Cable vs. Satellite TV Service | In-depth Comparison

If both cable TV and satellite TV are available in your neighborhood, congratulations: you have the luxury of choosing between two great options. Of course, that means you do have to choose, and often the differences between cable television and satellite television service get downright confusing. Plus, depending on your needs, one may be a better option than the other.

We’ve broken down the best of the two per category, so whether price is top priority or it’s all about the customer support, we’ve got you covered.

High Definition

WINNER: SATELLITE

High definition is where it’s at. You didn’t stand in line for twelve hours on Black Friday to score a discounted 60” UHD 4K TV set just to watch some fuzzy reruns of Friends. You have standards: high definition standards.

Satellite generally has a better selection of national HD channels, while cable has a better selection of local HD programming, so if you want the best channels in the best quality, go with satellite.

Some HD channels are usually included in even the very basic package offerings. However, desirable movie channels like HBO and Showtime are typically included in more expensive service bundles or are offered as an extra. When you call to set up satellite TV service, see if you can wrangle in some HD movie channels along with your bundle.

Aesthetics

WINNER: CABLE

Cable television requires wiring inside the house from a wireless router to the set-top boxes adjacent to the television sets. Cable also requires a wired connection that begins at a trunk line in a neighborhood (within a mile of a subscriber’s home) and goes into a connection point to your home, typically a small exterior box. The bottom line is this: if you have cable, no one can tell.

With satellite, however, your home will need a dish attached to the roof or side of your home. While dishes can be positioned unobtrusively, they’re still somewhat unsightly. And, because they’re exposed to the elements, you can bet they’re much more likely to be damaged in poor weather (or from a stray baseball).

Paid Content

WINNER: TIE

Both cable and satellite offer a vast array of channels. Premium channels are often offered for free for a limited number of months by both satellite and cable unless a subscriber elects to pay for a premium (read expensive) package. For both mediums, a subscriber can tailor a package that meets all their viewing requirements.

Because the big cable and satellite providers are under continual pressure to deliver programming tailored to customer demand and have to compete with each other, they’re constantly updating their paid content. No matter which option you choose, expect to have thousands upon thousands of available movies and shows available for purchase with your cable or satellite TV subscription.

Channel Selection

WINNER: DEPENDS ON PROVIDER

Satellite is generally stronger for national news and sports, while cable is generally better for local news.

Here’s the deal though: with channel selection, it comes down to provider, not cable versus satellite. For instance, according to our expert picks, DIRECTV scores an 8/10 when it comes to channel selection, but DISH is only a 7. On the other hand, AT&T’s U-verse gets a magical 9, while another provider, Time Warner Cable, only nabs a 5.

We recommend sitting down and making a list of your favorite shows and channels, then making sure that the cable or satellite package you select includes them. It’s not rocket science, but you don’t want to be locked into a contract and suddenly realize you don’t have MTV. Because no one can live without Teen Mom.

Customer Satisfaction

WINNER: CABLE

ASCI (American Customer Satisfaction Index) research from February 2015 found that pay television companies are one of the least-liked services around, with satisfaction rates among subscribers ranging from a dismal 51% (Time Warner Cable) to a borderline respectable 71% (Verizon Fios). Cable and satellite score about equally well, with DIRECTV and DISH outperforming the median for satellite providers, and AT&T U-verse and Verizon Fios outperforming the median for cable companies.However, once again this comes down to

However, once again this comes down to provider, and for the majority of cable providers, they’ve ranked higher than DISH or DIRECTV. Cox, for instance, has a stellar customer service rating (we won’t discuss Charter Spectrum’s score, though; that’s just embarrassing).

Pricing

WINNER: SATELLITE

With pricing and bundling options designed for confusion, choosing between cable and satellite television is a daunting task.

Many cable packages do not require long-term commitments but are more expensive on a monthly basis. For commitment-phobic consumers, a plan that allows someone to opt out at any time would be more appealing than most satellite packages that require a one- or two-year commitment.

On the other hand, satellite tends to provide a better $/channel ratio than cable, and under ideal conditions, satellite HD reception will be better. Both services have tiered package and pricing options.

For bare-bones service—minimum number of channels, no premium (HBO, Showtime, STARZ) channels and no HD—satellite service is generally cheaper than cable. If you’re looking for the absolute cheapest bet, go with DISH. You’ll get the most channels for about $50/month.

Here’s a breakdown of the cheapest package from each carrier:

ProviderPrice per monthNumber of channels
DISH (satellite)$49.99190+
DIRECTV (satellite)$50145+
Comcast XFINITY (cable)$44.99140
Cox (cable)$89155+

Overall Pick

VERDICT: Cable for most customers, but satellite for rural customers.

Cable generally offers more flexibility and requires less equipment to install, along with a wider variety of packages. Cable also doesn’t require customers to commit to longer-term (one or two-year) contracts, so if you want tons of options without the commitment, cable’s your best bet.

For those who live in rural areas where cable is difficult to get, satellite is always available as long as you have a good view of the southern sky. Satellite is also probably the better way to go for tech junkies and national sports fans, especially if you’re not averse to having a dish attached to the outside of your home. Satellite edges cable in signal quality and national sports and news options. On the negative side, satellite is still prone to weather interference and generally requires a longer term commitment.

If you’re ready for a breakdown of the best satellite TV providers, see our full expert review here.

If cable sounds like it’s more your style, head over to the top cable rankings.

Check out our Best Satellite Internet Services of 2017 comparison for details on satellite internet service.

Find the best TV providers in your area.

  • Mel

    This is very helpful. We’re trying to make a decision as we’re out in the boondocks on the Outer Banks in NC, after flooding everywhere w/Matthew has affected cable. We inherited the Charter Spectrum system that came with this house we purchased 3 months ago. Not having any television news for the last 48 hours has been annoying; not happy with their automated CSR’s, eirher. Now weighing the pros and cons because I vote for satellite and hubby votes for cable. I might be swaying him over with this information. Thank you.

    • http://www.reviews.org Scott T.

      You’re welcome! Let us know if have any questions come up. We’d be glad to help.

  • jz100

    I don’t known where you are getting those prices from but Time Warner is a lot more money than that. They also charge for DVR.

    • http://www.reviews.org/ Trevor Wheelwright

      Thanks for the feedback, cable TV service costs vary (sometimes widely) according to location.

  • David

    What about Directv in terms of customer satisfaction?

    Haven’t they been rated #1 in Customer Satisfaction for 16 consecutive years?

  • America Should Be Like Denmark

    I don’t like either cable or satellite. They are both a total waste of money.

    I collect DVDs of classic shows. I have over 9,000 hours of programming in my dvd library. I can watch all the programs I want to anytime I want to without any commercials period. Collecting DVDs is the better way to go without a stupid cable or satellite bill.

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