Cutting the Cord

My family has finally decided to explore cord cutting.  For those that don’t know, cord cutting is the term most commonly used to describe getting rid of traditional cable/satellite TV options in favor of other emerging options.  There are so many ways to do this.  I’ll be cataloging my research and selection process.  Hopefully, if you’re interested, this can assist you in determining if cord cutting is a viable solution for you.

Is it right for me?

satellite_houseLet me begin by saying, cable and satellite both offer the broadest range of channels in a single touch point format.  That is to say, if you value ease of use and channel variety beyond everything else, you shouldn’t cut the cord.   Cutting the cord can be a big cost savings.  But that savings doesn’t come without compromise.  To approximate the traditional cable/satellite experience, you’re going to implement a solution that requires more effort than cable/satellite does today.  This is likely to improve over time, but in the short term this is the reality.

How do I get started?

Many people start down the path to cord cutting to save money.  That is the biggest reason I started my research as well.  But I think an equally important aspect is, we are moving away from “appointment television”.  “Appointment television” is having to be in front of your TV at a certain time to view the content that is important to you.  If you consider your TV viewing habits, many of you probably watch a show on DVR or through another service like Hulu, Netflix, or Amazon Video more often than you do live TV.  The flexibility to view content after it’s initial airing is something that makes cord cutting easier to swallow.

The first step I think a person interested in cutting the cord should take is to decide which networks and shows are must haves.  To do this I recommend making a list of what you watch and try to loosely group it into categories of “must watch”, “like to watch” and “could do without”.  Understanding what content you want is a key step in determining the equipment you need to obtain it.

The next item to consider is how many TVs and users you’re trying to support.  The build-out for 1 user with 1-2 TVs is much different than a family of 4 with 4 TVs + mobile devices.

Options for OTA

WhaBroadcast-network-logost is Over-The-Air(OTA)?  Several  years ago, local broadcast networks (CBS, ABC, FOX, NBC, PBS, CW, etc) were required to start making their broadcast signals available, for free, over frequencies transmitted via antennas.  Assuming your location is suitable (HINT: most urban/suburban locations are) you can utilize an HD antenna to receive these signals and view them on your TV.  There are no fees associated with doing this, but you do have to invest in 1 or more antennas to receive the signal.

If you want to get your local channels for free, you have to determine what type of antenna will work best for you.  There are indoor antennas and attic/outdoor antennas.  And those can both be directional (aimed towards the towers sending the signal) or multi/omni directional (able to receive from various direction).  Generally speaking, the closer you are to the towers the less powerful antenna you require.  And the direction of the tower dictates the need for directional vs. multi/omni directional offerings.  So how can you figure out what type of antenna might work for you?  Start by going to TVFool and entering your address.  It will give you a listing and a directional map similar to this:

tvfool

The picture above will list the channels in your area and color code them.  Green basically means an indoor antenna should work, yellow would require attic antennas typically, and red would require an outdoor antenna of some sort.  Some red might not even be attainable depending on various conditions.  If you’re in an urban/suburban area, most of your local channels will probably be green or yellow.  If they all fall in the same general direction, then a directional antenna is perfect for you.  If not, you will need to look at multi/omni directional alternatives.  Amazon carries a wide variety of antenna options.  Ask questions/read reviews/etc before deciding on which one to try.  When installing an antenna, consider things like metal roofing or radiant roof barriers that can cause interference.  Also, try multiple placements for the antenna.  The right spot might not be where you initially intended to place it.

Do you need to DVR local broadcasts?  If so, you’ll want a way to take the OTA signals and feed them into a device like Simple.TV, TabloTV, or TiVo Roamio.  All of these devices provide similar function and choosing the proper one depends on your needs.  Simple.TV is lower cost and meant for 1-2 TV deployments.  TabloTV is more scalable able to extend to larger 4-6 TV deployments.  And the TiVo device has great scaling as well, but requires additional hardware to interface with.  I can’t go into full detail of each one, since I’ve only used the TabloTV unit.  But it takes my HD antennas signal and allows me to DVR shows and watch live TV or DVRed episodes through a streaming device like the Roku.  I may write an entire article about this setup in the future.

If you don’t need to DVR, do you have an exist RG6 network in your house?  If so, an OTA HD Antenna can be hooked to your existing RG6/Coax splitter outside of your home to provide signal to all TV outlets in  your home.  This requires a TV with a digital tuner built in, so please check your devices to ensure that meet this requirement before choosing this route.

Options for streaming devicesstreaming_devices

Why do you need a streaming device?  The short answer is, you might not.  Some of the things a streaming device can offer, can already be done in modern day “smart” TVs.  There are certain offerings, however, that are only available on select devices.  As we move through the remainder of this article, your personal viewing requirements list will help influence if you need a streaming device and which one(s) is/are right for you.

Which device should I get?

  • Apple TV
    • Pros: Access to the iTunes store.  Easy integration to the Apple ecosystem if you own a lot of Apple devices.
    • Cons: Lacks access to a lot of streaming services like Amazon Video, Playstation Vue, SFN: TV Now and others
  • Amazon Fire TV
    • Pros: Robust app store that allows the use of most streaming services.
    • Cons: No access to the iTunes store.
  • Roku
    • Pros: Robust app store that allows the use of most streaming services.
    • Cons: Lacks Playstation Vue accessibility. ** UPDATE: Playstation Vue is now availale on Roku **  No access to iTunes store.
  • Others – There are several other devices on the market, most of them Android based.  nVidia Shield is a very popular one due to it’s excellent hardware.  It has a premium price tag however.

If I were starting fresh today, I would either choose the Roku or the Fire TV.  Both have a good market share, a broad array of apps available to them, and generally are supported by new offerings as they become available.

digital-netflix-amazon-huluOptions for streaming services

Many streaming services exist today.  I broke them down into two main categories.  Ones that offer a monthly subscription.  And pay-per-view type options.

  • Monthly Services – These are services which charge a moderate monthly fee and provide content that can be streamed to tablets, TVs, streaming devices, and more.
    • Netflix
      • Original Content: Netflix shines here with quite a bit of high quality original content you cannot get anywhere else.
      • TV: Many older seasons of popular TV shows.  They occasionally will disappear as Netflix’s rights/contracts expire or are renegotiated.
      • Movies: Many popular movies that have previously aired elsewhere.  Netflix is expanding their ability to get “first run” type movies before typical cable stations do.  They recently have entered an agreement with Disney/Marvel to air their content before standard channels get a chance to.
    • Hulu
      • Original Content: Some very light offerings that aren’t particularly a draw for most consumers.
      • TV: This is where Hulu shines.  They have agreements with NBC, FOX, and ABC allowing them to show episodes of many popular TV shows while they are airing.  There is typically a 1 day lag time between normal broadcast date and Hulu availability.  But this can function as a “cloud DVR” type service for many popular shows.  They also have older seasons of shows as well.
      • Movies: There is content here, some of it popular content.  But the amount is small when compared to services like Amazon and Netflix.
    • Amazon Video
      • Original Content: They’ve had award winning shows from their original content, making them a strong player in this area – on par with Netflix.
      • TV: Older seasons of popular TV shows are available, though only a limited amount through their monthly service.  Many shows require purchase through a la carte or season purchases which I’ll detail in the next section below.
      • Movies: Not as broad of a selection as Netflix, but a very strong offering of popular movies.
    • Others – Many other offerings exist like UFC Fight Pass, CBS All Access, and others.  A quick Google search should help determine if there is a monthly offering and what it might provide.
  • A la carte episode and season purchases
    • All of the places listed below have a good variety of shows that you can purchase for around $1-3 per episode.  For seasonal content, many offer “season pass” offerings that give you a small discount for purchasing the entire season.
      • iTunes
      • Google Play
      • Amazon Video
      • Others – many other offerings exist here, but the above 3 are the most prevalent players today.

Options for streaming services for cable

ott_servicesThere are a lot of names for the next topic on the list.  I’ve heard them referred to as “Skinny Bundles” or “Over-The-Top” (OTT) offerings.  They are basically a subset of cable TV channels that are offered via internet streaming.  Here are some of the pros/cons for the current services in the industry:

  • Sling TV – Best of Live TV
    • Pros: Great device support, Low starter package price, Easy to customize with add-on packages
    • Cons: No DVR, Lack of FOX channels, Lack of concurrent device streams
  • Sling TV – Best of Live TV Beta (Multi-stream)
    • Pros: Concurrent devices streaming (3), Great device support, Low starter package price, Lots of choices for add-on packages
    • Cons: No DVR, Lack of ABC channels (ESPN/Disney)
  • Playstation Vue
    • Pros: 28-day Cloud DVR, Lots of channels, Concurrent devices streaming (5)
    • Cons: Only 3 tiers to choose from.  Requires a Playstation 3/4 or an Amazon Fire TV to sign-up/use.  ** UPDATE: Now available on Roku (6/21) and Android (6/27). **
  • SFN:TV Now
    • Pros: 14-day Cloud DVR, Good channel listing, Concurrent devices streaming (5), Lots of package choices, Good device support
    • Cons: Missing some key channels
  • Others (Vidgo, Amazon, Hulu, Youtube, AT&T, etc)
    • Vidgo is an upcoming service that claims to offer something closer to a la carte when it comes to their packages.  You’ll be able to pick/choose which channels you want on various devices like Amazon Fire TV, Roku, Android, and more.
    • Amazon, Hulu, Youtube, AT&T, and more are all working on streaming services.  There aren’t enough details to know what they will offer, but with this market exploding with choices that should be a good thing for competition, pricing, and options.

Here’s a link to a tool that I like for OTT Service Comparisons.  Simply check off the channels that you want to watch and it will show you which services/package offer them.  Most likely none of them will have everything.  But this is a good way to figure out which ones match your needs the most.

Options for media servers

plex-kodiPersonal media servers are another way to fill in your content gaps.  You can utilize things like Plex Media Server, Kodi, and others to stream content from a server on your home network to various connected devices.  For example, you could take a digital copy of a movie you own and stream it to various devices.  There are even more advanced way to use these technologies with add-ons, channels, and more that help unify the experience.  I would view these types of things as a luxury option when dealing with cutting the cord.  They’re more about conveniently accessing all your content than they are about providing a cable/satellite replacement.

Wrapping Up

As the length of this article might lead you to believe, cutting the cord requires some planning.  None of the things discussed here are overly difficult to implement, but they all require thought and planning since the choices are highly dependent on your content needs.  For some folks, Hulu and Netflix with an HD Antenna for local broadcasts may give you everything you need.  For others, it may require some services for each bucket listed above.  Talk about it with someone who’s done it before, ask questions and make sure you’re covering all your bases.  Best of luck to any future cord cutters that started their journey here!  Let me know how I can help.

2 thoughts on “Cutting the Cord

  1. Nice thorough write up. My next step is to use a whole house antenna with a splitter for OTA. I’d be interested to learn more about this.

    1. I get a very strong signal with an Amazon Basics Amplified outdoor unit (https://amzn.com/B00MFXNQBU) but there are tons of good options as well. If you’re going a long distance to your TVs (> 75ft) you might have to consider an amplifier to the signal. I found the signal to be so strong though, that an amplifier actually made the picture quality worse. From where my house is, I had to go multi directional. WXII and PBS were one direction and everything else was almost 180 degrees in the opposite direction! Just my luck.

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