Cutting the cable

I’m an entertainment junkie. I own hundreds of music CD’s, books, movies and am an early adopter of Blu-Ray. My usual routine once my two youngest children are in bed at 8 pm is to plop down on my couch, put my notebook on my lap and use that while watching my pretty 60″ TV.

I’ve received my TV content from DirecTV for the last ten years since we built this house – primarily because I’m a huge (American) football fan, and my team, the Green Bay Packers, are out of market where I live and DirecTV has a monopoly on the NFL package to be able to watch my team.

I’ve been happy with the television service (even though it’s the most compressed of all high-def signals) but their customer service is atrocious. About once a year I have a run-in with them that gets my blood boiling, but the other 364 days of the year I don’t have to think about them – it just works.

Almost a year ago I got a great deal on a Mac Mini and bought it to try out Boxee. I’ve ripped my music and movie collection to my NAS and Boxee gave me the ability to stream that straight to my TV plus their collection of Internet content I could stream as well, such as The Daily Show, Hulu and more. My best friend uses Plex, and both Plex & Boxee are based on the XBMC upstream code which does an awesome job of playing back any file you throw at it.

I’ve loved Boxee – the user experience has only gotten better from the Alpha to the Beta that launched today (the screenshots don’t do it justice). I’ve thought about, but never very seriously, getting rid of DirecTV and going Internet only. With Netflix streaming (both in Boxee and on my Xbox 360), Hulu and other apps available in Boxee, there’s a lot of content I can get if I’m willing to be patient for DVD releases of my favorite shows that I can’t watch in real time.

And then in early November, my DirecTV high-def DVR started to die. And it was a painful experience having to call in to their tech support once a week, rebooting my box every few days until they finally agreed to swap it out a month later (I pay $5 / month to lease the box from them – I don’t even own it!) I was pretty frustrated with the entire process, and this is a long enough story as it is, so I won’t go in to all the details, but when I received my bill in early December and found out they charged me $20 to replace the box, I was livid. They never bothered to inform me of the charge or asked for permission in charging me, and you may think “It’s only $20!” – but when I called to ask them to refund it, they refused – so I asked them to refund my $100 monthly charge for November as my box didn’t work and I didn’t feel that I received the service I paid for and they still refused, I started to think about all these options.

After a long conversation with my wife on the advantages and disadvantages of not having cable or satellite (she doesn’t watch TV anyway) I’ve decided to cut the cord. I’m lucky enough to have a nice HDTV antenna on my roof right next to the satellite dish and all the coax terminates at one spot in the basement, so re-wiring won’t be tough.

We spend just under a $100 month on DirecTV (cheapest package, 3 boxes for 3 TVs, DVR service and HD service). I figure with a small investment in buying some new hardware it will pay itself back in 3 months (considering I had already bought the Mac Mini a year ago):

  • HD Homerun: Dual tuner off-air HD tuner with a network jack that any PC in the house can connect to for watching or recording live TV: $150
  • HD amplifier & terminators: $35
  • Digital converter boxes for the other 2 TVs in the house to get off-air: $20 each off Ebay
  • Elgato EyeTV PVR software for Mac: $80 (maybe, see below)

The one kink in my plan is I realized that if I buy the EyeTV to record TV on to the Mac Mini it can only record one show at a time, even though I have a dual-tuner HD Homerun. There are a few shows like NBC Thursday night comedies and Fringe on Fox that I like that air at the same time, so that’s a challenge. One of the major reasons I bought the HD Homerun is the fact that’s dual tuner but also that it has a network jack and works on Linux. One option is to install MythTV on an older computer and use that. MythTV has native support for the HD Homerun and I can mount my NAS via NFS and just point Boxee at it, though there are some questions whether Boxee and XBMC can read the .nuv files that MythTV records in.

It’s a pretty cool time seeing these convergence devices come to life. The Internet is evolving to add video content, whether it’s TV shows like Hulu or movies & DVD on Netflix. CES is happening this week and seeing the Boxee Box, Popbox and Iomega set top boxes only support this point. There are still some challenges – I’m going to have to give up watching my favorite football team, live sports on ESPN, and waiting to watch some of my TV shows until they release on DVD, but I think it’s worth trying.

The content companies are going to have to evolve. They’re going to need better customer service and better ways to allow consumers access to content. (And I’m willing to put up with the movie studios stupid rental window on Netflix if it means more streaming content). My hardware arrived today and now I’m off to start installing all this stuff….

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