In Part 1 of this post, I explained that the question of how to watch “Internet video” on TV means different things depending on who’s asking. Among those of you who have asked me the question, what most of you have meant is that you want to take advantage of streaming services (primarily Netflix) so that you can watch from your couch, thus I answered you in Part 1. For the purposes of Part 2 of this post, I intend to answer those of you who have meant that what you’d like to do is cancel cable to save money, but still watch your shows. I will also answer those of you who have meant that you want to show your home (or downloaded) movies on the TV screen, but I’ll do that in Part 3 (some new products have led me to postpone this part). So as not to repeat myself, I’ll presume you’ve already read Part 1 before reading this. If not, take a look at the “Why you care” section; it helps set the stage for Part 2 as well.
Internet as a replacement for Cable
Now that you’re caught up, I’ll assume you understand that there are a lot of service providers retransmitting cable, broadcast and theatrical release content via the Internet (e.g. Hulu, Netflix, NBC.com, etc.). The combination of this availability of content and the exorbitant cost of your monthly cable bill has led a lot of you to contemplate canceling cable and going to web services only. What you often ask when you start looking into this option is “How can I use the Internet to cut the cord and replace cable?” My challenge to you, though, is to really consider first the question of “Should I use the Internet to cut the cord and replace cable?”
The short answer up front as always: While cord-cutting is attractive for some early adopters, it isn’t for most of you. Doing it is still too complicated and you can’t replace the highest-value content. For 90+ percent of you, you should stick with cable, and I am going to focus this post on why.
The longer explanation:
Notwithstanding how hard the cable providers try to anger their customers and lag the market on innovation, they actually have created one of the best, stickiest, most reliable, most compelling products available to consumers. With limited exceptions, you turn on your TV any time of day or night and within seconds you have access to hundreds of channels of highly-produced, professionally curated, diverse video. It comes through regardless of what else you are doing in your house, what your neighbors are doing, and no matter what TV you’re using to watch it. It is VERY hard to replicate this kind of seamless experience with web services.
If, despite this explanation you are still intrigued, you first have to understand your current usage. There are some things that Internet services can’t compete with Cable/Broadcast on today. And so, to get to the heart of the matter, there are 3 main considerations:
- Do you care about live events?
- Are you patient with technical glitches?
- Does saving $50 a month make a material impact on your life today?
None of the above are dispositive individually; but the way you answered will be telling. One of four descriptions will describe you and dictate the best solution in your particular case. Those descriptions are:
You love live programming and hate when things break
Live events are among the most compelling TV there is. From sports to red carpets to season finales, some people can’t handle waiting for availability. If you’re one of these people and are not interested in troubleshooting technology (as will be the case for most of you), then regardless of your interest in saving money, or being a “cord-cutter,” I don’t recommend you cancel cable. The solutions are just too hard.
Everything you watch is from the 80s anyway
The highest-rated programs are always live events, so if you are in the rare group of people that just doesn’t care, you have an option of cutting the cord. Part 1 of this post outlines the best services and solutions to stream a fair amount of content and you shouldn’t worry about fully replicating the cable experience; just follow my prior post and stop paying for cable. I find that Netflix, Hulu Plus and YouTube provide most of what I’d be looking for, and Vudu is another worthy compliment. Take careful inventory of what you actually watch and get a solution from Part 1 that has the most overlap to offer. If you do go down this path, please keep in mind that rights expire and change on a regular basis. If you can’t live without a show, you may find yourself very unhappy when its network pulls it from Hulu.
You love live shows, but you’re a tech geek at heart; having the setup is more fun than watching what’s on it
I’m not sure there’s a single one of you reading this that falls into the hard-core geek category, but this is where I actually answer the question you thought you asked in the first place. To replicate your current television experience, without the cable bill, your best bet is to connect an actual computer to your TV (also known as a “home-theater PC” or “HTPC”). You’ll have access to most of the streaming services available through devices outlined in Part 1 of this post and more (both because some streaming is browser-only, and because you won’t encounter the gamesmanship where rightsholders are restricting access from certain devices). To set up an HTPC, you’ll need a computer, some big hard-drives, some special-purpose hardware, and a means of controlling the system. Enough great blogs have detailed what you need to build an HTPC, so I won’t replicate their guides. I will, however, simplify the world you’re about to dive into a bit by explaining that there are Mac-based solutions and the rest:
- Mac-based solutions require the least technical know-how, offer a fair complement of services and the most multi-purpose hardware, but are limited in their functionality. I’d recommend a Mac Mini equipped with an EyeTV 250, and an iPhone or iPad (with any one of the apps listed in this write-up or this one) to control the system; you can also use a keyboard and mouse, but that’s not for everyone.
- The rest of the solutions are either built on top of Windows or Linux, require you to build your system from the case up to have a setup that fits nicely in the living room, and include a number of complicated pieces of software to make everything work together, but provide the flexibility of a truly custom setup with functionality ranging from that of the Mac to a multi-tuner monster able to record from 10 sources at once.
- For the Mac: The Ultimate Mac mini HTPC Guide (Hardware and Software), but note that the new macs have some hardware updates that aren’t reflected here that make setup even easier (e.g. the new Mac Minis have HDMI ports, so you don’t need a DVI-HDMI or MiniDisplay-HDMI adapter).
- Non-Mac: AVS Forum’s Guide to Building a Home Theater PC. These guides are updated monthly, are incredibly detailed and should serve as a test — if you look at this link and aren’t excited to read enough to understand what they’re saying, you probably aren’t ready to build a solution from scratch.
- To get started: Engadget did a write-up 2 years ago on how to build a home-theater PC for under $1000. The hardware and software recommended is all outdated, but the logic and basic framework remains the same and they’ve done a very good job of explaining the components and why you need them. It is worth a read.
There are additional benefits of building an HTPC like those described above. A fully-functioning PC is useful to listen to music in your living room, share photo albums with friends, check Twitter, order from Seamlessweb, and if your setup is right, can even be used as your main computer. Once you’ve recorded shows to an HTPC’s hard drive, you’ll also have them free of copy restrictions, so you can burn them to disk or convert them for your iPad or phone and take them with you (more on that in the next part of this post). If you have the time and inclination, you can eke a lot out of these rigs.
Money is THE motivating factor
Finally, if money is the reason you want to do this, and everything else is flexible, you’re not alone, but your options are limited. If you start down the road of building an HTPC, as outlined above, you’ll invest at least $500, and often $1000 or more. Even if you allocate $75 of your cable bill to the actual cable service each month (remember you’ll still have to pay for broadband access), you’re looking at a need to use the HTPC for 6 months to a year before you’re recouped your costs and anytime you need an upgrade, you’re setting yourself back. It just won’t make enough of an impact on your finances to make it worthwhile. Instead, you should consider an antenna capable of receiving a digital signal and resigning yourself to watching live events live (i.e. not on DVR) while relying on the services outlined in Part 1 for the rest of your programming. Unfortunately, if this is the case for you, chances are you live in a major city (like New York) and you won’t be able to get digital reception in your apartment, so this isn’t an option. For you, I have to punt; there are no good solutions yet. There may be soon (Apple has been rumored to be offering an a la carte or cheaper service for quite some time, for example), but for today, you’re stuck with cable.
In sum, you likely want to stick with Cable, but if you’re dead-set on replacing it, a home-theater PC is the only way to get a complete solution. You’re unlikely to save time or money, but you will get to free yourself from the restrictions of your cable box and have a custom computing solution to go along with it.
Got a solution I missed? Leave a comment below.
In the next installment of this post, I’ll provide at least 3 ways to access your home (or downloaded) movies on the TV screen, so stay tuned.