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.
Overall, cable provides more flexibility, requires less equipment to install and typically has a wider variety of packages. However, satellite is best if you live in a rural area. Satellite is also a better choice for tech junkies and national sports fans.
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.
Before we get started, though, sometimes it’s best to know all the options available in your area. Plug your ZIP code in below to find out.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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% to a borderline respectable 71%. 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.
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 $59.99/month.
Here’s a breakdown of the cheapest package from each carrier:
Cheapest package from each carrier
|Service||Plan||Price||TV channel count||View plan|
|DISH TV||America's Top 120||$59.99/mo.*||190||View Plans|
|DIRECTV TV||SELECT™ All Included||$35/mo.†||155+||View Plan|
|Xfinity TV - West||Digital Starter||$49.99/mo.‡||140+||View Plan|
|Cox TV||TV Starter||$25/mo.^||75+||View Plan|
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.