EricHarlan

Cut the (Cable) Cord

Cutting the cord

When my daughter was born, the doctor asked me if I wanted to cut the cord. In no way did I ever think the words I then asked her would ever come back in this sort of format but here goes. I says to the doctor, I says… “Will it be a hard thing to get through or will it go pretty easy”.  Those words are never so true when it comes to this.. (Except less gross).
So first some background, some caveats then straight to the how I did it.
First the back story. My wife and I moved to the “outer suburbs” as we call it. We’re about 5 miles from the middle of nowhere. The only pleasure utilities in our area are satellite TV/internet and something called point to point internet. It uses line of sight technology to connect to a central hub. Usually an existing cell or water tower. It’s nothing to sneeze at, we get 15mbps here at the house. Granted that’s nowhere near the 50mbps we got on fios but between finicky satellite and dial up, it’s a great option to have the environment we live in.
My poor wife said one off the wall comment that I sort of clung onto. She really didn’t want satellite tv/internet.  I took that tiny little “in” and started my plan to cut the cord.  My promise to her was that if this was a viable substitution we’d go with it and see where it took us.  Now my TV habits are actually pretty good. In fact my wife’s are as well. We don’t really watch a lot of TV. I watch zero news, zero drama, and zero reality (ok maybe not zero duck dynasty is a pretty decent show).  But you get the point. For me, it’s mostly documentaries, science, history, tech etc.  My wife has the occasional drama and reality but nothing to the extent of disaster of a show like Honey boo boo or Jersey shore (is that crap still even on?).  Most of what she watches we later found through simple research is available over the air where we live for free.
My daughter is sort of the pivot point here, the TV that she does watch is pretty specific.  Nothing over the top fantasy (such as sponge bob and the like) mostly what I call educational entertainment. Little Einstein’s and that sort of thing. We wanted to make sure she could get good quality stuff for when she did watch TV.  So that’s the background.
Now for some caveats:
This will NOT be for everyone.  There will be circumstances when you do the math that will not make fiscal sense to do this. For example you may need a house phone and internet and bundling that with TV may simply be cheaper than if you bought internet alone.  In that case, this is not for you.
This will also not be for you if you do not like technology.  This REQUIRES you to have a basic understanding of home network setup (like plugging in a router and connecting to Wi-Fi) , and depending on how far you go with it possibly building a computer to house all your digital media.
I don’t know how to really say this so I’ll just say it. If you are a slave to your TV this is very much not for you.  If you sweat at night thinking about not getting the most up to date game of thrones show under your belt or plan family nights around American Idol not only do I feel sort of bad for that, but this is not for you. Not to say you can’t get that content, just if you’re die hard can’t wait to get home change into sweats and sit on the couch… Ultimately if you’re doing this right (in my opinion) this is a great way to DECREASE the amount of TV you watch total but still having access to what you want when you want it. /soapbox
If you are not willing to make the initial investment in the things you need to buy in order to at least come close to getting the same type of experience and ultimately saving money over the long term, again this isn’t for you.
Now for the good stuff.

Here is a breakdown of exactly the setup I have at my home.

CutTheCord
This is about to get a little complex but trust me it’s not hard and this will all make sense here in a bit.
Ok now how does this all talk to each other?
First the TV. My TV is a bit older so it is not internet enabled. This setup could change if you have an internet enabled TV that lets you consume these services I’ll talk about below.
Media Server. A few years back I lost my mind at the amount of DVDs we had laying around the house. I went on a 5 day bender of ripping our DVDs (that we owned) to a media server. When I say media server I simply mean an older computer I didn’t use anymore. That machine has since evolved into an 8 terabyte machine with raid striping for redundancy. I originally planned to use this machine as a DVR storage device until some of the newer technology came out. So I have a TON of space open on this machine.
On this server is also running some programs that are important to the overall function of the media “farm”. I’ll discuss each one of them at depth but the apps running on this box are Playon, PlayLater and Plex.
Simple.TV. This is the DVR solution cut the cord’ers have been waiting for, for pretty much eternity. It’s a self-contained piece of hardware that interfaces with Roku and a bunch of other devices. It has a single cable card (which means you can only record one show at a time) and the most important part is that it interfaces with your available content and produces a very familiar guide and scheduler to record over the air HD programming.
Note for mac users. There is a cheaper alternative that lets you turn your mac pc into the dvr storage device. It’s called eyetv it’s actually a bit more graceful and cheaper but doesn’t give you the full functionality standalone that a simple.tv option gives you but it does give you recorded HD content to your mac that is available to your Roku.
HD Antenna. Speaking of over the air HD we have a Leaf Plus Amplified indoor HTDV antenna (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B006GQIIEM/ref=oh_details_o05_s00_i00?ie=UTF8&psc=1) This is a super thin HDTV antenna that looks great if you decide to keep it in the house. And it’s amplified so it gets wicked range. I mounted ours in the attic where we have a window that faces the HD tower location that worked out fine for us. But until I did that we just had it hanging behind the TV itself.
Roku & Roku 3: This rounds out the hardware we have to drives this beast of a setup.  This is the hub that everything connects through. This essentially becomes your traditional set top box you get from the cable company (that one that you’re probably renting for 5+ bucks a month).  The Roku works very much like a modern day smart phone or windows 8 OS. You have the base OS that comes with stuff and you have the ability to add plugins. The plugins give you access to other “stuff” like Netflix, your media server or Hulu etc.  It comes with a remote and after a learning curve becomes very comfortable.
I did a lot of research on the Roku vs. Boxee. Honestly a few years back with Roku 1 or even 2 the Boxee could hold its own. Now there’s just no comparison the Roku blows away Boxee for expandability.  If you want to get a simple service to your non internet TV (let’s say Netflix) and that’s it, boxee is a great solution. If you want to truly cut the cord. Don’t even try (sorry buck).
The search functionality is pretty decent too it works with most of the plugins and give you content results inside of those services (Netflix/Hulu/etc.). The only short fall I’ve found is that it doesn’t give you general results. For example (sad to even say this…sigh…) if you do a search oh I dunno a complete and totally none personally reflective movie like, oh geez, pick one out of the complete blue sky..um….. {lowers voice} Tinkerbell well it will only return the first one I have to then go into Netflix and get access to the other 4 disasters of animation movies.

Currently, Roku Search searches across Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus, Crackle, VUDU and HBO GO. It is available on the following Roku player models:  Roku 2, Roku LT, new Roku HD and Roku Streaming Stick.

The other sucky thing about search is that if I have the movie on my media server, the general search function in Roku doesn’t pick these up. At least I haven’t been able to get it to. So you have to know you have the movie, go to Plex, do a search (which is easy) but I wish I could do it from one place.
Services
All this hardware, which by the way seems like a lot but remember based on what you want to accomplish you can pick and choose. You don’t need a media server like I have. I just happen to have one so why not.  And if you are ok with not watching shows the day they air and you want to get it on huluplus, you don’t need the HD antenna or the simple.tv at all. Literally you just need the roku and huluplus and that’s it. A very affordable option.
But let’s put that aside for the moment. Let’s talk about the services I have routing to my Roku (plugins):
Netflix: 8 bucks a month. Pretty self-explanatory unless you’ve been under a rock. Pretty much all major movies (what no anchorman?). They also are starting to put together original content until themselves. It’s like watching the birth of an internet only broadcasting network. This monthly service is available through my internet connection and through a plugin on the Roku.
HuluPlus: 8 bucks a month. Again, have you been under a rock?  This is what Netflix is to movies but to TV content. They also have their own original series shows.  This has MOST content but not everything. I found that a combination between Hulu (or huluplus) and Netflix covered most content I personally wanted to watch.
The down side, they have the balls to play commercials during shows that I paid to get access to in the first place. I usually get two commercials I can’t skip. There has been a HUGE back lash on this. This would be perfect for … hmm I dunno Amazon prime to take the place on (read on that later)
Playon/PlayLater: 50 bucks once for a lifetime. Playon is actually a super under rated service that doesn’t get much air time… (see what I did there?).  Playon is a pretty cool service it’s basically an internet content hub. So YouTube, Aereo, Vevo are all made available on your roku through Playon. The other cool thing is any broadcaster website that has their content publicly available to watch will get picked up by the app and let you browse that content like browsing for a TV show. So if you’re a big Daily Show fan you can tell PlayOn to go to Comedy Central’s site and allow you to watch Daily Show episodes on your TV through your Roku.
The other awesome thing PlayOn lets you do is use a service it has called PlayLater which lets you save any content that PlayOn can consume through its channel (channel list here http://www.playon.tv/content-channels) directly to the hard drive of the computer that you installed PlayLater to (in my case my media server) for later use offline or on the road.
Lastly and by far the most valuable part of PlayOn. Lets say just maybe…I dunno, you split the cable bill with someone. They want to watch on their TV but you want to pay a smaller portion to them for access to web based content.  Well you can login to their cable providers account in PlayOn and you can get cable content live directly through PlayOn and showing on your Roku!  You heard right, HBO, Disney, History, Discovery all streaming live through your roku (and can be saved down via PlayLater).
Plex: Free minus the computer.  Plex, in my case (but it can be much more) is simply a crawler of media content I have on my media server that allows me to show that content through a plugin on the Roku. Like all my movies or saved down photos and home movies that are on my computer (media server).  Very robust does deep crawling so you can index and search for your content on the roku box. Very cool!
Other Plugins: Free, there are hundreds of other free plugins available on the Roku channel store and just as many more paid plugins that let you access everything from Euro soccer games, to Bollywood movies and literally everything in between.. I have a weather station channel that lets me see weather patterns from all over the world /nerd.

The seedy underbelly of cons.
Let’s face it there are some pretty major cons to this whole deal. Some of it down right sucks. Some of them there are ok and easier to side step. Others, no good answers at all. You have to weigh out if these are deal breakers to you or not.
First for the parents out there. CURRENTLY there are no parental controls that will limit the way kids can consume content on the Roku. The only thing they suggest right now is using the 4 digit pin as a limiter to the things that can be bought or installed. Frankly this is a stupid, cop out answer. To do this you’d have to literally uninstall a plugin after use then use your pin to reinstall it later just to use it to prevent your kids getting into stuff.  That said it is literally one of the most requested things on the site for feedback to include. It’s a no brainer Roku, seriously add the stupid control, it can’t be that difficult considering what the device already does we’re on version 4 here.

So for now you’ll have to keep tabs on your children or simply pull the plug on the roku and put it away when you’re not around. It’s only slightly larger than a smart phone. Let’s hope they get this together.
Sports fans {looks down and shakes head}
Let’s face it when I say sports I mean American football here. Baseball isn’t a sport, and hockey is pretty well covered on the roku through PlayOn.  The NFL makes BILLIONS of dollars a year on games and they pass those “savings” on to cable providers like DirectTV and Verizon for you to pay for and enjoy.
There is currently no way to get something like NFL Sunday Ticket on the roku.  Even if you were, you’d likely have to pay the 300 bucks that it costs in order to get the content on your Roku in a season like it is for the PlayStation 3.
THAT SAID, all hope is not lost if you’re willing to make a few compromises.  There IS football on roku through various methods.
First if you are using a setup similar to mine, you can always get football over the air on your HD antenna. A TON of games get broadcasted on local network channels. Con, it may not be the game you want to watch. Which let’s face it is sort of the point.
Second, if said “friend” happens to leave their account logged in on your Roku, you have access to ESPN, ESPN3 and ESPN Live even Euro Football.  Again if it is broadcasted through ESPN or Local you’re set.
You’re last ditch effort is twofold.  There are a BUNCH of channels you can add to your Roku. Channels that developers literally build for specific things such as streaming church services, and current ski conditions AS WELL AS… streaming content from other streaming sources such as.. Justin.tv or Ustream etc.  Now let me say this, technically this is pirating…technically. Ok that’s all I’ll say. (LiveTv, First Row Sports, Vip Box). This guy talks pretty well to using the “TV Channel Pack 2” channel to get other cities local HD air streams to pick up local football games from those cities. If you think about it Fox Dallas will be more likely to carry a cowboys came than CBS Seattle (unless they are playing each other). So there is hope… http://voices.yahoo.com/how-find-nfl-games-through-playon-roku-11751384.html
Your second last ditch, get up, take the kids to grandmas, go to the sports pub with your significant other get some drinks and watch the game. Either that or go over a friend’s house. Everyone has that buddy that has an oddly over developed Hostess side that always likes to have the parties.
So for now, not the greatest options but it’s what we have to work with. For me personally (read: my wife won’t like it) I don’t REALLY care that much. Plenty of college football is on the channels I have access to on my Roku. So for now that’s the low down on football and hockey. The rest don’t matter so who cares 🙂 haha

And heck I have the SEC digital Network plugin. Lets face it, the only real college football in the US is SEC football anyway.
Last con, everything is plugin based (or channels as they word it). Honestly I’ve become very aware of things like the Windows Phone that bubble up content directly for me to consume at the top level. Never needing to go into an app. One of the cons about the Roku is I feel like I’m constantly diving into one app or another. I wish it was more fluid, that said if I had a set top box I would be going into the DVR area, or going into search, or the channel guide so I feel it’s kind of a wash just wish it was more intuitive.

Services I did NOT try as for my setup, it didn’t make much sense:
Aereo: So Aereo is basically a web version of an HD antenna with a web based DVR. If you don’t want to get an HD antenna you can cough up the 8-12 bucks a month to watch what would be normally free over the air (in HD quality). There are no sports that don’t come with normal free local networks. At least that’s what I got out of their site, I could be wrong. Now up front this could be worth it but at 12 bucks a month after 16 months I’ve paid for my antenna and my simple.TV The only value over simple.tv would be recording two shows at once vs. only one.  So for me, didn’t make sense unless I wasn’t sure if I wanted to watch local HD TV and record.

Services I tried and I got rid of:
AmazonPrime.  Let me first say for all the Amazon groupies out there… Yes I understand AmazonPrime is about the shipping rates, free 2 day, lower costs, book sharing and perks. Video is just a perk to Prime. Yeah yeah I get it. Point is if the video service was any good it would be a super dynamite combo that would crush Netflix and HuluPlus because it’s actually 10 bucks less a year then each of those services AND you’d get the shipping part.
The point is, it’s not very good. Not very good at all. Super old content that has been around for years on other mediums (fraggle rock..seriously?). They are adding stuff but at a snail’s pace comparatively.  I’d be more than happy to revisit Prime in a second if they get their catalog up to date.
The thing that drove me insane was that when I used the prime service I had access to a lot of free content (none of that super great for my tastes).  The thing that drove me nuts is even if you have the prime service you don’t get all the content free, you then have to pay for a LOT of other stuff. I’m not talking a few shows here and there I’m talking the majority of anything worth watching in the first place.
So for me I let that one go, wasn’t worth it.
Total costs (drum roll)
Roku 3: 99$
Roku 1: 40$ (might buy a third or use Playstation3/Xbox)
HD Antenna: 50$
Simple.TV: 150$
Media Server: ??$ (I really cant remember its been 3 years since I built it)
PlayOn/PlayLater:50$
Subscriptions: 16$ a month
First year total cost: 518$
Second year total cost:192$
Cost saved over Fios TV per year (after equipment recoup). Medium package at 89 bucks a month: 1032$ plus 5 bucks for two non DVR HD boxes and 1 HD DVR Box (5 and 8 a month)

(For 1,000$ a year you can go to each home game of your fav football team btw)

Summary:  Worth it? Yes. Fun to setup and play around with? Yes (isn’t new tech always fun?) Will I keep it? Yes (as long as my wife says I can 🙂 ) Keep in mind you can literally go buy the Roku 1 at forty bucks and test out if it is going to be a good call with the channels you find and use. Worst case you have an internet streaming content device for a TV.

Also I forgot to mention in any of the points above. With this setup, I can watch this content anywhere I have access to the internet. All of it is 100% accessable over the web from anywhere.

UPDATE:

One of the bigger complaints we have that I forgot to ellaborate in “search” is knowing what is on and when. Either if it is on broadcast TV or some other source.  Came across Clicker.com that got bought by TV.com which provides listings for shows based on zip code and provider. VERY VERY Handy. Im going to figure out how to integrate this directly in the roku experience as well.  http://www.tv.com/listings/

Some folks are saying if you have a WII on the same WIFI as your roku you can use Web Access on the Wii to make tv.com (or titantv.com) as a favorite and use that through your roku as a TVGuide style plugin. Not a great solution for me, dont have a Wii so im still digging.  Others are using spare iphone/android phones with WiFi just to download the app for titanTv.com. A decent solution but i’d like it on my roku if possible.

Update 2:

Turns out the “Whats On” channel lets you choose the zip code your in and see over the air broadcast content like a TVGude view. It also lets you change your zip code and view program schedule data from other sources you know… like if your friend left you logged in to a cable provider from a different zip code you can go and see what is playing on Disney on lets say Fios then go to PlayOn and view the live feed. Pretty sweet.  https://owner.roku.com/Add/WHATSONCHANNEL

Lastly I’ll leave you with the CURRENT (as it is always evolving as i find content) plugin list I have on my Roku.

 

08/29/2013
SEC Digital Network
08/11/2013
TEDTalks
08/11/2013
Honor
08/11/2013
iHeartRadio
08/11/2013
FOX NOW
08/11/2013
Weather4us
08/08/2013
Simple.TV
08/04/2013
Hulu Plus
07/25/2013
Plex
07/18/2013
PlayOn
07/17/2013
XOS College Sports
07/17/2013
TVNweather On Demand
07/17/2013
Warriors of War
07/17/2013
Pandora
07/17/2013
PBS
07/17/2013
VEVO
07/17/2013
PBS KIDS
07/17/2013
Weather Underground
07/17/2013
Smithsonian Channel
 07/17/2013  Netflix
Tagged on:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

No seriously, are you human? *