Cutting Ties with Cable: Alternative HDTV 0

The idea of cutting loose from cable television service is a growing trend right now. Although the motivations behind this movement vary from person to person, it’s a safe bet that there is one primary catalyst: obscenely large cable bills. It’s not uncommon to see cable bills in the three-figure range these days, and with the economic crunch teaching so many of us the value of cost-cutting, the cable companies are finding themselves first in line for the chopping block.

Cost isn’t the only factor that’s causing cable subscription rates to drop. More and more people are turning to the internet for their viewing pleasure, creating a two-fold affect against network programming; it’s taking eyes off of the household’s cable-fed TV, and it’s creating a huge swath of viewers who prefer venues like YouTube – the modern equivalent of public-access television – over scripted, big-budget network shows.

If you’ve been considering this sort of move, there are plenty of programming alternatives that you can turn to after you cancel your cable subscription. Before you take the plunge, it’s not a bad idea to familiarize yourself with the advantages, disadvantages, and post-cancellation options that are involved.


The main advantage of ending your cable service is pretty clear: one less (rather large, in most cases) bill to pay. Depending on what you choose to hook up to your TV after the fact, there are a couple of other things to look forward to. Modern digital antennas will not only give you free programming, but they’ll also deliver a higher resolution image than you’re used to with cable. Internet-based viewing, another possibility, gives you access to a wider variety of viewing options, as well as the ability to play games on your big screen TV. We’ll explore all of these points in detail throughout this article.


Before we move on, let’s take a quick look at the disadvantages of switching away from cable. The first issue you’re likely to run into is a downgrade in ease-of-use. With a cable box, you simply plug things in and start watching. Things get a little more complicated when you’re using the internet to watch TV, whether you’re assembling your own internet media center or using a device that streams Netflix or Amazon Instant movies. You’ll be dealing with accounts, passwords, and different navigation than you’re used to. On top of that, you may find yourself paying several bills instead of just one, depending on what streaming services you decide to enjoy (although all of these other bills will likely add up to be a fraction of your old cable bill.)


The other issue that you’ll come across is decentralization of programming. There’s a reason you might want to have more than one internet-based service: because content providers are still spreading their movies and programming among several different platforms. There are shows you can’t get on Netflix, but you can get them on iTunes; while there are movies available on Amazon Prime that aren’t on iTunes. If you’re a picky viewer who is already set on watching a certain lineup of programming, you might want to do your research ahead of time to make sure what you want to watch is available outside of your current cable service.


If after your due-diligence you decide to cut the cable, it will be time to fire up your chosen alternatives. As stated before, it’s likely you’re going to want to go with more than one option to give you a wider variety of viewing. The good news is that the first option we’re going to look at has a very low cost of entry and no recurring monthly charges.


We’re talking about getting an antenna. If you’re old enough to remember having an antenna on your TV, you’re probably picturing the gaudy “rabbit ears” of the 90s often wrapped with aluminum foil for a boost in reception (people were “hacking” their technology long before doing so had such a cool name.) The modern antenna is quite a bit different, though. Firstly, TV on the airwaves is now broadcast digitally thanks to FCC regulations put in place in 2009. This means that modern TV antennas use the same technology as your smart phone, making them smaller, more effective, and far more visually appealing. Some antennas are even designed to look like works of modern art, allowing them to merge quite nicely with your living room’s décor.


Digital antennas are not only smaller and more attractive, but they also bring in a higher resolution signal than your current cable box. Seem far-fetched? It’s not when you consider that data compression is the culprit. Your cable provider has to push a ton of information through that little wire, and to make it happen they’re forced to compress the data, causing loss in image quality. Television broadcasts that your antenna picks up have no such compression; the end result is a clearer picture.


Your new antenna will probably cost less than $100 and provide you with plenty of free programming, but your viewing will be limited to whatever you’re able to pick up in your area. That’s why you’ll probably want to augment with streaming video from the internet. This is where things get interesting.

Your choices for pulling programming off of the ‘net are pretty wide. Some require additional hardware and monthly subscriptions, while others are free and can be set up using devices you probably already own. (Be advised that all of them will require you to have internet service!)


There are a few dedicated devices on the market with the sole purpose of streaming television and movies to your TV. Most operate via WiFi and are simply a matter of plugging them into your TV through HDMI, USB, or your standard coaxial cable port. These include the Amazon Fire TV device, Apple TV, and Roku. Each of these devices allow you access to on-demand shows and movies, but their selection will vary from device to device.


You may not need to purchase any of these devices if you already own a gaming console such as a recent iteration of the Xbox or Playstation. These devices are able to serve as complete media centers by integrating services like Netflix right into their navigation menus. (Netflix offers more shows and movies than you could watch in a lifetime, and at the time of this writing, a subscription can be had for as low as $8 a month.)


The same streaming potential exists in many laptop and desktop computers that are set up to serve as media centers. If your computer has an HDMI output (older models may have coaxial cable output built into the video card) then you can hook it up to your TV and use it to stream Netflix, Hulu, or even YouTube videos. Most media center computers also have the ability to function as a DVR and record shows for later viewing, and by going with this setup you’re also able to use your TV as a computer monitor for gaming or web browsing.


There’s also a little-known option called a Micro-PC. These tiny, single-board computers fit into a device the size of a USB thumb drive and plug directly into your television’s HDMI or USB port. They are a bit hard to find (they’re not a widely-produced commercial product yet) but very inexpensive and simple to connect. Some models run an Android operating system (which means that there could be some issues with viewing YouTube videos) while others run Linux or Windows. These micro-PCs essentially turn your television into a huge tablet computer that you control through a Bluetooth-enabled mouse, keyboard, or remote control.


If you’re really tech-savvy, you might consider purchasing a Raspberry Pi 2, a small and simple computer that’s popular among everyone from tech hobbyists to robotics developers. They are available for as low as $35, and Microsoft has announced that they will be distributing a free version of Windows 10 designed specifically for the Raspberry Pi 2 when the OS launches later this year. While this route might take a higher-than-average knowledge of tech, $35 is a small price to pay to turn your television into a fully-functional PC and internet entertainment center.


As you’ve seen, the largest problem with cutting your cable – if you can call it a problem – is that there are so many alternatives to choose from. While most of these options will require you to maintain internet service, they will easily save you as much as $700 a year on cable television fees. Turning to the internet for your viewing needs involves a bit of a learning curve, and potentially a bit of technical know-how, but doing so opens up an entire world of free or low-cost programming and movies that simply isn’t available through your cable TV service.


With that being said, I’m certain that the majority of viewers will find enough programming on the free airwaves and the internet to keep them watching eagerly for years to come. Explore the options we’ve covered above and try out a few for yourself; most are easy, quick, and could potentially save your household a bundle.

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