Two weeks without cable

Tomorrow marks two full weeks without cable TV. This is a status report of how it is going.

Prime Time Viewing

With the holidays here there are not a lot of new episodes of the shows that we like to watch. And, with time off from work, we have more time to watch TV later into the night. Last year at this time we really got into Dexter on Netflix. This year, there are still plenty of good serial shows from the last few years of cable and broadcast TV that we never saw. So, I think we will be looking into those to fill the gap. I am pretty excited about this because our old cable TV standby at night was to watch HGTV. That became kind of a rut.

Last night we looked for a show that we watched a few episodes of on Netflix sometime earlier this year – Pushing Daisies. Unfortunately, it is no longer available there. But, having the Mac Mini attached to the TV finally realized its value. Season 1 of Pushing Daisies is available online on The only apparent drawbacks to this were two. First, the commercials pretty much alternated between the same two from HP. At each ‘commercial break’ there were two commercials. Often the two were the same commercial repeated twice. They could have at least played one of each commercial. I don’t know if advertisers realize it but by making your commercials repeat annoyingly might go against any benefit from having people view them at all.

The second, and most problematic drawback was that the first episode that we watched twice ended abruptly and the player went to the next episode before the one we were watching completed. This seems to be a bug in the player.


The Monday night game this week 16 of NFL football was the Falcons vs. the Saints. Neither one is my team so, technically, I would have been OK if I had missed it. But, I was looking forward to watching Drew Brees attempt to break Dan Marino”s passing record. I was aware of the availability of streams for watching this that are not so ‘on the up and up’. My wife actually enticed me to find one suggesting that I should be savvy enough. I took it as a challenge. In about 15 minutes I was able to find a way to view it. The quality was viewable but poor. The picture was less than Standard Definition but a solid enough stream that it was up for the entire game. It was difficult to follow the action on passing plays but, heck, it was good enough to count as having watched this important game.

Kids Shows

I caught my son trying to change the TV to the channel that used to be the Cartoon Network while it was on the antenna. At 7, he still doesn’t quite understand what not having cable means. The kids still enjoy Netflix content but were missing their Scooby Doo. A couple weeks ago, I had purchased a couple of episodes; one from iTunes and one from Amazon Video on Demand (VOD) to see how they worked. I settled on Amazon VOD as the choice going forward. Even though I like to have the content I buy locally on my computer instead of in the cloud, since DRM is used for both I saw little advantage for the iTunes way of downloading it. It just makes my iTunes library larger and impacts backup sizes.

So, today we purchased a season of Scooby Doo. It’s the classic one that I grew up watching in the 1970’s. It was $16.99 for 16 episodes. My plan is to buy one season of something for them each month.

Cutting the cord

We have considered dropping cable at times over the last couple of years especially after we established a Netflix account last year at this time. The 11 days we spent without cable due to the October 2011 snow storm was pretty much enough to convince us that we could live without it.

Well, we finally did it! I dropped off the cable equipment at the Comcast office this morning. But, it wasn’t before putting some measures in place to insure that we have content to keep our kids and us happy.

The old way (with the cord)

We were paying $82 per month for cable TV which amounts to $984 annually. We had a pretty standard package with the addition of HD programming and an HD DVR. No premium channels. Like most, we only watched a fraction of the channels we had access to. And, a lot of it was time-shifted. The kids usually watched recorded shows from the DVR, Netflix or the free shows from Comcast’s On Demand. My wife and I watched the networks usually through recorded shows on the DVR, some cable news and HGTV.

We have three TVs used for most of our TV watching. One in the family room, one in the living room and one in the bedroom.

The family room is where we had the HD DVR and where the kids do most of there TV watching. We already had a Playstation 3 there which was occasionally used for games but got good steady use for access to Netflix, playing DVDs and also to view video from our networked media server, an HP MediaVault 2120. The video on there has been acquired through various sources including content extracted from our DVR. It covers both kids and non-kids programming, tv shows and movies.

The second TV in the Living Room is mainly only used for NFL football using an existing HDTV antenna. It did have cable but not HD cable which I refused to watch because I find it hard to watch football without HD.

The TV in the bedroom is rarely watched. It is mostly used for watching the early morning news when getting ready for the day.

The new way (without the cord)

We had several viewing goals for our overall TV entertainment:

  1. Keep the kids happy with their favorite shows (Scooby Doo, Johnny Test, Sponge Bob, etc.). The general profile for their viewing is to watch the same shows and movies over and over
  2. Live sports – specifically NFL football
  3. The ability to record live TV for later viewing and/or viewing network shows on our own schedule

Item 1.) was covered partly through our Netflix subscription but we added Amazon Instant Video which we get through a new Amazon Prime account and, although the kids content choices are slim, it also provides the ability to purchase movies and TV shows in the future. Amazon seems to be a good avenue for this even though we have become much more into iTunes as we have added more i-devices. When the kids get bored with Netflix we have the option of buying TV shows by the season for them.

To get Amazon Instant Video on the TV we added a Roku LT to the family room. Although, it is slightly redundant to the PS3 in terms of access to Netflix, we have found that it is much more usable for our 7 year old. We also added an HDTV antenna to the living room TV to get network over-the-air (OTA) programming.

Item 2.) is handled through the existing HDTV antenna in the living room.  This leaves out Monday Night Football which can only be watched via ESPN which is not possible without cable. We already could not see Thursday night games since our Comcast did not carry the NFL Network so no change there. So, the big loss here is MNF.

Item 3.) is addressed through the addition of a Home Theater PC (HTPC). My choice was a Mac Mini. I considered other solutions including building my own but the price point for other solutions all ended up in the $500-$600 range where the Mac Mini is. The Mini is currently attached to the living room TV which now will be used more regularly for standard TV watching. An Elgato EyeTV attached to the Mac Mini allows us to watch and record live TV and to schedule recordings. We can also view virtually any web content including standard Hulu. This allows us to avoid the monthly fee for Hulu Plus.

To make the Mac Mini more easy to use, a free software program Plex is used for a more friendly non-computer like interface. It integrates Netflix, Hulu and much of the web content available through web sites like ABC, NBC, HGTV and others. The Mac Mini also runs iTunes which gives us access to that content as well as another outlet for purchasing/renting TV and movies.

Our annual costs are for Netflix and Amazon Prime ($7.99*12 + $79.99 = $175.87). If I hadn’t become so addicted to 2 day shipping we probably could drop the Amazon Prime since we will probably use Amazon Instant Video mostly for purchase and rentals and not the free stuff. We were already paying for Netflix even with cable so it is somewhat unfair to count it now as a new non-cable annual expense.

To keep our costs at 50% of the old cable costs, even with the Netflix and Amazon Prime, we could still afford to spend $25/month on purchased and/or rented content.

And, then there’s the initial outlay for the new devices:

Mac Mini. $564.99
Apple wireless keyboard. $58.00 (black friday deal)
Apple Magic Trackpad. $58.00 (black friday deal)
Roku LT. $49.99
Elgato Eye TV. $55.24
Terk HDTVA antenna. $39.98
Wineguard FL-5000 antenna. $24.98
2 @ HDMI cables. $15.98

Total: $867.16

At least in the first year we won’t be saving any money but should roughly break even as long as we don’t spend on more content. I think the Mac Mini is a great addition to our household. It will get used by the kids. They are already familiar with Mac OS since they use it at school. It also feeds my gadget lust. I actually funded it through some money I keep aside just for such things.

I think we have it covered from all angles. And, then some. I’ll provide updates as our setup matures and we learn more about what works and doesn’t work.

Here’s a link to a post that inspired me to go the Mac Mini route: Mac Mini HTPC Setup