Table Of Contents
Have you been thinking about cutting your pay-TV cord? Kind of scary to think about, isn’t it? If you were born anytime after the mid-seventies, you’ve probably spent your entire life with pay-TV. It’s become a habit – something you rarely even think about. It’s just always there.
And, yet, now there is something about it that is bothering you. It may be the time you spend (or waste) watching it. It may be the cost that just keeps growing, and you are now questioning the value of what you are getting for what you are paying. Perhaps you resent having to reduce the “package” you are getting just to keep the cost reasonable. Maybe it’s the redundancy – asking yourself why you are paying upwards of $100 per month when you can get TV on your phone, on your tablet and on your computer for nothing. Of course, you could also just be mad about having to pay for 200 channels when you only watch a half-dozen at most.
No matter what your reasons, you are now thinking about cutting the cord. I want to show you some of the pros and cons of cord cutting. No, it’s not all sweetness and light, but neither will you have to make major sacrifices.
The primary advantages are in money, time, and choices. Let’s talk about them.
Money: This may be your biggest “pro,” and the higher your current pay-TV costs, the more of an advantage it will be. The average pay-TV bill right now is about $85 per month, or $1020 a year. What could you do with that extra money? A family vacation, money for your kid’s education? A monthly buffer for unexpected expenses? Savings for retirement? Let’s get one thing straight: a cable TV bill is NOT a required utility like water, heat, or electricity. This is money you choose to spend on TV.
Time: When you cut the cord, you are more in control of how you spend your time, as well as your money. Since most of what you will be watching is available 24-7, there are no time constraints as to when and how you watch.
You will find that you self-edit your TV watching. Where with cable you might have watched Amish Mafia because you were bored and just channel surfing, now your time will be spent watching what you want, when you want. You will not be channel surfing at all! You will make definite decisions about what you want to watch. You can’t just flip around, so your TV watching decisions become active, not passive.
One additional benefit in the time category is that you will no longer spend 1/3 of the time watching commercials. A 1-hour TV show is actually about 42 minutes long – a 30-minute show is about 21 minutes. Not everything will be commercial-free, but much of it will be.
You will have more time to spend on other activities, or with your family. You may actually find yourself doing more reading, or starting new hobbies.
Choice: You will have more choices – you can choose to watch shows a whole season at a time, if you wish. It’s called binge watching, and it may be the best way to watch TV. You can try new shows, or series that you missed previously. You can instantly switch between movies and TV. Best of all, you will find that your choices are virtually unlimited.
As I said previously, there are some thorns among the roses. Some of the cons have to do with limitations you may have because of your location, or the level of Internet service you can get. Others are created by the TV networks and what they offer. Finally, you might have restrictions simply because of the amount of money you may want to spend for additional services or equipment.
The primary cons are concerned with location, convenience, contracts, money, and the shows available.
Location: You may have problems getting cable TV alternatives depending on your location. Some areas may have limited Internet access or poor over-the-air reception. You may have limitations due to condo or home association rules about antenna placement, or because of the location of the antenna farms.
Convenience: Let’s face it – it’s a lot more convenient to click your TV receiver remote than to go through setting up all the necessities of cord cutting. Although it’s getting easier all the time, this could be a major barrier for some people. A lot of people just don’t want to deal with anything technical, or something they are not familiar with, so, as in most things, the smartest thing to do is KISS – “keep it simple, stupid.”
Internet Service: If you can reach the Internet, you can cut the cord. I’m not going to go into hooking up the Internet itself – if you got this ebook, you have an Internet connection.
Many articles will tell you that you need very fast Internet for streaming. Actually, you don’t. My wife and I can only get 1.5Mb DSL where we are, and we’re doing fine with that. A faster connection would certainly be welcome, but this is all we can get, so we adapt. Because our connection is just about the minimum for streaming, if we were to try to use wireless, we probably would not get anything at all, so we are using wired networking. No, we didn’t rewire our house with Cat 6 cable; we just bought a couple of powerline boxes. (About $50 per pair.) These boxes plug into any outlet in your house and use your existing wiring as a network. One is plugged into an outlet near the router and connected to the router via a network cable. Others can be placed anywhere in the house that you like.
The main one in our house is in the office, with one in the living room, one in the spare room, and one in the master bedroom. Then the TVs, computers, set-top boxes, etc. are plugged into them via network cable and the house is networked. Surprisingly, they were simple to set up and are working quite well. The downside is the extra wires in all the rooms.
Contracts: This can be problem for many people. They may desperately want to cut the cord, but can’t because of their contract with a pay-TV subscription.
My wife and I had this problem. About 6 months into our two-year Dish contract, we realized that on all our recordings, the last few minutes of every show were not being recorded. Although we made dozens of corrections and changes in recording times, etc. it was never fixed. Dish said we were setting the recordings up incorrectly, but when they walked through it with us, it still did not record the missing minutes. It was never resolved. Paying the early termination fee was prohibitive, so I spent the remaining months of the contract trying every possible method of cutting the cord. By the time our contract finally expired, we had settled on the equipment and techniques that worked best for us, and we were able to make the transition with absolutely no problems.
You may not be able to get out of your contract without paying an early termination fee (at Dish, it’s $17.50 per month for each month of your contract that you did not finish) but you can still work on cutting the cord. Many of the techniques and a lot of the equipment can be used alongside the pay-TV setup, so you can see exactly how it will work for you. There’s absolutely no reason you can’t have a Roku or an Apple TV sitting next to your cable receiver. You may even find you are using it more than the cable box!
Money: While there are a number of free and low-cost techniques that you can use, you may need or want to buy some additional equipment or services. Keep in mind, though, most of the equipment will not cost anywhere near what your monthly fee is for pay-TV, and is a one-time cost. Services, such as Hulu Plus, Amazon and Netflix although a monthly cost, will be less than $10 a month.
Shows available: There are shows that are difficult to get. The Premium channels such as HBO, ShowTime, and pay-TV sports channels are just not available legally for free. That doesn’t mean you cannot get them, they will just come with a cost, since they can be purchased through iTunes and Amazon. Other shows, such as those on Bravo and Animal Planet, can be very difficult to get full episodes for – official sites only show clips.
Whether it’s cable, satellite, or fiber TV, getting rid of pay-TV will most certainly change your life, and change is always scary.
1.3 Are You A Good Candidate For Cord-Cutting?
There are certain personality traits that can help you determine how good a candidate you are for cutting the cord.
Are you flexible? Can you adapt quickly? Do you have a Plan B? Flexibility is important when you come up against a barrier, and you most certainly will. People who are not flexible tend to spend a lot of time frustrated. You have to be ready to find another path to get what you want.
Are you a channel surfer? Some people spend half their time on cable or satellite channel surfing – clicking from channel to channel looking for something worth watching. Channel surfing is not available for most types of cord-cutting. You just won’t have any way to do it. The closest you will get to channel surfing is possibly with Netflix or Hulu. There are a lot of shows to choose from, but you will only be able to “surf” the programs – not the individual episodes of the programs. The exception will be if you use an over-the-air antenna. In that case, you will be able to surf the channels you get over-the-air (but there probably won’t be many).
Are you a sports addict? If you are hung up on sports and absolutely must have access to every sporting event known to man, cord-cutting is not for you – yet. Sports are a major weakness in cord cutting. Over-the-air broadcasts will get you the sports that are available on the major networks, and separate subscriptions will get you others, but if you are a hard-core, dyed-in-the-wool sports nut, it might be best if you stick to cable for now.
Are a lot of the shows you like to watch on the major networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, CW, Fox)? Cord cutting is great for you – especially if you choose over-the-air broadcasting. You’ll have the least trouble switching from cable.
Do you use your DVR frequently? This is more a matter of breaking the DVR habit. When everything is always available, why do you need a DVR? If you can tune into Netflix 24 hours a day and watch full seasons of Star Trek, or Hoarders, or Arrested Development, for example, do you really need to tape it as well? Some people just want a DVR, and there are DVRs (or DVR substitutes) available. It just makes your life easier not to use them.
1.4 Your Cord Cutting Options
The options available for cord-cutting have literally exploded in the last year. There are many more choices in equipment and in content than there was just 1 year ago.
Just to clarify – equipment is the hardware you use to access the content you want, while content is the actual entertainment that you are looking for, whether it is a website, individual files, or an aggregation from a number of sources
In all cases, the goal is to use the proper equipment to get the desired content and there are many ways to do that.
Unfortunately, there is no killer app for cord cutters. Typically a cord-cutter will “cobble together” several different things to get the channels and services they want. Very little is “either-or” and there are all sorts of possibilities. (This even applies to interfaces. For example, Netflix is available on just about every device, but the interfaces vary, and you might prefer the interface on Roku better than the interface on Tivo.) Since this can get very complicated, very quickly, I’m going to break it down the simplest way possible: by cost.
I’m going to make three assumptions starting out, and these assumptions apply to all of the options whether free, low cost, or high cost. (1) You have Internet access, (2) you have a computer – desktop or laptop, and (3) you have a television. So, let’s see what we can do with this.
This one’s really simple.
Just use your computer and monitor to watch TV on the Internet. You don’t need anything extra. All you have to do is collect the addresses of all the networks and channels you like and start watching.
Yes, that’s all there is to it. Virtually every TV channel has it’s own website and they are packed with videos and information.
Using your computer as a TV is fine, but most people want to sit in a comfortable chair and watch on a bigger screen.
One step up is to connect your computer to your TV using either the red, white, and yellow cables that used to come with every electronic purchase, a blue VGA cable (the one you would hook up to your monitor), or by using an HDMI cable.
Essentially, you will be using the TV as a big monitor. There are a couple of caveats here. If you use VGA, both the computer and TV must have a VGA connector. Same with the cables and with HDMI. With VGA, you may also need a sound cable. The RWY cable, and HDMI both carry their own sound.
Once these are hooked up, you’ll be able to watch TV from the network and channel sites, Hulu, Amazon, Netflix, etc. Expanding on this, you can add a number of other enhancements – a media center program, such as XBMC, or Windows Media Center. Check out the MakeUseOf XBMC Manual for more information on what your computer can do if you work at it.
You should also check out dedicated TV program sites – like Kylo, or program search sites like Clicker. You can also use CanIStreamIt.com to find the shows you are looking for. I use an extension on the Chrome browser called Speed Dial 2 which gives me a series of thumbnails of my bookmarks. I set each channel to a bookmark to make it easy to find what I want.
Except for the cost of Netflix, Hulu Plus, and/or Amazon, this option is completely free. One last freebie – don’t ignore your local library! They have the latest DVDs available for you to borrow.
Note: If you need HDMI cables or other adapters, don’t buy them at alocal big box store – they will invariable be priced much, much too high. Order them instead from Amazon, cables2go, or MonoPrice. At Amazon, for example, HDMI cables will cost you about $5 each. They work just as well as the gold-plated ones sold locally at ten times the cost.
This option consists of the over-the-air (OTA) broadcasts that are available to everyone. I’m calling it “nearly free” because the chances are you will need an antenna, and whether you make one (not nearly as hard as you might think), or buy one, you’ll have to put a little bit of money into it.
As stated above, this option uses an antenna to catch the free, high def signals that are being broadcast by your local stations. In the US back in 2009, the FC made broadcasters convert to digital signals. This didn’t mean much to people who had pay-TV, since it didn’t affect them, but it did make a difference to those who did not have pay-TV and were using over-the-air broadcast TV. The government offered free conversion boxes to convert the digital signals to analogue if you had an older TV that did not take digital signals. They kind of worked, depending on where you were located.
If you have a TV older than 5 or 6 years, you probably will need a converter box to get the digital broadcast signals. To tell if your old TV will require a converter box, look at the back where the signals come in. If you see a single connector that says ANT or ANTENNA, you will definitely need a converter. I purchased a converter a few years ago from Amazon when trying to use my old heavy Magnavox TV for over-the-air TV watching. You can expect a cost of $20-50. My suggestion is that since new TVs can be bought for less than $200 for a 32″, just gets a new one and forget the converter box. You’ll save yourself a lot of trouble and aggravation.
The basic premise with this option is that you will get the free signals being broadcast by local stations. So, now we have our TV and either a converter box hooked up to it, or we have a new TV with a built-in converter. I can see you looking at me with a totally blank expression because…
Well, we need an antenna. You will see ads stating “HD” Antenna. The HD is marketing hype – ignore it. An antenna is an antenna. Now, the various shapes have to do with the types of signals they will collect best, but there is no difference between an HD antenna, and the plain old antenna your Dad had on the roof 40 years ago.
If your memory goes back that far, think about the types of antennas that were being used before cable. There was usually a pair of rabbit ears for the VHF signals, with a circular antenna for the occasional UHF signals. Today the majority of signals are UHF with the occasional VHF thrown in. Many antennas made today will pick up both types of signals, but it also depends on where you are located relative to where the antennas are broadcasting. How do you know what kind and what size antenna you need?
Luckily, there are several sites that will tell you precisely what you need. If you go to antennaweb.org and plug in your zip code and street address, you will get a listing of the stations you can receive, and a color-coded antenna guide to show you what to look for.
Note: If you use the “Satellite” view at the highest zoom setting, you can position the indicator almost exactly where your antenna is (or will be) located to get a good idea of the direction you will need to point the antenna.
A similar site is TVFool.com, but I usually get a lot of errors there. I prefer antennaweb.org.
Once you have located your antenna requirements, you can go to local stores or online stores to find an antenna that will fit your needs. Everything is color-coded, so just check the box for the correct coding. Keep in mind that this is your starting point! I say that because the terrain varies for every location, and you might need to check a number of antennas to find the right one. When we used the one that antennaweb said we needed, it was OK, but a longer range antenna brought the channels in stronger. As far as antennas, I suggest buying them at a local store, so you can test them and return them until you find the right one.
The site might suggest an indoor or outdoor antenna. Many people have placed their antennas inside their attic spaces successfully. You may be lucky and find that a simple rabbit ear antenna or a Mohu Leaf antenna will do just what you want.
Position your antenna where you think it will receive the best signals. Now it’s time to test it. To set it up on your TV, you will go into your TV setup menu and set the TV to accept antenna signals. The TVs tuner will search for signals and show you a gauge of the channels found. Once it finishes, check the various stations. You should see crisp, clear high-def pictures. If you don’t, you will need to fine-tune the direction of the antenna. The better you can fine-tune, the clearer and more stable to picture will be. Use the antennaweb directions and a compass if necessary to point the antenna.
An antenna will cost between $10 and $100 in the US. You should be able to do most of this yourself, but you can find local installers to mount your antenna if you don’t want to climb up on your roof.
You will probably be surprised at the quality of the signal. It looks brighter and clearer than what you get with pay-TV because the over-the-air signals are not as compressed as the signals coming through the cable wire.
The only thing left to do is enjoy your (nearly) free TV.
3.1 Extra Antenna Stuff
If you find that your antenna is not pulling in a strong enough signal, there are a few things you can do. First, try fine-tuning the antenna’s direction. A slight change in position may make all the difference. You can use a compass and the directional info on AntennaWeb or TVFool to fine-tune the direction. There are amplifiers that can be put on your antenna to increase the signal. Pre-amplifiers increase the signal at the source; other amplifiers increase the signal just before entering your TV. You may also need to have both a VHF and a UHF antenna. If so, you can get a “diplexer” or “combiner” that will allow you to tie both signals together before they reach your TV. (I found a combiner that is also a pre-amplifier.) Or, you may just need a bigger antenna. We went through several different antennas before finding the one that worked best for us. By the way – in placing your antenna, higher is not always better! Through some quirk of the placement of our house, I was getting the best signals with my antennas closer to the ground. I know, it flies in the face of all logic, but that’s how it works best for us.
Now we get to the really fun, gadgety stuff. The first things we’ll look at are the set-top boxes.
Set top boxes sit between the Internet and your TV, and funnel, or stream, information into the TV. They are also known as Streamers and Media Players. They attach to an Internet cable (or wireless) and also to your TV usually with an HDMI cable. They each have their own remote.
I counted the available media players, and came up with 20 different set top boxes, but the majority of the market is concentrated in 3 boxes – the Roku, the Apple TV, and the WD Media Player. Each is directed at a different market. To keep things simple, we’ll look at the top 3.
Roku 3 ($100)
The current leader of the set top box crowd is the Roku 3. It has an incredible range of channels – somewhere over 500 – covering every subject you can think of and then some. Music, movies, TV, cartoons, religious, news, political, and even a couple of channels (like Plex) that let you play your own files. Many channels are free, some have small fees. (I’ve signed up for a couple of pay channels – they cost me about $2 a year each.) The Roku also offers Netflix, HuluPlus, Amazon, some original channels, and hundreds of others, including many private channels. By far, Roku is the most complete, the most diverse, and the most flexible of all the set top boxes.
- 3 Great Ways To Enjoy Your Own Media On The Roku 3
- How can I search the Internet on my Roku?
- How To Prep Your Videos For Playback On The Roku 3
Apple TV ($100)
If you are a part of the Apple sphere, and are enamored at the fact that all of Apple’s products play well together, get an Apple TV. It will work with all other Apple products, but then you are also pretty much restricted to iTunes and other Apple products. The Apple interface is the nicest of all the set top boxes, but be aware that Apple doesn’t really care about giving you a wide range of choices. Don’t expect it to stream from Amazon, but it will work with Netflix, YouTube, a few sports channels, Flickr, and Vimeo.
WD Live Media Player ($90)
The primary use for the WD Live Player is to play your existing downloaded or ripped and stored DVDs and files. They say that it will play any file format you can throw at it. It does have some built-in channels – Netflix, Hulu Plus, Pandora, and a few more, but its strength is really in playing the files you have on your system.
One thing to keep in mind about the above boxes – they are all purchased as a one-time cost. You buy the box, you own it. However, you pay for your Netflix and other paid subscriptions separately.
You are probably going to start “collecting” remotes, so to make life easier for your partner and kids, look into a universal programmable remote. (At one point I had 5 different remotes stacked up on my side table!)
4.2 Primary Content
These boxes come ready-to-go – you won’t need to go all over the Net looking for content to play through the box. Each of these has a built-in set of “channels” and you are free to add more as people develop new channels and add them to the roster.
The “big four” as far as content are Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime, and YouTube. Do you really know what they are and what they do?
A collection of many thousands of movies and TV shows. For $7.99 per month, you have access to all of these, and believe me, you will never want for something to watch. You just have to go see what they have. If they have a weakness, it’s that their material is not the newest, and they are frequently criticized for that, but when you are in the middle of watching a marathon of every Star Trek episode since the beginning of time, who cares? As you get into the system choosing items to add to your queue, Netflix will make suggestions based on your choices – and they are very good at making suggestions! They also have a DVD delivery system for newer movies and TV shows for an additional fee. They have a free trial, so take advantage of it.
- How To Improve Netflix Streaming On Any Device
- 9 Tips and Netflix Websites To Get The Most Out Of Your Subscription
Hulu and Hulu Plus (USA Only)
Hulu and Hulu Plus are for more current TV, but they are weak on movies. Many of the shows you currently watch on cable are available here. Hulu is the free version, and Hulu Plus is the paid version. The main difference is that Hulu Plus has full seasons of shows, while Hulu only has a few episodes. Some shows are only available through the Hulu website and some are only available through streaming devices. A bug in the lemonade here is that you will get some short, non-distracting commercials, and they tend to repeat the same commercial several times during the show. Some people swear by Hulu and Hulu Plus, some hate them. Hulu Plus is $7.99 per month, and also has a trial period.
Amazon has a video streaming program that will rent or sell you seasons or individual episodes of TV programs. They also have Amazon Prime which is a program that Amazon offers which gives you reduced shipping rates and free second day delivery of your order. So what does Amazon Prime have to do with video streaming? Well, as a bonus to their Prime subscribers, they have created Amazon Prime Instant Videos. It makes many TV programs and episodes available to its members for free with their subscriptions. If you use Amazon for purchases anyway, Prime Instant Videos is a pleasant bonus. Prime is $79 per year – or about $6.50 a month. Their library has fewer shows than Netflix, but it’s growing quickly. Its main flaws are that it’s difficult to navigate and appears to be disorganized. Show seasons are scattered, and only a search for a specific show will show you all the seasons for that show. It’s very difficult to just browse.
Did you know that 100 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute? 1 billion people visit YouTube each month, and YouTube is viewed by more US adults ages 18-34 than any cable network. Those numbers are mind-boggling. If you are just watching YouTube for the cat videos, you are missing out on a lot.
My eye-opening experience with YouTube came when I was looking for a movie that I had on video tape, but wanted as a digital file. It was a movie from 1976 called “Same Time, Next Year.” I could not find it anywhere, and I didn’t particularly want to buy it again. Someone had uploaded it to YouTube in about 10 parts. I downloaded them and put them together as a single file. I’ve also been able to find old music that I thought was gone forever. It’s an amazing resource.
People want access to YouTube for movies, music, instruction, and just plain human interest. For many, it’s a must have – and we haven’t even gotten into the wide range of specialty channels. Explore, and you just might find shows you like that were never on TV to begin with.
- 5 Ways To Search Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon And More At Once
- Hulu Plus vs. iTunes vs. Netflix vs. Amazon Instant Video
4.3 Other Content
Sports are the bane of the cord cutter’s existence! Sports are tough. People use several different methods to get sports, but none seem to be really satisfactory. I’ll pass some websites on to you, but I’m not a sports person, and I really have no experience with them.
- PGATour.com ndash; Golf. Mostly clips and highlights. I didn’t see anywhere to click for a live game.
- MLB.tv – Baseball. This site looks promising – you can get games live or on demand. Sale right now (summer 2013) – $79.99 per year (reg $129.99 per year) MLB is also available on the Roku and other players.
- NHLGameCenter – Hockey. Live, out of market games. Gives you access to nearly every game in the NHL on any given night.
- NBAGameTime – Basketball. NBA league pass says “Watch NBA Games Live” but I couldn’t find any additional information. (Also on Roku and several other players)
- VIPBox Sports – A pirate site with various live sports streams.
- Sportlemon.tv – Might be worth checking out.
- First Row Sports – A pirate site with lots of live streams.
- Roku Sports page – highlighting online sports channels.
Literally, big red boxes that dispense DVDs, BlueRays and games at places like WalMart, Walgreen’s and even some gas stations. They also have a streaming option, which is $8 per month for unlimited streaming and 4 one-night Kiosk credits. I’ve never used the kiosk, but I think it’s $1 per DVD. A Redbox channel is now available on Roku .
Rent, buy or download including new release movies. Also has a streaming option called Blockbuster Instant with movies at $2.99. Apps for tablets, PCs, Macs and phones are available. Not a bad option for newer movies. Blockbuster also has a Roku channel.
On demand movies. Always has a $.99 movie of the day. Has thousands of $2/2night movies. Most new movies are $3.99 or $4.99 to rent.
4.4 Content Restrictions
The problem with a lot of the online content is that viewing is restricted to certain countries. If you don’t happen to live in a country with access, you could miss out. If you don’t want to miss out, check out these articles on circumventing the location restriction.
- Here Is How To Access Region-Blocked Media On Your Android
- Hola Unblocker – Easily Access Region-Blocked Content
- How To Access BBC iPlayer And More Online Video Internationally For Free
- 5 Great Free VPN Services Compared: Which Is Fastest?
A while back on HD Nation, they showed pictures of a home theater that cost 8 MILLION dollars. Few of us can aspire to that level of home entertainment, but we can create a great media center that is a perfect fit for our wants, needs, and budgets.
These are the options that require more money, time, and technical expertise. As you gain confidence and get more curious about “what else is out there?” you’ll progress to these options. As usual, there are some overlaps. For example – you may already own a PlayStation, or Xbox or Wii. If so, you’ll have a nice addition to your free options, so let’s look at these first – all retailing for about $300.
This could be a major purchase, but if you are a gamer, it might be just what you need to perform double-duty. Built-in BlueRay player. Good for Netflix and BlueRay, Vudu, MLB, NHL, and Hulu Plus. Might need to buy a PlayStation Network Card to stream.
You’ll need an Xbox Live Gold subscription to get online entertainment on the Xbox. That’s an extra $60 per year. Although I couldn’t find any details, the Xbox webpage states NFL integration “coming soon”. This might be reason enough for sports fans to buy this box. I just read that Eurosport will be adding content through its Eurosport Player.
Both the Wii and the WiiU can be used to access Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant and YouTube – note that the Wii isn’t HD. There are even more options if you’re willing to run homebrew software.
- How To Turn Your Wii Into A Media Center With WiiMC
- Which Game Consoles Can You Use as a Media Center?
- How To Turn Your Gaming Console Into A Media Center
- Is There Any Device You Can’t Turn Into a Media Center? Wii, Xbox, Android and More
Although a DVR is not necessary for most online entertainment, some people want to be able to record shows – especially if they set up an antenna for broadcast TV. Let’s look at a couple of DVRs.
Tivo is a great option, though it will cost you a monthly subscription fee for their channel guide, which is $15. (You can also buy a lifetime service contract for several hundred dollars and eliminate the monthly charge.) It puts all the other DVRs, especially the ones put out by the cable and satellite companies, to shame. Everything about it is easy to use, and as a bonus, it has some built-in Internet connections. It has HuluPlus, Netflix, AOL, YouTube, web video launchpad, and hundreds of podcasts. The Tivo has dual tuners, so you can record 2 shows at once. (Newer Tivos have more tuners, but will not connect to antennas!)
When it’s connected to a home network, it also has access to personal video libraries, and some of the other networked items such as PlayOn (see below). If you have 2 Tivos, they can trade videos between themselves and you can watch any recorded show on any of your Tivos. If you have the Tivo Desktop app, you can download any of the recorded shows and save them to disk.
It is also the perfect DVR for an over-the-air antenna.
Our personal setup is 2 Tivos and 2 Rokus (1 set in the living room, 1 set in the bedroom). Both are connected to my home network, and both are connected to my over-the-air antenna. I used the existing Dish network wiring simply by changing out the splitter and connecting the cable to each Tivo. After filtering out the foreign language channels, and the religious channels, we get approximately 20 channels over-the-air, and they work perfectly.
Used and refurbished Tivos can be bought inexpensively. The Tivo clearance center currently has Tivo Premieres for $99, or a Premiere with a wireless adapter for $74.99. Only the Tivo Premiere and the older Tivos will work with antenna. The newer ones will not, so be careful what you are buying.
You can often find Tivo with lifetime service on eBay for a couple of hundred bucks. They are worth it.
You’ll need to read the reviews of this DVR to see all it won’t do – like automatic recordings. No season passes here! Strictly manual setup for recordings. But for some people, this might be a worthwhile purchase for recording over-the-air shows. The Magnavox runs about $300.
Yes, you can still buy VCRs and yes, they can be used for recording shows. Got one tucked away in a closet? Use it! Tapes are available – and cheap. A decent VCR will cost less than $70. You can also look on eBay for used ones as well. Quality will be low, and you’ll need an HD converter box, but it’s worth at least thinking about.
It is a simple matter to set up just about any old computer to be a DVR. It can be a Mac, Linux, or a Windows machine. Older computers are good for this because a media center doesn’t really require a lot of power.
Let’s talk about Windows since that is the most used. You can set up the computer to be a server, or a media center, or both. Using Windows Media Center, you can easily have it play videos that you have downloaded or purchased, or connect to an antenna and record live TV.
To use it as a DVR, you will need one of two things – a TV tuner card that inserts into your motherboard, or a little gadget called the HD Homerun Dual by SiliconDust, which has 2 tuners inside it. The Homerun is, by far, the easiest choice here. It runs about $50 (same as an average tuner card) and connects where the antenna wire enters the house. Using a splitter, one cord will go to your TV, and one will go to the Homerun. Then, using your home network, it sends the TV signals to Windows Media Center. Windows Media Center will find the signal, process it, and show you the TV shows coming in on that antenna. To top it all off, it will send the signal to every computer on your network that has Windows Media Center set up. Any Windows Media Center, anywhere in your house.
While on the subject of personal computers, let’s look at some of the software that you can use in your cord cutting.
One more note on personal computers – the Raspberry Pi (a teeny tiny computer that nearly fits into an Altoids box) can be used as a media center. There is a special version of XBMC that was created specifically for the Raspberry Pi.
- The Hardware You Will Need To Build A Raspberry Pi Media Center
- Entertainment On The Cheap: The Most Affordable Ways To Set Up A Home Theater
- How To Build A Great Media Center PC
- How To Record TV Shows On Your PC
- Super-Power Your Media Centre With These 9 Hacks
5.3 Media Centers
There are tons of media centers, and one of the most popular and flexible is XBMC. It used to be very difficult to set this up, but now there are 2 things to help. One is a PVR (personal video recorder) version of the software with most of the tough set up done for you, and the second is the XBMCHub, which automatically sets up a huge number of add-ons and channels. There are also a number of YouTube videos on how to personalize the program to your own tastes. It can, though, be a bit unwieldy when looking for something. MakeUseOf has a manual on the XBMC platform with lots of good stuff in there. Use it to help you make XBMC work for you. XBMC has the distinct honor of being the media center software of choice for the Raspberry Pi.
Windows Media Center
Comes built-in as part of Windows 7 and as an add-on for Windows 8. Setup is pretty easy – just point the software to your video files or libraries. Has a lot of add-ons that work pretty well for Hulu, Playon, Kylo, Media Browser, etc.
Plex is a media center that is gaining in popularity. It has a flexible interface, like XBMC, and keeps track of your home library of music, movies, pictures, and TV, as well as having it’s own stock of TV channels, podcasts, and shows. It’s quick and easy to use. When I want to watch a single TV episode, I’ll usually kick up Plex to view it, rather than go through the whole XBMC interface.
Some Additional Media Centers
- JRiver (commercial)
- Cool Windows Media Center Alternatives
- 6 TV-Ready Media Center Programs You Should Check Out
- How To Build a Media Center That Will Play Anything
- 5 Great Linux Media Center Distributions To Transform Your TV
There are a couple more pieces of software that deserve a mention. These have their own place in the cord cutters toolkit and can greatly enhance the other components of the setup.
PlayOn is a media server program that resides on your networked computer and can be used through Roku, or even through Tivo. It adds a number of additional channels to your setup. You’ll have to go to PlayOn.tv to see all you can get. SyFy, History, A&E, Science Channel, are all available on PlayOn. I use it primarily to stream movies from my computer, but also to access some of the other shows on it. (PlayOn is something like $5 a month – they occasionally have sales on the lifetime license – which is normally $79 ) PlayOn also has a brother – PlayLater which is a type of DVR for any of the stuff on PlayOn. It records PlayOn shows to view later.
Miro is an interesting program which is basically an RSS reader for video and audio podcasts. Since it has a built-in scheduler, I use it to schedule video podcasts of certain TV shows to be downloaded at certain times. The videos are placed into the video library which makes them accessible on my Tivos.
- Miro: An All-In-One Application To Manage All Of Your Media
- The 3 Best Programs for Subscribing to Podcasts
There is no killer app for cord-cutters yet, and there may never be one, but some of the things being worked on are very interesting.
One of the most intriguing and exciting recent developments is the ChromeCast dongle.
It literally sold out in hours when it came on the market. It is a major breakthrough for cord cutters, and is being snatched up not just by cord cutters, but by almost everyone who has a smart phone or tablet. At $35, it’s also one of the least expensive.
The ChromeCast is a little piece of tech that plugs into an HDMI port on your TV, and will stream TV, movies and music from your tablet, smartphone, desktop PC, or laptop PC to your TV – without wires. The Kindle Fire HD, and some other tablets let you send movies to the TV, but require an HDMI cord, and while connected, the tablet or phone is unavailable for any other use.
In the case of the ChromeCast, your phone, tablet or PC tells the ChromeCast to “go to the cloud and stream this” instead of simply using the TV as a large monitor. That frees your PC, tablet or phone for something else once the stream starts. It can also work with apps and websites to stream web content from Chrome browser tabs to your TV using a special Chrome extension.
YouTube and Netflix are built-in and ChromeCast has opened development so others can help develop the product by creating apps, workarounds, and extensions. ChromeCast is a game changer since it will allow many people who would not normally consider cord cutting to get their feet wet with non-cable viewing.
Basically, Aereo taps into the over-the-air broadcast market by renting tiny antennas to people, and giving them cloud space for a DVR. This, of course, infuriates the cable execs because they have no control over what’s being done, and they are not getting one single dime from any of it. Nor should they. They do not control over-the-air broadcasts, and this is no different than me paying my neighbor a few bucks to share his antenna. Cable has tried to shut them down a couple of times in court, and cable has lost both times. Aereo is planning on starting new services in 20 cities within the next year, and spread from there. I think it’s a great idea, and that it allows a lot of people who could not use over-the-air antennas to now get signals. The big question is – who else will decide that this idea needs to be exploited? And, will people pay for something they can get free? (Sound familiar?)
This is something new I just heard about. It is a real-time television service that streams through the Harvard University network. It is also running at a couple of other universities and will be coming soon to a number more. Its lineup includes all the major networks and many popular cable channels. This may have some possibilities as a model for future networks. I believe Dish is a part of this.
A major breakthrough will occur when more live sports become part of the cord-cutting scene. Something like 43% of people would cut the cord today if there were major sports available elsewhere. Sports are actually one of the most expensive parts of pay-TV. You are paying around $5 per month for sports alone, and it doesn’t matter if you watch sports or not, you’re still paying for it. Sports, at the moment, holds the pay-TV companies hostage because of the demand for sports on TV. As cord-cutting grows, and the ranks of subscribers to pay-TV get smaller, we should see a reduction of sky high player salaries, and smaller transmission fees demanded by sports, as well as a willingness to allow more streaming of sports directly to the viewer.
Changes In the Cable Industry
I think the cable industry will try to double-down on its efforts to quash cord-cutting. They have too much at stake to simply ignore it. Unfortunately, this means they are following the same model which crippled the newspaper and music industries and they will have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century.
But not all cable companies are totally opposed to making changes, though those that will change are few and far between. The holy grail for cord cutters has always been à la carte programming – being able to choose the channels you want, and not get stuck with pay-TV’s bundles of channels. Here in the US, we hear every excuse in the book as to why the cable companies can’t do it, but somehow in Canada, they ARE doing it. Believe it or not, Eastlink Cable in Canada is offering à la carte programming. They call it Personal Picks, and the prices range from $2.95 per month for a single channel, to $15 per month for 12 channels, and $20 per month for 20 channels. There isn’t an overwhelming number of channels available, but the camel’s nose is in the door. Hopefully, it will create a stir and others will follow their lead.
One other thing deserving mention is standalone HBO. On all the cord cutting boards and whenever cord cutting is discussed, à la carte programming is the first topic discussed – the second is invariably standalone HBO. People would love to be able to purchase an HBO subscription without having to have cable. In the Nordic Region – Norway, Finland, Sweden and Denmark – HBO is available on its own or as an add-on to pay-TV subscriptions. It will take them a while, but it will eventually reach the US, as well as the rest of the world.
Cord cutting is approaching its tipping point, and the closer it gets, the faster the changes are happening.
It’s exciting to be part of the evolution of TV and the media. Every day there is new information about new technological advances, new gadgets and products, and statistics on pay-TVs growing number of lost subscribers. People are working together and sharing ideas and it’s exciting to see what others are doing, and how it can affect you.
It’s getting easier and easier to cut the pay-TV cord. Cord cutting is no longer a myth, or something that’s just for techie geeks. It’s very real, and you can join the cord-cutting revolution. Buy a Roku, or put up an antenna, and just try it. You may be one more of the growing millions who are saying “I cut the cord and never looked back!”
Guide Published: August 2013