Cable Cutting – Blue Pill or Red?

There are so many ways to watch video these days

Cable, satellite, digital antennas, IPTV. Are we really done with big cable packages? Cable cutting is on the rise but what are we really getting without a contract? With cable you typically receive a set-top box filled with hundreds of channels. You have the locals, movies, news, sports, children and specialties loaded with advertisements. I can’t imagine anyone ever watching all of them. But they are there whether you look at them or not. And you pay for them.

Leightman Research Group estimated that the 13 top cable providers lost about 470,000 video customers in the second quarter, compared to a loss of 350,000 for the corresponding quarter last year. It will be interesting to see how everything plays out over the next few years as cable companies start unbundling channels and offering their own apps. They may also start increasing the cost of their internet service as more people jump ship.

Move away from cabe and you end up with a huge mix of almost what you want. Be careful not to sign up for too many streaming services or you easily risk putting your monthly cost over that of your current cable bill. How will you ever decide? Let’s look at some options…

 

Live Broadcasts

Digital Antenna for cable cutting
Digital antennas can be placed behind a tv or stuck to a window

You can go out and purchase a digital antenna for around $40. If you are close enough to a broadcasting station this will bring better than cable quality picture of live over-the-air TV. Check to see if your location has coverage at AntennaWeb. Mostly local channels and it doesn’t mount on your roof. They just stick to a widow or can mount behind your TV on the wall. Keep in mind though that you are dealing with technology similar to old analog antennas so placement of it may be critical to maintaining a solid signal or grabbing more channels. And if you aren’t right next to a broadcaster you want to be sure your antenna is amplified. This sounds great but everyone is now used to watching on their time, not when broadcasters syndicate. So now you need to record some of these shows on a DVR so you can watch them when you have time. This is an added cost but once again it’s a 1-time purchase that should last a while. The Sony Playstation Vue forgoes the antenna by offering live channels over the internet along with DVR functions and VOD but for a hefty price. I will go over that option later. If you don’t care about watching the Grammys or local live news cast skip on to Internet-only options.

Set-top Boxes

2015 AppleTV with Siri voice integration to aid in cable cutting
The new Apple TV set top box with remote

Another cable-less option is in the form of a set-top box you own. The content comes in over the internet and you need to decide which services will catch most of what you want to watch. I will use Apple TV as an example here since the new version was just announced with some exciting features. As of this writing, the current version (which will be replaced soon with a new one) costs $69 for the box and comes with a physical remote control. It uses your Apple ID account to connect to the iTunes store where you can rent or purchase content à la carte. Most set-top boxes allow for 3rd-party apps to be installed. Apple TV can hook you up with HBO Now, Showtime, hulu Plus and Netflix and on the sports side ESPN, MLB, NBA, and NHL. The new Apple TV will allow for voice search using Siri which will universally check through all your content apps and return results showing which app the content is available from. It will include a feature to repeat the last 15 seconds while displaying closed captions in case you missed what someone said. It seems to be a pretty solid upgrade compared to the previous box but it comes with a price tag of $150.

Keep in mind that each of those app services come with a separate bill. Most are around $7.99/m and they might have some terms like missing episodes from a full season or blacked-out local games. With a little research, you should be able to sign up with just a few of these services to wet most of your appetite.

So now you can watch your TV dramas on hulu Plus ($7.99/m), movies on Netflix ($7.99/m), sports on MLB Premium ($49.99/y) and if you are ever missing anything, it should be available on iTunes as a last resort. That’s just over $20/m which is cheaper than cable. Don’t forget the upfront cost for the Apple TV though.

Streaming Sticks

2015 Chromecast version with faster access to cable-like content for cable cutting
The new Chromecast HDMI dongle

And still another option that started about 2 years ago is a small dongle. Shaped like a thumb drive, these streaming sticks simply plug directly into your display’s HDMI port. Most of them include software that displays virtual channels on your screen like the set-top option without the ugly box. Think of it like shrinking an Apple TV and plugging it directly into the back or side of your TV. There are a handful of these sticks on the market. For this example I’m going to use Google’s Chromecast because unlike the others, it works different and is my personal choice. By using your phone, tablet or laptop Chrome tab, you simply browse to a website or app that has the content you want to watch. If it supports Chromecast, you will see the icon and with a tap, send to your big screen. The Chromecast stick now takes over and (with newer displays) can turn it on and automatically switch to the proper HDMI input. Within seconds your show will start playing (even faster with the 2015 version). The Chromecast itself doesn’t display any onscreen menu for the whole family to see. This might be a problem for some. Once the show starts playing, you can turn off your phone or whichever device you started it from since the video isn’t streaming from it. The Chromecast takes over and frees your device up to do other things like Tweet play-by-plays (with the new Chromecast announcement, some apps will be able to handle 2nd screen functions without interrupting what’s on the TV display). If you want to pause or adjust the volume, you can do so from the device you are casting from. The new Chromecast also touts the ability to play multiplayer mobile games. And the new Google Photos app lets you seamlessly share your collection with everyone in the room without over sharing.

In My Experience

Early Android TV test model for cable cutting
Early Android TV prototype I tested

During my 2 years at Google I was able to test the Android TV (ADT-1 “Molly”) with its big chunky remote and game controller. The set-top unit was square with connections on the back and a raised diamond pattern on the bottom (acting as feet) with multicolored LED. Part way through my 4 months of testing at home they killed the remote and replaced it with an app which sometimes worked. Somehow they thought it would be best controlled just using the game controller. It now ships with a skinny remote so I guess that works better.

Let’s back up a minute. I’ve done this all before. In 2008 I dumped Time Warner cable and watched a few shows directly from their websites using a Mac-mini connected to a projector. I had to play with it a bit to line up the picture and the bitrate was pretty low but it was watchable even at 91″. Selection was from ABC.com or my 1st generation Apple TV. It worked well enough for me since I don’t watch that much TV at home (I watch enough at work to last a lifetime).

I later broke down and signed up with AT&T U-verse because at that time money wasn’t an issue and I wanted to experience HD content. Set myself up with 2 HD receivers and DVR. That was maybe 2009. I was pretty happy for a while. Then I recently started to feel like I’m being ripped off starting in 2013 when my cell phone contract was over and they refused to lower my monthly bill. He guys, I own the phone now. I’m no longer needing to pay the extra $20 or so per month. They said no and I pulled the plug and switch over to T-Mobile. I went from paying $120/m for 500 minutes talk and 1,000 sms with unlimited (speed capped) data to now paying $40/m for unlimited talk & text with 10GB data which is fine by me. Then I thought why pay for TV contract also? We have a forced package with so many channels we never watch. I was paying $50/m now I’m paying for Netflix and hulu Plus which comes to $18/m. No contract and no extra fees for HD or DVR boxes.

My personal set up at home is now over simplified. I have 1st generation Chromecasts plugged directly into each TV set. I retired my old Pioneer Elite tuner and big speakers for a smaller all-in-one approach which still handles the connections I need with a much smaller footprint and remote. I subscribe to Netflix and Hulu Plus and also use as many free apps as I can find with quality programming. The new update to the Chromecast app is what I’ve been looking for for quite a while. It’s my TV Guide showing what’s available to watch across all my installed apps. I doubt I’ll ever go back to a conventional cable package. I do find some programming I want to watch like Mr. Robot, hard to find and resort to purchasing through Google Play store. I’m an edge case being that I only watch a few shows and being in the industry I’m used to dipping into random shows and only watching a few minutes of them. I find the most value comes out of YouTube and Ted Talks. But again, that’s just me.

 

Main menu for the Sony Playstation Vue alternative to live channels for cable cutting
Main menu for the Sony Playstation Vue

I currently work for MLBAM where we are maintaining the backend for live and VOD content on Sony’s Playstation Vue service. MLBAM handles many streaming services as well. There is mlb.com and supporting apps on many platforms including HBO Now and WWE.

Setting Up

Most set-top boxes and streaming sticks have built-in Wifi and ethernet connectivity. I would highly suggest running a line from your router and physically plugging in. Wifi is inconsistent, suffers from interference from other access points close by or on the same channel. Also the placement of your router can have adverse affects on the signal strength as well as competing Wifi devices like cell phones and tablets in the house. The Chromecast recently started selling an AC adapter which doubles as a way to plug in your ethernet connection.

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Technical Specs – Your Cable Cutting Options At A Glance

HARDWARE

Digital HD Antennas

1byone Window Antenna 50 Miles Super Thin HDTV Antenna with 20ft Coaxial Cable, Extreme Soft Design and Lightweight. Comes in silver, white or clear, this 50 mile amplified antenna is on Amazon: 1byone OUS00-0563 Super Thin Indoor HDTV Antenna with 20 Feet High Performance Coaxial Cable – White/Black

  • 50 miles range to access from broadcast tower. It delivers full 1080p HD to any digital-ready TV.
  • Comes with a 20-foot coaxial cable for greater flexibility. Makes it easier for you to place it in your house to get the best reception, especially for customers whose televisions are quite far away from windows.

Google Nexus Player
Nexus Player from Google by ASUS
Watch content from apps like Netfix, Hulu Plus and Google Play TV, Movies and Music. Play games with a real dedicated game controller and cast content from your mobile device.


Apple TV
The Future of Television as told by Apple with their upcoming Apple TV.

Google Chromecast
The easiest way to send content to your TV. The new Chromecast from Google.



Microsoft X-Box 360/One
Microsoft offers TV content on their Xbox One 500GB Console – Gears of War: Ultimate Edition Bundle in partnership with the Hauppauge Digital TV Tuner for Xbox One TV Tuners and Video Capture 1578 and Mohu Leaf 50 Amplified Indoor HDTV Antenna (formerly Leaf Ultimate). Sling TV for $20/m as well as many of the other apps listed below like Netflix and Hulu Plus.

SERVICES

Amazon Prime
As part of the $99/y Amazon Prime subscription you can watch many movies and TV shows.

hulu Plus
For $7.99 you get access to many current TV shows (new $11.99 option for (almost!!) ad-free). 

CBS All Access
For $5.99/m watch live content from CBS. Works with Roku and Chromecast.


Sling TV
Available on many devices, Sling offers live content.


Fox Now
Watch Fox shows (only with cable contract!!).


Netflix
Available on the most platforms, Netflix offers a wide variety of TV and movies for $7.99/m for up to 2 screens in HD at the same time.

Sony Playstation Vue
Starting at $49.99/m the Vue network available on Playstation 3 & 4 game boxes and Apple iPad.

 

Final Thoughts For Cable Cutting

I feel although we are heading in the right direction, there are still many problems in today’s home entertainment world. We are moving away from simply plugging in a cable and pressing buttons on a remote. With the announcement of the new Chromecast app, things are getting easier for cable cutting. The new AppleTV also performs universal content search across all your installed apps. Voice search is enabling fast access if you know what you’re looking for but discovery is still a problem. The old days of channel surfing just doesn’t exist on the internet.

Not living the dream. In an ideal world of entertainment we would have 1 place to go to see any show ever filmed, taped or digitized. A complete catalog of anything we want to watch from new primetime shows all the way back to the oldest moving pictures. All searchable and easily accessible to everyone. I’m afraid to say that may never come to be.

Spoon boy: Do not try and bend the spoon. That’s impossible. Instead… only try to realize the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Spoon boy: There is no spoon.
Neo: There is no spoon?
Spoon boy: Then you’ll see, that it is not the spoon that bend, it is only yourself.

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