You can cut your cord, ditch cable and put together a perfectly good home entertainment solution, TV and all, for a one-off payment of around $400. Here’s what I did.
When I moved to the US in 2011, I made the decision that I wouldn’t re-subscribe to cable TV. I’d been a Virgin Media customer in the UK, but I can’t say I was satisfied with the experience. Cable television seems to be more expensive in the States, and due to legislation designed to protect niche media, you’re required to subscribe to a bunch of channels you’ll never watch alongside the ones that you will. (I love C-SPAN, despise the religious channels on basic cable, and can’t understand why most people on American TV are shouting at me.)
And anyway, I reasoned with myself, I should be able to get all this content on the web, right?
Right! So for the last two years, that’s what I’ve been doing. The rules: I can only watch video from Internet services. I won’t buy or rent discs. (I lost my movie collection when I moved, because of arbitrary rules designed to create artificial barriers: the US is DVD Region 1, and the UK is Region 2. I refuse to feed that model.) Finally, to make it more of a challenge – I may not break the law. Channel BitTorrent, as many of my friends call it, is usually an easier place to watch what you want when you want it than anywhere else. Grab Vuze and go. But it’s a no-go for me.
I started out stubborn: just my laptop, and a monitor where I’d normally have a television set. That didn’t last long; if my laptop’s tethered to an entertainment center, I can’t put something on in the background while I work on code or futz around on the Internet. Shortsighted!
Why an Apple TV? At $99, it’s far cheaper than a home entertainment PC, just works, and the integration with my computer is fantastic. And I don’t need to operate my TV with a keyboard and mouse.
The Apple TV comes with an HDMI cable and a TOSLINK optical digital audio port. I bought a cheap digital to analogue converter and plugged the audio into a mid-range set of speakers; audio is the Samsung set’s weak point, and adding any external speakers at all is an improvement. Audiophiles will want to buy a full amplifier with end-to-end fiberoptic audio connections, but it’s possible to put together a more than passable system on the cheap. Remember, also, that digital signals mean you don’t need to buy expensive cables: the picture and sound is literally exactly the same whether you pay $5 or $50.
I use a MacBook Pro as my main computer, and Mountain Lion allows me to wirelessly share my screen with the Apple TV. So I can stream, for example, Al Jazeera (one of the few news channels to broadcast live on the web worldwide – and, luckily, one of the best) and watch it as if it were CNN. I can also just stream my music to the speakers if I want to, which is a nice bonus. I’ll often stream from Spotify and fill my room with sound.
The Apple TV is a closed platform, so there’s no app store for more channels, for example. In that respect, the Roku is better: it’s got 700 channels and counting, most are free, and you can actually define your own. Channels like Al Jazeera can be installed as top-level options, and it’s highly customizable. The flipside is no Airplay, and no iTunes, but you gain more than you lose. The trick, though, is that you don’t have to choose: right now I have both a Roku and an Apple TV plugged into my television.
I subscribe to both Netflix and Hulu Plus, at $7.99 a month each. Counter-intuitively, Netflix is actually far better for mainlining TV series – its collection is huge, and it’s starting to produce its own high quality shows. House of Cards is fantastic, and they’re bringing back Arrested Development later this year. Meanwhile, as well as recently-broadcast shows like the Daily Show and Saturday Night Live, Hulu Plus gives you access to a great list of movies including the Criterion Collection. They also had the Oscars in their entirety. Brilliantly, while Hulu does have some ads, neither bombards you in quite the same way as broadcast television. Nobody shouts at you unless you want them to. And it’s much cheaper than cable.
I can watch content from iTunes, Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, podcasts and anything that streams anywhere on the web. And I can watch it all on my own terms, when I want to. My entertainment choices have never been richer – and my entertainment services have never been cheaper.
I’m calling this experiment a success. In fact, I’ll never go back.
Samsung 22″ TV: $189
Apple TV: $99
Roku: starts at $49.99
Digital to analog converter: $17.79
Cheap sound system: $50
Total: around $400 (or around $150 if you already have the TV and sound system)
Netflix: $7.99 a month
Hulu: $7.99 a month
Total: $16 a month = $192 a year (+ your broadband Internet service)
(By way of comparison)
Around $60 a month for basic cable = $720 a year
(And you still need the TV and sound system)