The imminent merger between Time Warner Cable and Comcast heralds the start of a new era: one of even more expensive channel bundles, and even longer waits for service. It's time to make like a rat and get the heck off this sinking ship of cable television. Here's how you can keep watching your favorite shows without a cable box. It's time to cut the cord.
Quitting cable cold turkey is an intimidating prospect, especially if you're a heavy user. But it's easier than ever to fill the void, with more quality content than ever to fill it with. You can do this.
What Can I Watch?
Leaving cable behind is not the same as leaving your favorite shows behind. They'll (almost) all be waiting for you on the other side. In fact, you might find a few favorites you never new existed. Here's where you'll find them.
The Big Three Streams
The biggest drawback to leaving your cable subscription behind is that you very often can't watch things as they're first broadcast. Guess what! Chances are, you rarely do that anyway. For years now we've been evolving into a nation of time-shifters, binge-watchers. We don't surf channels, we check what's on the DVR. Streaming lets you do that very same thing, without forking over $75 a month.
While they aren't a one-to-one replacement for the 600-odd channels of real-time viewing you can get from Comcast or Time Warner, the combined catalogs of Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Prime offer much of the same programming, along with a plethora of original content, for a fraction of what you're shelling out to the cable company each month.
Netflix offers a solid streaming back catalog of popular films and family-friendly shows thanks to its licensing deals with DreamWorks Animation, Disney, Relativity Media, and plenty more. There are some downsides, like having to wait as much as two months after a movie's DVD release to show up, and a constantly changing line-up. But the unpredictability is mitigated by Netflix's exclusive original series, which include Emmy award-winning House of Cards fan-favorite Orange Is the New Black. And it's just $8 a month—for now.
Amazon's Prime Instant Video is included as part of Amazon Prime, which means that you're paying about $6.50 a month for it. You're also, though, getting free two-day shipping most Amazon purchase and access to the Kindle Lending Library, so your value may vary. While the Amazon Prime library isn't quite as robust as Netflix, it's been catching up lately with exclusive streaming rights to hit series like Downton Abbey and Justified. It also has a few originals of its own, including the surprisingly watchable Alpha House.
Hulu Plus takes a slightly different approach; its focus is on current episodes and past seasons of popular network television series. New releases of current season titles are generally available the day after they air. However, some networks (looking at you FOX and ABC) have taken to delaying these releases for up to eight days after they originally air—presumably in an effort to help keep traditional cable services relevant. Other networks, like the BBC, simply don't offer current season titles at all, only back catalog. It's not without film buff options though; it has exclusive streaming rights to the venerated Criterion Collection, along with numerous import titles. The biggest drawback? Like Netflix, it's $8 a month. Unlike Netflix, you still have to watch commercials.
Pay Per Show
Subscription streaming gets most of the cord-cutting hype, but if you don't watch much and want to stay current you can buy TV seasons and new-release movies on iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon. New release blockbusters will cost the same to buy and rent—around $15-20 and $4-6, respectively—across the board, while TV shows will set you back two or three bucks an episode, with full seasons ranging from $20 for Downton Abbey to upwards of $40 for The Walking Dead.
While pricing for one-off buying is generally the same, there are some key differences among the three to look out for.
- You've got 48 hours from when you hit play to watch a Google Play rental, while iTunes and Amazon Prime limit you to a 24 hour active rental period.
- Price and availability can vary among the three; your best bet for finding out if you can rent something—and for how much—is to use Can I Stream It, a service that shows all of your streaming, rental, and purchase options.
- You'll also want to keep in mind what kind of hardware you're using. iTunes is great if you have an Apple TV, Google Play if you've got a Chromecast, and Amazon's on basically anything else. More on that in a minute.
Stay in the Game
One of the most commonly cited reasons for not dropping cable is that without it, you can't watch the sports you want to. Sure you could dig through shady offshore streaming sites or take a chance on a torrent that may or may not be the match you want, but there's a far less risky and much more convenient way to root on your team: buy a league pass.
- NBA League Pass runs in price from $28 for watching only on a smartphone, to around $65 to watch on a wider array of devices—including tablets, Apple TV and Roku—up to $109 for access from virtually anywhere—from your TV and computer to a Playstation Vita. Blackout rules do apply depending on your location, regardless of whether it's a home or away game, though any blacked out game is available 3 hours after its completion.
- NHL Gamecenter Live offers live, out-of-market game coverage (subject to blackout, local and nationally televised games are delayed 48 hours) as well as radio coverage, play-by-play in-game analysis, and an archive of 800 classic games, all available on mobile devices (yes, even Blackberry) and streaming boxes like the Roku. The service costs around $160 at the start of the season, though it's dropped to just $50 currently now that the season in more than half done.
- Similarly, MLB.tv offers out-of-market coverage for $130—though the price also drops the deeper into the season you go—along with a accompanying apps for Android and iOS that offer incredibly comprehensive in-game statistics and analysis.
In all cases, these services are a blessing if you live somewhere other than where your favorite team is based, and much less useful if you don't. But that doesn't mean you can't root, root, root for the hometeam anyway. All it takes is the right gear.
Love anime? Crunchyroll serves up the latest episodes of popular and current anime series within an hour of their airing in Japan for $8 monthly. Have a squared circle obsession? The WWE Network launches later this month for $10 a month, with access to every single pay per view event and a bevy of original programming. Need your HBO fix? HBO Go offers every episode of every original HBO series, ever, along with dozens of recent movie releases. Chances are, you've got a friend who will lend you his password. And HBO won't even mind.
Increasingly, there are niche streaming options to scratch any itch. While eventually they add up, at least you're paying for something you actually want to watch, not dozens of channels of dreck.
How Can I Watch It?
Thankfully, getting rid of your cable box doesn't require sacrificing your existing home theater setup, or shelling out for an aftermarket receiver like the TiVo Roamio. There's plenty of hardware out there that will unlock all of the above options and more.
TVs and Dongles and Set-Tops, Oh My
The cheapest entry into streaming goodness is also the most limited. Google's popular $35 Chromecast dongle plugs into your TV's HDMI port, allowing it to mirror music, photos, and video from your Android device onto the larger screen. The catch? So far it's only compatible with Netflix, HBO Go, Hulu Plus, Pandora, and Google-owned services like YouTube and Google Play. That's a fairly paltry offering compared to what other options get you, but more should be coming soon now that Google has opened the device up to developers.
Apple TV costs quite a bit more at $100, but for now it can also do a lot more than Chromecast. Not only can you access Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO Go, NHL Gamecenter Live, PBS, and a dozen other online content sources through it, Apple TV also plays movies, shows, and music from your iTunes library. What's more, it's AirPlay compatible. That means you can mirror whatever's on your iPhone, iPad, or Mac so to any Apple TV-connected HD television. It's dead simple to use, but only really effective if you're committed to iOS.
For most people, the best bet might be Roku. While it lacks the iTunes and Play interoperability that the Apple TV and Chromecast respectively offer, it makes up for it with access to more than 1000 other video and audio content sources—from Amazon Instant Video to VUDU—along with compatibility with both iOS and Android operating systems, and a MicroSD slot for playing local content. You can even stream local video from your iPhone or most Android phones to it. The top of the line Roku 3 will set you back $100, same as the Apple TV, though you can also opt for the less robust Roku LT, Roku 2, which cost $50 and $70, respectively.
There are other options as well; most televisions today have a "smart" component, which means they have built-in support for Netflix, Hulu Plus, Pandora, and more. And Xbox and PlayStation both offer access to streaming apps. But "smart" TV interfaces are often clunky and, more damningly, infrequently updated. The gaming consoles are fine if you also play games, but are far too expensive to consider as standalone streamers. Besides, Xbox charges you extra for access to the subscription services you've already paid for. In almost all cases, you're better off with a dedicated streaming box.
But which one? Here's a simple test. Look at your phone, what is it? If you said iPhone, get an Apple TV. If you said Android, get the Chromecast. If you don't know or care, the Roku is a solid, streamlined, brand-agnostic option.
Do It Live
Man can't live on Netflix alone; even in the DVR age there are still enough water cooler-friendly, event TV moments you want to watch in real time. Guess what? In most cases, you still can.
Instead of a pricey cable bill, all you really need is a digital broadcast receiver. They are, essentially, a set of 21st century rabbit ears designed to receive digital HD television broadcast signals rather than the now obsolete analog signals. That's right; you can get HD TV over the air without tithing to Comcast.
These receivers run about $15 - 70, depending on their feature set (like whether they include a built-in amplifier). The AmazonBasics Indoor TV Receiver, for example, retails for just over $20 and offers a multi-directional range of up to 25 miles. The $40 Mohu Leaf Paper-Thin Indoor HDTV Antenna, on the other hand, has a range of 30 miles, and can even be painted to match the room's decor.
Regardless of how much you decide to spend on a receiver, situating it correctly is vital to obtaining the clearest possible picture. Also, network availability varies by area so the channel set that you receive will vary from region to region. To find out what's available in your area, head over to the FCC's DTV Reception Maps. You may be pleasantly surprised at just how much you can pick up.
Alternately, in select cities you can also try a new service Aereo. Essentially, Aereo is like having an antenna without any need for equipment; it all takes place in the cloud. You can watch live television from your compatible mobile device, or use AirPlay and Apple TV or a recent Roku model to watch it on your big screen.
The service is only available in a few markets for now (sorry West Coast, no Aereo for you yet) but it's expanding rapidly. It overcomes some of the reception issues that antenna hardware runs into, but even more crucially, it also offers 20 hours of DVR space a month with a basic $8 subscription, or 60 hours of space and the ability to record two shows at once for $12 a month.
The best part about going the antenna or Aereo route? In many cases, you'll be able to pick up the channel that your local team plays on. Not always! But it's your best bet.
Ditching cable seems like a daunting task, but it doesn't have to be. Between Aereo, Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus, and picking out a few select shows, movies, or sports that you genuinely want to watch, you can save yourself a hundred bucks a month. That's worth it for not having to wait around on the repair guy alone.
Now all that's left is finding a better internet provider. And yes, that's increasingly doable as well.