There are more options than ever to binge-watch your favorite series or catch the big game from anywhere your boat can take you.
The way people are consuming TV has been changing rapidly. Learn the best way to stream your favorite show aboard.
Some people regard their boat as an escape from the rest of the world—TV included. I frequently feel this way. Still, for those who like to bring the comforts of home with them on the water, I field a lot of questions about the best way to get TV access on board. The first step should be an honest assessment of how you use your boat, how much TV you watch and how important it is to have access on the boat—otherwise known as how much you’re willing to spend. The traditional options were already more complicated on a boat, especially a cruising boat, and now there’s the added choice of streaming TV over the internet. Attempting to evaluate all the choices can make your head spin.
There are four options available on board: broadcast, satellite, cable and streaming services. All but streaming require specific hardware, and reliability depends on a number of factors.
If your boat primarily stays in a single area and you’re interested in watching programs on the major networks or local channels, broadcast TV makes sense. Reception will vary depending on your location and your choice of antenna, but these days all over-the-air broadcasts are in HD.
If you’re interested in recording broadcasts you’ll need a DVR device like a TiVo Roamio or Tablo DVR, or you can run software like Plex, Emby or Silicon Dust DVR. The latter options use over-theair tuners like Silicon Dust’s HDHomeRun line of tuners to record available programming.
Recordings are then available on a wide range of devices including PCs, tablets, phones, Roku, FireTV, AppleTV and many smart TVs. When these packages work they’re a great option; I’ve found reliability to be a challenge in my time using them. However, broadcast TV complemented with streaming services can be among the most cost-effective options.
For many, satellite TV is the ultimate way to receive television on the water. Stabilized satellite dishes are capable of receiving signals anywhere within a provider’s broadcast footprint while underway, at a dock or at anchor. Satellite TV services require a subscription with a provider like Dish Network or DirecTV.
There are two basic bands satellite providers use, Ku and Ka. Originally all the providers used Ku and all the stabilized in-motion dishes were built for this band. As part of the move to HD, DirecTV migrated nearly all of its programming to Ka. The Ka band presents a smaller target in space and requires much higher precision (read: more expensive) in the stabilization and tracking systems within the dish. The two least expensive options for receiving Ka are the KVH TracVision HD-7 with a suggested retail of $12,995 and the Intellian S6HD with a suggested retail of $9,995. Ku dishes start with Intellian’s i2 or KVH’s TracVision TV1, both of which list for $2,695. All satellite providers offer receivers with DVRs built in, so you have the option to record content.
Cable TV is limited to when you’re dockside because, well, there’s a cable connected to your boat. Cable is the easiest way for marinas to deliver TV to its guests but, because it only works dockside, it’s also the least flexible. If you’re out for the day or traveling away from your
home marina you won’t have any TV. Most marinas don’t distribute cable boxes so you’re limited to unencrypted channels. Frequently this also means programming is limited to standard definition. If a cable box is provided, you may be able to get one with DVR; you could then record programming at the dock to enjoy at a later time once you’ve tossed off the lines.
Cord cutting—canceling traditional television and relying on streaming services—can be just as practical on an internet-equipped boat as it is at home. This includes programming from Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime as well as live-TV streaming from services like Sling TV, DirecTV Now and a handful of others.
I’ve found the original content services like Amazon Prime, Hulu and Netflix work quite well; however, the live streaming TV offerings (such as YouTube TV, Hulu Live TV, PlayStation Vue) have proved far less reliable. Between the various compatibility issues, bugs and reliability challenges I encountered, none of the services proved ready for regular service. I’m confident many of these glitches will be resolved, and I believe Internet Protocol (IP) delivery is the future of TV. I’m just not sure that future is here yet.
In addition to the services mentioned above, many individual networks have streaming options available via downloadable app. So if you subscribe to cable or satellite at home, there’s an excellent chance you have access to their content via your smartphone. The streaming services offer a mix of cloud-based DVR functionality and ondemand programming.
Streaming’s biggest downfall is it requires a robust internet connection. I’ve found that if I can manage about 5 megabits per second I can pretty reliably stream anything. But, if you’re out of internet coverage you will also be without TV.
For streaming on the boat I use Amazon Fire TV sticks. At $39.95 they’re cheap enough to put one in each TV, are a breeze to set up and have Alexa built in for voice launch and content control. There are also many other options, including Apple TV, Roku, smart TVs and a myriad of other devices.
Making the Decision
Deciding on the best way to receive TV is largely a factor of how you expect to use it and your budget. I live on my boat much of the year and have young children. Once they go to bed my wife and I retire to the the salon and watch some TV—so it’s pretty important to us that we have a reliable way to watch our favorite movies and shows. Your own boating and cruising habits may dictate a different solution.
With today’s rapid changes in television delivery there’s a good chance you can find something that will work for you. But if you can’t, new options are coming rapidly enough that any challenges you experience today may well disappear in the near future.
If you like the idea of catching an NFL game from your favorite gunkhole while you barbecue on the swim platform or bingewatching Breaking Bad while overnighting in a secluded cove in the Exumas, there’s a way to make it happen. Just remember why you’re there in the first place—friends, family and time spent on the water is, in my opinion anyway, way better than any broadcast.
TV on board your boat— like at home—comes down to preference and viewing habits.