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The Obligatory Cable Cutting Article - Part I

 

I know, I know. I can hear it from here: "Another blog trying to get me to cancel my precious boob tube service?". Oh, come now - you all knew it was coming. But since there are so many articles out there like this already, I'm hoping to provide an article full of not only the reasons you should cut your cable bill, but also the practical alternatives that I've found to be the most easy to get along with. Over the next two posts (this one and a follow-up by Courtney), we'll be going over the benefits of removing television service from your balance sheet and how you can fill the void left by it (hint: it's really not hard). Let's take a look at some of the reasons you may want to oust your cable service in favor of a cheaper alternative:

  1. The cost is excessive
    I did a quick poll of my co-workers recently about the cost of their cable or satellite bills, and the results were all pretty much the same: it costs roughly $100 (more if you include extra services like sports packages, "extra premium" channels, or extra set-top boxes) per month for this luxury for most of them. Calculate that for a year's usage, and you're spending $1200 a year or more on this form of entertainment. This figure doesn't account for other charges you may incur with what I like to call "availability fees"; things like pay-per-view and other charge-per-use services. These services are set up to make it as easy as possible for you to spend extra little bits of your well-earned money every time you turn on the TV.

  2. You probably don't get to use it much
    I know from my own personal experience with premium television services that there always seems to be something better to do than watch TV - write for a small personal finance blog, for instance. Seriously though, I found over the years that I have become less and less interested in broadcast-style television programming. It came to a point where I would use it for a few hours a week, and even when I sat down to "watch" TV, my attention quickly found its way to other more interesting stimuli.

  3. Selection is poor
    With cable and satellite services, you generally get what they decide to carry. You're also bullied into paying for packages instead of individual content - you may have to buy the most expensive package to get the one or two bits that you really want to see. In effect, you're paying to support all of the programming on the provider's network, regardless of whether you want to or not.

  4. Quality is in decline
    I'll let you in on a not-so-secret secret: the quality of programming you get with most subscription TV services (in both the visual and intellectual senses) is declining. Maybe I'm just nostalgic, but I remember television shows being worth watching once upon a time. Take a stroll through the channels these days and what do you have? Reality TV that at one time wouldn't even have made it on daytime "talk" shows from the 90's (you know the ones). A handful of action programs that seem indistinguishable from one another. The occasional news program that regurgitates the same stories on what appears to be a perpetual loop. You may also have noticed that much of the content available on these services is so highly compressed that it looks terrible - sometimes even from the other side of the room. The list goes on, but you should get the idea by now. Don't get me wrong - there's definitely the occasional diamond in the rough, but much of the high quality content is available through other much less expensive means.

So if subscription television service is too costly, too infrequently used and too lackluster in quality, where are we to turn? For the remainder of this article, I'll be reviewing a couple of strategies, devices and services that I've found to more than make up for my lack of traditional television service. There are two services that jump right to the front of my mind: Netflix and Amazon Prime.

Netflix

What can I say about Netflix, except that it's awesome? Let's start with some basics. With Netflix, you can subscribe to two basic services: mail-based movie and TV series delivery, and instant streaming of content from the vast library of content available. Both offerings have different "levels" of service, but as of the date of this article, the streaming-only plan allowing two concurrent devices (more on those later) costs $8/mo. There are no limits on the Netflix side, but be forewarned that many cable, DSL and other types of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) do have limits on the usage you're allowed each month. One of the neat things about Netflix with regard to those kinds of limits is that you are allowed to set a quality level (called "Playback settings" in the account settings section of the Netflix site) that can help you keep control over your usage. Setting the quality allows you to decide what trade-off you want to make between data usage and content quality. As one of the first players in this space, Netflix has a selection that's hard to rival, including content that you can only find there. All that's required for basic streaming usage is a computer (Windows and Mac are supported), but to get the best experience, I prefer a streaming device. A final distinction that's important for me to make is that not all titles available through Netflix are available as streamable content - some titles can only be obtained through the mailed discs.

Amazon Prime

Amazon Prime is another ludicrously good deal for those of us no longer shelling out for TV service. Aside from the streaming video service, you also get free two-day shipping on all orders sold or fulfilled by Amazon (and reduced pricing on one-day, if you're the impatient type) and free Kindle ebook rentals (one book per month for Kindle device owners; sadly, this isn't available for the Kindle app on mobile devices). Even without the streaming service included, I make enough purchases through Amazon that the $80/yr price tag is more than worthwhile. For those keeping track at home, that's less than $7/mo for unlimited expedited shipping and video streaming. The selection of movies and TV shows isn't as impressive as Netflix, but it's still damn respectable, especially at the price they're offering it for. Like Netflix, you can stream video using your computer or a supported streaming device, and there are no limits. Also similar to Netflix, not all titles in Amazon's library are available to stream for "free" (included with Prime). Some titles require you to rent or purchase in order to view.

Terrestrial Digital TV

If you lived in the United States before about 2009, you probably remember a fair amount of publicity about the transition from analog to digital television for over-the-air broadcasts. Many people seem to think that local broadcast TV is still limited to a handful of channels, most of them run by major three-letter broadcasting companies. In many localities throughout the country, this is no longer the case. In my area, there are more than 40 broadcasters and many of them run more than one channel. The variety is pretty impressive, with both major and smaller independent stations and a wide variety of content. At the wonderful price tag of free, it's hard to argue against this form of entertainment; hook up an antenna (we have one of these in my house, or you could go with something a little less DIY), scan for stations with your TV (or DTV tuner if your TV isn't equipped with one) and you'll be enjoying free TV in minutes.

Now, onto the devices. While the two streaming services I've noted above will work perfectly fine if all you have is a computer, I've found that there's a lot of value in having a purpose-built streaming device. The two devices I've been using are the Roku 2 XS, and the WD TV Live.

Roku 2 XS

The Roku boxes are magnificent. In a package as small as a hockey puck, they've managed to pile on all of the features that most streamers care about: wide streaming service support (Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go... the list goes on and on, including custom channels offered by many independent content producers), wired and wireless network connectivity, an intuitive and centralized user interface, low power consumption... again, the list goes on. Every service you can use with the Roku is organized as a "channel". By default, a minimum set of channels are installed, but you can browse through the catalog of hundreds of additional channels and install the ones you like. About a year ago, Roku updated their devices to use a new "unified search" that lets you search for content in several (but not all, see the link for more detail) channels at once, making it even easier to find and watch the content you have access to. Even as good as the XS is, there are some problems too. Every once in a while, my Roku will lock up on me, requiring a power cycle of the device. This seems to happen mostly when I leave it with my Netflix channel open for an extended period. Additionally, there are times when the interface is less responsive than normal, but this happens infrequently enough that it's not a major issue. All in all, the Roku is a near-perfect blend of low cost, feature richness and slick packaging.

Pros

  • Small size / low power
  • Wide variety of channels available, both free and paid
  • Connectivity options for every common situation, including "legacy" standard definition video devices, wired and wireless network
  • Low cost, at well under $100 (as of this article, $75) - a measly 1 month's worth of cable bills
  • USB playback with the "Roku USB Media Player" channel (see the supported formats)
  • Extremely simple setup

Cons

  • Hangs / becomes laggy / crashes every once in a while, but this is infrequent
  • Doesn't support streaming from network shares natively
  • No digital optical audio output (for me, this isn't a problem as I handle everything through HDMI)

WD Live TV

Like the Roku, the WD TV Live is a set-top streaming box. It has many of the same features, and in some areas has more than the XS. The expected support for a wide variety of streaming services is present, but one exception stands out and detracts from the whole package: Amazon is not supported (though it's been requested more than once). While the lack of Amazon support is a major bummer, the reason I was attracted to the device is that it has the ability to stream from local network shares natively (more than just video - photos and music are also supported, with a wide range of containers and codecs supported). That feature works pretty well and I was impressed with the flexibility it had (multiple audio tracks, subtitles and chapters are all supported, though to differing degrees depending on the file format you're playing). It also supports viewing YouTube content, though I didn't test that extensively. Another novel feature that I haven't seen many other places is that it supports USB DTV tuners, turning the WD TV Live into a DTV tuner. Netflix is supported, but that particular app seems to be a bit buggy: I ran into an issue that closely resembles this one, but I didn't come across it as frequently as described. Overall, I want to love this device but the rough edges of the whole package relegate it to my secondary streaming player. Even so, it has the potential for much greatness, and I hope that Western Digital doesn't give up on it. With some development love and some fine-tuning, it will be a serious contender in the streaming set-top market currently dominated by the likes of Roku and Apple.

Pros

  • Support for many common streaming services, including Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube
  • Connectivity options for most common setups, with optical audio present
  • Small form factor (but not as small as the Roku)
  • Local streaming from network shares
  • Low cost, at around the same price point as the XS ($80)
  • High configurability, including timed poweroff, video scaling, interface tweaks and shortcut keys on the remote

Cons

  • Interface lag and overall bugginess is much more noticeable and frequent than the Roku
  • No Amazon support
  • It feels like WD is giving this product less attention than it deserves, which may hamper its future success

Hopefully this has been a sufficient kick in the pants to get you off of the high-priced cable, opting instead for more sanely-priced alternatives. Let's go back to that $1200/yr figure I cited earlier, and compare it with the ~$176 that Netflix and Amazon will cost you in a year. It should be an easy choice to move to less expensive alternatives when you consider the savings. I've included some images below comparing the two devices discussed herein - the Live is on the left and the Roku on the right.

Images
(Note: click on any image to view the full-size version)

Top view:
Top view of both devices

Front view:
Front view of both devices

Back view:
Back view of both devices

Image Attribution: 

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