As television shows become available online, audiences are no longer watching their favorites on a set schedule. But if you choose to cut the cord entirely, you'll miss out on live TV, such as news and sports. Luckily, you can still view live television on your computer. You have two options: Plug a TV tuner device, which catches broadcasts like an antenna does, into a USB port, or stream shows through your web browser.
Plug in a TV tuner
Network channels, including NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, PBS, and local stations, air for free. All you need to watch them is an antenna to catch the broadcasts and a device to share them with your computer. The latter, called a TV tuner, can come in the form of a dongle or a larger box that plugs into any spare USB port.
Tuners come with bundled software that helps you navigate. When you're getting started, these built-in applications will install the necessary drivers, scan for available channels, and display them on your laptop screen. Then you can click through your options.
Once you've finished installation, the bundled software also helps you receive channels, browse through program guides, and make recordings. However, you can also download alternative applications, such as Kodi and Plex, to do the same tasks. Kodi is free but has a slightly more complicated setup, while Plex has a simpler process but requires a Plex Pass subscription that costs $5 per month or $40 per year.
Buying a tuner
When you go shopping for tuner hardware, first look for compatibility with your computer's operating system, Windows or macOS. Also consider whether the device includes extras like a bundled remote control. If you choose a model that comes with two or more integrated tuners, you'll be able to record one channel while watching another, record two shows at once, or create a picture-in-picture effect with two channels.
We'd recommend the Hauppauge WinTV-DualHD ($65 on Amazon), though it only works with Windows machines. It includes two tuners, which lets you view or record two shows at once. Once you plug it into a spare USB port, the supplied software will take over, which makes the setup process extremely easy.
We also like the more expensive, but more versatile, SiliconDust HDHomeRun Connect Duo ($100 on Amazon). It works with both Windows and macOS devices—in fact, it can share live television with other devices as well. Instead of plugging it into a USB port directly, you link it to your router or home Wi-Fi, and then your computer can access it by connecting to the same wireless network. Thanks to this Wi-Fi connection, the HDHomeRun can beam free-to-air TV signals to any wireless device, from game consoles to smartphones. Like the WinTV, it includes two tuners to let you watch and/or record two channels at once.
Buying an antenna
If you've already wired your home with a TV antenna, then you can connect it to your new tuner and be good to go. If not, you need to purchase an antenna to catch the TV signals flying through the air. Unfortunately there's no easy way to figure out how many channels an antenna will catch—many factors make a difference, including the presence of surrounding buildings and nearby hills, and the distance between your home and the closest tower. You just have to buy the hardware and try it out, so make sure that the seller has a good returns policy, in case the reception is poor.
One of our favorite options is the Mohu Curve 50 ($70 on Amazon), which boasts a sleek-looking design and a 60-mile range. Because it's multi-directional, you don't need to point it in a specific direction, so you can lay it flat, stand it up, or mount it to a wall. In other words, it works great wherever you put it.
Another choice we'd recommend is the HD Frequency Cable Cutter Metro ($24 on Amazon), which is cheaper than the Mohu but has a smaller range: It only connects to transmission towers within 25 miles. It's also fussier about where and how you position it, although you can place it either horizontally or vertically and even mount it outside (and run the cable into the room where you plan to watch).
Once you've purchased your new gear, connect the antenna to the tuner, then the tuner to your laptop. Finally, download the free installer software (if necessary) and launch the application. It will walk you through the process of bringing up live TV channels on your laptop.
Don't want to buy new hardware? You can still watch live TV through your web browser. While services like Netflix and iTunes focus on on-demand programs, other services include a live component so you can watch broadcasts—such as sports—as they happen.
If you're only interested in watching a few channels in particular, then head to the websites for those companies. Many of them—including ABC, Fox, and NBC—let you stream directly from their sites. However, there's a catch: Different channels have different rules, and some require that you already have a TV provider or similar subscription (you have to sign in to confirm those credentials before watching). For example, you can watch CBS live only if you have a CBS All Access subscription, which costs $6 per month and still includes ads.
To get more than one channel at once, including premium options, you need to subscribe to a monthly service like Hulu Live TV, YouTube TV, or Sling TV. All of these options provide a strong connection and easy setup, but they differ in the channels they offer. For example, YouTube TV doesn't have a great spread of sports channels, while Sling TV lacks many local free-to-air stations. Before you invest in any subscription, test out that service's free trial (they all offer one) to get a feel for the experience and make sure it includes your favorite channels. Here's some more information that should help you choose.
For $40 per month, Hulu Live TV provides access to Hulu's regular on-demand library, as well as more than 50 live channels. The exact mix depends on your location, so enter your zip code here to see which live content you would receive. You can also pay more for additional features, such as 200 hours of cloud DVR recording (an extra $15 per month) or premium channels like Showtime and HBO (an additional $9 to $15 a month). As a default, you can only use Hulu Live TV on one computer, but another $15 per month lets you access your stream on more devices.
With the same price point of $40 a month, YouTube TV offers access to more than 50 live channels, and for an additional $5 to $11 a month, you can bolt on extra ones, including Fox Soccer Plus and Showtime. The service is not available in all locations, but you can use it in more than 90 U.S. cities—find a full list of them here. Unlike Hulu, YouTube lets you tune in on a variety of devices, from phones to laptops, without requiring an extra fee. It also gives you an unlimited amount of free cloud DVR storage, so you can record as much content as you want and store it on YouTube's servers for up to 9 months after the broadcast date.
Sling TV focuses on premium cable channels rather than local networks like ABC, CBS, and Fox, although you may be able to get some local channels, depending on your area. Prices start at $20 a month for a pack of 30 channels, and you can increase your subscription fee to add more. You can watch on a variety of devices besides your laptop, including a smartphone or an Apple TV. Sling also offers a cloud DVR service, but you'll have to pay an additional $5 a month to save recordings in the cloud.
If you already pay for a cable subscription, this may be the easiest way to tune into live television on your computer. All you need are your username and password.
Take Comcast's Xfinity Stream service. It gives subscribers access to more than 200 channels. Just navigate to the Xfinity Stream site, log in with your credentials, and start watching. However, this will only work when you're on your home Wi-Fi network, so you won't be able to carry your television access on vacation, for instance.
DirecTV offers similar services. Here are the official instructions for accessing it through a web browser. In this case, it lets you watch live and on-demand television outside of the home too.