Monday, December 24, 2012

Cutting the Cord, Part 2: Devices

When it comes to dropping cable (or satellite), you must find ways to replace the content. To do that, you need content providers, and a device to get the content to your TV.

Last time, we talked about content providers. This time, we’ll look at ways to view the content.

There are many ways to watch the content. I’ve used several, including:
There is also just watching on the TV directly. I haven’t done that in a while, but there are two reasons to use that method.

One is you go with over the air (OTA) antenna only. If that’s the only method you want to use to watch TV, you don’t need anything more than a TV. Now, if you’re helping someone on a fixed income, or have an older TV you just can’t bear to part with, you need a digital-to-analog TV converter box.

The other reason a TV might be enough is that some TVs come with apps built in. Usually, you’ll find Netflix, but you may also find Hulu Plus, Vudu, Amazon, or other apps for other providers.


I’ve tried two HTPC setups. Setting up one using a Mac is more trouble than it’s worth. While Macs are great computers -- I made the switch in 2007, after using MS-DOS and Windows computers for over 20 years -- they are inferior to Windows computers when it comes to operating as an HTPC.

There is no Apple interface for HTPC. The third-party options for a Mac are decent, but inferior compared to Windows Media Center. Microsoft got that right.

If you want to go the HTPC route, I suggest using Windows, but you get the whole Windows slate of problems, such as needing to make security updates on a regular basis. Oh, and don’t forget to run anti-virus software. That’s true for Mac, too, despite what some Mac fanboys say. But, attacks against Windows are much more likely.

The main downside is cost. If you want a dedicated HTPC, you’re going to need to put up some serious bucks. If you simply want to be able to watch and record TV, a TiVo gets you that for a lot less, even with the TiVo subscription.

An HTPC does get you Hulu standard, as well as ESPN3 content (if your ISP is on their list; many are), but you usually have to use a keyboard, which is more than I want to deal with. Remember, my goal is to sit down, pick up a remote, and watch TV. An HTPC is a little more complicated than that. And, if you’re setting it up for someone else -- say, someone who is a bit less technical -- you’ll be on call for support more than you’ll like, and more than they’ll like.

While I don’t recommend an HTPC, I do agree it may be the correct solution for some people. I tried it and didn’t stick with it, but I had a different reason for taking it down.


For $15/month, you get a lot of functionality with a TiVo box. TiVo will, of course, record programs from an OTA antenna. But, you get more. TiVo has added Internet capabilities to their box. You can watch Netflix content (with an $8/month subscription), Hulu Plus content (with an $8/month subscription), and Amazon Instant Video (PAYGO; Amazon Prime isn’t available through TiVo).

The downside? A couple of things, actually. There is the $15/month subscription. If you already have a TiVo, though, you’re already used to that. If it’s an older TiVo (prior to the Premiere line) you won’t get Hulu Plus capability, but you still get Amazon and Netflix capability.

The other downside is that Amazon content must be downloaded to watch. You can’t stream Amazon content on a TiVo.

The upside? It’s pretty good DVR service, and the box allows you can record two shows at once, or watch one live while you record another. TiVo also offers subscriptions to lots of video podcasts.

This may be all you need. It’s not the cheapest solution, but it is one of the easiest to use. I really like TiVo as an option.

Xbox 360

Although it began primarily as a gaming system, Xbox has, in recent years, become more of an entertainment system. For example, I own one Xbox game; it came with the system, and I’m not even certain of the name of the game.

As a set top box, Xbox is pretty good. If you have a Live Gold subscription ($50-60/year, depending on where you buy it), you get access to the movie and TV apps, including Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon. It doesn’t get you any of the content, just access to the content. You still need a subscription to Netflix or Hulu Plus to watch their content.

Vudu and Crackle apps are also available, as well as Microsoft’s own Xbox Video library (formerly Zune library). The big exclusive for Xbox is ESPN3. It’s the only set top box with that channel.

Xbox doesn’t have as many apps as Roku, but it has more than Apple TV or TiVo. And, like I said, ESPN3.

The biggest downside of Xbox is the cost. It’s $200, plus you need a $50/year subscription to Xbox Live Gold get access to the content.

Another downside is that it works just like something from Microsoft. You have to download updates. A lot. Apple TV and Roku send up updates during downtime. With Xbox, you don’t get an update for an installed channel until you try to watch the channel. That’s a little aggravating.

The upside? Well, the interface is nice. The selection of apps is pretty good. But the biggest thing for me as a college football fan is the ESPN app.

If you have an Xbox 360 for gaming, you really don’t need much more for watching TV. If you are thinking about a set top box only, this is one of the more expensive options, but it’s a good one. A very good one.


There are four varieties of Roku boxes, and they’re all pretty good. The $50 LT and $60 HD versions are very similar. They’re 720p output. The cheaper one uses more power, and weights a fraction of an ounce more, but for just watching content, they’re the same.

The $80 XD version supports 1080p, and includes a microSD card slot for additional channels.

The $100 XS version also includes a USB port for playing local content as well as a LAN port for wired connectivity.

The main channels, Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon are supported, as well as Vudu and Crackle. Roku also had a large channel store with a few hundred channels available. There are many free channels, including many with public domain content. There are also ways to play other local content, but they can get pretty involved.

I recommend Roku for people who don’t have TiVo, and aren’t locked into the Apple ecosystem. Even then, it’s a good add-on.

Apple TV

If you’re big into iTunes content or the Apple ecosystem, Apple TV is an excellent option. The $99 box supports Netflix and Hulu Plus, as well as iTunes, of course. You can stream content from iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, or Mac computers to Apple TV. Newer Macs (2011 and later) can mirror the desktop to Apple TV, which allows for Hulu standard content, as well as ESPN3 content on your TV.

I recommend Apple TV for those big into Apple products, and think it’s a close second to Roku for those that aren’t big into Apple.

Other Devices

While there are other set top box devices besides the ones I mentioned, Apple TV and Roku are the best of the pure STB lines. Yes, one of the others may be all you need. If so, great. But, those two were here a 2 years ago and will be here 2 years from now. There's not such certainty about other devices.


Which solution is the best? Actually, any of them could work.

If ESPN3 is important to you, get an Xbox. Costs a little more up front, and there's a yearly $50 subscription, but it’s a very good option for replacing cable. Costs more than some other solutions, but it works well.

If ESPN3 doesn’t enter into the picture, the simplest one-box solution is TiVo. Again, costs a little more, because you’ll need either the $15/month subscription or the $500 lifetime plan (and that’s for the life of the box, not the account holder). But, as a DVR, it’s top-notch. It also gets the main Internet services, Netflix and Hulu Plus, as well as Amazon.

If you want to forego a DVR service such as TiVo and go with a standard set top box, either Apple TV or Roku would be great choices. Both are great devices. If you’re big into iTunes video (TV or movies) for the Apple ecosystem (you own Macs), then Apple TV makes sense. Otherwise, Roku is a great choice.

Which do I have?

I have an Xbox. And a TiVo. And an Apple TV. And a Roku. They all bring something a little bit different. Do I need them all? No. Which do I use the most? That depends. For ESPN3, it's Xbox. For over the air TV content, it's TiVo. For iTunes content, it's Apple TV. For Amazon content, it's Roku. For Netflix or Hulu Plus, it's whichever device I watched last.

I got rid of the HTPC, though it worked well. My son needed a replacement for his, and it’s better suited for his needs than for mine.

No matter which you choose, you’ll save money over cable or satellite. You won’t get all the same content. In particular, you won’t get HBO or Showtime or even C-SPAN.

If cable/satellite-only content is important to you, stick with that. If not, there are lots of good options available.

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