I will be doing at least three posts on this subject. Check back for future entries where I’ll update you after I’ve had time to install and test various components of my solution. You can also follow me on Facebook, Twitter, Google +, or have posts emailed to you.
About a month ago I got my final warning from Comcast that all-digital TV would soon be here (4/3/12) and I needed to make preparations. For most people this would not be a big deal but we still have an old CRT TV that we inherited from my parents when they upgraded. Because the TV isn’t digital we would have to get a converter box. Hassle. Our Tivo would only be able to use one of its tuners. Problem. Add in the additional cost of cable and Tivo’s monthly fee and we reached the tipping point.
I did some research on the current cable TV alternatives. You can see my thoughts on each below or just jump to this article to see my actual plan if you have a really short attention span.
Be forewarned, my exact solution may not be the best for you. You will have to have a high speed internet connection. If you can stream movies to your computer, your connection should work fine. Also, you may have to live without live sports. This is the deal breaker for many people. I don’t watch a lot of sports so I may be ok, but the ones I follow I want to be able to see. I’ve watch live legal football games on my computer before so I’m hopeful this will pan out.
Current Cable TV Alternatives
Roku is a box about the size of a deck of cards that you attach to your TV. It is designed with one purpose in mind: streaming content from your computer/internet connection to your TV. It is supposed to be a plug and play simple solution. It uses a remote so the experience should be more like watching TV rather than pulling up videos on a computer.
Pro’s Small, cheap, no monthly fee, simple to use, fast (some devices like this are supposed to lag pretty badly), wide variety of content (Netflix, Hulu Plus, etc), wireless and Ethernet connection options, works with digital and analog TV’s.
Con’s Does not support Flash-based media like YouTube natively (There are work arounds though). You must have a high speed internet connection for this device to work properly. By default, you don’t have complete access to media on your computer. That means if you have videos saved on your hard drive that you want to watch on your TV or you want to watch a show from a website that hasn’t partnered with Roku, there isn’t a built-in solution. I understand the need to prevent people from illegally watching movies that they have torrented however a lot of legal content is left out in the cold too like YouTube and broadcast channels like PBS. There are supposed to be several legal workarounds for this problem but they aren’t obvious because Roku (the company) doesn’t support them in any way.
My thoughts: The lead-painted plaster and brick walls of my house pose an almost impenetrable barrier to wireless signals so having an Ethernet connection is critical. The ability to connect to analog TV’s is also critical for me. Unfortunately, only the top-end Roku has an Ethernet port so that meant a choice between a Roku 2 XS or a Roku 1 XDS. The XS is newer, faster, and comes with a better remote which works off Bluetooth so you don’t need line-of-sight like the XDS’s IR remote. Until fairly recently (9/2011), the XS did not work with PlayOn (detailed below). Apparently this problem has been sorted out so now both the XDS and XS work with PlayOn. Here is a pretty good review of the Roku 2 XS. http://reviewhorizon.com/2011/07/roku-2-xs-review/
Blu-ray Player or Game Console Many have the ability to stream online media or content from your computer like a Roku player. I didn’t even consider these because we are hoping to skip Blu-ray entirely and just stream HD content whenever we upgrade the TV. We don’t play enough games to justify a game console. A Roku player is cheaper and less obtrusive than any of these solutions so that is what I focused on.
Redbox is one you shouldn’t forget. They offer old-fashioned DVD’s from vending machines. They are consistently the cheapest pay-per-title place.
Pro’s Cheap, good selection, excellent choice when multiple rentals are to be made at once.
Con’s Inconvenient, can be more expensive than other choices once gas to and from the vending machine is factored in.
My Thoughts: It amazes me how many people do NOT use their computer to find and reserve their movies before they go to the kiosks. Go to the website, make sure the movie you want is there, reserve it, and then when you show up at the physical location all you have to do is swipe your credit card and all your movies vend. I’ve also heard that an online streaming option like Netflix is in the works.
Ceton is a company that makes computers and computer components specifically targeted at viewing media on your TV.
Pro’s Looks like an all-inclusive solution, could be a decent price for what you get.
Con’s May be too much of a techy experience rather than a casual TV experience.
My Thoughts: At half the price, I’ll try a Roku player first.
Simple TV is basically a DVR for over-the-air digital channels. It has the capability for season pass recording like Tivo (a critical component of a DVR in my opinion).
Pro’s Expensive for features offered, simple to use, season pass recording, streams content wirelessly to any device in range (iPad, computer, etc)
Con’s Season pass is $5/mo subscription, limited to locally broadcast stations, single tuner (but multiple units can be ganged together to for multiple tuners), no hard drive included for recording (but is easy to install via USB), not available until “Spring 2012.”
My Thoughts: Antenna digital is supposed to provide the best picture quality so with this setup your channels are free and you get a high quality image. This might be a solution once the price starts dropping. I can’t see paying $150 for a single tuner item that only gets over-the-air channels, requires a $5/mo subscription for what I think is a critical season pass feature, and requires that I provide a hard drive to record it on. At $25-50 this item begins to make sense. Then you could gang two together and really have a nice solution for local channel recording.
Axio TV appears to be a combination of a Roku player and a Simple TV with some Tivo thrown in. It can DVR over-the-air channels as well as subscribing to streaming media a la carte. Curiously it has two different websites here and here.
Pro’s Compiles many features in one box?
Con’s Expensive. It won’t be available until “Summer 2012.”
My Thoughts: I’ll admit I don’t really understand this product. I buy a box for $200 then I pay $15/mo in a subscription fee then I have to pay for the content I want to watch on it. That sounds like Tivo’s strategy which I’m trying to get away from. It also sounds like Roku’s strategy but the Roku box is half that price and I don’t have to pay a monthly subscription fee. Of course with Roku there is no built-in option for live TV. Axio TV isn’t available now so there really is no point pursuing this one further until it is.
Google TV looks very exciting to me, but just isn’t ready for prime time yet. As Google is good at doing, they appear to have put an umbrella over all kinds of media and made it searchable for easy access. Google TV incorporates live TV, on demand TV, movies, pictures posted by you/family/friends, YouTube, web surfing via Chrome all with the ability to utilize picture-in-picture. It is even designed to allow creators to write apps for it.
Pro’s Every type of media you could want available on your TV. No monthly fee.
Con’s Slow to change channels, seems to require cable TV to have access to channel guide, may not be able to do season pass recording, current iterations of hardware are prone to crashing, a few (many?) media outlets (like Hulu) are blocking Google TV from accessing content.
My Thoughts: This thing seems like it is still in beta testing. Not an option for me. The biggest problems with this system are the hardware, which Google doesn’t supply, and the deals they don’t have in place with some providers to allow content to be shown on the system. These are both challenges that can be overcome and with some time, maybe they will be. There are currently two hardware choices: Sony NSZ-GT1 Wi-Fi-Enabled 1080p Blu-ray Disc Player Featuring Google TV for ~$200 or Logitech Revue for ~$160. Apparently some TV’s have or will have hardware to access Google TV built-in.
Apple TV is very similar to Roku.
Pro’s Well-made equipment, low price.
Con’s Slower and supposedly slightly harder to use than Roku, limited sources for video (supports Netflix and iTunes and not much more), only works with HD TV’s.
My Thoughts: Unless you already have a lot of Apple hardware in your house, I don’t see a reason to pick this over Roku. Even then I think it is still hard to pick Apple TV over Roku. Maybe I’m missing some sort of Mac-only feature that would make this a winner, but until Apple has a lot more content options, I don’t see the point of this one.
Boxee is designed to bring the internet to your TV. It appears to have a very nice interface. Many people really like this system.
Pro’s Low cost way to bring the internet to your TV, can watch live over-the-air TV with a dongle.
Con’s Much less focus on TV and movies than other choices or at least a smaller selection at this time. Cannot DVR anything from the live TV dongle.
My Thoughts: There are a dedicated group of fans for Boxee so it must be doing some things right. I’ve read some comments that suggest the hardware it currently runs on is not the greatest but the software is great. Not being able to record live over-the-air TV is a huge miss. If they get that straightened out this could be a good cable alternative. If you are not in the market for a solution right now, I’d keep an eye on these guys. A future product from them could be a real winner.
Hulu Plus This monthly subscription service provides access to many current broadcast and cable TV shows.
Pro’s Access to most TV shows the day after broadcast, ability to watch shows on multiple platforms with one account (iPad, Roku’ed TV, smartphone, etc.).
Con’s Monthly fee, not all channels or shows are supported (CBS and PBS are two big gaps), you still have to watch ads even though you are paying a fee.
My Thoughts: Hulu is different from Hulu Plus. Hulu is free but is blocked from all portable devices (and the Roku). Hulu Plus is supposed to have a much wider variety of programming and with a more extensive backlog. I would gladly subscribe to this service along with Netflix and be done. Unfortunately, many of our favorite shows are on PBS and CBS so we’ll need some other service(s) to fill the gaps.
Netflix is another monthly subscription service. While primarily known as a movie viewing service, Netflix provides access to many TV shows (including TV shows from HBO) once they are about year old. I’ve read that about the time a TV show is packaged for DVD release, it is available on Netflix. Movies are released a little after they are available on DVD. I’ve read that it is about the same time they are available on Redbox.
Pro’s Large selection of movies and TV shows.
Con’s Monthly fee, both movies and TV shows available are not current
My Thoughts: The Roku is supposed to have been designed specifically to stream Netflix so the two should work very well together. The amount of content that Netflix has is very impressive for the low monthly payment.
PlayOn turns most (all?) audio and video media viewable on your computer into a selectable channel on a Roku player. This is supposed to include media saved to the computer’s hard drive as well as content streamed from the internet.
Pro’s Fills the content gap between Netflix and Hulu Plus.
Con’s Supposedly a little finicky to work with. The PlayOn website even says something like “Try it. If it doesn’t work, then it probably won’t no matter what settings or configuration changes you make.” It is not supported by Roku. It has a monthly fee.
My Thoughts: I’ve seen many reviews for the Roku that include comments about PlayOn. Most say that it is a great way to get the additional stations and shows that cannot be found otherwise. It has also been mentioned that Roku does not like PlayOn and offers no support for them. I’m going to try one of the free services that supposedly does the same thing as PlayOn first.
Plex supposedly works like PlayOn but it is free.
Pro’s Fills the content gap between Netflix and Hulu Plus.
Con’s Supposedly easy to install, but can also be a little finicky.
My Thoughts: This is what I plan to try first. Here is a video review of it in action. It is available for the Roku but, seeing that it was just released at the beginning of this month, I expect that it may not work 100% correctly.
Vudu is a movie streaming service like Netflix.
Pro’s No monthly fee, movies guaranteed to be available the same day they come out on DVD.
Con’s Pay per download, not available on Roku (as of now), owned by Walmart.
My Thoughts: Since it isn’t available on Roku I won’t be using it. I’m never as concerned about seeing movies right when they are released so using Netflix and Amazon On Demand should easily meet my desires.
Amazon Prime is a multi-use service. You get access to cheaper and faster shipping of goods bought through Amazon.com, the ability to share digital books, and all-you-can-stand-to-watch movies and TV.
Pro’s If you are already a Prime member “free” videos are a nice feature.
Con’s The most limited selection of content of any of the choices listed here. Must buy an annual subscription instead of monthly. Easy to confuse free Prime content with pay-as-you-go Amazon Instant Video when browsing media on Amazon.com.
My Thoughts: I’d be an opposite customer for them. Most people get Prime for great shipping options and watch free video as a perk. I’d get it if they had an excellent video selection and the shipping would be icing on the cake.
Amazon Instant Video is the only service we’ve actually used on this list yet. It works with our Tivo and so far the performance has been flawless. We have only downloaded movies and TV shows so I don’t know how well the streaming service works yet.
Pro’s Many movies and TV shows available about the same time they are available on DVD. Trusted internet company for financial transactions. Good customer service. Run deals offering free and 99 cent movies/content from time to time.
Con’s Pay-as-you go can get quite expensive with this service – especially if you are using it to watch a TV series.
My Thoughts: A good back up for when you absolutely “must” see that movie right now and Redbox + gas is more expensive or you just feel lazy and don’t want to leave the house.
The following is a list of other software that you may find helpful. I’ll only look into these options if I don’t get what I want from the software listed above.
Roksbox creates a Roku channel for accessing stuff on a local computer
Chaneru creates a Roku channel for accessing stuff on a local computer
roConnect creates a Roku channel for accessing stuff on a local computer
Gabby creates a Roku channel for accessing stuff on a local computer
NokNok creates a Roku channel for accessing stuff on a local computer?
Notes: Links at the bottom of the site don’t work. Links at the top do. Not available yet?
Tversity allows you to stream stuff to the Roku player?
If all of these options have your head reeling, just wait for the next article which will focus on my specific plan.