Sunday, October 19, 2014

Life As A Cordcuttter

A few years ago, tired of paying a ton of money for satellite TV channels that I never watched, I "cut the cord" - canceled my pay TV subscription and began getting my TV fix through alternate means.  I had high-speed internet and no intention of giving that up, so it made sense to stream as much as possible over that connection.  Eventually I also installed a good-old outdoor aerial antenna to pick ip HD broadcasts from the closest major city.

Over the years I have used several "set top" solutions for my streaming, subscribed to several of the major streaming video providers, and played with a lot of additional software solutions for finding content.  I'm not going to describe everything there is to know about cutting the cord (not like I know it all anyway) as there are several good web sites that do that.  I'm going to tell you what works for me, what I like and don't like, and offer some tips should you choose to try this for yourself.

There are a couple of caveats I need to list right up front.  First, if you are a real sports fanatic, you probably won't want to get rid of your cable or dish subscription just yet.  Legal avenues for streaming sports - especially live sports - are mostly nonexistent, and the ones that do exist are often tied to having a cable or dish subscription.  There are some exceptions, being one of the standouts.  There are also ways to watch live sports streams which are of questionable legality, and which frequently suffer from poor quality.

Second, your internet connection needs to be stable and relatively fast.  5 megabit DSL is about the lowest you want to go for this, 10 - 15 is better, and to take advantage of Netflix's ultra HD streaming (4K HD) you will need 20 - 25 megabits per second of bandwidth.

Equipment - I use the Roku 3.   This little box retails for $99, although you can find deals on it pretty much everywhere.  You might want to look for it on Woot where refurbished models are frequently offered for $65.  The Roku 3 features up to 1080P video streaming, both wired and wireless networking, and a nifty remote control with a built-in headphone jack (so you or your partner can watch TV while the other sleeps in peace).

The Roku has channels for just about every major video service available - Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus, Vudu, and many others.  It's about as simple to use as any such device can be.

The biggest downfall to the Roku is that it isn't a full-fledged computing device, so it can't readily browse content over the local network, and one majorly-helpful piece of software - XBMC - won't run on it.  All isn't lost, though - PLEX comes to the rescue.  Plex is a media server you run on your PC, cataloging all your local content (movies, TV shows, music, etc.) and downloading metadata.  You install a Plex client from the Roku channel store and use it to pull content from the PC.  Plex also has its own "channels" you can install, and these fill in gaps that exist both on the Roku and the Hulu Plus service.  For example, the Roku has no YouTube channel of its own, but Plex provides one.  And while CBS television is the only major broadcaster not present through Hulu Plus , there is a CBS channel that allows you to stream most of the current shows.

While there are many other equipment choices available, if I were looking to buy something new today, I would consider the Amazon Fire TV - it's about the same price as the Roku, can stream all the same major sources, and there is a build of XBMC that will run on it.

The only other piece of equipment I'd mention is that I have an antenna outside that picks up live HD broadcasts of the major networks.  The picture is crystal clear (better than I ever had with my small dish).

Content sources - I have subscriptions to Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu Plus.  Each has its strengths and weaknesses.  Netflix has for some time been the reigning king of the streaming world, with a vast library of movies and TV shows.  The content is basically what would be available on DVD or Blu-Ray - in other words, nearly always slightly older movies and previous seasons of television shows.  They are offering some exclusive content these days as well.  I have had Netflix on and off a few times over the years.  I'm giving it another try right now, but mostly I am finding that nearly everything they have that I care to watch is available on Amazon Prime.

Amazon Prime is a movie and TV service similar to Netflix.  For a long time it was a pretty distant second in terms of the size of the library, but Amazon is catching up - fast.  More importantly, a Prime subscription gets you free 2nd-day shipping on much of what Amazon has for sale, access to their Kindle Lending Library with thousands of books, and now includes their music streaming service as well.  It's an amazing deal, and if you had to pick between Amazon and Netflix, Amazon would be a worthy choice (unless you just HAVE to watch the stuff that's exclusive to Netflix).

Hulu Plus has movies, but not many, and they're usually older.  What makes Hulu special is it is the only service with current-season episodes of many of your favorite shows.  Hulu is a partnership between NBC, FOX, ABC, the CW, and UPN.  Shows are usually available one day after the broadcasts air.  The big hole in Hulu's lineup is CBS, and it doesn't look like this is going to change, and CBS has announced their intention to offer a separate pay service.  As of now, you can watch CBS shows using the Plex channel.

XBMC - XBMC is a media center application that you can run on your PC or Mac, and on some set-top boxes as well.  XBMC catalogs local content (similar to Plex, which is actually built on some of XBMC's code), and offers many other sources of content.  XBMC is open-source software, and due to the number and type of add-on channels and plugins available, can be a bit daunting for people who aren't tech-savvy.  But it's an amazing resource if you take the time to get it set up.

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