Cord Cutting: Where to start
As more and more of you start your journey to ditching your cable company, more and more of you still have questions and don’t really know where to start. Luckily, you know a guy that has already done all of it. Me!
I’ve started a page here chock full of notes to get your started on your cord cutting. It’s so much easier now that it used to be that almost anyone can do it without trouble. Even if you aren’t looking to drop cable, there is some information on some of the latest bits of gear that you can add to your entertainment system for added features.
So, if this is you, check it out on the cord cutting notes page.
Roku vs. Apple TV
Now that I have both in my entertainment center and have been using both for the last month, there are some definite differences between the two. I think you might be surprised with what I’m about to say.
The Apple TV kinda sucks.
That’s right, I said it. The Apple TV, as a cord cutting device, isn’t that great. Let me re-phrase that. The Apple TV, as compared to the Roku box as a cable TV replacement device isn’t that great. All things in context.
The Apple TV is brilliant for anything Air Play related. Click on the stereo, turn on SomaFM and send the output to Air Play. Rad. Same with mirroring the screen of any of the Apple devices in the house. A cool YouTube video to share? Send it to the Apple TV. Playing back music from iTunes works great. Viewing photos in your photostream or Flickr is equally awesome.
But that is where the awesome ends.
As previously mentioned, video playback is very slow to get started. This is a bigger hurdle than I initially thought. I find myself going to the Roku box still for the majority of video content. The Amazon app on the Roku has the same selection of shows, at the same quality, for the same price. Sometimes it’s even less expensive than the Apple store too. That and it doesn’t matter if it’s a 5 minute short or a 3 hour movie, it starts in less than 2 minutes and plays continuously without any stalls or skips. Something that can’t be said of the Apple TV.
One thing that is almost the same on the Apple TV as on the Roku Box is HuluPlus. This is the worst experience of anything I have ever experienced. The software is so poor that it usually crashes the device it’s running on every other time we start it. And with the continued dwindling of top-tier content being made ‘web only’, I’m finding less and less value with the service and will probably cancel it soon.
If you are trying to do some cord cutting of your own, I would start with a Roku box with an Amazon Prime account. Get the Apple TV if you think you would get some use from it with the Air Play. But if not, save your $100 for now. Same with HuluPlus. Use that money for your Amazon Prime account instead.
Cord Cutting: Apple TV
Continuing the qwest to get entertainment into the house without paying for cable TV. About 3 months in so far and it’s going pretty well. The Roku box has served us well with Netflix and Amazon Instant Video. Hulu is there too, but performance is so poor we have really stopped using it as our go-to Roku app. Add in the Plex server and getting all of the network kinks out, and we are happily watching televised content without pay tv.
Recently there has been a new edition to the entertainment rack. Since Apple released OSX Mountain Lion with AirPlay mirroring, and since I’ve been wanting to have airplay accessibility for other Apple devices in the house, an Apple TV was procured and installed.
Installation was very easy and straightforward. I have connected the Apple TV directly to the Air Port Extreme router with a cable instead of WiFi for improved performance. The HDMI out was conneted directly to the television and the optic audio out was connected directly to the receiver to a channel different from the televison for music support. All of this was really simple and only took a few minutes.
Setting it up was equally simple. Total configuration took less than 15 minutes of password entering for iTunes and a few other online services that are supported by the AppleTV. We have access to 2 iTunes libraries and 2 flickr accounts. On the rest of the services it would appear that only 1 account is supported.
So far, using it as been a pretty ok experience. Playback of music from iTunes is fantastic, as it is from any of our iOS devices. Video playback is also very good, with both excellent sound and image quality. Finally, AirPlay mirroring works amazingly well, especially considering that the bulk of it has been from Mac Book Airs in the house. Even full screen playblack of Youtube videos on mirroring is smooth.
A few minor issues have cropped up. Airplay mirroring or music playback won’t happen if the Apple TV has ‘gone to sleep’. A quick press of any of the buttons on the remote cures that in about a minute. Just seems like an extra step that could have been ironed out. The other is streaming from iTunes on the Apple TV.
Testing with the latest episode of USAs White Collar, a purchase was made. The screen began the download process and reported that playback would be available in 1 hour and 40 minutes. The episode was only 45 minutes long. For comparison, the same episode was purchased on the Roku box through the Amazon app and playback was instant for the same quality and while the Apple TV version was still downloading. I’ve read that it’s better to go through iTunes on the desktop is a better experience and testing will continue.
Overall a great device that I’m really happy to have added to the Entertainment center. Next up will be the addition of a SimpleTV DVR. More on that as it becomes available.
Cord still cut
Rolling into week
2 4 of not having cable TV. I don’t miss it even a little and I haven’t heard any complaints about it not being there from my housemates. And, at this point, I would grade the experience a solid C. A solid C that I just increased to a B+.
The biggest hurdle so far as been the Adobe Flash Player on older Apple hardware. Trying to use a first gen Intel Macbook as a home theater PC (HTPC), as it turns out, doesn’t work that great. The CPU gets hammered, there isn’t enough graphics power and it’s a little low on memory. Any video playback was poor, especially any web based video. Just not enough horsepower to get the job done.
Enter the Macbook Air. There are a pair of them in the house of the 13″ screen variety. Small, light and wicked fast. And, as it turns out, quite the video playback machine! With the correct cable connected, it will drive the 45″ LCD television in our system, at 1080p, no sweat! Even when I tried Hulu and Youtube, playback was smooth, the sound was perfect and the video output was clear and crisp. On HD Youtube videos, they look as good, if not better, than cable even did.
The next step is to streamline the setup and make it easier to operate. Currently using Plex to manage our content that is stored on an external USB drive, but Plex is installed on the machine the drive is not attached too. Makes performance a bit rough sometimes, especially when a computer goes to sleep.
Also rough when using the Macbook Air is the lack of a remote. You kids out there probably don’t remember, but there was a time when televisions did not have color screens or remote controls. Actually, that’s not 100% correct. The kids were the remote controls when Mom or Dad wanted the channel changed. TV watching was almost an aerobic activity!
This system will be a work in progress until it’s not. Ideally I would like to add a Mac Mini or build my own home theater PC running any number of linux distro’s. The trick would be to make it quiet and small enough to fit in my home entertainment system, and not run at a bazillion degrees.
Getting ready to ditch cable
When we last spoke, I had done the math and research into cutting cable television service, the cord, at home. This weekend, I took another step in that direction with a few additions to the entertainment center. We are currently planning on 100% disconnect after the Oscars.
Needing a way to get live television into our home, I added an antenna. Nothing fancy, just an amplified indoor HD antenna from GE that I picked up at Target for $25. Luckily, here in the greater Phoenix area, over the air service, from what I have heard, is pretty great. Those stories were all correct. There are about 40 channels that I’m able to pick up, all with varying quality, over the air. For sure I get the 3 major networks (ABC, NBC, CBS), all in full HD with great sound. Picture quality as good as it was with FiOS. We are also able to pickup our local Fox affliate in ok quality and 3 PBS channels. Add to that about a dozen different hispanic channels and a very low power music video channel, and we are looking pretty good.
Wanting a way to watch shows that we miss live or aren’t available legally otherwise, I am temporarily repurposing a first gen Macbook into the entertainment center. It’s not ideal since it needs a keyboard attached to work with the lid closed, but for now, it’s a good start. I’ve bookmarked about a dozen sites for viewing television content, internet videos and photographs. I’m also going to turn this into the plex server which I hope will improve performance.
Since this is an older Macbook, video performance isn’t as good as I would like, but it does drive the 44″ LCD TV without any issues at 1280×768 (75mHZ) through the display port into the television’s VGA port. Audio will come from the headphone jack into the receiver via a Monster cable made specifically for that job. That cable was acquired back when I was still rocking an XBox in California.
Here is our current setup that we are using to make the leap into cord-cutting.
- Roku box
- Roku Soundstream box
- Indoor antenna
- DVD Player
- Plex media server
Next step is storage. While we don’t lack for storage, we do lack for organized storage. In total, we have almost 6TB in external storage available, but it’s scattered over 8 drives attached to 2 iMac’s. I’m going to put 2TB of that into a Network Attached Storage device that I have been testing and like quite a bit.
Overall, we are looking at saving more than $100 per month by doing this and are very excited to get started!