How to watch TV on a computer, even if it’s live

Turn your laptop into a mobile television set.
A young woman reclining on a gray couch, smiling as she watches TV on a silver laptop on the table in front of her.
Forget a separate device—you can stream live TV on your laptop. Depositphotos

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As television shows become available online, there’s less of a need to watch your favorites on a set schedule. But if you choose to cut the cord entirely, you’ll miss out on live channels, such as news and sports. Luckily, you can still watch live TV 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 snag 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 computer screen. Then you can click through your options.

Once you’ve finished installation, the bundled software will help you receive channels, browse 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, $40 a year, or $120 for lifetime access. Plex also has a handy “discover” feature that lets you track down anything you want to watch.

Buying a tuner

When you go shopping for tuner hardware, first look for compatibility with your computer’s operating system. 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 ($80 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.

Buying an antenna

If you’ve already wired your home with a TV antenna, you can connect it to your new tuner and be good to go. If not, you’ll 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’ll just have to buy the hardware and try it out, so make sure the seller has a good returns policy, in case the reception is poor. If you live in a place where structures are few and far between, you may also want to check out our review team’s roundup of the best TV antennas for rural areas.

One of our favorite options is the Mohu Leaf Supreme Pro ($70 on Amazon), which boasts a sleek-looking design and a 65-mile range. Because it’s multi-directional, you don’t need to point it in a specific direction, so you can lay it flat or mount it to a wall. It’s meant to be used indoors, but it works great wherever you put it.

[Related: The best TV antennas]

Another choice we’d recommend is the 1byone Digital Amplified Indoor HDTV Antenna ($18 on Amazon), which is cheaper than the Mohu but has a smaller range—it only connects to transmission towers within 50 miles.

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.

Stream channels online

Don’t want to buy new hardware? You can still watch live TV through your web browser. While services like Netflix 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, 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 shows live only if you have a Paramount Plus subscription, which costs $6 per month and still includes ads.

Monthly online TV services

To get more than one channel at once, including premium options, you’ll 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 has two plans that contain different stations but doesn’t focus on local ones. 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 the TV channels you want to watch. Here’s some more information that should help you choose.

Hulu offers four plans that include live TV, and the cheapest is $75.99 a month, but it does not allow you to access Hulu’s regular on-demand library—it’s live stuff only. You can spend $1 more ($76.99 per month) to add access to Hulu’s streaming library, Disney Plus, and ESPN Plus, all with ads. You can also pay more for additional features, such as premium channels like Showtime and Max (formerly HBO).

[Related: Watch anything you want without signing up for every streaming service]

With a slightly lower price of of $72.99 a month, YouTube TV offers access to more than 100 live channels, but you will need to enter your ZIP code to see what’s available in your area. For an additional $2 to $30 a month, you can bolt on extra ones, including NFL RedZone and Showtime. 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.

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 $40 a month for a pack of 32 channels, and you can increase your subscription fee to add more. You can watch on a variety of devices besides your computer, 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.

Cable subscriptions

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 250 channels. Just navigate to the Xfinity Stream site, log in with your credentials, and start watching. DirecTV offers similar services, and you can access it through a web browser.

This story has been updated. It was originally published in 2019.