a leased set-top box, you can connect a streaming device to your internet service.

Your viewing experience will only be as good as the quality of your internet service, which includes wireless or Wi-Fi connections if you have a home network. They must be fast and reliable, sending strong signals to any place you want to watch your shows. 

If you get a weak link, then you’ll stew over dropped signals, frequent buffering pauses in your programs, pixelated images and garbled audio. You can minimize these problems, but even the best systems stall out from time to time. Remember that all the services and technologies are still young and evolving. 

Picking the right internet service

The first thing you need to know is how fast your internet service should be. Netflix recommends a minimum download speed of 3 megabits per second (mbps) to receive a standard definition video picture on a single device, and 5 mbps for high definition. But, for example, Sony’s PlayStation Vue service wants more: 10 mbps for a single device, plus 5 mbps for each additional device. Internet providers typically price plans based on mbps speed (check with yours on options) so that you have choice in what you buy. 

Go higher if several people in your home use the internet at the same time.

Because of the need for speed, you literally may find it hard to cut the cord from your cable or phone company. Why? Because if you plan to watch a lot of your entertainment choices at home, then you’ll want a wired broadband connection — not a wireless one. And depending on where you live, it probably only will be available from a cable or phone provider. But even they might offer wired broadband options that are too slow for your needs, so (again) be sure to check out the mbps.  

Using your phone to stream

A wireless 4G phone connection will work just fine if you have strong reception and just want to stream videos on a single smartphone or tablet. But be careful. Use them sparingly: Most wireless providers have data caps. Even so-called “unlimited” data plans throttle speeds — making them useless for video — if you use too much. 

To get around that, or if you want to watch in a place with lousy reception — perhaps while traveling on an airplane or camping — you can use your home internet connection to download a video to a mobile device. Major subscription video on demand (SVOD) services — including Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu — allow you to store some of their content on your smartphone or tablet for offline viewing.

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Setting up streaming

Once you’re sure your internet is up to snuff, you have to figure out how to funnel the signal to the device you want to use to watch videos. 

Your internet-delivered video experience on any device — phone, tablet or TV — will revolve around apps, not channels. You are probably already comfortable using apps on your smartphone and tablet, which  are  built for them. Computer browsers also can handle video streams. (Forget about trying to convert a device not designed for video, such as a basic Kindle book reader, into a viewer. It won’t work.)

But the TV might take a little more effort. Your television set needs a device that can connect to the internet, probably via an ethernet cable or Wi-Fi, and store the apps you want. 

Those capabilities might already be built  in to  your set if you have a smart TV. Or you may be able to handle the video streaming chores with a Blu-ray player or a gaming console attached to your set because they can do more than play discs and games.

If you have none of the above, then you can pay anywhere from $35 to more than $100 for a small smart device to make your TV internet-ready. Amazon, Apple, Google, Roku and others offer sticks similar to thumb drives, dongles or boxes that typically plug into the HDMI port on your TV. 

Be sure that your smart device works with the service you want. Some are incompatible. Livestreaming  services are especially picky. For example, Google’s YouTube TV doesn’t yet support smart TVs, gaming platforms or devices from Apple, Amazon and Roku. And Hulu Live just recently added Roku access. 

Once you’re set up with a smart device, make sure it is connected to your TV and use the input function on your remote control to navigate to the streaming service. Instructions on the screen will take you from there.

Don’t be intimidated. It really isn’t that hard. And if you miss the experience of calling for support from your cable company — and having an automated service put you on hold — you can always go back.

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