While most people have modern flat-screen LCD or LED TVs these days, I still get a large number of questions from people who own older tube-type TV’s like the one pictured here.
If you are one of those people, I’ll describe your options for free and cheap TV in this article. Some of these options will require some money up front, but it’s usually less than the cost of one month of cable TV.
But before buying anything, enter your zip code in the Station Finder on the front page of disableMycable.com and make sure the channels you want are available in your area. The available channels are usually the networks, PBS, and some local stations. If most of the channels you want are green, with some yellow, you are probably OK.
Next, you’ll have to get a converter box. This article describes some, or you can check your local Radio Shack. They are about $50.
Finally, you’ll need an antenna. My personal favorite antenna is the Mohu Leaf. Get the cheaper non-amplified version if you have a lot of close stations on the Station Finder. The more expensive amplified version doesn't perform much better unless you live far from all stations. (In full disclosure, I have received free Mohu antennas for review purposes, but I have also received lots of other free antennas that I don't recommend as much).
Connect your converter box to your TV, then your antenna to your converter box. Follow the instructions that came with your converter box, and you’ll be set to watch the broadcast channels in your area.
Tweaking the antenna position to get all of the available channels takes some work. You can follow my tips in this article.
Roku is a small box that allows you to watch content from the Internet on your TV. Some of the content has a monthly fee. Some of it is free. There are tons of channels, but these are not the same as cable TV channels
Roku requires an Internet connection and Wi-Fi. There is no Ethernet connector on the Roku Express+.
Out of the current Roku lineup, only the Roku Express+ 2018 model has composite outputs which will work with old tube TVs. Be sure to get the "Express+", not the "Express", AND, be sure it is the 2018 edition which shows the red, white, and yellow cables on the box. The newer version will NOT work with your tube TV (yes, this is very confusing on Roku's part).
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Competitors such as Apple TV, Chromecast, and Amazon Fire don't have composite output and won't work with your tube TV.
Once you get it hooked up, you’ll be able to subscribe to pay TV services like Netflix and Hulu, or buy shows a la carte on Amazon Instant Video (which is what I do). Check this page for a review of streaming services.
There is also some free content on Roku, but it's not a direct substitute for cable TV in the traditional sense. One of my favorite channels on Roku is YouTube, which is free. If you want local news, check out the free NewsON Roku channel.
I like to use a Roku for occasional paid content along with a broadcast TV antenna to watch the network channels.
If you want the live TV (cable-like) experience, there are many streaming services that offer cable TV channels for less cost than traditional cable. Check out the live TV streaming services on this page, such as Sling TV and YouTube TV.
These require an Internet connection and a streaming player (like Roku, Amazon Fire TV, etc.). The content on these services streams live, just like cable and broadcast TV.
If you want a super low-cost option, and you just need the major networks and local channels (no cable TV channels), check out Locast, at only $5 per month!
Do you have a game console like an Xbox or Sony Playstation? These have the capability to stream Netflix and Hulu, as well as some other video services. Yes, you have to pay for Netflix and Hulu every month, but they are a lot cheaper than cable.
The next option I want to talk about is renting DVDs from your local library. Did you know they have DVDs? Most of them do now. Check your library’s website. You might be surprised at the selection. This is a great option if you really need to save money. This is the DVD section of a local library I visited recently.
Not bad, huh? You can even browse and reserve DVDs online. This library also shows free movies on Wednesday nights. I was surprised at how recent they were - less than 6 months old!
Also, try trading or borrowing DVDs from friends and family. Or, check out used CD/DVD stores, and thrift stores for cheap movies on DVD.
If none of these options are appealing to you, you can try to negotiate with your cable company for a lower rate. I was able to get a lower price if I committed to a one-year contract. That is one tactic. The other is to shop around and threaten to cancel your service or leave for a competitor. These tactics are usually quite effective at getting a discount.
Satellite TV (Dish) is actually pretty cheap for the first year (about $40 per month, as of this writing), and then it goes up like crazy after the first year. But, you can get at least one year of cheaper TV, then cancel when the price goes up. By then, there may be other options.
I know this whole article is about what to do if you have an old tube TV, but the cost of modern flat LCD/plasma TV's are so low that you might want to consider it. You can get a 32" flat-screen TV for less than $200. And, that saves you from having to buy a converter box for $50. The remaining $150 is less than the cost of three months of cable TV (for some people, that is one month of cable!) If you are willing to get a used TV on Craigslist or a thrift store, you can save even more.
I hope these tips have helped! Rather than spend more money on devices that work with your tube TV, you might want to save for a modern flat-screen TV, especially if you are able to get free broadcast TV in your area.
Let me know about your experiences. - Brian
Check out my other site, thefrugalnoodle.com, with ideas on saving money and living simply.