Cable cord cutting
By Michael Argentini
Managing Partner, Technology and Design
If your cable bill is too high, you want more choice and control, or you're not satisfied with the TV experience, you will likely be interested in cutting the cord. Cutting the cord doesn't mean eliminating cable entirely if you use your cable provider for Internet access. It means unsubscribing from the cable company's television services in favor of watching TV over the Internet.
My experiment in cord cutting has been a great success, and I won't go back to paying for traditional cable TV. So if that's all you want to know, I recommend giving it a try. But if you'd like details on my cord cutting experience using Apple and related technologies, read on.
My cable bill could be a car payment.
For some reason I still cannot get Verizon FiOS in my area. It's so bad that it has become a meme at Fynydd, with people placing wagers on whether the new year will bring FiOS to my neighborhood. I mention this because as I became tired of paying an exorbitant fee for a Comcast Xfinity account, my first thought was to switch providers. Here's a sample bill for my TV and Internet.
Lack of access to FiOS has frustrated me for years, but I now see that this was a blessing in disguise. I was thinking about it the wrong way. The problem would exist to a greater or lesser degree with any traditional media provider. What I needed was to think about this differently.
A bill totaling $273 per month was unacceptable, yet inertia had me paying it for some time. And all I had on the plan was HBO and a standard digital HD plan. As I examined the bill I realized that paying about $143 per month for TV service, cable box rental, and taxes was the biggest opportunity to save money. I telecommute and have a beefy Internet plan. I couldn't really alter that portion.
The usage problem
Like pretty much everyone else, my family only watched a tiny fraction of the channels provided by the fat bundles our cable provider offers. So not only were we overpaying for TV content, we were paying to support a ton of channels and networks we never watched.
And having multiple remote controls and receivers made using the TV much more difficult than it needed to be. Heck, even one Comcast remote is overcomplicated. How many buttons do we really need? How many do we actually use?
So it was time to figure out everything that really mattered to us regarding the TV experience. I write “experience” because there's more to it than just watching shows. Controlling the rig and navigating the content are arguably just as important. This exercise also included identifying the TV shows and networks we care most about.
All that said, here's the list of primary concerns I came up with:
- Local broadcast channels were important for news, weather, specific shows, and emergency alerts
- Varied cable networks were needed, including CNN, A&E, History, HBO, and several others
- On-demand content would be a big plus
- Pausing live TV would be a big plus
- Must be able to watch content from our own library
- Control of the TV and audio receiver had to be no harder than it already was (yes, a low bar)
- System-wide power on and off would be a big plus (especially if device power states would stay in sync)
- Cost had to be reduced enough to justify the change
The hardware rig
We're already a largely Apple-centric household, so it made sense for us to base our TV watching experience around Apple compatible products and services. We ended up with the following rig:
We've had this receiver for several years, but it's new enough to support HDMI-CEC, allowing it to power cycle via a single remote. The HDMI-CEC protocol has explicit on and off signals, so it never gets out of sync across devices. This receiver handles the audio in my system. It has a ton of other features, but this new rig doesn't need most of it. I don't even use the surround sound. It sounds great in stereo.
This is another older component. One of its HDMI ports is flaky, but other than that it still works well. It doesn't have HDMI-CEC support, but I address that successfully below.
This is the hub of the entire experience. The Apple TV has a modern, voice controlled interface, and an App Store with tons of channels, games, and more. The remote for the Apple TV works over Wifi and has a touch pad with only six buttons (and is rechargeable), making controlling the interface simple. The only drawback is that in a dimly lit room it's hard to know if you're holding it the right way. Fortunately you can also use an iPhone to control it.
The Apple TV supports the HDMI-CEC protocol, so you can power your equipment on and off with a single remote control. As I stated previously, our family room TV doesn't support this feature, so...
This is both a surge protector and a power controller that allows one device to control the power to others. In my case, I plug the Yamaha receiver into the control (blue) outlet. When the Apple TV turns off, the HDMI-CEC signal tells the Yamaha to turn off, which in turn triggers the Smart Strip to turn off the TV plugged into one of the red outlets. The TV has a setting that automatically turns it back on in the event of a power outage, so this works flawlessly!
This device sits quietly on the home network (plugged into my Apple Airport Express Wifi router via a wired ethernet port) and receives over the air HD local programming free of charge, transcoding it for consumption by devices on the network.
To get the most channels you really should connect it to a roof antenna, but you can purchase small, flat antenna sheets for $30 that can be hidden or put on a window, which get most of the channels you'd need. This 1byone 50-mile amplified antenna is a good choice. Luckily I'm in an older house that still had a roof antenna. Otherwise, I wouldn't be able to get ABC (WPVI channel 6), since they use a low VHF band which has a really hard time traveling through walls.
Apps and services
To get all the hardware working together was pretty easy. I spent more time testing an in-home HDTV antenna panel only to give up and attach my HD Homerun Connect to the roof antenna. But here are the apps and services we decided to start with. We haven't added any pay services, so it looks like our initial choices were pretty solid. But we do use some other free apps here and there. I'll just cover the critical ones below.
This Apple TV app talks to the HD Homerun Connect and provides a beautiful Apple TV viewing experience for live over-the-air HDTV. You can even pause live TV, although it does not provide true DVR recording capabilities. Its price is a bit steep, especially considering that it doesn't have a channel guide to see upcoming shows across channels. But it does pull artwork and show information per channel. So if you love ABC, you can see what's coming up on that channel, but not compare it with other channels. Ironically their iOS app does have a proper channel guide. They claim it's coming in a future Apple TV update. Fingers crossed!
Essentially a one-time purchase of Channels with the HD Homerun Connect gives you state-of-the-art digital TV free of charge, and with much better quality than Comcast cable. It's not even close.
Sling is famous for their Sling Box device which allows you to watch your local TV (air and cable) from anywhere on the Internet. Now, they provide live local TV and cable programming with a subscription service. Their skinny bundles are rated by color. I purchased the blue package, which has 40+ channels, including CNN, FOX, Comedy Central, A&E, History, NBC, AMC, USA, Food Network, and more.
Sling TV has apps for many devices, including Apple TV. Since the service allows you to stream on multiple devices, we can also watch TV on our computers, phones, and tablets. This is a great deal. Reliability has been pretty good. You'll get the occasional freeze or glitch, but it's gotten better, and seems to recover more quickly than when we first signed up. But at this price and quality, I can't complain.
Hulu is a streaming service like Sling TV, except that it has the backing of a ton of networks. So it has on-demand and live shows that we can't get with Sling. They also have some original programming and a decent movie selection. We opted for hulu versus Netflix because of the breadth of TV shows. The package we chose costs a bit more, but there are no commercials. If cost is a priority, the standard package is only $7.99/month. If you prefer movie watching, Netflix would be worth a look.
Being fans of stand up comedy, movies, and original HBO programming (like Game of Thrones) we had to subscribe to HBO NOW. Like Sling TV and Hulu, there are apps for many platforms, including Apple TV, and the interface is gorgeous. You can watch live premiers of original HBO programming and other events, as well as watch content on-demand. It's really the perfect way to watch TV.
Plex is a free media server platform that can be installed on many platforms from Macs to Windows PCs, Linux machines, game consoles, NAS devices, and more. But to get the most out of Plex, you'll want to subscribe to Plex Premium.
Premium adds HDTV DVR capabilities, offline watching, parental controls, more music features (like lyrics, mixes, and more), early access to new features, and the ability to watch media stored in the cloud even if your Plex server is offline for some reason.
The Apple TV app provides a gorgeous interface for accessing our family media library like home and Hollywood movies, photo library, music library, and more. The Plex player apps are available for more platforms than anyone else, so watching your media can be done anywhere on anything. Plex is amazing.
Other apps like Youtube
Apps like YouTube provide endless fun watching TV, and a better viewing experience than a computer or mobile device. Some are free and some are not. But there's a ton out there. Just be aware that many TV and cable network channel apps require that you have a TV subscription with your cable provider. This is due to the restrictive contracts they sign with their distribution partners. HBO has shown that there is a better alternative and hopefully the other networks will follow their lead.
After discussing the idea of cord cutting with the family, they were pretty open to the idea. I explained how TV would work and what they'd be able to watch, and set them at ease for the most part. But I also told them that if the experience was horrible, we could always get the cable TV services turned back on. So we really had nothing to lose.
I contacted Comcast to turn off the TV services and associated taxes and rental fees. And I set up the rig I described previously, with the exception of the HD Homerun Connect and Channels app. It was when one of the kids wanted to watch her favorite ABC show (The Bachelorette) that I realized we didn't have a way to watch ABC live. Sling didn't have that network. Very odd. But I remembered reading about the HD Homerun Connect a few months earlier, and looked into it and the app choices.
Between the original decision and playing with the antenna for the HDTV setup, I had to contact Comcast several more times to get the TV services and fees cancelled. I'd get bounced around and eventually be assured it was all in-process. Then my bill would come and it wasn't changed. Rinse and repeat. Eventually I got the right person at the right time and finally got results. The cost breakdown follows.
After using this setup for a while it became clear that a change in mindset needs to be part of the switch. When you think about it, watching TV is a ritual comfort, and we have been conditioned to follow these steps:
- Sit down on the couch
- Grab the remote and turn on the TV
- Watch what happens to be on by default
- Channel surf or view the guide to find something you want to watch
There are certainly times when you want to watch a specific show at a specific time (recorded or not), but discovery is the most common scenario, and Internet TV makes following that pattern a challenge. It's like watching TV solely through the on-demand feature of your cable box. I realized that the mindset had to be discussed with everyone. Here's how I explained things:
“Watching Internet TV is a bit different than what you're used to. It's different but better. You just have to be aware of the difference. Very often we sit down and surf, finally picking something to watch. So when you use apps like hulu and HBO NOW, you don't just watch whatever and then surf around to find something better. When you just want random TV time, use the app features for discovery, usually on the first screen of each app at the top. Look at "What's New", "What's Popular", and give genres a try, because you usually know what kind of show you want too see (e.g. science fiction). Once you get used to the change, you won't want to go back.”
That seemed to do the trick. In fact, leading busy lives means we're generally not able to watch our favorite shows live anyway. Comcast on-demand services helped to condition us in that regard.
To be clear, you can still surf the old way, but you're isolated within services, like "local over-the-air TV" or "channels available on Sling TV".
So how did we do? Let's take a look at the cost of the services and see how the monthly bill differs. I'm not going to include the one-time costs because they're inconsequential for this exercise.
$25.00/mo Sling TV + $11.99/mo hulu + $14.99/mo HBO NOW + $ 4.99/mo Plex Premium -------------------------------------- $56.97/mo TOTAL
What I didn't realize is that by removing my TV services, it put me on an Internet-only tier, costing only $114.90 per month. So the breakdown is actually:
$273.75/mo Original TV + Internet Plan – $158.85/mo Comcast TV Services -------------------------------------- $114.90/mo Internet-only plan + $56.97/mo Internet TV services -------------------------------------- $171.87/mo TOTAL COST $273.75/mo Original TV + Internet – $171.87/mo New Monthly Cost -------------------------------------- $101.88/mo TOTAL SAVINGS
That's a significant savings each month. So what were we paying Comcast for? That extra $102 got us the world renowned Comcast customer service (yes, that was sarcasm), a ton of channels we didn't watch, and a large on-demand library that is becoming filled with pay content, reducing its value. We also got a more complicated rig with a complex additional remote and cable converter box with a crappy SD interface.
To recap, we save $102/month and get the following from our original list of goals at the beginning of the article:
- Local broadcast channels in full 1080p HD; better quality than cable and FREE
- Varied cable networks including CNN, A&E, History, HBO, and others
- A ton of on-demand shows and movies through Sling TV, hulu, and HBO NOW
- Watching and pausing live TV with the Channels app
- A premium experience for our family media content with Plex
- Control of everything with a six-button Wifi remote with touchpad and voice control
- System-wide power on and off with HDMI-CEC and a Smart Strip for my old TV
- The cost justification is almost moot since the benefits we get from cutting the cord make watching TV better in most cases. But the cost savings is substantial nonetheless.
If you have concerns about cost and experience I'd recommend that you look into cutting the cord. We certainly don't plan to go back.
Article last updated on 4/21/2018