Cable companies are evil. This is of course a blanket statement that may or may not apply to your cable provider but I’ve come to this conclusion based on my many not so pleasant experiences with Cablevision services and decided once and for all to exorcise the demon from my house. I must admit though that I am not much of a couch potato. (I’d say I’m more of an office chair potato). Most of the TV shows I do like to watch are available on free broadcast channels such as FOX, ABC and NBC. These shows include Fringe, Supernatural, Once Upon A Time and 666 Park Ave. (OK technically 666 Park Ave haven’t aired yet but its starring Vanessa Williams and Terry O’Quinn this fall as possible she and he-devils need I say more? ). Other shows that I do like are only available via a cable subscription such as True Blood and Games of Thrones on the HBO network. My mother on the other hand only watches the USA Network whose programming is shamelessly cultivated towards her female demographic –featuring shows such as White Collar, Suits, In Plain Sight, Burn Notice and Common Law. My mother loves every single one of them and it’d be a challenge to pluck the cable box remote from her firm unflinching hands.
The Cable Setup
There are three televisions in the house. The 42 inch HDTV in the living room, a 19 inch HDTV in my bedroom which I mainly use as a second monitor on my desk and a perfectly working older non-HD TV in my mother’s bedroom which will be thrown out sometime soon in favor of a thinner, younger model. (TVs like Hollywood stars gets aged out in this business). Two Cablevision setup boxes, one with DVR service as well as a cablevision optimum online cable modem for Internet. We had the IO Silver Package ($89.95) which included HBO and Showtime as well as Internet service ($44.95). The monthly cable bill was roughly about $160 per month including the monthly fees for the second box and taxes. Naturally cablevision wants you to “bundle” phone services in a triple play plan for $90 a month. This deal expired after a year so it was no longer available to us. (Who uses landlines anymore?)
My observations about the Cable service is that I rarely watched all the channels I was paying for including my mother who mainly kept her eyes glued on the dapper crime fighting men on the USA Network. Wouldn’t it be great to just pay for the channels you actually need? I also rarely watched shows on schedule when the episodes air and instead still ended up watching online if It wasn’t available on demand.
The Indecent Proposal
My mother is scared of technology. Not in the “wear tin foil hats and hide in a cellar” kind of way but a more comical “the end of the world is upon us” sort of way. She is perfectly able to check her emails and call me via Skype but sometimes too much change too quickly can make her eyebrows furrow into worrying depths. I broached the subject of killing the cable gingerly over dinner one night and she seemed receptive to the idea of saving money. Great! However there was a “but” – “But what about my shows”. I decided to think about it further and instead wrote up an actual proposal that I then sent to her email.
As you can see cutting the cord had the immediate impact of saving hundreds of dollar over the year. The change merely required some behavioral adjustments and compromises. There are some hardware requirements too that replaces the actual cable box with a subscription based services that are much cheaper and decent decent broadband service. The next day I returned the boxes to the Optimum store. I then ordered internet services $29.99 per month for 15mbps for the first year. (Cablevision tried to charge me an extra $30 for self installation – Yes they wanted me to pay to connect the modem at home myself).
This is where the Microsoft Ecosystem really shines. Microsoft always had a “dream” of sorts of unifying their consumer facing devices. They aptly called it “Three screens and the cloud” where they can seamlessly allow users to enjoy content and have similar experiences on their tablets or PCs, mobile phones and TVs. With the launch of Windows 8, windows phone and the new Xbox dashboard update – this dream is now a reality.
The XBOX 360
The Xbox remains the number one gaming console in America but it is so much more. After numerous updates that continue to add new features- the Xbox can be hailed as a media-setup up box or entertainment center for the living room. With an Xbox Live gold subscription users can stream TV shows and movies from Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO GO and more. You can subscribe to Xbox Music Pass for $9.99 per month and enjoy unlimited music on the Xbox, PC, Windows 8 tablet or Windows Phone. Gaming is suddenly not even the main attraction – at least in my house. 75% of the usage on my Xbox is streaming shows. I can watch current TV shows via Hulu Plus or relive past seasons on Netflix. You can also tap into Amazon Prime Instant Videos for more shows and Crackle for free movies from Sony’s catalogue. One of my best friends hasn’t cut the cord yet and has graciously extended his HBO Go subscription to my Xbox so I can watch cable shows like True Blood and Games of Thrones. (Thanks Colin!) There is also the option to rent movies or buy season passes of TV shows from Xbox Video.
Controlling the XBOX
The XBOX has multiple ways of navigating the system. You can use the controller which works really well for finding shows. If you have a Kinect you can use just your hands to “wave” through the content and select what you want. You can also use voice to play shows for example “Xbox, Bing Modern Family” and once the show pops up, play it via one of your subscription services. You can also control the Xbox via the other screens – A Windows 8 tablet or PC or a windows phone using the Xbox Smartglass or companion app. You can start apps, search for shows and play them on the Xbox all from your device. You can also augment your experience by looking up additional information about a show you’re watching – for example- actors, synopsis, extra content such as maps, trivia supported by that show. Taking the seamless device interconnectivity even further – you can use DLNA to play content from your tablet or phone directly to the Xbox. I have forgotten cable even exists.
Watching Live TV
There are times though when live TV is unavoidable. Watching the news for example, or even catch a show during its air time. Luckily most modern HDTVs come equipped with a digital converter than can pick up broadcast channels for free. The older TV is my mother’s room needed a convertor box which I had gotten for free when the government provided vouchers for everyone to switch to digital TV. It works as a charm picking ABC, FOX, NBC, the CW and more.
The final hurdle was getting the subscription services – Netflix and Hulu to the TV in my mother’s room. Buying another Xbox wasn’t feasible (this should be a hint to Microsoft to make an XBOX Lite – media streaming box with no gaming capability for the TV). I could obviously simply connect a spare computer I had to the TV and use some sort of software like XMBC or Boxee but this seemed too troublesome for my mother. I needed the solution to be simple and easy. It came down to the Roku box or the apple TV. There is a no-iTunes clause in my apartment lease agreement (really, I swear!) so that that ruled out the apple TV which actually cost twice as much as the Roku box anyways.
The ROKU LT is a tiny box that connects several media services – Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO Go, Crackle and many free and paid channels to your TV. The box has both HDMI and AV output for SD TVs which worked out beautifully for the older TV in the bedroom. The Roku also has a remote with dedicated buttons for Netflix, Crackle and Pandora and is simple enough to navigate the menus to access other content. Streaming worked quickly and produced great looking picture quality even on standard definition. My mother has been more than pleased.
The only drawbacks are accessing USA Network shows via these devices. I can only view them online via a computer after they air so its really a minor annoyance to connect the tablet to the HDTV. There is also a lack of sports programming something many people would find impossible to live without. However the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks as you can now enjoy TV content not only in the living room but the same Netflix and Hulu subscriptions work across all devices in the Microsoft ecosystem – PC, Tablet and phone. If you pause watching on one device, you can pick up where you left off on the other. This kind of synergy is the stuff of legends. (Ok I exaggerate a bit but really, it all works really well).
Does anyone else have any tips on cutting the cord? If you have already done so – how is it working out for you? If not, what is holding you back from sticking it to the man?