"I want to watch what I want, when I want, wherever I want, and I don’t want to pay through the nose for it."
This is the mantra of the so-called cord cutters, consumers looking for ways to free themselves from traditional cable in favor of streaming content from the Internet.
Whether you've ditched your cable or not, Internet television is likely already part of your entertainment line-up. From Netflix’s "House of Cards" to instructional Minecraft videos on You Tube, there aren't many households that don't rely on Internet video for some portion of their entertainment needs. However, streaming Internet video to your big screen has been far from the perfect replacement for traditional cable TV.
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But that is beginning to change. Electronics retailers nationwide are reporting big increases in sales of HDMI cables, set top boxes, HD antennas and other cord cutting paraphernalia as consumers start upgrading and incorporating alternatives to cable.
What started as a way of cost cutting in response to out-of-touch increases in cable bills has morphed into a lifestyle choice. Being able to watch what you want, when you want on whatever device you want, without paying for what you don't, is not an unreasonable goal.
But — and there's always a 'but' when it comes to cord cutting — even though most of the content cord cutters want is easily accessible, the experience is not. Cable TV still has a lock on the "sit back and watch" experience of television viewing.
While setting up an Apple TV or plugging a Google Chromecast into an HDMI port is a simple procedure, cutting the cord cuts away many conveniences. DVR capabilities disappear. One (or two) simple remote controls are replaced by four or five fiddly pieces of plastic and an array of smartphone apps. The comprehensive, easily navigable TV guide vanishes and in its stead are five or six different search screens to contend with. And that 24/7 service evaporates (even if you might have to wait around all day for the cable guy, at least he'll actually come. Have you ever tried calling Google?).
For the dream of cord cutting to become a reality, we need bona fide replacements to address and deliver on the four comforts of Cable TV: quality, ease of use, on demand over-the-air (OTA) content, and choice.
Are we there yet? No, but things are getting better. Here's a look at some of these problems and the solutions that are bringing cord cutters ever closer to a cable-free entertainment nirvana.
The problem: Cable is pretty consistent. Apart from the occasional outage, you can rely on a high quality picture. Streaming Internet TV can be full of frustrations; buffering, random errors, poor quality, pixelated streams.
The solution: Ensuring picture perfect HD quality comes down to your Internet speed. Netflix says 5 mbps is sufficient, but 15 is the sweet spot; anything higher is a bonus. While Wi-Fi works well, take a leaf out of cable's playbook and hardwire your devices when possible. A cat5 Ethernet cable routed to each TV and computer in your house will increase the quality of your streams, and help take the load off the Wi-Fi if you have multiple people streaming content simultaneously.
Ease of Use
The problem: While it is possible to hop back and forth between inputs to go from watching content available from iTunes on your Apple TV to Amazon Instant Video through your Fire TV, it's a clunky experience that often requires some hands and knees action.
The solution: Mohu, makers of the hugely popular HD antenna the Mohu Leaf, thinks it has the solution. The Mohu Channels Tuner allows you to connect your various entertainment sources to a small device that then presents an on-screen channel guide for all sources. It connects to the back of your TV and acts as an elegant HDMI switcher. You can configure your channel guide however you like with a combination of over-the-air channels, streaming video apps and websites. For example, if you like watching CBS and Fox over-the-air, plus Netflix, Hulu+ and Facebook, you might create a channel guide that looks like this:
The problem: The DVR is easily the best part of a cable TV package, and while internet TV promises you can watch what you want, when you want it, that's not the case for pretty much anything that's aired on broadcast TV. Casting off the cable box means you have to actually remember when a TV show airs and sit down on the couch at that exact moment. This is not something the Internet generation is well prepared for.
The solution: Two new products hope to corner the OTA cord cutting DVR market: TiVo's Romiao OTA and the Tablo DVR for HD antennas.
The Romiao OTA ($49.99) is aimed squarely at the newbie cord cutter with limited tech experience, and acts just the way its big brother TiVo does, only via an antenna rather than cable. The $15 a month subscription is a bit tough to swallow, however, and it appears to be something of an experiment currently, with a limited roll out in only select Best Buy stores.
For the more tech savvy who don't want to take the leap to the enormous pain of building a home theater PC set up, the Tablo DVR for HD Antennas is an awesome substitute for the cable DVR. With 2 or 4 tuner options ($199 or $299), the Tablo is equipped with Wi-Fi so you can stream your recorded content to any device in your house. Simply plug in a compatible USB hard drive (up to 2TB) and record to your heart's content. Play back to your TV via a Chromecast, Roku or Apple TV or watch on a tablet or PC. You'll have to cough up $5 monthly, $50 for a year or $150 for lifetime access to the channel guide, however.
The Problem: When you watch TV do you sit down with a plan in mind or just browse to see if there's anything good on? If you prefer the latter, cord cutting is going to be a rude awakening. As of yet, there is no single replacement for the cable TV guide, a place where you can just browse all available content.
The Solution: The new Roku Smart TV ($499) aims to remove all those complicated layers and settings that plague smart TVs today and replace them with a home screen that brings together all content sources, including access to Roku's 1,200+ channels. Its secret weapon is the ability to search across 13 providers, including Netflix, Amazon Instant Video and Hulu Plus. This is hopefully just the start of integrated search programs, which truly is the key to the success of Internet TV consumption.
We are clearly edging ever closer to the ultimate dream of the cord cutter, or as I like to call them, "Content Curators." In the same way newspapers are suffering because readers are choosing the content they want to read from a variety of sources, cable TV is being challenged by consumers pushing closer to the ultimate dream of a la carte TV. We just need the technology to catch up with us.
Tuohy is a tech lover with a knack for explaining things in a non-technical way. She shares her knowledge with The Home Depot on a range of topics varying from smart home technologies to home electronics. To find some of the products she talks about visit The Home Depot home electronic pages.