The Four Big Steps To Cutting The Cord

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Do it! Cut the cord and free yourself from the tyranny of the cable mafia. The movement is slowly gaining traction but the whole task is daunting. What do you do next? Where does your TV content come from? What are the options? So many questions you need answered before you take the scissors to the coax line.

What follows are the basic steps along with the best alternative services. Follow these steps and the transition from cable to Internet streaming will be painless as possible. Still, before you proceed, you must know that there is a break-in period. Cutting cable might be hard for some. Some will go crawling back to their cable provider. But press forward and take it a day at a time. You’re going to be a better person without it.

1. Understand What You’re Getting Yourself Into

Cutting the cord isn’t for the timid. It’s serious business and the process should include at least one family meeting. There isn’t a service out there that can totally replace cable’s feature set or passive nature and everyone in the household needs to know this.

Subscription TV is a mindless activity. Click on the box and your TV blasts to life with programming. That’s not going to happen with the majority of the cable alternatives. Besides free over-the-air programming, the other options require viewers to hunt and search for programming that’s considered old compared to when it first aired on live on TV. That’s right, you’re going to be watching old TV episodes and worse  yet, not all programming is available through alternative means. That’s just the way it is right now.

Perhaps your household isn’t ready to give up cable. It’s a big step to give up watching SportsCenter in the morning and The Daily Show at night. In fact, most consumers are in this boat. The cable cutting movement is considered by the industry to be nonexistent. That doesn’t mean you can’t cut the cord and save some serious money every year.

2. Understand The Alternative Service Options

Once you understand the pitfalls that are on the path to pay TV freedom, it’s time to look at the options. Some are free-ish while others charge a monthly fee. However all the options are a lot less than what Comcast or DirecTV charges hence their popularity.

Make a list of your favorite TV shows along and mark shows that you can’t live without. This little list will come in handy as you explore the options.

  • Over The Air

Antennas are alive and well. In fact, they can pull in an HD signal that will make some cable HD channels look like a VHS tape. The vast majority of flat screen TVs have an ATSC tuner and many late-model tube TVs even have the right goods. Simply plug-in an antenna, tell the TV to search for OTA stations, and you’ve got crystal clear HD programming. AntennaWeb.org will help fine tune the antenna.

The United States officially switched from analog NTSC broadcasts to the all digital ATSC signal in June 2009. All TV stations are using the digital broadcast standard now with most broadcasting an HD station along with a few SD stations as the ATSC spec allows for multiple signals, 5.1 audio and various resolutions.

OTA programming can easily supply TVs with live content from local network stations. ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and PBS are the common networks. Since each local TV stations can now broadcast multiple channels, you may be surprised how many stations are available OTA. It’s a solid option by itself and as a supplement to, say, Netflix.

  • Netflix

Netflix is the fan favorite partly because it’s on many TV appliances already. Many Blu-ray players, HDTVs, game systems and media streamers already support the service. Platform penetration is what lead Netflix’s explosive growth over the last few years. Some systems like the Boxee Box and PS3 allows users access to the entire Netflix streaming library where other systems require users to add videos to a queue via the website.

There’s a good deal of content available from Netflix, but like other streaming services, not everything is available and only 30% of the content features subtitles. Keep in mind that only a portion of Netflix’s catalog can be streamed. Use this page to explore the Watch Instantly titles — or instantwatcher.com maintains a great list as well.

The streaming service runs $7.99 a month and doesn’t require a contract. Netflix offers a one month trial but does require a credit card to sign up. Try it out and cancel if you’re not happy.

  • Amazon

Amazon has been in the streaming game nearly as long as Netflix, but up until just a few weeks ago, offered TV shows and movies on only a pay-per-play basis. That’s still available, but the retailer just launched its Prime Instant Videos that offers 5,000 movies and TV shows available for free streaming to paying Prime subscribers. So just like Netflix, subscribers can simply select a title and watch it instantly.

Amazon followed Netflix’s strategy and embraced numerous hardware platforms over the last year. If your TV set-top box is connected to the Internet, chances are it can get Amazon content. Only Roku boxes can stream Prime Instant Videos so far, though.

Even without the Prime Instant Videos, Amazon is still an attractive choice for cord cutters. TV episodes are often only $.99 and so an entire season of one TV show will cost around $24 — or rather a fraction of a monthly cable bill. The pay-per-play service is not for the heavy TV watchers, but might fill the void for others.

  • Hulu Plus

Hulu’s subscription service beta launched with much fanfare last summer, but then people used it and discovered it’s not exactly the best thing in the world. The amount of content didn’t line up with the $9.99 monthly price. Then in November the service exited beta and introduced a more competitive $7.99 monthly charge. But it was the additional content that was the biggest surprise.

Hulu Plus is positioned as a Netflix-alternative although the owners would argue it’s the other way around. While it trails behind Netflix and Amazon in library size, Hulu Plus is a good bet for those looking to watch the latest TV episodes of popular programs as soon as possible. Many episodes major network programs are available through Hulu Plus a day after they air on network TV where they might come months later on Netflix or Amazon. Still, it’s wise to look at your list of most important TV programs and peep the Hulu Plus selection before handing over your credit card.

Hulu Plus is also available on many popular devices including iOS devices, Android phones, Roku, PS3, Xbox 360, TiVo Premiere and various Internet-connected HDTVs.

But be warned, most Hulu Plus content has commercials of some sort. Sorry.

  • Torrents and usenet

Um, yeah. It’s safe to say that every TV show is downloadable in its entirety someone on Torrent sites or Usenet. It’s also safe to say that it’s a copyright violation to download this content. But it’s there and with the right amount of Google’n your Internet can automatically download all your favorite TV programs. It’s then a trivial task to hook up one of the various network streams like the Boxee Box or WD TV to watch this content on your TV.

Of course it’s between you and your lawyer if you walk this line. However, where Netflix and Amazon use highly-compressed (read: ugly and pixelated) HD streams, downloads are often perfect HD rips free from commercials and general nonsense. So it’s either beautiful and free HD content or eternal damnation at the hands of the copyright holders.

3. These Are The Hardware Options

  • Boxee Box

Disclamer: I love the Boxee Box and so does my family. I needed to get that out of the way and declare my allegiance right way. I’ve tried every single media streamer on the market and this is the best one. It’s fast, supports every media file I’ve tried, but most importantly, it’s fun to use. Other boxes can get you to the same content, but the dry interface makes for a stale experience.

The Boxee Box is a great cord cutting device as it’s really a  multifunction device aimed at two different demographics. One feature set serves up TV content currently available online for free from sites like ABC.com, NBC.com and the others through a clever interface. Plus, it can stream audio and video content stored anywhere on its local network. If all else fails, there’s a gigantic app library that includes Netflix, Vudu, YouTube, Pandora, Revision3, RedditTV, and over a hundred more.

It’s this triple threat approach that won me over. Average consumers should find the vast amount of  free content surprisingly complete since the Boxee Box simply plays videos from their official streaming sites. Then the downloader should enjoy the robust file support and automatic genre sorting. The apps are then the icing on the cake.

The Boxee Box by D-Link retails for $199 at major retailers but can often be found for a few dollars less online.

  • Roku

The Roku is a TV appliance. It works without fail. Select the Netflix app and you can stream Netflix. It’s that simple.

The Roku streamers might not be as flashy as the Boxee Box, but they work great and have a ton of content served up through Roku channels. All the major players are here with their subscription services: Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime Instant, Pandora, along with nearly a bottomless library of other channels.

The best thing about Roku boxes is they’re inexpensive with the top-tier XDS model running only $99. It’s not a bare-bones unit either: 1080p HDMI, component video, optical audio, dual-band 802.11n, USB ports for playing back pictures and videos. There are even two cheaper models if you don’t mind slumming it without a USB port or just 802.11g.

  • Smart TVs

The latest trend in the HDTV market is to offer TVs with so-called apps. This started with on-screen widgets, but now smart TVs are rocking full versions of Netflix and Hulu Plus along with other services like Flickr, Pandora, and various weather services. Throw in an OTA antenna and these TVs themselves are legitimate alternatives to cable thanks to these baked-in features.

The sets cost slightly more than their “dumb” counterparts. In fact they’re kind of hard to recommend since add-on boxes like the Boxee Box and Roku XDS are so inexpensive. The set-top box route might be a more cost effective and smarter move anyway as both the Roku and Boxee Box are backed by dedicated companies with proven track record of constant updates. Still, some consumers want to rid themselves entirely of boxes and so these TVs are available. People are clearly buying them because makers are constantly rolling the feature set downmarket.

  • Game Systems

That Xbox 360 sitting in your kid’s room? Yeah, it can be your ticket out of Comcastville. The Xbox 360 along with the PS3 and the Wii all stream Netflix with the former two featuring even more services. Even the original Xbox with the right mods can be an amazing streaming machine.

These game systems are computers in their purest form. Microsoft and Sony simply control the user experience so either you play by their rules and use the included systems and apps or you break the chains and jailbreak the system for even more functionality. Either way their streaming options might just be sufficient to justify canceling cable.

4. Profit!

Cable and satellite can be expensive. Here in mid-Michigan Comcast has the exclusive rights to serve me cable and this lack of competition creates crazy prices. My cable bill for just the expanded basic package and HD stations (along with 2 CableCards) runs $80 a month with my total bill including Internet services hitting nearly $120 a month. $80 a month is nearly $1,000 a year just on cable. Netflix on the other hand is just under $100 a year for a net savings of $900.

Of course cable provides infinity more options along with live news and sporting events. However, an OTA antenna paired with an ATSC tuner supplements downloads and streaming nicely. It’s important to cut the cord only after realizing that nothing will totally replicate the sheer amount of content or even cable’s user experience. Life is different without cable. But different is good.