Not much to review this Monday, June 18. ABC has its new reality show called The Glass House – in which we get to watch boring people act like jerks with the added fun of manipulating them via online interaction. Since it’s more or less live, there’s nothing to review and I’m not going to watch it, anyway.
So, in the interest of helping parents gain even more control over what comes into their house via the television, I thought I’d share my latest project – giving up pay TV service. In my case, satellite TV. It’s what lots of folks are calling “cutting the cord,” and I wish to offer a big shout out to the gang at Lifehacker.com, because that’s where I got most of my information.
Now, given all the television I have to keep watching because it’s my job, you’d think that pay TV would be a necessity, and for a long time, it was. But now that there’s Hulu.com and Netflix and Vudu.com, not to mention a lot of the cable channel sites that will let you watch full episodes right there, I can get almost all of the programming I’m actually following without paying extra.
But what really did it to me was dealing with the services. A year or so ago, I had Dish Networks satellite, with which I was very satisfied, except that I kept getting ads for introductory offers that were a third less than I was paying. So I called them to negotiate a better price. Not only did they jerk me around, they cut me off before I was ready and I never did get a better price for the service. Goodbye Dish, hello, DirectTV.
Now, one expects the price to go up after your introductory offer expires – but in DirectTV’s case, it doubled. That’s more than a bit much, and when I tried to negotiate a better price, they insisted on cutting some of my services (okay, I wasn’t using them, anyway) and then the bill was down for one month and right back up the next. It’s down again this month, but not as much as was negotiated. So, frankly, I’ve had it. Introductory offers are essentially a lie. I’m tired of having to change my carrier every year or two. Thanks to digital signals, it’s no longer any big deal to get a broadcast signal and most of the shows I watch are available over the Internet.
Now, I do have to say that cutting the cord may not be as viable for you, so I highly recommend doing a lot of research before calling up your service. The first thing is to figure out which shows you’re actually watching and which Internet service has them. You also want to be sure your Internet service hasn’t imposed a cap on how much bandwidth you use. You may have to call them, too, since they can be sneaky turkeys and not tell you until you’ve gone way over and your bill has sky-rocketed.
The other thing you want to be sure of is whether your Internet service is up to streaming video. For example, I live in an older neighborhood and our phone lines are pretty darned old. So the DSL service here just does not handle video very well at all. Cable and fiber optics do really well. Finally, you’ll need to figure out what kind of broadcast antenna you’ll need, which is somewhat more complicated and I’ll cover that as I go over some of the equipment you need.
How much new equipment you’ll need will depend a lot on what you have, but you don’t need as much as you think. Your Blu-Ray player may already be set up to stream Hulu, Netflix and several other services, as are the newer Wii, XBox and PlayStation3 game boxes. You can also buy a variety of boxes that will do the same for about $100. I have a Sony around here someplace that I never bothered to set up, but have read that it will hook up to GoogleTV (at Lifehacker, where else?). Haven’t tried it yet, so can’t say. But there’s Roku, Apple TV, you name it.
Since a lot of the preview screeners that I need to look at for review purposes are streamed on proprietary sites, I chose to set up a dedicated Home Theater PC (HTPC). You don’t need a whole new computer. If you’ve got an old desktop laying around, or even a laptop, that may be all you need. I had one hooked up to my TV with a standard monitor cord (VGA cord) and a sound cord, and it performed admirably. But since it was running WindowsXP, I decided to upgrade to one running Windows 7. Yes, I know there’s a new version of Windows coming out this fall, but since every other version of Windows generally stinks (can you say Win98? Vista?), I’m not expecting much from this one. And WinXP has been out how many years and folks are still using it? Windows 7 is going to be around for a while.
One other advantage to Windows 7 is that it has the Windows Media Center software, which with a TV tuner card for your computer, basically turns your computer into a DVR. In other words, it records what you’re watching as you watch it, so you can pause in the middle, get a drink, skip through commercials, etc. Just be sure you have enough hard drive space to save the shows on. I use an external 3 TB drive, which is why I wasn’t too worried about hard drive space when I got the new computer.
Another advantage to the HTPC route is that you can also keep all your music and personal videos on it, as well (backed up, of course).
Even though I upgraded, I still didn’t buy a new computer. I got a refurbished old one – and there are some great buys on Ebay. You do want to be sure you have at least 4GB RAM – that’s the short-term memory the computer uses to do its work in – and a fairly fast processor because video involves a lot of data to process. My processor is 3.2 Ghz, but you can probably get by with anything dual core. I did upgrade the video card, though I probably didn’t need to, but this one has an HDMI port on it, which made hooking up the computer to the TV even easier. And, yes, the sound comes through and I don’t need a second cord to hook up the sound any more. Do make sure your computers specifications match the video card’s before you buy it. Thanks to PCI and PCI express slots, popping the new card in was a snap.
Now, here’s the really cool thing. I bought a TV tuner for the computer, the WinTV-HVR-950Q, which hooks up by a USB port and to which I’ve attached a TV antenna. It was an easy install, including the software, and the directions are pretty straightforward, too. It will only record one show at a time, but you can get dual tuner cards, if you’re feeling more adventurous.
Now, some of you folks may be old enough to remember the old rabbit ears antennas that we hooked up to our TVs to get broadcast signals. You can still use them. To test whether broadcast would be viable for me, I bought a cheap $11 antenna and hooked it directly to my TV before I coughed up for the tuner. It pulled in almost all of the channels I needed, so I knew I was on the right track.
There’s also an FCC site that should help you figure out whether broadcast is viable, plus a couple others that I looked at. But I have to say, the sites were only partially accurate. They probably would have been more accurate if I had been using an outdoor antenna, but the thing with antennas is that it’s all about how close you are to the broadcast towers. I live within 10 miles of a preponderance of them, and so I only need an indoor antenna. Your mileage is going to vary significantly, so do look at the sites, buy a cheap tester antenna and see what happens. Just don’t spend a lot on your antenna because the one variable that will make the most difference is whether the antenna is indoors or out and all antennas pull in High-Def digital signals.
All-in-all, I only spent about $400, not counting my external hard drive, which I already have. Even with paying for HuluPlus and Netflix, plus whatever shows I buy from iTunes, I figure I’ll have made it back within five months. It is going to be a little more trouble hunting down the shows I want to watch, as opposed to setting the DVR and forgetting it. But it could be worse and I don’t have to waste time arguing with powerless customer service reps.
The bottom line is that there are tons of different options, all of which give you more power over what comes through your home TV set.