Monday, April 08, 2013

Have you cut the cord, but still want to watch some cable TV? Then stream it

So far we’ve cut the cable TV cord and maximized our over-the-air (OTA) antenna reception including the sharing of a coax cable with an Internet feed. While I extol the virtues of cutting the cable cord (one million people cut the cord in 2012), there are moments when I long for a quip from Stephen Colbert or really want to watch a U.S. men's or women's soccer match. At least for soccer, my only viewing options are to go to a bar, invite myself over a friend's house, or hide in the bush in front of my friend's house and watch it through his living room window.

But there's actually another choice...a media server! Join me as I walk you through this exciting world! And use an exclamation point for three sentences in a row! This is the fourth and final chapter in this OTA adventure, so in case you missed what has been covered so far, here's a recap:

Chapter 1 - Receive HD channels on your TV with an over-the-air (OTA) antenna

Chapter 2 - Optimize the antenna signal for all TVs with splitters

Chapter 3 - Run an antenna's signal on the same cord as your Internet feed

Chapter 4 - Stream videos from cable stations with a media server

Your streaming media setup will look something like this.

Media Server Concepts
A media server takes many forms; in our case I'm referring to a device that provides a more comfortable experience (interface) to watch online movies and TV shows on your TV.  A media server visits streaming media web sites, pulls their content in, and displays the content in an interface on your TV that's easier to navigate.

Still having trouble understanding?  That's okay.  Put it this way, you could either visit the local farmer's garden for fruits and vegetables, the butcher for your meat, and the five-and-dime shop for your cereal, or go to the supermarket that pulls all of these together and presents them more conveniently. You guessed it, the supermarket is a media server.

Popular streaming media sites include YouTube, Hulu, and Netflix.  Hulu streams network and cable programming with "limited commercial interruption" they're quick to point out. Hulu's basic service is free, but for a little less than $10/month, you get access to more shows and they're available sooner than basic users. A monthly subscription of $7.99/month is required for Netflix's streaming service. These sites work like YouTube except they offer different programming.

To watch streaming media from you computer, just point your browser to these sites, pick your show, and press play. Let's say for the purpose of this post that you'd rather watch streaming media from your couch.

Between these services, you'll find enough content to get your entertainment fix.


Streaming Media Access
In addition to visiting Hulu, Netflix, and YouTube for entertainment, all networks (CBS, NBC, FOX, and ABC) and many cable channels offer most of their shows on their web sites by navigating to their "view this show here" links to watch what you want for free.

I have a monthly subscription to Netflix streaming and have been very pleased with its performance. I'm able to view Netflix content at my computer, or sitting on the couch via my TiVo, PS3, or Wii. I prefer the PS3 because its Netflix interface is smooth and responsive. It's great watching entire seasons of programming without commercials.

 
Netflix streaming offers the first three seasons of "Archer" and our country is better for it.

Cable channels that already require a separate subscription like HBO (whose streaming service is called HBOGO), and a selection of ESPN's live programming require you to verify that you already pay for those channels (which you don't if you cut the cord). You won't get to watch HBO or every game on ESPN, but let me remind you that it shouldn't stop you if you have a sight line into your friend's living room. Amazon also offers a streaming service that requires a subscription, but it's free for Prime members.

Media Server Choices - Just Your TV
Some of today's HDTVs are well connected to the Internet and may already offer improved interfaces for selected streaming sites like Hulu, Netflix, and YouTube. If that's the case, by all means go ahead and watch away by following your TV's instructions. If not, let's keep going and talk trash about those fancy TV owners. Such showoffs, they are!

Media Server Choices - Roku, Apple TV, Google TV, Netgear NTV300, and Boxee Box --> TV
These are names of boxes, about the size of your digital camera, that connect to your Internet router to pull streaming media and then display it in the user-friendly way I've been promising.  My media server setup does not involve any of these devices. If you want more information about them, visit a site like http://deviceguru.com/google-tv-vs-apple-tv-vs-boxee-vs-roku and http://www.digitaltrends.com/home-theater/set-top-showdown-apple-tv-vs-roku-3-vs-boxee-box-vs-wd-tv-play.

Netflix streaming is available from a ton of devices, so get on board in time for the new "Arrested Development" season coming May 26.

Media Server Choices - PC Software --> PS3/XBox/Wii --> TV
Another option is to use your computer as a media server device. The software uses your computer to take your Internet feed, grab the latest online offerings, and make them available on a variety of devices connected to your home network. From there you use that device, such as a PS3, XBox, or Wii, and watch the online offerings on your TV.

According to this Wikipedia page, there are tons of media server software choices. I'm not going to compare them here, but I will tell you that most will require you to pay for their services at a monthly, yearly, or one-time lifetime cost. Provided your computer handles streaming media well already, this software should run fine.

For my setup, I have been pleased with the performance of PlayOn for my media server software needs. After installing it on my computer with a lifetime subscription, I simply boot up my computer which runs PlayOn from the start, turn on my PS3 and TV, and I'm off and watching. PlayOn offers tons of content, improves the software regularly, and works seamlessly with major home devices.


Let's reminisce on the experience of going to a video rental store.

Another piece of PlayOn software that's intriguing is its PlayLater program that records streaming media. I haven't tried it out, but it sounds great if you can delay your viewing while a program is recorded so you can watch it later and not sweat any buffering delays. The company does offer sales for lifetime memberships.

Peace and Tranquility
No longer viewing cable TV's content was tough at first, but then something funny happened...I found that life did go on without its filler programming. I still watch the same amount of TV, but instead I feed my viewing needs with other, cheaper, sources of TV entertainment. I pay a monthly subscription for Internet access (which I'd have anyway) and Netflix and have paid in full for the OTA antenna and PlayOn software. My monthly cost is still a fraction of what it was to be entertained and I don't have to deal with poor cable TV billing practices.

I hope these four rambling posts have caused you to at least consider cutting the cord and joining the revolution.

3 comments:

rob said...

So, I've been in process of cutting the cord (thanks for the antenna!) but have run into an interesting kink...
Today I called my cable provider to cancel my ten dollar cable but keep my internet. When my new price was quoted to me it was $20 more than my current price. To drop my $10 cable television required me to pay $30 extra to keep internet!

I found the pricing structure bizarre!

Anyways, I think I'm going to keep the cable television but just not use it.

Anonymous said...

Yes, the pricing structure is very bizarre. They tend to get you with bundled prices that start off "cheaper" and then go up after a set amount of time or instantly increase to their normal rates when you cancel a service. If you are in an area where you can get DSL, Cable internet, Fiber Optic, or some other options, I recommend calling around and looking for offers on just internet service.

Frequently, if you are not locked into a contract, you can hop from one service to another as a "new customer", get the lower pricing, take advantage of it for 3 to 6 months, then change to another provider for a similar price.

As another option, if you are not on a contract, you can also call your current provider, tell them you are thinking about disconnecting service due to high prices and ask to speak with the retention department. Most companies will offer you a "new customer" deal to keep you as a customer rather than let you disconnect and go to another provider.

This doesn't always work, though. For instance, I have tried this with DirecTV after they released the Genie as a free upgrade for new customers, and the retention department could take care of giving me new customer pricing on our contract, but not giving us a free Genie.

Good luck with cutting your cords. I'm still working on mine to find the best solution.

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