As a preface, I do not mean for this post to be comprehensive. I am not writing this to cover every option available, but only to state how my family current consumes media, the options I've tried, and the options I've considered but chosen not to do.
Since January, I've had several conversations with friends and colleagues regarding, for lack of a better phrase, "home media consumption". Should I keep my cable tv subscription or should I opt for HDTV over a VHF antennae? Should one have a Boxee box? What about an Apple TV? Some sort of media center PC? A Roku box? Do you still use a DVD player or have invested in a Blu-ray player? Perhaps Netflix or Hulu Plus subscription? Well, you get the point. In 2011, there are lots of options to go with as far as plugging things into your HDTV to watch.
For the purposes of this post, I want to first outline our setup. We have two HDTVs, a 42" LCD which is almost years old, and a 32" LCD about a year old. Both are Phillips, bought from Costco which we are happy with. In the living room, alongside the 42", we have a HD TiVO, Nintendo Wii, a DVD player, and a Mac Mini. In our bedroom, we have a 32" LCD alongside a DVD player, Apple TV and a Roku Box.
I have used just about all of the above options. My wife and I have been wanting to cancel cable tv for several years now but what's holding us back is the inability to watch live sports (mainly NFL football) on the Internet and some of the more obscure shows that one might find on channels like Science or Discovery. MLB.tv covers my baseball needs excellently, but I only wish NFL would offer a similar product. The same goes for HBO. I don't see a solution to this problem given that the NFL has a monopoly on the broadcasts rights and sign customer hostile exclusivity contracts with corporations like DirectTV. The executives at these organizations, sadly, still have their fingers in their ears when it comes to the existence of the Internet and are just shutting their eyes and saying "lalalalalalalala" hoping it will all go away.
We consume what Comcast sends to us via an HD TiVo. I've been a TiVo subscriber for years because of their superior user interface when compared to any and all DVRs a cable or satellite company might provide you. Now, that's not to say TiVo doesn't have it's faults, but there is nothing that I've found that can beat it as far as ease of use and an Apple-like "just works" ethos. The HD TiVo we have is a generation older than TiVo's most current models. Ours takes two, single stream cable cards. I believe it can take a single multi-stream card, but at the time of installation, Comcast claimed they were 'out'. And don't even get me started on how hard it was to even get cable cards from them.
I've had a DVD player for over 10 years now. I haven't needed one for about 6 months. I shall elaborate as to why below, but Steffanie and I came to the decision late last year to digitize our entire DVD library. I've been using RipIt to rip our collection to its raw mpeg-2 form and then using Handbrake to convert them into h.264 encoded .m4v files. I store all of these files on my 6 terabyte Drobo. Each 4-8 GB rip typically converts into about 1.5 GB in its finished .m4v form. I made the decision to go with h.264/.m4v due to its compatibility with all of my devices(iPhone, iPad, AppleTV, iMac, Mac Mini, MacBook Pro). So far the killer app for having instant access to my entire movie collection while at home has been a wonderful application called Air Video. With Air Video, I can stream any video easily from my iPad across Wi-Fi anywhere in my apartment. With a little delay I can also do this remotely, but I need to have solid bandwidth at my remote location. With Air Play, I can also play any movie from the Drobo via Air Video and send that video to our TV using Apple TV. How's that for a TV remote? Doing that for the first time made me feel like I was living in the future. Flying cars? Jet packs? Those are for the birds.
Netflix: For the past year, my wife and I have been making use of our Netflix account more often to stream movies or TV shows. Aside from the fact that movies or shows will sometimes disappear abruptly from Netflix, such as when I was half way through watching all of Sports Night when it got yanked, overall it works very well. I can watch streaming Netflix on my iPhone or iPad, any of our Macs or on the Apple TV. Our HD TiVo also has the capability to stream Netflix, which we sometimes make use of if we're already using the TiVo at the time when we decide to watch something on Netflix.
Amazon Video: Another service available to us is Amazon Video Streaming, which is free for all Amazon Prime members. We're a family of heavy Amazon Prime users, so we've made use of this services a few times. If Netflix's one drawback is their limited selection of streamable content, Amazon makes them look like a bountiful paradise. I'm hard pressed to find anything above a c-grade movie on Amazon streaming. The service works well and is available to us on our Roku box or on the Mac Mini. Our TiVo HD supports it as well, but we've never gotten it to work properly.
Hulu Plus/Basic: A third service I've looked into paying for is Hulu Plus. I've shied away from paying for it because of the cost. Hulu Basic is free and gives you access to a lot of the current shows airing on TV. There are a plethora of bad commercials inserted in these episodes at frequent intervals. Users also only get access to the previous five shows. One would think that Hulu Plus's deal would be for users to pay Hulu money, in exchange for being able to get more content, without having to watch commercials. No. Sorry. You're given all of the current seasons episodes. Last season? Tough luck. You get access to a low of old TV shows you probably don't care about. You still have to sit through commercials. About 1/2 the content is HD.
No, thank you.
Set Top Boxes
As stated above, Steffanie and I own quite a few set top boxes, although, we by no means own them all. We do not have an XBox or Playstation (mainly because I've always been a PC Gamer, not a consoler gamer). The exception is the Wii, which Steffanie bought me for my birthday years ago and that was only due to it's unique controls and my long-standing love for Nintendo. If I were a Windows user I could foresee the XBox being useful as I understand that it can connect to Windows media-center software. However, me being a Windows user? Ha. That's a good one.
We do own the following boxes: Roku HD, Apple TV, Wii, Mac Mini (late 2010), TiVo HD, and 2 DVD players. With these boxes, we can connect to just about every service available. There are several other set-top boxes I've considered buying, such as a Blu-Ray player or a Boxee Box. I decided against a Blu-Ray player due to the high cost of the discs. I also do not want to have to keep up with physical media any longer. I decided against the Boxee Box in order to go with the Mac Mini instead. I took this course of action due to several Boxee Box reviews criticizing the low performance of the box. A Mac Mini, which much more expensive, is much more powerful. In addition to being able to run the Boxee Software, it also doubles as an iTune server for the Apple TV, or a Netflix client, or just a way to browse the web or serve as an extra computer in times of need. Also, the Mac Mini gives us the option to completely ditch our stand-alone DVD player given that it's now redundant.
On the subject of Boxee software, another option that I tried was Plexx. Plexx is OS X only but it's based off of the same core codebase that Bxxee uses, XMBC. XMBC is an open-source project created for the purpose of writing media-center software to use with your own custom-built computer. Plexx and Boxee took the base XMBC codebase and built a better UI on top of it with additional functionality. I ended up going with Boxee due to its greater popularity along with the greater plugin/module support it offers which allows me to stream podcasts I listen to from TWiT or 5by5 easily within the app.
Smart TVs and Smart Blu-Ray Players
When my wife and I bought our HDTV almost 4 years ago, we purchased it spur of the moment from Costco because it was on sale for $999 with free shipping and was a good quality 1080p 42" LCD for our medium sized 2BR apartment. This was about 2 months before the 3G iPhone was released, before the iPhone App Store ever existed. The term "Smart TV" didn't exist yet and the word "App" was not yet a mainstream word you could hear a non-geek use in normal day-to-day conversation.
Fast forward to mid-2011, when practically every TV sold these days is a 3D 1080p HDTV with a plethora of "smart apps" built into the firmware of the TV that allow them to connect to online services such as Pandora, Netflix or Amazon Video. The experienced geek in me feels uneasy when it comes to these because when I buy an expensive, traditionally dumb advice such as a TV, I only want it to be a large monitor for my devices. When you start adding software to them, it decreases the life span of the device due to the risk of the software becoming outdated. I can foresee the TV manufacturers angling for the time when the market is sufficiently seeded with Smart TVs that they begin releasing new ones with more advanced software in which the end-user must upgrade their TV to make use of the new software. That's extremely wasteful. I do not want my TV to turn into my computer. I'd much rather buy something like a Mac Mini which i know will be powerful enough to power any of the lame media-center software, for the next 5 years, that I may throw at it. The same goes for Smart Blu-Ray players (on top of the fact that I don't want Blu Ray to take off to the degree that DVDs ever did).
Concerns & Complaints
Due to the setup above, I'm almost able to ditch cable. There are a few hangups however:
1. Not able to buy HBO à la carte: I do not subscribe to HBO, partially in protest. I dislike that I have to pay 84$ a month for my current cable option that that still doesn't give me access to HBO. I'd rather have the ability to cancel my cable subscription and pay HBO separately to access HBO over their Web site or through, from what I hear, their excellent iPad app. However, it seems their iPad app only for users who subscribe to HBO through their cable subscriber. HBO, you're doing it wrong.
2. Live sports, with the exception of Major League Baseball (and even then, they still don't get it 100% right), you cannot watch live sports (for me, college and professional football) without having a cable or satellite subscription. I understand that I could drop my cable and receive networks like ABC, NBC, CBS or Fox over the air for free via VHF antennae for HDTV. The exception is ESPN or the NFL network, both of which are on cable-only channels. Boo. Like I mentioned above, MLB almost gets this correct by allowing customers to pay $99 a year to get access to all[^1] games through their Web site, a device like an Apple TV or their Web site.
[^1]: The problem with this, however, is that anytime you wish to watch a local game that is being broadcast on TV, the game is blocked out on MLB.tv OR if it's a Sunday night game that is nationally broadcast, it is also blocked out on MLB.tv.
My Secondary Reason For Wanting To Drop Cable
This next section is a general gripe I wanted to include somewhere in this post. It is only loosely related to the above, but it a more personal reason for my wanting to stop contributing to the cable television industry as a whole. The slow degradation of the quality of content on the TV channels that I've liked over the past 10 years has turned me off of most content now found on TV. I used to watch a few series on network TV, Discovery Channel, TLC, Science Channel, Animal Planet, SciFi, National Geographic, and cable news. The horrible state of cable news needs no description but suffice it to say, it's bad. The rest of the channels mentioned above have slowly been turned into a nest of horrible reality-based shows that have diluted the channels I loved into a small pile of streaming crap. Pull up your DVR's channel guide and look what is on from 5:00 pm until midnight on a channel such as TLC, which I might remind you dear reader, stand for The Learning Channel. After doing so just now, I see that tonight's lineup contains Fabulous Cakes, Toddlers & Tiaras, Cake Boss followed by another Cake Boss, then Surprise Homecoming, 19 Kids and Counting, another 19 Kids and Counting, The Little Couple, and then repeats for previously listed shows. I'm sorry, I just vomited a little in my mouth just then.
I dislike reality programming. I define reality programming into any show in which something happens and then the person in the scene where something happens then is taken aside into a little room, alone, and comments on camera about what just happened. The show is a series of events where they switch from action to a personal aside where the subject tells their side of the story or how they feel about what just happened. The slow degradation of good content into the race to the bottom in order to appeal to the widest possible audience goes against what most of these cable channels were originally founded for. When most were created, they were centered around a niche topic that appealed to a finite amount of people, but they did so very very well. The Animal Planet was mostly nature documentaries and other nature shows. Discovery Channel was a mixture of things you might find on National Geographic to shows like Mythbusters. It seems that over the years, all of these channels have just started peddling reality-based shows in their primetime that centers around whatever topic their cable channel was supposedly based around. Some channels, such as TLC, seem to have given up any pretense of creating shows around their specific niche topic.
The few remaining shows I still enjoy, such as Castle, The Late Show, Conan, The Daily Show, Colbert Report, or The Late Show with Craig Ferguson or anything on HBO are all able to be found online or on DVD 6 months later. As mentioned above, the exception is live sports. If the NFL were to release something like MLB.tv, that would be the final act that pushes me over the edge.
One final note - I am also hesitant about losing the ability to flip on the Weather Channel, the local news or a cable news channel in order to get local news coverage, or breaking news, but the low quality of those news sources and the increasing ability to get that same content on the Internet leads me to believe that my caution is probably unfounded and I wont actually miss it if and when we make the switch.