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June 2015: Cord-Cutting For the Rest of Us


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The problem:

Ever more expensive cable and satellite TV fees, for ever less satisfaction in terms of news and entertainment. But what can you do?

The solution:

Usually a multi-pronged approach will be best. First, be aware that in many places you can cancel the TV portion of your cable subscription, and keep just the internet access. Net access alone can be exploited in various ways to give you much or all of the TV you previously got via cable-- and sometimes a whole lot more (although hard core addicts to sports, currently airing prime time network TV shows, and/or the very latest top Hollywood blockbuster films will have the fewest options in all this).

A brief overview of cable TV alternatives and related technologies

Note that satellite-based services tend to be significantly inferior to those over coax, all other things being equal (however, the best satellite provider might be easier to live with than the worst cable provider, in some instances; and a few million of us may have few or no cable alternatives other than satellite access).

DSL (net access over old fashioned telephone wires) is usually lots slower than cable internet (but considerably faster than the dial up methods of old). DSL might support a single stream of TV, like through a Netflix subscription or web site viewing. But I expect two or more simultaneous streams could easily be too much for it. By contrast, cable internet seems capable of supporting at least several simultaneous streams, and likely more.

Some people seem to use tethering for their home net access (wirelessly connecting through their cell phone plan for internet usage). However, I believe this method tends to be the most expensive and limited way possible to access the net for TV or film viewing, circa 2015.

Wifi by itself is not, strictly speaking, internet access, but merely a means to possibly connecting to same. For instance, if you have a wifi network in your home, it'll only allow you internet access if you also have an internet service provider subscription to connect it to. Your local McDonalds or other local business may likewise offer you wifi connections to whatever internet service subscriptions they currently maintain.

Lastly, free over-the-air HDTV broadcasts from ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, the CW network, PBS, and others are available to most of us in the USA via TV antenna (usually via a TV antenna costing as little as $10-$12). Of course, practical access to those channels will vary widely according to your nearness to the broadcasting towers, and the buildings and terrain between you and those towers.

Downgrading your cable TV package

In some locations you may have an alternative to outright cancellation of your cable TV subscription. For it appears some states force cable TV companies to offer a stripped down basic package of only the local channels and sometimes a little more, for a much smaller monthly payment than most of us usually wind up being charged. The monthly difference between a Basic cable TV subscription and an Extended Basic subscription may be as little as roughly $25, or as much as $50, last time I checked.

New TV viewing options are popping up

Fresh new options for many things are being announced every few months or so, these days. For instance, certain cable and satellite TV companies are beginning to offer their own channel packages via the net access of their competitors, and/or through set top boxes. And even local broadcast TV channels in some places are becoming available as a paid option on certain set top boxes, as well.

One place to hear about such changes is DSL Reports.

Set top boxes and sticks (Roku, AppleTV, Chromecast, etc.)

And speaking of set top boxes, those like the Roku and Apple TV (and certain internet enabled televisions, which sort of include built in versions of such boxes) can open up all new worlds of TV and film content for users, through the conduit of internet access. Both can run apps like Netflix, offering lots of existing TV and film content for a low monthly fee (around $10.00, circa 2015). AppleTV also has iTunes, which offers perhaps a bigger and fresher collection than Netflix, but at a tremendously higher price per view (easily 30 times higher, for heavy users: holy crap!).

(I detail my own somewhat rocky start with my first Roku box in Get free TV with Roku via the internet; however, it did have a happy ending, as we today have three Rokus)

Boxes like the Roku are more open to developers in general than generations of AppleTV released prior to 2015, and so offer lots more and more widely varied channels to users, of both the free and paid varieties. Thus, as of early 2015, Roku may be the best choice for those on a budget, or those who don't mind waiting a while to see the very latest USA film releases and prime time TV shows in their living room.

For those of us especially pinched money-wise, The best free Roku TV channels should be of immense help (as of June 1, 2015, it lists 158 free channels).

Some of the functionality of such set top boxes have by now been made available in 'sticks', much resembling PC thumb drives, which plug into your TV's HDMI port and get net access via your home wifi (Ethernet ports usually aren't available on sticks). Google's Chromecast kicked off this sort of product maybe two years ago, and since then Roku has made a stick version of their box as well.

These sticks are cheaper than the set top box versions, and it shows in their performance. I had a chance to see a Roku stick in action, and now have the opinion that while it might work all right for just Netflix and maybe a handful of other channels, you definitely couldn't get anywhere near the capabilities of a Roku set top box out of it. We have three Roku 2XS boxes here, which easily handle around 200 channels, compared to the stick's measely handful. I suspect the Google Chromecast would have similar limitations of memory and processing speed. And their lack of Ethernet ports could be cumbersome at some point as well.

That being said, I can still see some situations where a limited stick might be enough. For instance, I currently have a Roku 2XS box connected to my elliptical machine so I can listen to Pandora or another radio channel, or perhaps watch Netflix, while working out. For just that, a stick might be all I need. So I may use a stick there to allow me to move that box to a TV where it'd get more of its many channels viewed.

Personal computer TV (Windows, Apple, Linux)

Of course, a set top box or similar function stick is by no means a must-have for cord-cutters. For a standard modern Mac or PC will give you access to most everything you can get on any set top box, plus lots, lots more. At least in theory. In practice, you'll want the aid of one or a couple of very good video link aggregation web sites to point your computer to, when you're ready to watch TV or movies via computer, so that you don't have to waste a lot of time searching for safe and reliable video content online. In early 2013 I liked tvtimes.me for this. However, I've not visited there for a while now, since it's so much more convenient to watch a flatscreen TV connected to a Roku from the living room couch, than sit hunched at the same desktop PC I toiled on all day (I work at home).

Unfortunately, none of the set top boxes currently available can replace all the TV and movie viewing functionality of a personal computer right out of the box-- although you can come close, with various add-ons. Me personally, I prefer to do 98% of my TV viewing on a Roku set top through a big flat screen TV, and then use my PC for the 2% my Roku can't offer without a lot of extra set up and re-configuration chores, or paying more fees. For instance, I watched all the previous seasons of Vampire Diaries commercial-free via Netflix on my Roku around 2013 or so. But for the latest season, I had to watch each episode one day after network airing on CW's own web site, via my PC. Likewise, rather than paying for a premium subscription to Roku's Crunchyroll channel (or waiting a week or two) to see the latest episode of Naruto Shippuden, I visit a different web site via my PC (Crunchyroll maintains both a web site and Roku channel) to get it the day it becomes available from Japan, for free.

So it can be handy to use a personal computer to supplement a set top box now and then. Adding this computer functionality to the Roku might also be possible, with things like Plex, but I haven't yet felt compelled to try that (partly because it requires you to slave your PC to your set top box, or vice versa; if I were going to do that, I'd prefer to use a dedicated PC for the purpose, rather than involving my main work PC (I'm self-employed, and don't want to possibly compromise or bog down my work machine)).

Free over the air HDTV

If none of the options above filled or replaced your desire for local news and/or prime time TV from the major US TV networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, CW, and PBS), then you may want an HD TV antenna too.

Many of us live in or near cities with broadcast towers for all these stations. And so will be able to simply buy a cheap desktop antenna from a local store (typically under $40 in cost), plug it in, and immediately solve that problem.

HDTV reception in vast, sprawling suburbs

Many others of us however will need something more like the opposite of that cheap desktop antenna. Like an outdoor version, mounted high in, or atop, or beside our homes. Those of us lucky enough to have a medium or better strength signal where we live might be able to mount such an antenna in our attic, or not very high outside our homes somewhere. The attic location would protect the antenna from possible storm damage, and perhaps make the installation a bit cheaper and easier than the outdoors version would be.

Us, we weren't so lucky about that, instead requiring much more strenuous measures. Which led to the creation of the web page below:

How We Got Over the Air (OTA) HDTV in a Fringe Reception Area (remote rural and/or mountainous terrain)

a - j m o o n e y h a m . c o m - o r i g i n a l

Copyright © 2013-2015 by J.R. Mooneyham. All rights reserved.