Cable vs. Streaming: What's the Difference?

Is it time for you to cut the cord?

When trying to decide between video services, it’s likely you’ll come to a decision between services including cable television and various streaming services. We’ll break down the differences between them to help you find the best way to entertain you and your family.

In the below section we'll be comparing cable providers, such as Comcast or Spectrum, to the streaming providers most similar to them. These include services like Sling, Hulu with Live TV, and YouTube TV. It won't include standalone services that only show their own content, such as Netflix or HBO (although premium channels like HBO may be part of the overall offerings).

Overall Findings

Cable Overall Findings
  • More expensive, but with more content.

  • Provider selection limited by area.

  • Requires dedicated set-top boxes.

  • Broadcast content independent of Internet.

  • Some discounts available with bundles.

Streaming Overall Findings
  • Less expensive, but still provides must-have content.

  • Full selection of providers anywhere there's Internet.

  • Supported by a variety of different devices.

  • Dependent on a quality Internet connection.

  • Premium add-ons available for an additional cost.

While both cable television and video streaming services provide the same result (entertaining video on your screen), the way they do so is significantly different. Cable providers broadcast video content along their dedicated networks, and have long-standing relationships with content providers. The pay television industry was built on this structure, and the product you receive reflects that. Cable television is typically more reliable and provides more content, at the (literal) cost of being more expensive.

Streaming providers on the other hand are newcomers to the video market, and aren't bound by the same rules. They can offer their services nationwide, and you can use their services with a variety of devices. They aren't bound to legacy infrastructure, which is both a blessing and a curse. They can deliver over any Internet connection, but they are also completely dependent on that connection, and don't have any control over its quality. They typically offer cheaper plans, although they contain fewer channels.

Content Selection: Cable Has More, but Streaming Should Satisfy

Watching a Variety of Video Channels
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Cable
  • Generally offers more channels.

  • Likely all channel variants are available.

  • Premium channels available for upcharge.

  • Premium music channels available.

Streaming
  • Offers most of the major channels.

  • Main channel variants available.

  • Some premium channels may be available as add-ons.

We’ll cut right to the chase… when it comes to content availability, cable still has it over most streaming services. Their range of channels usually numbers in the hundreds, and in particular, will contain most (if not all) of the 'variant' channels for networks like sports. But this is also why you pay so much for cable. Their ability to bring you content is based on package agreements with major content networks, and although these may cost less on a per-channel basis, you don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing.

On the other hand, streaming services offer less in terms of overall number of channels. However, they will likely include all the main channels most viewers will need. For example, the Big 4 networks will all be present, as will popular cable channels. Unless you watch a very wide variety of channels or there’s something unique on your must-have list, most streaming services will have what you want.

In the above context, cable channel refers to channels that are not broadcast over-the-air. For example, while most television markets have a local station that broadcasts NBC, there are none that broadcast HGTV. These types of channels were originally only available on cable, which lent its name to them before competition from satellite providers.

Service Availability: Free Choice With Streaming, Not So With Cable

Transmission Throughout a City
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Cable
  • Still largely a monopoly industry structure

  • Smaller providers have largely consolidated to form a few big players

  • Some competitive providers exist, but incumbents have the upper hand

Streaming
  • No restrictions on service based on location

  • Both new and established technology companies have offerings

  • More companies are joining the streaming segment all the time

If you’re considering cable service, chances are you won’t have to do much company research. The original structure for the cable industry was that of a monopoly. Each cable provider had an exclusive license to provide service in exchange for building the network for a particular geographic area. Changes in the industry since have allowed some competitive providers to compete (RCN Cable is an example). But chances are the number of these competitors is small. 

In contrast, streaming service providers offer service nationwide. Your access to, say, Hulu or Sling won’t be limited based on where you live, as long as you can get good Internet service. However, you may be limited in how many devices can stream from a particular service at a time.

Content Transmission Technology: Cable Generally Reliable, While Streaming Is Dependent on Internet

Signal from a Broadcasting Tower
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Cable
  • Broadcast medium, all content is live.

  • Requires a set-top device from the provider.

  • Video service may be available in the event of Internet outage.

  • Set-top devices can mimic “on-demand” features like pause/rewind.

Streaming
  • Content is sent on-demand to each device.

  • Usable on any supported Internet-connected device.

  • Dependent on Internet to receive content.

Streaming video services do exactly what the name implies. You make a request, and the provider sends you the video content then and there, using your Internet connection. This brings a number of advantages. One of these is portability, or the ability watch the service on any supported Internet device (including computers, iOS/Android tablets or phones, and game consoles).

Another is mobility, meaning you can watch anywhere you have Internet access. This also means you can easily pause or rewind your programming, even if it’s being streamed live. It also means your experience is totally dependent on the quality of your Internet. 

Cable is a broadcast medium, in the same way that local television systems send video over the airwaves. Now, cable uses copper wire instead of signals, and has long since upgraded from analog to digital. But the basic idea is still the same. As a result, all content is effectively live.

Now, if you get up for a snack and miss something, most modern cable boxes can mimic features like pause/rewind by recording your current program automatically. But to what extent depends on the carrier, and this will reset if you change the channel. Speaking of which, you’ll need a set-top box from your provider to use their service. 

Price & Contracts: Streaming Likely Provides What You Need for Less

Online Bill Pay
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Cable
  • Entry level tiers are more expensive, but contain more content.

  • Multiple channel tiers and premium channels are available.

  • Additional costs may include advanced set-top boxes.

  • Discounts may be available by combining with Internet/phone service.

  • Typically requires a one-year contract, which may come with a discount.

Streaming
  • Basic-level streaming service is cheaper, but provides fewer channels.

  • Most streaming services have fewer packages to select.

  • Premium channels may be available as add-ons.

  • No contracts.

As you might guess from the previous sections, the bottom line here (no pun intended) is that cable is more expensive than streaming. The amount on your bill will be more with cable unless you get the very most threadbare plan (for example, the author’s local cable provider offers a package including Internet for $42.49/mo).

To a certain extent you are getting what you pay for, in terms of more channels. But this number may go up if you select a super-capable DVR box, or down if you combine with other services such as Internet or phone. Be aware however that your bill will commonly go up after the first year as your contract expires, along with your promotional pricing.

You can count on a much looser agreement with streaming providers though. Plans are typically month-to-month affairs, which can be cancelled online and will automatically terminate before your next bill date. And as mentioned above, streaming providers don’t typically have tiers as expensive as the ones from cable companies. Just make sure all your must-have channels are available to stream.

The Final Verdict

There are a couple considerations when making this decision. Technologically both are relatively equal. For example, though streaming providers are probably more flexible in terms of which devices you can use, many cable providers also offer dedicated apps for watching video. Cable boxes also perform many of the same functions streamers will be accustomed to, such as DVR functionality and pause/rewind live TV, though they do so in slightly different ways.

But you really have little to lose by at least trying streaming first. There’s no extra equipment to buy, and if you don’t like the service you’re getting, you can be done with it at the end of 30 days (or try a different provider).

That said, there are two specific situations where you should take a hard look at cable. The first is if the Internet in your area is low-quality, which means your streaming will always be blocky and/or buffering. The second is if there will be a large number of people in your household watching different things at the same time. Even if your streaming providers don’t restrict it, all that Internet throughput may be too much for your home network to handle.