TO DITCH CABLE OR NOT TO DITCH? THAT IS THE QUESTION.
If Shakespeare lived in the 21st century, surely he would ponder the same thing. Can you live without Cable TV? Until recently, the answer might have been “No, I like sports too much.” But, as “cord-cutting” becomes more common, more options become available and the easier the choice is… even for sports fanatics. As a further incentive, original programming from Amazon and Netflix is getting quite good.
You can improve your monthly budget if you ditch cable and strategically choose your programming.
Unfortunately, even when you escape the death grip monopoly that is Cable TV, you still have to pay out the nose for high-speed internet! (Unless you’re willing to go completely off the grid.) So, the monthly savings won’t be as dramatic as you might expect. Too bad the interwebs don’t grow on trees! I’ll get more into the finances of it later, but needless to say you can still improve your monthly budget – and have fun doing it – if you ditch cable and strategically choose your programming.
Let’s start with the most tangible component of cable-free living: hardware. For Cable TV defectors, hardware is a significant cost but is only incurred up front. Once you have the necessary equipment, you’re all set (until enticed by something “new and improved”). If you have a Smart TV and you’re happy with it, awesome. Not all Smart TVs are created equal. Often streaming boxes will offer more apps and better user interfaces than Smart TVs. Hardware options fall into one of two main categories; boxes or sticks. Here’s a simple comparison:
|STREAMING BOXES||STREAMING STICKS|
|EXAMPLES||Roku 2, 3, 4|
Amazon Fire TV
Xbox / PS4
Fire TV Stick
|PROS||Superior connection options|
Better remote controls
Faster processors, some support 4K
|Cost: +/- $40
Compact and portable
|CONS||Cost: +/- $100|
Basic remote, if any
|POWER||AC wall outlet||USB connection (wall or TV)|
(If the comparison table doesn’t display, try rotating your device to landscape.)
It’s important to note the power requirement for sticks. Contrary to what most advertising photos show, sticks must connect to more than just the HDMI outlet. They require a USB connection as well, so check the available ports on your TV.
A streaming stick is the way to go for second and third TVs, if you’re strapped for cash, or if portability really appeals to you. Otherwise, a box is the better choice. The faster processors and superior features are worth the extra cost. For example, the Roku 4, Apple TV and Fire TV box all include an optical audio output, perfect for mating with a Bluetooth Home RTX Mini. Boxes also offer the option of a more dependable ethernet connection port in lieu of wifi. (*Edit 9/26/16: Roku is unveiling a tremendous new line of products this fall – 2016. Now you can get the processor speed of a box in the size of a streaming stick.) Of all the hardware options, it’s really hard to beat Roku’s lineup, unless you’re especially brand loyal to Apple/Google/Amazon. Those three companies unapologetically push their own content. Want a second opinion? This CNET article sums it up nicely and declares Roku the winner. Also, you can get some sweet hardware deals if you prepay for 3 months of Sling TV.
The only other hardware you might need is an HD antenna to grab local airwaves. However, if you’re like me, the manipulative Comcast overlord made it cheaper to keep a bare-bones channel lineup rather than to go strictly internet-only. A cunning strategy to keep me indoctrinated! If you’re fortunate enough to get a good deal on high-speed internet (without bundling), then you’re in the optimal situation to ditch cable. Congrats! Here’s a thorough antenna guide that tells you more than you’ll ever need to know.
One last note on hardware. Unless your TV has a half-dozen HDMI inputs, you’ll likely need an HDMI Splitter.
Now that you’re connected with a streaming box, stick or Smart TV, it’s time to make some tough choices about programming. Let’s start with the elephant in the room: Sports!! We’ve already talked about local channels, so you should be covered for locally broadcast games. But, most dads have an insatiable hunger for more than just local games!
If you’re primarily interested in professional sports, you can buy single-sport streaming services such as NFL Game Pass ($99/season, not live), NBA League Pass ($50/season, live) or MLB.TV ($109/season, live). Or, if college sports is more your flavor, College Sports Live might be a good fit ($10/month, check the list for your school).
Finally, if you’re an equal-opportunity lover of all sports, then you probably can’t live without ESPN. Unfortunately, ESPN hasn’t really bought into the streaming culture yet; WatchESPN still requires a cable provider login (maybe you can “borrow” one). Thankfully, there’s Sling TV! (A subsidiary of Dish Network.) For $20/month, Sling TV gives you a pleasant user interface and 20+ live channels including ESPN (& WatchESPN), ESPN2, TNT, TBS and more. For an extra $5/month you can add ESPNU and the SEC Network. I used Sling TV to stream the 2016 Final Four on TBS!
You might ask, what’s the point in cutting $40 off my cable bill only to turn around and spend $25 for Sling TV? One word: Freedom. No contracts. No cancellation fees. In other words, if you’re a football fanatic, there’s the option to only pay during the fall! The bad news: No sharing. Only one device can access your subscription at any given time.
Okay, take a deep breath. We’re in familiar territory. As you know, Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon are the major players in streaming video. Just for fun, let’s throw in HBO too. Each streaming provider has unique catalogs of movies and TV shows. If you want to have access to as much content as humanly possible, you can subscribe to all four. Most people will pick and choose. Here’s a handy table comparing them:
|APPROX. COST||$10/month||$8/month |
|SHARING||Okie dokie||Impossible||Possible but|
Mmmmm… Who doesn’t like tables?! As you can tell, there’s a little something for everyone. Hulu has the best TV content and their movie selection is improving. Netflix has a mixture of quality movies and TV shows. Both Hulu and Netflix have made an impressive effort to provide original programming (I really enjoyed 11.22.63). Amazon’s selection isn’t quite as robust, but Amazon Prime has so many benefits aside from instant video. Finally, HBO has a lot to offer, but it’s the most expensive of the bunch. Fortunately, most of them offer free trials so you can decide from your own experience.
Paid content is fantastic, but maybe you’re perfectly willing to dig a little deeper and watch a few ads in order to save some coin. Luckily, there are free ad-supported streaming services available. Their content isn’t overly fresh and popular but there are hidden gems to be found.
If the cost is negligible (or cheaper in some cases), keeping a bare minimum channel lineup has other advantages aside from locally broadcast live sporting events. Every major network has a Roku channel tied to a Cable TV gateway, except crotchety old CBS. CBS thinks their programming is SO wonderful that they can charge $6/month for “CBS All Access.” Meanwhile, ABC, NBC and FOX allow streaming for free with a cable provider login. If you don’t have a login, no worries. Most of the content is available from other streaming sources.
Hulu also has a plethora of fun shows, including classics like Rugrats, Inspector Gadget and Fraggle Rock!
If your kids are obsessed with Sesame Street like mine are, there are a few convenient options. First, the PBS Kids channel has a limited selection of full episodes. “Sesame Street GO” has recently changed from a one-stop-shop subscription model to a free channel with lots of fun clips but zero full episodes. We’re getting warmer… If you’re paying for HBO, your kids are in luck. HBO has the rights to brand-new Sesame Street episodes for the next 5 years. Do kids care about “brand new” episodes? I hope not, because I’m sticking with Hulu’s catalog. They have several entire seasons and it’s half the cost of HBO.
Is your kid past the Elmo phase? Lucky you! PBS Kids is really good as far as free channel apps go. It has a wide variety of non-Sesame-Street content. Hulu has a plethora of fun shows too, including classics like Rugrats, Inspector Gadget and Fraggle Rock! Amazon has a few popular shows (Dora, Thomas, Barney, Thundercats) as does Netflix (Jake the Pirate), but I prefer Hulu. Of course, I’m not up on what all the kids are into these days. Disney and Nickelodeon have some free content but most of it requires a cable provider login. Although of note, Disney’s live broadcast does come with Sling TV. Netflix has some family/animated movies but not the latest and greatest (Frozen, Inside Out, and The Incredibles not included). But that “issue” can be solved with the next product…
For many people, media servers can fill in the gaps after they ditch cable. “What’s a media server?” you might ask. Simply put, it allows you to access all the media you already own on your computer or on DVDs. There are a few media server products available, but I prefer Plex. It’s the most polished and its premium features set it apart from the competition.
As an introduction, here are all the things that Plex can do for you. The depth of Plex’s features demands a separate post which I will write soon. Suffice it to say, Plex aggregates all the movies, TV shows and music that you have saved on your computer, and it makes that media available anywhere on demand with a beautiful and intuitive interface. For example, my daughter loves Frozen. So, I pop the DVD into the old laptop, fire up WinX DVD Ripper Platinum and by the time I eat a turkey sandwich, Frozen is available through Plex on my TV, tablet and phone.
Plex has a free version, but the best features come with a “Plex Pass.” The Plex Pass is $5/month, but that cost drops to $3/month if you pay annually. Well worth the price of admission if you have an extensive TV show and/or movie collection (regardless of whether your collection is legal or acquired from questionable sources).
CRUNCH THE NUMBERS
Let’s get down to brass tacks… (I recently discovered it’s not brass “tax”). There are multiple benefits to choosing streaming content rather than Cable TV, but for many people it is purely a financial decision.
To stream video you need high-speed internet (15+ Mbps) and that will cost you an arm and a leg, with or without Cable TV. For example, Comcast and U-verse each charge $50-80/month for internet alone, depending on your location and desired speed. Also, data caps are becoming a harsh reality! Here are links for more info on Comcast and U-verse data caps. If you want to stream at 4K UHD or if you are a TV addict watching more than 20 hours a week, the cost of data could hurt. Investigate your options before pulling the plug. No wonder people are so excited about Google Fiber!
*Edit 5/2/16: Comcast made a fairly shocking move by announcing an increase in their data cap from 300GB to 1TB!
Here are some questions to consider before trying an alliteration lover’s “cord-cutting calculator.” Which streaming services would you pay for with or without Cable TV? Those shouldn’t factor in. For example, I’ve always paid for Amazon Prime (free 2-day shipping!) so I don’t consider that an additional expenditure. Can you share services or borrow logins? Sharing falls in a weird gray area, some providers discourage it more than others. It’s your call. Netflix is the most lenient. What’s the best deal you can get on stand alone high-speed internet or bare bones Cable TV? This is obviously the main variable in the cord-cutting math. Don’t forget, you’ll save on the DVR rental and other fees. Can you live with some services for part of the year? Just a suggestion, but maybe during football season you beef up the Sling TV subscription, then when sports are in a lull you replace it with HBO.
Without further adieu, a cord-cutting calculator from the experts at cordcutting.com!
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