Living Without Cable
Cutting the cord has been a popular thing to discuss lately. Cable prices have been ridiculous for as long as I can remember, with irritating package options, expiring deals, and constantly rising rates. Companies like Comcast, Charter, Time Warner, etc. have essentially a monopoly over the area they serve. They can charge a large premium, and provide low-quality, low-value service to their customers without any real penalty.
Jace and I cancelled our cable bill back in November 2010. It saves us a huge chunk of money each month (over $80), and for the most part we’ve found ways to watch what we want anyways.
There are so many options out there for cable-free TV watching, that it’s almost overwhelming. I’m going to cover the legal options for US residents that I’m aware of briefly, but I’m sure there are many others out there.
If you haven’t heard of Netflix, you’ve probably been living under a rock or in some foreign isolated country. It is available as an unlimited streaming service as well as a disk service. Subscription prices vary depending on your options. Regardless it is certainly cheaper than cable!
The “instant” streaming service has a much smaller selection of movies and TV shows available, with the latter offering being a bit stronger. This all depends on the deals that they can make with the television networks/movie studios, and it can be a bit mind-boggling and irritating as things come and go from availability. If their instant library was a bit better than the disk service would be pointless, but if you want to be able to watch everything, having both to supplement is a necessary evil. We currently get two disks at time, recently dropping down from three.
Netflix is great for catching up on previous seasons of TV shows. There is something wonderful about being able to watch a whole series in succession, keeping everything fresh in your mind and not having to deal with weeks between painful cliffhangers.
Netflix can be conveyed to your TV via computer, Xbox, Wii, or a set-top box like the Roku, Google TV, Apple TV or Smart TV and more.
Hulu is another extremely popular streaming service. The core content is free from computers, and contains the latest episodes of a wide variety of TV shows. They have movies too, but I’ve never been impressed with the selection.
Hulu Plus is a monthly subscription that provides access to additional back-episodes as well as more movies.
Hulu’s web site is free from computers, however if you want to watch via another media device then you’re most likely going to need to shell out for Hulu Plus. Hulu Plus enabled devices include Xbox, Playstation, Roku, Smart TVs and more.
PlayOn is an interesting service that is much more under-the-radar. It’s a service that you run on your computer, and provides access to a number of streaming channels like Netflix, Hulu, MTV, ESPN, Pandora, TBS, YouTube and more. Check out this list of channels included in the service. There are also a number of additional channel plug-ins available in the Channel Store.
The content provided by the PlayOn channels is generally the exact same content available for free on the websites of the various networks and services. That of course begs the question – why would you pay for something that you could get for free? Well the real benefit of PlayOn is that it makes it much easier to access the content on your TV, without a computer/mouse/keyboard hooked up to it. It also helps you work around the device content restrictions of sites like Hulu.
Subscription options are monthly, annual, and lifetime, all of which are extremely affordable.
To use PlayOn you will need a Windows PC that is connected to the internet. An always-on, always-connected type machine is ideal, but the nice thing is that it can be anywhere in your house. You just download, install, and run the PlayOn server.
The second thing you’ll need is some sort of device hooked up to your TV that will access your PlayOn server and allow you to browse and stream. Devices of this kind include Xbox, PS3, Wii, Google TV, Roku, and more. You can also access your PlayOn server via an iPhone, iPad, Kindle Fire, or Android device. I’m not sure about hooking those mobile devices up to your TV – the quality of output may not be spectacular, but I don’t have any experience there.
The next cable-cutting option is an antenna. The basic channels (FOX, ABC, CBS, NBC, etc) are available for free over the air. Whether you can receive them or not really depends on how far away you live from the transmission towers, construction materials of your home, and barriers to the signal like huge trees or hills. I’d highly recommend that you at list give it a shot to see what you can receive, as this is definitely one of the more affordable options
Best Buy, Target, and other stores that sell consumer electronics have fairly affordable indoor HD antennas that you can try out. You can always return them if you find they don’t work for your home. Don’t be discouraged if you have to play around a bit with the placement of the antenna.
If you really want to go all-out, you can get an out-door antenna mounted on your roof. We’ll probably consider this option eventually, as it’s much more likely to get a clear signal when the antenna is above all obstructions and pointed in the right direction (towards the transmission towers).
Other Online Video Stores
There are quite a few other places to purchase or rent digital Movies and TV Shows. Among the more popular are iTunes and Amazon Instant Video. I’ve personally never used these services, but you may want to check them. I’ve always thought the price was a bit steep per episode, but if you’re only watching a few shows, buying the entire seasons there is still cheaper than a year of cable.
Individual TV Network Sites
Almost every TV Network (NBC, FOX, the CW, ABC Family, etc) has some form of streaming service on their website. The content and quality varies from site to site. Some of them also share their content with Hulu. Most of them are available through plugins to PlayOn.
I’m sure there are tons of other options out there, with more popping up every day. I didn’t mention options like Redbox (because they don’t really carry TV shows, just movies), but that might be an option if you aren’t really tied to watch “TV” but just want some occasional audio-visual entertainment.
What are your favorite ways to watch TV aside from cable?
There are some things that only cable can provide. If you love HBO, or have to catch every single sports game, then dropping cable probably isn’t for you.
Watching sports without cable can be a bit tricky. Some games are televised on basic over-the-air channels. Others are streamed live on the NFL site or ESPN. There are also options like GamePlan that may be available to you depending on your internet service provider. GamePlan allows you to watch ESPN3 via your computer or Xbox. Check out this post on Lifehacker for more info specific to the sport of your choice.
Delays and Expirations
Content providers and cable companies are fighting a battle with streaming providers and consumers. I’m not going to go into a rant about how ridiculous it all is, but lets just say that the TV networks and cable companies are greedy and don’t want to lose their monopoly, so they introduce all kinds of frustrating difficulties.
Some networks have enforced a several day delay on when services like Hulu can show their new episodes, and episodes will often “expire” after a few weeks (which means you’ll have to wait for the DVD release if you get too far behind). Channels like HGTV have a lot of free content online but it’s not updated very regularly which can be quite frustrating.
What Works for Us
We subscribe to Netflix (disc & instant) as well as PlayOn. We have an Xbox 360 hooked up to our TV which allows us to stream Netflix and PlayOn channels.
We also have an HD Antenna that gives us access to the basic channels. We live 30~ miles away from the towers, so sometimes we have to mess with the positioning of the antenna a bit. We currently have two identical antennas tied together with a cable splitter. One we keep in a cabinet and only pull it out on some of the trickier channels or during bad weather – it’s really just meant as a signal boost. With digital signals it’s really either all or nothing – no fuzzy images like old fashioned TVs, just clear digital pictures. On some channels, the over-the-air HD signal is actually an improvement over what we were getting through basic cable!
In general I’ve found that instead of keeping current with TV shows, I prefer to watch them after the full season is out on DVD or Netflix streaming. The story always seems more compelling when watched in large chunks, and I don’t forget important details. Purely episodic shows with no real story arcs can get a bit annoying when watched in a row though. We have tried to keep up with a few shows like Castle and How I Met Your Mother (both available over the air).
Jace is able to watch the major football games via our antenna, although perhaps not as many as he’d like.
HBO is the only true thorn in our side, as there is literally no way to legally watch shows like Game of Thrones until they release on DVD. I would happily give them money for just that show, but alas, they’re not interested.
I’ve also found I waste a lot less time mindlessly watching HGTV or the Food Network. This means more time for reading… and wasting time on the internet.
Any tips that you would like to share? Have you considered canceling your cable TV subscription, or is there something stopping you?