Tech Spotlight: Cutting the Cable Cord – Part 2

In Canada we have fewer options for watching television outside of the traditional cable and satellite TV. With options like Netflix coming to Canada last year, and most channel providers now streaming their TV shows, things are getting much better.

I’ve cut the cord from cable about a year ago, and while it took a little initial work, I much prefer the current setup to channel surfing or paying a cable provider $100 per month. This is the second part of my two-part series on this topic. You can find the first article here.

Apple TV

The Apple TV is the more realistic way of replacing television cable because you can watch TV shows as they air in the same or better quality as available via cable. The hardware itself costs only $109, but the vast majority of content that you watch will cost you money. The interface is easy to use and you can get full 1080p (nearly blu-ray quality) shows and movies.

Movies can be rented for between 99 cents to $5.99. TV shows can be purchased for around $2.99. With regards to watching TV shows, the good news is that the money you spend goes directly to the show that you watch (vs cable where your watching experience doesn't directly translate to support of your shows). You can also buy complete seasons for around $45, and these episodes will be automatically delivered to you as they're released.

In this way, you make a trade-off. You're no longer paying a regular monthly bill to your cable company, but you are going to spend money to watch shows and movies. Depending on how much TV you watch, this might not be an economical choice. At $2.99 an episode, for example, you’ll spend $100 to watch 33 episodes in a month.

The key with the Apple TV is not to see it as your only way of watching TV. Unlike Netflix, the Apple TV does have new releases on the date the movie studios release the DVD, or up to 45 days later depending on the agreement the studio has made with Apple. TV shows are available the next day after airing. HBO shows are available via Apple TV for purchase, but you’ll be behind at least 6 months since HBO limits first-releases of their programming to satellite and cable companies.

You can watch Netflix on your Apple TV, and there are also other packages you can subscribe to like the Major League Baseball package that baseball fans swear by. Overall, however, the Apple TV is not likely to meet the majority of your needs when subscribing from cable. Also, if you don’t own an iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad you’re not going to be able to take advantage of such features as screen sharing, streaming music or iCloud services.

However if you regularly watch featured movies via cable, the Apple TV is the best way to have the same movies without having to subscribe to cable.

Boxee Box

Boxee Box is similar to the Apple TV in that it connects to your TV directly and uses wifi to access content. The similarities largely end there. Boxee Box does two things really well: It finds legal ways of streaming television content to your TV, and it catalogues any TV shows or movies you have stored on your home network. Both are done remarkably well.

For streaming content, it goes directly to the TV websites to get the content. Whatever shows are legally available online, it will make them available for you to watch. It will also track which episodes you've watched, so you know where you left-off. This service is absolutely free, since most channels freely stream TV shows over the web. All this for a one-time purchase of $189 to get the hardware.

There are a few downsides to this. Firstly, websites generally only stream the last few episodes of a series so you will not be able to watch back-seasons this way. The second downside is that this is done through a web browser, and so the quality isn’t always good and you’ll need to manually scroll to the full-screen button to have a proper TV watching experience . Once you do that, however, the viewing experience is of decent quality. You do see commercials, but there are fewer commercials compared to watching live television. The only downside to the commercials is they’re often repeated, and many of these channels use that old trick where they ‘up’ the volume on the commercial to get your attention. Its an annoying practise.

With Boxee Box there are no ways to purchase previous seasons of a series like you can with Apple TV, and it does not connect to your iTunes library directly. You can, however, mirror your iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad to your Boxee the same way you do with the Apple TV which means you can play videos or music directly to it. You can also use applications such as Netflix with Boxee.

The other feature of Boxee Box is it will categorize any content you have available on local shares on your network. This means if you download any content using BitTorrent, for example, so long as the directory is shared your Boxee Box will pick-it-up and play it on command. While there are not many shows and movies to download legally using BitTorrent, there are some available on the Internet.

Boxee also comes with a cool remote. The remote has standard navigation buttons on the one side, and then on the other side it has a mini-keyboard. The keyboard makes searching for TV shows much easier. Saying that, you can't type on it too quickly, and the entire experience feels a little clumsy.

Boxee has apps. Netflix, YouTube, Vimeo, College Humor and many other services can be accessed directly. These applications give you far more options, as compared to the Apple TV that only has a few that come with the box.

Overall, Boxee makes watching shows and movies easier for people who download on torrent networks, or who want to watch recent programs that can be streamed from broadcasters over the internet.

Boxee also comes with an HD antenna add-on (for an additional cost) that'll connect directly into your antenna so you can channel surf through HD content. I haven't tried this yet, but it seems interesting. 

Conclusion

The first step to parting from the cable companies is purchasing an antenna and seeing what sort of reception you'll get at your house. HD antennas are not like the old antennas, and the video quality is as good or better than what you get through cable. While completely free to watch, the antenna will set you back between $30 and $100 (depending if you go indoor or outdoor).

Netflix will be hit or miss depending on what shows you watch, but for $7.99 it's a great value, and it works with hardware that’s probably already in your house (PS3, XBOX, Apple TV, Boxee, etc.).

The Apple TV is fantastic for movie renting and occasional TV show watching. Instead of being an "all you can watch," buffet, you order from a menu and only pay for what you watch. If you only watch a handful of shows and the occasional movie, and if you don't mind getting HBO programming months later, this is a good solution. It's an especially good way to directly support the shows you watch by paying for them.

Boxee Box, on the other hand, does a fantastic job at streaming TV shows that can be legally watched via browser. It works well alone, or in combination with the Apple TV and HD antenna.

Ultimately it really depends on your viewing habits. If your cable bill approaches $100 per month, that's $1,200 a year better spent on solutions discussed here. For the majority of live TV show watching, however, an HD antenna is a fantastic replacement to the basic channels offered by cable companies. Once you cut the cord from cable, it frees up time and money for other things.

At my home we have all three and use a combination of all solutions. The Boxee gets the most use with streaming TV shows, and the Apple TV is primarily used for music and occasionally renting a movie. We use the HD antenna for live sporting events and Breakfast Television.

Written by Mark Bylok

Mark Bylok

Mark Bylok enjoys his vices. When traveling, he can frequently be seen enjoying the ‘national’ drink of choice and going to traditional bars. As an avid eater, he frequently decides where to go or stay based on the restaurants he wants to visit. Whether it’s jumping off a bridge, or repelling down a mountainside, Mark likes to explore all the locations that take advantage of a destination’s natural landscape. At home, he has an extensive whisky collection and he’s a bit of a tech-head. Mark is the author of The Whisky Cabinet, a book that explores the most delicious whisky in the world.

Comments

  1. Magoo says

    Is there a way to recieve stations like showcase, TV Tropolis, A and E via antenna?? I am blind also and I watch channel 888 which is described television for the blind. Is there a way to get secondary audio programming on these devices? I also use a TV card for my computer, will that work with the antennas?

    Good article :)

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