Cutting the Cord: The How To of Switching off the Money Pit

Cutting the cord is a scary proposition. But money is a big motivator when that friggin expensive cable or satellite TV bill comes in. It gets one past that fear threshold and into action.

I had three options as alternatives to cable: (1) over the air (aka rabbit ears), (2) television shows streamed through my computer to my TV set, and (3)  either purchasing shows to download or ripping my DVDs to computer. For me, my TV watching will be through a combo of all three (I have begun but have not yet finished). There is some upfront cost, but it still won’t cost me as much as what I pay annually for cable.

Several websites advise on how to cut the cord and stream videos to your TV; there’s even a web show devoted to it. I found some of them a bit confusing. The only option I fully understood is over the air because that’s how I used to get my TV plus last year I converted my analogue TV to receive digital over-the-air signals. But streaming TV shows or movies from computer to TV just got me scratching my head. But fear not, it’s not actually that difficult.

So to begin.

1. Over the Air aka Rabbit Ears

Over the air is basically using an antenna to catch the broadcast signals as they whiz by your house and direct them down to your TV. The key to a good catch is directing the indoor or outdoor antenna towards the local tower broadcasting the TV signals. In Toronto, it’s easy to know where the Canadian broadcast tower is: it’s the CN Tower, at the south end of the city. The American broadcast towers are all clustered around Buffalo, also south. So if you’re using an indoor antenna, the best room to house your TV and rabbit ears is at the side that has the window facing the CN Tower; that’ll also be the right direction for Buffalo channels. For your own location, you’ll need to find where the local towers are. There are websites in the US and Canada that tell you.

Outdoor antennae get much better reception than indoor. They’re more powerful, and their reception isn’t blocked by walls, furniture, or some electical items. It isn’t too expensive to get one installed.

Since Canada is joining the US in going digital in August 2011, it’s a good idea to ensure you can receive those digital signals. Bonus: the best HD picture is over the air, not cable or satellite. If you have an old analogue TV, you can buy a digital converter box that connects to both your TV and rabbit ears/outdoor antenna. In Toronto, all the Canadian channels but TVO are already broadcasting in digital. If you have a new HDTV, ensure it has a digital or ATSC tuner in it. If not, you’ll need to buy a tuner box. That is what I will have to do when I get my outdoor antenna installed in the spring/summer. Right now, my LCD HDTV is directly connected to the coaxial cable that brings in Rogers signals since I had to give them 30 days notice, which means I still get cable for another month. I ain’t letting that money go to waste. But once they turn it off, then I’ll connect my HDTV to the same converter box attached to my ancient TV until I get my outdoor antenna installed.

2. Streaming Through the Computer

There’s the direct method and the cool method. Either way, it’s best if you have a dual band router and use the 5GHz band for 802.11n when using your computer to watch TV shows or movies. With new HDTVs, you can connect your computer to your TV directly either via an HDMI cable or VGA. Newer TVs and computers have HDMI ports. But alas my laptop does not. VGA it is. But VGA only streams visuals. I also had to connect an audio cable, from the headphone jack in my computer to Audio In on the TV. Then, using my remote, I went into the TV menu and selected audio from the computer (as opposed to the antenna or FM radio modes) as the audio source.

I tried doing this in both Windows Vista and Ubuntu. Although Ubuntu can connect to the 5GHz band, unlike Vista, it cannot properly render the computer screen onto the TV. Vista does. Both will allow you to mirror the computer screen onto the TV. If it doesn’t do that automatically, go into Display settings (or Monitor settings), and check mirror monitors. Now whatever you do on your computer, you’ll see happen on your TV. That means you can surf to YouTube, find an HD video, click the HD option, then full screen, and voila a beauty of a picture will appear on your TV. Do the same for watching shows on your favourite broadcaster’s website or elsewhere. Some cannot close their laptop as it turns off the computer display and thus the TV set’s display. That did not happen to me with the laptop plugged in. Otherwise, seeing the picture twice is a bit distracting.

That’s the direct method.

The cool method is a box you connect to your TV to act as a kind of TV/movie/photo server. The box – Apple TV, Roku, Boxee to name the best-known ones – connects to your TV via HDMI and to your computer via WiFi or ethernet. The latter will give you a more reliable connection. The box will then run your TV. In a nutshell, when you turn on your TV, the box will pop up a menu. Through that menu, you can either choose to stream TV shows or movies from the Internet onto your TV or watch a show stored on your computer. You can rent, buy, or watch for free.

To see what that’s like you can install a virtual Boxee box on your computer. When you start it, it will fill your television screen with a menu, just like the box would. You control it via your computer’s mouse or cursor keys or an iPhone or Android app.

The only caveat with the cool method is that the website determines the quality of the picture on your TV. So, for example, CTV has decent quality video but CBC’s sucks. Worse, Space’s sucks. And you’d think of all the broadcasters to have the best HD quality in programming on the web, it’d be a channel that shows SciFi. Unfortunately, these boxes can’t upgrade the quality to HD levels for TV viewing.

3. DVDs/VHSs on Computer

I have not yet ripped my DVDs to store them on my computer. That will be a project for the future. However, given the CRTC’s ridiculously anti-competitive-suck-out-the-consumer’s-wallet decision to force all ISPs to lower their services to Bell’s standards – that is, have rate limiting and charge bandwidth usage – I will be considering not only doing that, but also downloading new seasons of my favourite shows through iTunes and maybe watch a movie or two while I still have unlimited bandwidth and no rate limiting.

Even with no bandwidth usage rates and rate limiting, there is one advantage of option 3 over streaming: no hiccups. Given the current abysmally slow speeds on so many North American “broadband” services, and the fact it gets even slower during busy periods when everyone and their Grandpa is on the Internet, videos can stop streaming for seconds or minutes. Makes for exasperating viewing. As I mentioned above, you can use the same box that streams Internet shows to watch media stored on your computer. Or you can do it directly via a program like Windows Media Player as if you were watching the DVD on your computer: the picture will be mirrored up onto your HDTV.

You will want to purchase the highest quality media possible to match your TV’s resolution. That is the one disadvantage of Apple TV – its top quality is 720p, lower than what my TV is capable of showing.

Last Thoughts

This combo allows traditional kind of passive viewing while dipping your toe in the new way of watching television. Traditionally, you turned on the set, and the broadcasters told you what’s on. Your decision was limited to their offerings, not much thinking required. The over-the-air option is the traditional way.

Later, VCRs then PVRs came along, and you could record your favourite show for later viewing, but limited by which channels you got whether over the air or subscribed to on cable or satellite and assuming the recorder didn’t crap out or the broadcaster didn’t change the schedule. But options 2 and 3 do much more than that. Now, you can watch whatever you want whenever you want, unlimited by when a show is on or who broadcasts it with no worries about your recording machine failing on you.

No limits. Boggles the mind, eh? But it means you have to actually think. This is active viewing. If you want to watch Top Gear at two in the afternoon in HD, you can. If no channel in your viewing area doesn’t offer The Closer, no worries. Now you can catch up on the episodes you missed. If your broadcaster hopscotches your favourite show around the schedule, it doesn’t matter. You can still queue it up and watch when you want.