Tuesday, April 16, 2013

How we unplugged from the Matrix—or How we cut cable and still see everything we want to

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A week ago, we cut cable. We got tired of paying over $1200 a year just to watch television. Okay, yes, the sequestration may have stepped up the urgency—try cutting 20 percent out of your budget and you’ll start to get the picture.

But I must say, I am not missing it. At all. I’ve watched every single thing I’ve wanted to—and, if you read this blog, you know I watch copious amounts of television.

How did we do it? Basically, we hooked up a computer, HD antenna, and Roku to our TV.

If you are ready to take the red pill, here are some steps you can take.
                                                             
Determine what you watch where

Start by listing the shows and programs you watch and note whether they were broadcast or cable channels; if they are cable channels, note which channels they are on. 

Broadcast channels are easy; they can be received by an HD antenna. The cable channels are a little trickier. To access them for free, you can pick up many of them the day after they broadcast on Hulu or the channel’s website. But others (like CBS and FX, for example) will be accessible only on channel’s website (and some as long as a week later). If you don’t mind paying $2 per show, almost everything shows up on Amazon Instant or iTunes the next day.

Now if you are a sports watcher, you will have to do a little more research. We watch the Super Bowl and an occasional baseball game, so this wasn’t an issue for us. If you watch more than that, you will want to figure out what’s available online, through services like Roku, or simply by Googling “how to watch sports without cable.”

Hook up an HD antenna

Before you get an antenna, figure out how close the television stations are to you. Sites like tvfool.com or antennaweb.org are good places to start. We live relatively close to most of the stations, so we have an indoor HD antenna that we tacked up on our wall (behind a large plant, heh). You may need a larger one that you can place in your attic or on top of your house. You can then access all the broadcast channels (who knew there were so many!) directly through your television—or you can do what we did: access them through a computer.

Get your TV a PC

You don’t have to do this. You could access your broadcast channels through your TV and watch the rest of your media through services like Netflix, Hulu Plus and Amazon Instant via devices like a Roku, Xbox, or smart Blu-ray player. However, if you want to record a show, see a show you missed online, watch shows not available on Hulu, watch sports services, etc., you will probably need a computer.

You could simply hook up your laptop in most cases, but we decided we wanted to embrace a new way of approaching our media and managing our viewing. We wanted to consolidate and access all of our media—films, recordings, television, music, photos, home movies, etc.—in one place.

We were fortunate to have a good friend who’d already done this, and he built us a computer specifically for this purpose. He gave us a choice between Linux and Windows based operating systems; we chose Windows because that is what we are most familiar with. (If you are interested in the equipment we used, see the note at the bottom of this post.*)

So, basically, we have a Windows desktop computer into which is plugged our TV and HD antenna (and a few other devices, see section below).

There is a lot of software (much of it free) to help you organize, access and play the media you want. For example, we use WinTV to watch live broadcast TV. You could use XBMC or Windows Media Center to access almost everything else—from recorded shows to movies and music you own to live streaming music to local weather to cable shows and other content available on the internet.  

There are a lot of options and software out there—but be careful. Some software will access content illegally. It was important to us that all content we watch is legally obtained. So, do your research.

Other stuff to think about

Think about whether you will want to incorporate equipment you already own into or want to purchase new equipment for your media system. We plugged our Blu-ray, Roku and receiver into our TVPC. If you are buying or adapting a computer for your TV, you’ll need to consider if it is able to handle these devices.

Also, think about services you already use or might want to subscribe to. We already subscribed to Netflix and Amazon Prime, so we access these services either through the Roku or the TVPC. We are waiting on subscribing to HuluPlus simply because we haven’t seen the need for it yet.

Also, you will need to think about how you want to control the TVPC and your other equipment. We are currently experimenting with a Harmony remote (a kind of “smart” remote) and a mini wireless keyboard/mouse board. Still up in the air on which we will use the most. Again, lots of options out there.

Unplugged and loving it

There are still some glitches and bugs we are working through, and we are still getting used to accessing our media this way.

If a program is on cable, I may have to wait 24 hours after it airs to watch it, but then we usually did that anyway. Sometimes, I miss a show, forget to record it, or find it’s not easily accessible on the internet. But I can easily work into our budget $2 to watch the season finale of Justified or a forgot-to-record episode of Bones; these are drops in a bucket compared to the $100+ a month we were paying.

While I stopped watching cable news awhile back, I must admit that I was a little concerned to be without it in case of a breaking news story. But that turned out not to be an issue. During the Boston Marathon bombing, the network coverage was more than enough.

Bottom line? Every time I turn on the TV, I can't help but grin. The red pill was worth it--and I can have my steak and eat it too.

There's lots of information and articles out there about how to do this. Read them. Find what works for you. Then cut the cord. 

I can’t believe I didn’t do it sooner.



*Basically we have a STATA 3TB internal drive, STATA Solid State Drive, 4GB desktop memory, an AMD A4-3400 APU with AMD Radeon 6510 HD Graphics Processor, ASRock Socket Motherboard, Hauppauge 1213 Win TV-HVR-2250 PCI-E x1 Dual TV Tuner (to allow us to DVR more than one show), and a DVD/RW drive all squished into a small boxy tower.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Carmen...thanks for posting this...I have been moving this direction for the past year. I have digitized our entire movie collection and am using a MacMini as a server. The only thing I hadnt really figured out is an easy way to watch shows like HGTV and SyFy...Gregg

Carmen Andres said...

HGTV is a tricky one. You can access the content it puts on its website through at least of the "add-ons" through XBMC. They don't put a lot of their content on Amazon for some reason; there is a lot of content on Hulu, but not everything (which XBMC also accesses). SyFy is the same deal though they seem to have a lot more content out there.