Cable vs. Satellite: Which Is Really Better?

remote control

Remote control | Source: Thinkstock

Cable or satellite? It’s a modern dilemma, and either technology has its advantages and disadvantages — and in some cases, neither is good. But we’re not here to talk up both of them equally or tell you to “cut the cord.” If you’re not ready to hedge your entertainment needs on streaming video and the web, here’s The Cheat Sheet’s winner-takes-all battle matching cable against satellite.

How we’ll judge

We’ll pit the technologies against each other on five different features: picture and service quality, choice of programming, versatility, internet services, and most importantly price. On each topic, we’ll list the advantages and disadvantages of each to produce a winner. Whomever gets the most “wins” out of these five sections will be proclaimed the better option.

A quick note before we start: We’ll try to keep things as generic as possible. While there are only two satellite television services — DirecTV and Dish Network — there are hundreds if not thousands of cable operators. This means that not all cable operators will be created equal, and your local cable operator may be better or worse than our baseline.

Our suggestion? When choosing for yourself, be sure to do a little research before making a decision. You may find that your local cable provider might offer more than we say here.

Picture and service quality

remote control

Remote control | Source: Thinkstock

One of the most important aspects of choosing between cable or satellite is picture quality. Almost everyone these days owns an HDTV, so it no longer comes down to standard versus high definition. Now we talk about resolution — whether it be 720p, 1080p, or even 4K HD.

In many cases, the resolution capabilities of our televisions actually exceed the resolution in which cable and satellite is transmitted. There are some key differences that you will need to be aware of, though.

Cable television has to contend with the constraints of the coaxial cable it’s sent over. This means that your cable provider has to factor this in when determining what resolution to use. HD is broadcast at 720p, and in some cases compressed even further due to bandwidth concerns, ABCNews reports. This may mean less-than-HD picture quality in some situations.

On the other hand, satellite does not have the same issues when it comes to bandwidth, although it too has some bandwidth limits (but not to the extent of cable). Most of the high definition programming is in 1080p, while some channels may be broadcast at lower resolutions and/or compressed like cable TV. Both Dish and DirecTV are also experimenting with 4K, something that cable technology just isn’t able to do because of its limitations.

There is one issue you need to be aware of that might give you trouble if you should select satellite. From time to time, satellite can experience signal quality issues, and even dropouts. While rare, it mainly occurs during inclement weather. In simple terms, the satellite signal is reflected off of precipitation, and insufficient signal makes it to your dish. It should only last for brief periods of time though, and only when precipitation (especially rain) is very heavy.

Advantage: satellite

men watching TV

Men watching TV | Source: Thinkstock

Programming choice

Unlike picture quality — where the strengths of either platform shine through — the subject of programming choice is a little harder to judge between. Both types of service have access to the same channels as the other does, save for their own in-house produced networks.

It’s also here where you’ll see the greatest variability. Since satellite is a nationwide service, the programming offerings are the same from coast to coast. Cable programming offerings are a bit more variable, although Best Buy says in almost all cases the programming options don’t differ much from what you’d get with satellite.

There is one big point to remember: cable companies have a near monopoly on sports programming in some markets, with Philadelphia the best example. Comcast has ownership stakes in several sports franchises, including the Phillies and Sixers. As a result, games are broadcast on Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia, which is not made available to satellite providers or other competing services. It’s even the subject of suits and FCC complaints.

Our call? It’s going to depend on where you live, but in many cases there’s not much difference between the two.

Advantage: draw

Satellite tv dish directv

Dish and DirecTV satellite dishes | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Versatility

We move around a lot by human nature, so having some type of flexibility and versatility is always a good thing. We can clearly proclaim a winner between satellite and cable, as one technology clearly is a lot more versatile than the other.

With cable, the transmission lines run directly to your house from your cable provider. If you’re planning to move, in all likelihood you won’t be able to take your equipment with you. Comcast does mention in its own support documents that you may need to get new boxes when you move, and that’s only if you’re moving into another Comcast-served area. If you’re not, you’ll have to cancel service and sign up with your new company when you arrive at your new home.

Satellite doesn’t have this problem. Nationwide, the company’s boxes are the same. All you need to do is call your service provider, and they’ll install a new dish at your home as long as it has a clear view of the southern sky. While some disagree that it’s an easy process, it still is far simpler than cable.

Advantage: satellite

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Using a laptop | Source: Thinkstock

Internet

Both cable and satellite providers realize that consumers usually bundle their internet service, so you’ll typically be offered an internet option at signup. Again, we see a clear winner in one service over another because only one of these technologies can deliver internet access in a fast manner over the same technology used to deliver your television programming.

With satellite, your dish can only receive television programming: If you want internet access via satellite, a separate dish is required. Both DirecTV and Dish offer an internet option, but it’s DSL offered through a third party. DSL on average is going to be a much slower internet connection, so cable is the better option in most cases.

You also don’t need any separate lines run into your home, as the modem connects to your pre existing cable lines. It’s a much easier setup, and faster speeds, too. We think cable wins thoroughly here.

Advantage: cable

money

Money | Source: Thinkstock

Pricing

We’re all budget conscious for the most part, so pricing in the end is going to play a big part in our decision making. With the cable and satellite battle, it’s a bit difficult to compare the two thanks to some gimmicky pricing offers, especially from the satellite providers.

Here’s also an area where there’s going to be a good deal of variability, so we looked at package prices from four cities around the country — New York, Chicago, Detroit and San Francisco — and got an average. We’re also using Comcast since they’re the largest provider, but do note your mileage may vary, and be sure to check with your local provider to confirm local pricing if you aren’t served by Comcast. Also, these prices do not include any internet service, which generally adds $50 to $60 per month to your bill depending on local pricing.

Starting with DirecTV’s packages, there are six to choose from and a discount is provided for the first year. Basic with 145 channels is $20 monthly ($52/month undiscounted), Entertainment with 150 channels for $25/month ($62/month), Choice with 175 channels for $30/month ($75/month), Xtra with 220 channels for $35/month ($82/month), Ultimate with 240 channels for $40/month ($92/month), and Premier with 315 channels including all premium channels for $90/month ($150/month).

Dish offers similar deals with a yearlong discount, although only three packages with 120, 200, and 250 channels for $35, $45, and $50, respectively. After your discount runs out, these packages go up to $65, $80, and $90 per month respectively.

Comcast across the cities we surveyed offer three digital cable packages with 140, 220, and 260 channels respectively, and like the satellite providers offers a year of discounting. 140 channels is billed at $45-$50 per month and around $65-70 thereafter. 220 channels sets you back $60-70 per month and $85-90 after the first year, and the top tier runs $70-90 per month and $120-140 per month afterwards.

Based on what we could dig up about each service’s pricing tiers, satellite still ends up being the better deal even with the gimmicks, and in some cases even during the promotional period. Satellite is definitely your best choice if price is a concern.

Advantage: satellite

And the winner is… satellite

It was fairly close, but in the end satellite’s pricing structure gave the service a slight edge. While we definitely prefer cable internet to what satellite offers, in picture quality satellite is noticeably better. Having had both, I can tell you from that there is a difference.

While we are recommending satellite based on our own analysis, this is not the final word. Figure out what’s most important to you. Also, don’t be afraid to actually call these companies: sometimes if they know you’re considering their competitor, they’ll roll out the red carpet for you and strike a better deal.

Also bundling always saves money — so always ask what you can bundle together to see just how much money you can save. Good luck!

Follow Ed on Twitter @edoswald

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