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Life without Cable

August 26, 2010

Summary: In which I geek out on our home entertainment set-up for those considering canceling their cable or satellite subscription. Wired just ran a story on this (not yet online), with a comprehensive guide to equipment and a cost comparison.

Home entertainment is at an adolescent stage, and I’m not talking about the content. Like a kid growing up, the adolescence of home entertainment electronics is a little awkward, a little different for everyone, and nothing quite fits right. Unlike the simplicity of cable with a set-top box, using the Internet to pipe content in to the home is a little complicated and a little messy, but opens up lots of possibilities. Still, shedding the predictable, simple existence of home entertainment childhood is now feasible.

My family dropped our cable subscription in January. We haven’t looked back. Our motivation was to save a bit of money, but one of the happy consequences is watching less TV, and watching more quality programming.

The set-up

Attached to our television is a Samsung Blu-Ray player with an internet connection and a Mac Mini.

The Blu-Ray player connects to the internet through the Mac Mini’s shared web connection. It provides access to our Netflix “play now” queue, as well as Blockbuster movie rentals, Pandora stations, and YouTube. We never use those, though, just the Netflix.

The Mac Mini has an Elegato EyeTV attachment, with a high-definition antenna. We pick up about 20 channels over the antenna. The EyeTV software allows us to record programming over the air. We mostly use it to record kids shows off PBS, but the selection of kids programming streamed over Netflix grows every day, making the broadcast content less necessary.

The one advantage to using the Mac Mini as a DVR is that I can move that content to the iPhone or iPad, which then gives us kids video on the go.

What we use

For watching broadcast television, we mostly use I investigated other services, like Boxee, but the simple, web-based interface for Hulu was attractive.

My 4-year-old son gets to watch TV twice a week, and we almost always stream episodes of Kipper or Blue Planet through Netflix. (The kid is nuts for talking dogs and David Attenborough’s narration over obscure marine life.) Alternatively, he’ll watch a DVD of Mama Mirabelle or Thomas and Friends. Mama Mirabelle is a National Geographic show that’s broadcast on PBS, so we can also record it off the air.

We will occasionally watch streamed Netflix videos, usually movies or period dramas. Otherwise, we watch a lot of DVDs from Netflix, which is our primary method for watching movies.

There are a couple shows we like but unavailable on Hulu. These are accessible through the channel’s web site (like The Daily Show) or we pay for a subscription on iTunes (like Mad Men). If we can wait, we hold off until the show comes out on DVD.

What about sports?

Apparently, we’ve never met. Hi, I’m Dan.

Sports aren’t big in my house. We wanted to watch the Olympics but NBC’s insane restrictions about showing the content online made that challenging. Wired’s article has some good information about online subscriptions to sports. Frankly, forgoing cable and paying $120 to watch a full season of baseball on strikes me as a reasonable deal.

The consequence

Less television. Less crap. Just no other way to say it.

After spending some time with the new set up, I realized that one advantage is that there are multiple sources for content. This was not something I had thought about prior to life without cable. Between Hulu, network web sites, Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, and the antenna, we have lots of different ways to get to content. The same content (or, more specifically, episodes in the same series) is likely to appear in more than one of these channels. Those options give us flexibility, and we have an implicit hierarchy that starts with free channels. We can choose how much we spend on a show by paying more (for example, with iTunes) to have content that we’d otherwise have to wait for.

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