The small but mighty Roku player is the perfect tool to help cut cable.

by Pete Mazzaccaro

I’ve never met anyone who was satisfied with cable. I don’t care if it’s
Comcast, Time Warner, AT&T U-Verse or Verizon Fios. Everyone I’ve ever
talked to about pay TV subscriptions has the same list of complaints: It’s
too expensive. There’s more programming than anyone would ever want to
watch. Service is terrible. There’s just not enough choice.

Lately, a growing number of TV owners and broadband consumers have been
cutting the proverbial cord altogether (though not as many as you might
think; more on that below) and doing without the big TV companies’ raft of
channels in favor of online options.

For most of us, cutting the cable cord isn’t easy. It’s a decision fraught
with all sorts of peril. The technology behind streaming services is
relatively new and the business model seems to be in a constant state of
turmoil. What’s available one day might be gone the next. As unpopular as
standard pay TV plans are, most people are understandably afraid to go
without.

I’m here to tell you that you might find cutting the cable a lot easier than
you think. Last March, I cut the cord, and I haven’t watched a minute of
live TV since. I don’t miss it at all. Here’s the story.

To cut or not to cut, that is the question?

I’d been muddling through with a very limited cable plan for the last four
years. Mostly because I’ve only really been interested in a half-dozen
non-network shows, none of which I though were worth a full-blown monthly
cable bill. When it came to favorite channels like Comedy Central or A&E, I
simply went without.

Instead, I had a plan called “digital classic” that got me a weird group of
channels, from ESPN2 to the Weather Channel, Nick Jr. (for the kids) and
several flavors of Encore movie channels.

Although there were some 100 channels  in digital classic, they were all
largely worthless – barely worth the $15.99 a month we were paying for the
service. Although the bill was small, I still thought it was more than we
should be paying, and I tried to talk my wife into dumping cable altogether.
We’ve had Netflix forever and enjoyed the occasional streaming movie on the
laptop. Maybe we could get by with just Netflix.

Like most people, she was concerned about going without cable, but she
finally agreed.

For me, it wasn’t that I had a problem with Comcast. I still get my
broadband service through Comcast, and have found them helpful and
supportive when I’ve needed to go to customer service. And I’ve had
virtually no interruption in service. My problem is that I don’t see why I
need to pay so much for so many channels that I have no interest in
watching. If you’re not into 20-year-old sitcom reruns and reality TV, more
than half of what’s on cable is useless to you.

Why cut?

There are a lot of choices out there right now for cutting cable. Even so,
according to brand new data from the Leichtman Research Group, only 8
percent of broadband Internet subscribers don’t get any TV service at all.
In fact, according to the study, 70 percent of broadband subscribers keep
multichannel cable packages.

Digging deeper shows that, of that 8 percent group, only 5 percent say they
don’t get cable because they can watch what they want on Netflix and other
online services. Most of the cord cutters haven’t done so because they
prefer online services.

Futhermore, 28 percent of cord cutters say they ditched cable because it
cost too much, and 44 percent either say they don’t watch much TV or don’t
need the service at all.

It turns out that most of the streaming video devices out there are actually
being used by people who want to get Netflix but are not ready to give up
cable.

But I was ready. I knew what was out there on the Web beyond Netflix. Hulu,
a “next day” TV streaming service that is actually owned by Comcast (NBC),
News Corp  (Fox) and Disney (ABC) has a lot of top shows that are available
the day after they air. Hulu has “The Office,” “Modern Family,” “Parks and
Recreation,” “Glee” and “House.” And, more important to me, it has Comedy
Central’s “Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.” Between Netflix streaming
and HuluPlus (the networks that own Hulu were fine letting Hulu stream to
PCs but didn’t want it to hit TV sets through streaming devices without a
fee of some kind, so HuluPlus was born), each for approximately $8 a month,
I could get all the TV I want for $16 a month.

Soon, I’d be free of cable and getting more choice than I ever had for a
fraction of the cost. I just had to find the right device

What to buy?

Outside of the many DVD players and game consoles that will stream Netflix
and YouTube, there are three options that I found worth considering: Apple
TV, Boxee Box and Roku.

Apple TV was pretty interesting when it first came out a little more than a
year ago. A small sleek box at $99, it seemed like the perfect choice.
Unlike the original Apple TV, the new version is not a great big hard drive.
Instead, it is a streaming portal to your TV set. It handles Netflix
accounts, YouTube and Flickr and syncs seamlessly with iTunes movies and
music.

For someone heavily invested in iTunes and willing to pay for shows a la
carte, this would be perfect. But aside from Netflix and YouTube and what
you had stored in iTunes, most movies and shows are only available for
purchase or rental. Renting TV shows at $.99 an episode didn’t seem
economical to me, so I began to look seriously at the Roku Player and Boxee
Box.

The Boxee Box is a $199 player made by D-Link that runs Boxee, a desktop
application used to convert PCs into home theater servers. It’s worth noting
that Boxee can also be installed on a PC box free of charge. At the time I
was shopping, Boxee still didn’t have Netflix or Hulu, although that has
changed since.

The Boxee’s price and its unstable relationship with some of the services –
Hulu has cut it off twice since 2009 – made it a tough call. The Boxee seems
like a great choice for streaming content you have, but I wanted a way to
get what I didn’t have for as little cash as possible.

So, I ended up taking a look at the Roku. Starting at $59, the Roku is a lot
like the Apple TV in size and shape. It’s a very small square-shaped box
with a tiny remote. While the Roku doesn’t have the ability to stream videos
you own, it has a much greater channel selection with many opitions you
can’t get from Apple TV, including HuluPlus, Amazon Streaming Video, Picasa
and music channels like Pandora, Mog and Rdio. Like all its competitors,
Roku also has plenty of news and sports options, too.

So I ordered a RokuHD online for $59 (there are two upgrades with better
video quality, the $79 XD and the $99XS). Two days later, it arrived on my
porch. It took about 10 minutes from the time I unboxed it to having it
connected to my wireless network. Moments later, my Netflix account was up
and running and I was adding channels via the “channel store.”

For its price and ease of setup, the Roku would probably work for nearly
everybody. And Roku just released a new line of players last week with a few
new features, including a gaming controller, games (yet one more way to play
Angry Birds) and, on the $99 model, a USB port to play movies and music
through a USB drive, removing the best advantage Boxee Box had.

The only disadvantage to Roku is that it has not worked out an agreement
with Google to offer YouTube. The company shut down an “unofficial” YouTube
channel (though anyone who installed it can still use it) and though I’ve
read that Roku is working to get YouTube back, it has been unavailable to
new subscribers since late April.

Life without cable

From the moment I booted up the Roku and connected it to my network, I have
not watched a minute of live TV. Netflix has been great for what you’d
expect it to be great at – movies – but it also is perhaps the single
greatest repository of children’s TV anywhere. Netflix has everything from
Disney movies to PBS shows. It also has fun collections of TV like no other
service. This month, it made available for streaming every episode of “Star
Trek” ever made, from the original series to the recent “Enterprise.”

Hulu is great for comedy and a must for anyone who loves “The Colbert
Report” and the “Daily Show.” The service also just added a library of
Miramax films, making it even more valuable. Just last night I saw that the
service had added the Allen Ginsberg documentary “Howl” starring James
Franco.

Finally if Netflix and Hulu don’t satisfy you, Roku also has access to
Amazon’s streaming service, which is similar in many ways to iTunes’ a la
cart show market. Amazon’s service is growing quickly, including a Prime
subscription that not only gets you access to a library of TV shows and
movies for a monthly charge, but earns you free shipping on many of the
retailer’s items.

The only caveat for would-be cord cutters is for die-hard local sports fans.
You can buy subscriptions to MLB, NBA, NHL and NFL channels, but local
programming deals keep local broadcasts blacked out. So if you want to watch
the Phillies or the Flyers, you’re going to need to keep that expensive TV
package, though at least it’s cheaper than going to a couple of games every
month.

Conclusion

I’ve found there are so many more options with just the few services I’ve
mentioned that a cable subscription seems like lunacy to me now.
The great thing about streaming TV is that it provides the very thing that
consumers really want from TV: an a la cart choice in which they can choose
the sort of programming they want. And there’s nothing better than having
the options of setting up your TV to have the channels you want and nothing
else.

If you are interested in cutting the cord, you should probably research what
services are available on the streaming boxes out there and decide if those
services have what you’re looking for. If there’s a show or network you
can’t live without, you shouldn’t bother.

The important thing is that it can be done. You can live without an
expensive cable bill and still have a wide world of TV options.
Now excuse me while I begin watching the complete first season “My Name is
Earl.”

  • Daniel Low

    We are doing the same thing at our house. You didn’t mention antennas. We have only digital tvs and here in la we get great tv reception, so in addition to the roku options, we also get HD local tv.