Like many people, I was suckered in by the deal. I can’t remember the specifics, but DirecTV promised me a butt-load of channels for a low low price. Whole-home DVR included! Free installation included! NFL Sunday Ticket included! Call now, and we’ll double your order! (just pay separate shipping and handling fees that happen to be the same price.)
After years of watching my Time Warner Cable television bill creep up, I signed the two year sweetheart deal from DirecTV and it was great. For a while.
Of course, we all know that low low price is only good for a year. But that’s waaayyy in the future, right? Well, those twelve months slipped by pretty quickly and by the end of my contract agreement I was paying $110 a month for satellite TV.
$110 a month to watch TV isn’t cheap and I didn’t feel like I was getting a 110 bucks worth of entertainment. Not even close. Both of my kids NEVER watch TV (weirdos) and it felt like between my wife and I we only watched a handful of shows on the DVR. Gone are the days of flipping channels to find something to watch. In the meantime, our monthly bill is helping to subsidize obscure networks I didn’t even know we had. I’m looking at you, BabyFirstTV. And don’t think I didn’t notice you hiding in the corner, Free Speech TV (yes, these are real channels). What a waste. Time for a change.
It took a little convincing, but I got the missus on board and cancelled our DirecTV. I sent back the equipment (sans the ugly dish on our roof which they don’t want back) and now we spend all our free time with riveting conversation, reading books by the fireplace, and playing board games as a family.
Like all cable cutters before us, we turned to the magical land of the world wide interwebs for our entertainment needs and haven’t looked back since. The weekly flyers we get in the mail from DirecTV begging us to come back go right in the bin and life is sweet.
Watching TV shows and movies on your laptop, smart phone, and tablet is easy and possible, but not ideal. These devices are great when you’re on the go, but home sweet home means watching on the big screen. For that you need a dedicated streaming device connected to the televisions in your house.
For months before cutting the cable I experimented with a home theater PC (HTPC) and was never quite satisfied. I dreamed of a do-it-all box capable of video streaming, Bluray and DVD watching, web browsing, and video game playing. In reality, despite fiddling with different hardware and software configurations for months, I ended up with a PC that wasn’t very user friendly and mediocre at best for most of these tasks. I still have the PC connected to the TV for playing games and watching DVDs, but for streaming video, I decided to go with a dedicated device.
There are a lot of options these days for dedicated streaming devices and most do a very good job. Many new televisions are now “smart” TVs as well with built-in capabilities of connecting to your network for Netflix or Hulu. I’ll admit I have zero experience with smart TVs, but personally I don’t feel like that’s a feature that should be high on your list for must haves of a new TV. Streaming devices are so affordable these days that you can upgrade more often as new devices hit the market, compared to a TV which you’ll be stuck with for years.
A few of the mainstream and popular streaming media players include Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, and Google Chromecast. You can’t go wrong with any of these devices, but I highly recommend going with Roku.
I’ve owned the first generation Roku for years, so when we cut the cord the decision for what device to rely on was easy. My original Roku was getting a little grey around the edges so I bought the latest and greatest version available.
There are currently four players to choose from: Roku 1, Roku Streaming Stick, Roku 2, and Roku 3. A comparison chart showing the difference in the four models can be found here.
I own a Roku 2 for the bedroom and a Roku 3 for the living room. Although the Roku 2 ($69.99) is a fine player, I highly recommend paying the extra money and going for the Roku 3 ($99.99). The Roku 2 can be slow to respond to commands sometimes and delays while moving through the menus and searching can be frustrating. It also uses an older interface that looks clunky and dated compared to the newer Roku 3.
By comparison, the performance of the Roku 3 is outstanding. The interface is silky smooth, stable, and easy on the eyes. Connectivity comes via a network jack on the back or wifi, and the remote comes with a handy earphone jack (Roku 2 has this as well). I didn’t give this feature much thought until I realized how often I had to try and fall asleep while the missus blasted Doctor Who. Now she watches in bed with headphones and our marriage survives to live another day.
App-wise, Roku supports all the major ones such as Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, and Amazon in addition to hundreds of other channels. Many of these channels are free, but are nothing to get excited about. Other channels such as Fox, ESPN, and History require you to log in with your cable or satellite credentials which defeats the purpose of cable cutting. To get the best experience, you’ll have to pony up some dough and pay for a subscription service, which leads us to:
The Video Subscriptions
Did you buy a Roku 3 which I highly recommend? Great! Now what to watch? Your best bet is to sign up for one, two, or all of the big three: Netflix, Hulu+, and Amazon Prime Instant video.
Netflix is the standard when it comes to streaming television and movies. Starting off as a DVD in the mail subscription service in 1999, Netflix started offering streaming in 2007. I signed up right away mostly out of curiosity after they made the announcement and found the library to be pretty limited. Most of what we wanted to watch was on DVD only and the picture quality could be spotty at times. It was pretty common to experience pauses while watching a movie when Netflix struggled to find the best bitrate for your internet connection. We’d sit and wait for up to 30 seconds sometimes watching the buffering status bar crawl across the screen.
Oh, how the times have changes. These days, Netflix is rock solid in the picture quality department and their library is huge. Videos start playing immediately at a lower quality rate and usually after 5 seconds or so, the best picture quality will lock in and stay there. If the connection does get bogged down, your video will keep playing, only at a lower quality in real-time. For me this is quite rare, however. Every movie or show I watch is in HD 99% of the time.
As I mentioned earlier, Netflix’s library of content is large enough that I never question the value of my subscription fee. Entire series of popular shows in every genre and movies galore will keep your queue full indefinitely.
The interface for Netflix will vary based on what you’re using to watch it with, whether it’s the Netflix website or an app for your streaming device. The Netflix channel for Roku 3 is attractive and easy to use. It suggests content based on what you watch and how you rate and integrates with Facebook if that floats your boat. Just think twice before watching Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo if you don’t want your FB friends to know about your guilty pleasures.
Netflix offers three streaming plans:
One screen at a time in standard definition for $7.99/month
Two screens at a time in high definition for $8.99/month
Four screens at a time in HD and Ultra HD for $11.99/month
You also have the option to kick it old school style and sign up for DVD and Bluray discs plans as well.
Hulu is a free website that offers movies and TV shows with short commercial breaks before and during the content. Hulu+ is a subscription service that offers more content than Hulu and is required if you want to use Hulu on a streaming device such as a Roku. Unfortunately, the ads stay, even if you choose to upgrade to the paid plan.
What’s that? I’m paying for this and STILL have to watch advertising? Trust me, it’s not as bad as you might think. The commercials breaks are much shorter and less often than what you’re used to on cable (you’re paying for that too, remember?) however the lack of variety can be annoying. Spend the afternoon binge watching your favorite show and you can expect to see the same Ford commercial a dozen times.
Although Hulu+ offers movies, their television catalog is where they stand apart from the other services. Hulu has agreements with the major networks that allows them to stream current popular primetime shows shortly after they air on “real” TV, such as The Bachelor and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. They also have a pretty impressive of older and classic television shows if you’re like me and enjoy watching gems such as Charles in Charge (don’t judge).
Like Netflix, the Hulu+ is well designed, attractive, and easy to use. Hulu+ costs $7.99/month
A Warning About Television Series: Just because you find your favorite TV show doesn’t necessarily mean the entire series is available to watch. Depending on what rights the providers were able to negotiate with the TV folks, sometimes entire series are there and sometimes only a season or two. For example, Hulu+ only has season one of Charles in Charge (don’t judge). I was fired up for season two when the Powell family moved in and Buddy Lembeck turned into an insane person. But alas, my Charles in Charge fix will have to go unfulfilled for now. Don’t judge.
This isn’t just a Hulu problem. All providers including Netflix and Amazon offer incomplete series for some shows.
Amazon Instant Video and Amazon Prime Instant Video
Amazon is a little different than Netflix and Hulu+. Where the latter offer all-you-can watch for one price, Amazon offers that as well, in addition to buying or renting movies and television episodes separately.
Amazon Prime Instant Video is part of Amazon Prime, which offers free two day shipping on many items, unlimited video streaming in the Prime Instant Video library, unlimited music streaming in the Prime music library, storage space to upload your photos, and one Kindle book borrow per month from the Kindle Select lending library.
Even without all the other features, at $100 a year, Amazon Prime Instant Video is still an affordable option for movie and TV streaming. Consider all the other Prime services and its a no-brainer in my book.
Although the library is a little smaller than what you’ll find at Netflix and Hulu, there’s still plenty to choose from and Amazon offers original programming as well as HBO’s collection of shows such as The Sopranos and Deadwood.
If Prime Instant Video doesn’t have what you’re looking for, Amazon Instant Video most likely will - for a price. You can purchase movies or rent them for 24 hours. Same goes for recent television series, although at $1.99 per episode it can get costly.
Amazon Instant Video and Amazon Prime Instant Video are both available through the same app on your streaming device and it’s easy enough to search for Prime only content.
YouTube may be full of cat fail compilation videos and Jimmy Buffett concerts shot with a cell phone, but if you look past all the crap, there is actual content on there worth watching. TV shows, music videos, sporting events, and how-to videos just to name a few. And don’t forget, it’s free and owned by Google, so once you watch a video or two, the Google machine behind the scenes does a really good job a recommending similar content.
Which is best?
I’ve had subscriptions to all of the big three at the same time since cutting the cord. Netflix, Hulu+, and Amazon Prime. At a little over $25 a month, I have more content then I could ever get around to watching at a fraction of what DirecTV was debiting from my checking account.
There is a lot of crossover between the three. For example, if I notice Netflix just added a new movie, it was usually just added to Hulu and Amazon as well. I assume once the guys in suits make a movie available for streaming, all three snatch it up to stay competitive. However, there is enough variety between the three that keeps me paying the bills to all of them each month.
Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon also offer original programming that you can’t find anywhere else such as the last season of Arrested Development, Orange is the New Black, Behind the Mask, and Transparent.
If I could only go with one of the three, I’d have a hard time deciding, which is why I subscribe to all three. But if you’re going to put a gun to my head, I’d say Netflix is the best based on the recommendation engine, content library, interface, and lack of advertising.
Local Over-the-Air Television
If you live near a big city, you can probably get most, if not all, of the local channels over the air using an antenna. I can’t offer any recommendations on the subject since I’ve never tried, so you’ll have to look elsewhere for antennae reviews.
Why have I never needed to try this? Because I get local TV channels in with my cable internet service. Years ago I found that if I split off my cable before it gets to my cable modem and connect it to the TV, I can pull in almost all of the local channels (except for CBS for some reason) and TBS for free. All in HD except for TBS.
I’m not sure of the technical explanation but I assume those channels are part of the same, uh, bandwidth or something, that the internet flows into the house on and TWC doesn’t have a way to separate them. Either way, I’m enjoying the free channels from Time Warner.
I suppose plenty of you out there could point fingers and question of the morality of my set up, but I sleep well at night. Other than using a basic splitter you can buy anywhere, I haven’t performed any hacking or shady wiring on Time Warner owned equipment. And I’m not getting HBO for free, just the basic local channels that are floating through the air anyway (Except for TBS so I get standard definition as punishment). For all I know, TWC is aware of this and doesn’t care. I’m just sharing my setup and if you decide to give it a try, that’s your decision.
What About Sports?
That’s probably the biggest reason more folks aren’t dumping their cable or satellite TV. And don’t think Big Cable doesn’t know that. If the thought of not being able to catch SportsCenter everyday sends you into a panic attack, then cutting the cable might not be for you. Sorry.
I’m not much of a sports fan, but I can watch every Packer game on our local Fox affiliate. I am into racing however, and I have to admit it was a little painful to miss the Formula 1 and IndyCar season last year. I was able watch plenty of other racing on YouTube a day or two after they aired and some series offer live streaming. Last year I was able to watch every Tudor United Sportscar Championship, World Endurance Championship, and Pirelli World Challenge race.
When it comes to sports, and cable cutting in general, it’s all about compromise. Saving money often means a little sacrifice along the way.
A final word about internet service. Now that you’re saving a bundle without that expensive cable or satellite bill, it’s time to evaluate your internet service if you’re going to stream all your video entertainment needs.
Netflix and Hulu recommend a minimum service of 1.5 megabits per second, but it won’t be a very pleasant experience. For a reliable connection capable of HD quality video, you’re going to want at least 5 Mbps. If you can afford more, bump it up to 10 Mbps or so. Especially if you have other family members browsing the internet or streaming content themselves.
Our family has and 15Mbps connection and quite often I find myself watching watching HD video in the living room while the missus is doing the same in the bedroom and the boy is upstairs killing Nazi Zombies on his PC with no problems.
Does your internet service have a data cap? If it does, you might be screwed. Streaming video chews up a lot of data and it only might take a few days before you hit your limit. As you can see by my usage chart from Time Warner Cable, we use a lot of data and I would guess over 90% of that is streaming video. Notice how little data we used in September? My wife and I were both in the hospital and recovering from surgery during that month so we didn’t watch too much. What you see is the effect of us not streaming.
When you signed up for that $19.95 a month super deal on internet service, make sure you check the fine print to see if you have any restrictions on monthly bandwidth.
I have a dream. Not to live in a world where I’m judged by the content of my character, I dream of a day where we can pick and choose exactly what cable channels we want. That day may never come, so in the meantime I’m making my voice heard with my checkbook. Here’s the good news. This is just the beginning, friends. Technology is only getting better, competition with content providers only getting stiffer, and us as the consumers are on the winning end. Get rid of that bloated and inefficient cable/satellite plan and ride the wave with me.
Robert Brumm is the author of several books and refuses to recognize the restraining order from Scott Baio. Don’t judge and don't forget to subscribe to his blog.