I’ve Got an Old Tube TV: What Are My Options Besides Cable?

Tube TV

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.

DISCLOSURE: This is a professional review site that receives compensation from the retailer or manufacturer when you purchase through the affiliate links such as the ones on this page. I test and/or research each product or service thoroughly before endorsing it. This site is independently owned and the opinions expressed here are my own.

1. Broadcast TV

The most common question I get is “how can I watch broadcast TV on my old tube TV”?  Well, you’ll need to purchase a converter box and an antenna.

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 boxThis 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.

2. Roku Express+

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+ has composite output which will work with old tube TVs. Don’t confuse this with the regular Express without the “+”, which will not work with old TVs. (Yes, I know, terrible naming convention; someone at Roku marketing should be fired).

Competitors such as Apple TV, Chromecast, and Amazon Fire don’t have composite output and won’t work with your tube TV.

If you can get your hands on an older Roku 1 or Roku 2, those also will 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 media 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.

3. Sling TV or Playstation Vue

If you want the live TV (cable-like) experience, check out Sling TV or Playstation Vue.  These require an Internet connection and a set-top box (like Roku), and there is a monthly fee, but it’s less than cable TV. The content on these services streams live, just like cable (and broadcast) TV.

4. Game Systems

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.

5. DVDs from the Library

The next option I want to talk about is renting DVDs from your local library.  Did you know they have DVD’s?  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.

DVDs at the Rogers Free Library in Bristol, RI

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.

6. Negotiate with Cable Company

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 some discount.

7. Do Satellite TV Until it Gets Expensive

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.

Consider a Cheap Flat Screen TV

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.

What About Connecting My Computer to My Tube TV?

I actually don’t recommend this.  First, you’ll have to buy an adapter box to convert from VGA to composite video.  This costs under $100.  But, the resolution will be pretty bad and I think you’ll find it difficult to navigate websites using your blurry tube TV screen.

Connecting your computer to a modern digital flat screen TV, on the other hand, is great.  I do that.

I hope these tips have helped!  Let me know about your experiences. – Brian

  • Anita Anita

    Thank you for providing this informative article because I now realize that my tvs can provide me with more entertainment. I intend on buying the Mohu Leaf 30 after using the link you provided to locate the stations. However, I do need to purchase a converter box for my Sony Triton. This is where I need further assistance. Several years have passed since your article was written and Mediasonix has newer models available, which do you recommend today? I have read the single star reviews on Amazon, but I prefer your recommendation. Until then, my items are sitting in the shopping cart.

    • Hi Anita,

      I don’t have a great answer to the single star reviews on Amazon. Obviously, their quality control is not the best. But the price is insanely low. You can always get it and return it if it doesn’t work.

      I haven’t reviewed the newer models myself but their ratings aren’t any better, from what I saw.

      There are better-quality options (that have DVR) but the cost is much much more expensive:
      http://disablemycable.com/dvr/

      You could get a whole new TV for the cost of these (and all of the required accessories).

      If you don’t want to spend that much, just expect to possibly have to return the Mediasonix if it doesn’t work; it’s part of the deal for the low cost. It does work for many people, though.

      Best,
      Brian

  • Kathy Crouch

    Brian, I have a converter box complete with an antenna. The only problem I had before was I mainly that only one channel came in clear. The antenna is a set of rabbit ears. My TV is circa 1990’s. I was looking on Amazon, I saw the antenna you recommended bu I’m not sure it’s strong enough. I’m about 50-60 miles in either direction from the stations.

    • Hi Kathy,

      It’s impossible for me to say for sure whether a new antenna will bring in more channels or not in your situation. All I can say is that for me, the antennas I’ve recommended did bring in more channels than a rabbit-ear, but that could be just my situation. If you do get an antenna, make sure you get it from somewhere with a good return policy in case it doesn’t improve your reception.

      Before buying a new antenna, try these tips:
      http://disablemycable.com/blog/antenna-tips/

      Best,
      Brian

  • Xian

    Hi ,if I have an old Magonsvix tv made before 2000, do i really need a converter box or just only a roku express to connect with the tv and watch shows?

    • Hi Xian,

      You only need a converter box if you want to watch broadcast TV using an antenna.

      If you just want to watch shows from the various streaming services like Netflix, YouTube, etc., you can just use a Roku Express+. Be sure to get the “+” version and not the regular Express though. The regular express doesn’t have composite video outputs and won’t work with your old TV. And, you will need Internet and Wi-Fi.

      Best,
      Brian

      • Xian

        Thanks! I also wonder can the Roku Express+ watch local channels too or various streaming channels, and can any old tv antenna work with the convertor box?

        • Hi Xian,

          There are some Roku channels that offer local channels, but that is something you’ll have to research. Roku cannot pick up broadcast TV using an antenna, just to be clear.

          Yes, almost any TV antenna will work with the converter box.

          Best,
          Brian

  • phr775

    Good evening,

    I have a Sanyo TV, manufactured 1996, with no RCA. I have Comcast Xfinity wireless internet and modem. I also have a DVD player that I use with an RF modulator. I recently purchased a Roku 1 (haven’t received it yet) My question is: Do I need any other type of cables, cords or converters or connectors to use my TV with the Roku 1? Is the RF modulator enough? Thanks for your time.

    • Hi Paula,

      Your TV should have a composite video input (yellow round jack) that the Roku can plug into. As long as you have an RCA cable for that and for audio (red and white), then you’re good to go.

      Best,
      Brian

  • Jim

    Brian, you article was great and I have followed it and I now have 4 of my 5 tv’s watching all the channels I need and my total purchases have not exceeded my previous cable bill. Howevre, I did not see your response on how to hook up the roku (or fire stick) to be sent to the older tv. I have a Panasonic flat screen pre 2006.

    • Hi Jim,

      Excellent, thanks for sharing!

      The key is to check to see if your TV’s have HDMI inputs. If they do, then you can use any Roku or Fire Stick.

      If they don’t, then you can only use Roku 1, which has composite video output.

      Best,
      Brian

  • Barbara Ringwalt

    Hi, I had antennas hooked up to my tube tvs. As of the last few months,they no longer seem to work with tube tvs. The channels come on, yet only for a few minutes, then the connection goes out. (Before this it was working fine for the last year or so. To make sure it wasn’t the antenna and converter boxes, I hooked it all up to my flat screen, and it works fine. Did something happen with these tube tvs, in that they are now unable to provide free antenna tv? I don’t want to throw out my tube tvs, plus I don’t have the money to buy anything new. Something is clearly going on, yet I was unable to find anyone commenting about it on the internet.

    * oh, also I don’t have internet..yes I am saving money, or trying to.

    • Hi Barbara,

      Antennas for digital broadcast TV don’t work with tube TVs without a converter box.

      Antennas will work with flat screen TVs made after 2006.

      Thanks,
      Brian

      • Hi Barbara,

        Looking over my answer, I see it did not answer your question properly in my haste. Sorry about that.

        Did you manage to figure out the problem?

        Thanks,
        Brian

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  • TJ C

    Thank you so so so much! I’ve finally decided to go “cord free” this year and this guide really cemented my decision. With Sling TV coming out (ESPN) plus my residence within good ranges of the signals, I can still watch live sports.

    • Hi TJ,

      Thanks for sharing! Congrats on the thousands of dollars you will be saving.

      Brian

  • Forgive me, I am the old story, not of the computer age. I restore antique clocks not computers. So, is my roku router the same as a converter? Note, my computer is not wifi. I bought an antenna also but he did not tell me to by a converter. so can I use the router just like a converter for my analog tv. I just can not afford the price of cable on disability. Getting old is fine, getting broken not so much. Thank you, Randi

    • Hi Randi,

      Roku will work with WiFi, or with wired Ethernet cable. Either way, you will need a router so that the Roku can share your Internet connection with your computer. Check to see if your Internet box has several outputs, or just one. If just one, you will need to get a router.

      No, you can’t use a router to plug an antenna into your analog TV. You will need a tuner box. Here are some tuner boxes that I recommend:
      http://disablemycable.com/tuner_boxes.php

      Hope this helps,
      Brian