How to Break Free from Cable/Satellite Fees

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How to Break Free from Cable/Satellite Fees

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roku-2-hd-media-server-review-keyart.jpgProduct Options
Of course, to access any of the streaming VOD services above, you need two things: broadband Internet (the faster, the better) and a computer or networkable A/V product. New Smart TVs and Blu-ray players include streaming VOD services, and there are plenty of inexpensive standalone streaming media players that you can connect to your existing TV. Just make sure the product you buy has the services you want. Once again, pretty much all of them have Netflix and many of them have Hulu Plus, but Amazon is not a given. 

I own the Apple TV, which offers both Netflix and Hulu Plus, but not Amazon. Roku is another very popular developer of streaming media players, and the Roku platform includes all three services (you can get more details on Roku here). Western Digital, Netgear, and D-Link/Boxee are a few other manufacturers of streaming media products. You can check out our review page here for more details on these devices.

Of course, streaming products aren't the only solution for those who wish to cut the cord. If you don't want to completely give up on the live TV experience, you can get free over-the-air content, pulled in by an antenna. Any display that's labeled an HDTV has a built-in ATSC tuner that, when mated with an antenna, will grant you access to all of the daytime and primetime content (not all of which you can get through VOD) on local broadcasts stations like ABC, CBS, NBC, ABC, and PBS. If you're picturing the days of climbing on your roof or into your attic to position a heavy, bulky eyesore of an antenna, don't. There are plenty of sleek, low-profile indoor antennas that might do the job for you, such as the Mohu Leaf we recently reviewed. I plan to check out more HDTV antennas from companies like RCA and Antennas Direct in the coming months as I get closer to my potential cord-cutting date.

Live TV is nice, except for all those pesky commercials. Saying goodbye to the pause/rewind capabilities of my DVR would be difficult indeed. There aren't as many standalone DVRs as there once were, but you can find a few out there that will work with an HDTV antenna. Not all TiVo DVRs have a built-in ATSC tuner, but the TiVo Premiere DVR does, although it will cost you the price of the box plus a monthly service fee of $15. Magnavox still offers a line of combo HD DVR/DVD recorders that don't require a subscription. 

D-Link combines streaming VOD and live TV in its new $99 Boxee TV. Through a network connection, you can access streaming services like Netflix and VUDU, but the box also has an internal ATSC tuner and comes with an HD antenna to watch live TV content. In select cities, Boxee also offers an optional "No Limits DVR" feature that lets you record and store as much content as you want in the cloud for a monthly fee of $15 (with the first three months free). Since the recordings are in the cloud, you can view them on portable devices, too.

Finally, if you're willing to add your computer to the mix, you can find plenty of TV/DVR software programs on the market that, combined with the HD antenna, can pull in and record over-the-air TV and store it on your hard
drive. A couple of examples include El Gato's EyeTV HybridSnapstream's BeyondTV, andSiliconDust's HD HomeRun tuner.

Food for Thought
As you weigh the pros and cons of cord-cutting, here are a few other things to consider. An important one is picture quality. A lot of streamed content is offered at "HD quality" in a 720p or 1080p resolution, but the actual quality depends on your broadband speed, your router's reliability, and the network traffic at any given time. The slower your broadband speed, the more compressed the streamed content will be, and the worse it will look. If there's a lot of traffic, you may experience stutters and freezes in the stream. 

That said, cable/satellite providers compress the HD signal, too - some worse than others and often varying by region. I'm pretty happy with the quality of my satellite HD signal, but before that I lived with a highly compressed cable signal that probably wasn't much better than a streamed signal. Conversely, over-the-air HD can often look much better than cable/satellite because there's less compression involved.

As I mentioned above, the VOD-only approach removes the "live" from the TV experience, including live news from major news outlets like CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, as well as special live events like the Academy Awards, the Grammys, concerts, etc. More events than ever before are being simultaneously streamed online, but it's not a guarantee that this option will be available with the event you want to watch. Again, adding an HD antenna to get over-the-air feeds lessens this concern. 

The person who might have the hardest time cutting the cord is the sports fan. Sports are the ultimate live experience, after all - and on any given day, live sports are scattered all over the channel lineup. Sure, with an HD antenna, you can watch games offered on the major networks, but you're out of luck for games on premium channels like ESPN, the NFL Network, TNT, etc. 

Several sports leagues now offer some type of Web/mobile package in which you can pay a fee (per season) to stream live games to a computer or other device. Major League Baseball,Major League Soccerthe NBA, and the NHL all offer these types of packages, and some streaming media players and Smart TVs include the necessary apps to access these services to view on your big-screen TV. If you're a hardcore fan of only one of these sports, then this might prove to be a cost-effective solution, but subscribing to all of them would likely surpass the cost of your cable/satellite package (although you would probably get more games). 

My sport of choice is football and, sadly, neither the NFL nor NCAA College Football offers this type of service - which isn't surprising, given the very expensive TV contracts that are in place. Via an HD antenna, I can watch Saturday and Sunday games on the major networks, but I would lose everything on the ESPN channels, the NFL Network, and the Big Ten Network (hubby's a Cornhusker). Besides just the games, SportsCenter is like white noise. This is definitely the main obstacle to cord-cutting for me, and several cord-cutters I talked to eventually returned to cable/satellite because of sports. 

If ... the Price Is Right
Yes, the monthly savings can be substantial when you move from cable/satellite to a Netflix, Amazon, and/or Hulu subscription plan. However, you must also consider upfront costs to buy new gear, as well as other potential monthly costs. The more you try to replicate exactly what you've got with cable/satellite, the higher those costs could be.

If you don't already own a Smart TV or Blu-ray player, you can buy a standalone streaming media player for a one-time cost of $50 to $100. An HD antenna can run anywhere from $20 to $200; the type will depend on where you live and how powerful an antenna you need. If you must have DVR service for those live TV signals, factor in the cost of the DVR box and (if it's TiVo or Boxee) another monthly service fee of about $15. 

Remember, you will need to keep or add broadband Internet for this experiment to work and, if you're currently paying for the slowest broadband speed that your provider offers, you might want to step up to a faster tier for the best performance. 

So, are you still intrigued? Do you plan to cut the cord, or have you already done so? We'd love to hear from you. Share your thoughts below.

Additional Resources
Read more original stories like this in our Feature News Stories section.
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