Thinking about ditching cable TV? Steps to a more integrated entertainment experience with Windows and Xbox 360
Last Thanksgiving, I talked with my friend, prolific blogger/ Twitterer Beth Blecherman (aka techmama on Twitter) in Silicon Valley about the move in our house away from cable to a system that would allow us to get our TV entertainment programming using the free digital airwaves and the wide Internet pipe I had coming in the side of our home.
I've read that the average monthly cable bill in the States is $58.80, more than $700 per year. Given that we pay more than $100 a month to our cable provider, Comcast, for cable TV and internet, there's an incentive to consider a move... actually, more of a migration. I noted some of my frustration in post "My life as a customer: this week, it's about cable television… and more than the 2009 DTV" and since exacerbated by the changes required at home. More frustrating than the cost of the digital service are the new boxes I have to add between my cable coming out of the wall and my HD-ready TVs: new Comcast supplied digital set top boxes (STBs) and inability to no longer get digital and HD directly on my TVs equipped with digital tuners.
So, back to my discussion with Beth. Noting this growing frustration, I talked about our moves in our own household for leveraging the Internet and my existing computers and devices in the home, namely our Media Center PC and Xbox 360. Alas, our ReplayTV would be relegated to recording local stations that were still available for the time being on the remaining analogue feed (Channels 2-30).
For local channels, we get most of what we need over the air and free of charge. Mind you, it was much better when Comcast provided the 1-99 channel map in the clear (meaning, you could view the channels without a converter box): when they discontinued the analog signal and and moved the entire channel map to digital, they no longer provided these channels in the clear. That means that while I could get CNN and CNBC on all my TVs without special equipment before, Comcast customers now need to have a Comcast set-top box on each TV to decrypt the channels above Channel 30.
Sorry, kids: the Replay TV no longer gets the SciFi Channel.
This also means the capabilities in our new digital ready TVs will be redundant and – even worse – marginalized: I've found (YMMV) the inexpensive boxes that Comcast intends to provide "for free" don't provide the clarity or experience customers I used to get from the digital HD provided via a direct cable connection.
As I noted before, we have a Media Center PC at the centre of our system, with Xbox 360's as Media Center Extenders in other rooms in the house. Until recently, the vast majority of our time-shifted entertainment viewing came from our ReplayTV DVRs for watching programming from the main networks and several premium channels.
With our first Windows XP Media Center, which we replaced with Windows Vista and more recently migrated to Windows 7, we usd the on-board analogue broadcast tuner card to get free over the air television and channels from our cable provider. As the US moved to digital last year (as I initially chronicled here and elsewhere on this blog), you now need to upgrade to a suitable and supported digital tuner card or USB peripheral, or connect a digital converter box in order to get digital TV programming. (Our local network affiliates including PBS broadcast in digital as well as high definition digital: to see which stations you should be able to receive, more information is available at http://www.antennaweb.org.) With this tuner card, your Media Center computer can receive what's called local "over-the-air" (aka OTA) television broadcasts with a with a suitable room-based or attic-mounted digital antenna, or cable signals broadcast "in the clear" for digital and HD ready equipment capable of receiving clearQAM channels. (Most current TVs already are digital ready, capable of receiving local channels via OTA ATSC.)
(For more on this switch, see the site DTV Answers: What you need to know about the February 17, 2009 switch to DTV. This site provides info on the switch from the old analogue TV signals to digital television, or DTV. For more information, visit the US FCC website on the digital TV transition at www.dtv.gov. We purchased an amplified indoor antenna for one TV not near an antenna drop to get the signal.)
So that covers ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS and a few other channels available OTA.
But what about on-demand/ time shifted and premium programming?
As noted in the Popular Mechanics article, How to Ditch Your Cable Provider Without Giving Up on TV, you can also get premium content on the web…
"Okay, that takes care of local channels, but cable offers hundreds. What about ESPN? CNN? HBO? What about video on demand? Can you replace those once the coaxial cable is cut? The honest answer is that, if you love surfing through an endless series of channels, then nothing will truly replace cable. But according to a 2007 Nielsen study, the average American household received 104 channels—and watched only 15 of them regularly. So if statistics are any measure, a broad selection of content is important to viewers, but sheer quantity is not.
"A surprising amount of TV and movie content is now available over the Internet for free or for a nominal price. The richest and most impressive source of Internet video, aside from outright torrent theft, is Netflix’s “Watch Instantly.” This streaming video service is a freebie extra for anyone who subscribes to the company’s DVD-by-mail service (any plan over $8.99 per month offers unlimited streaming of content). Watch Instantly lets users browse through a library of 12,000 movies and television shows, much as they would surf channels on a cable box. It nicely combines the joy of serendipitous movie discovery that comes from watching HBO or Showtime with the impulse entertainment of video on demand."
At home, we use the PlayOn software ($30) with our Windows 7 Media Center (recently migrated from Windows Vista SP1) to watch Internet content on our TVs equipped with one of the most versitile set-top boxes I've ever owned: the Xbox 360. We can watch regular TV programming via the Media Center remotely on the Xbox, but also access content from Hulu, YouTube, Amazon VOD, and other sites.
For Netflix, we use the Xbox 360 as a Netflix Ready Device (included with Netflix and Xbox LIVE Gold): the player accessed via the Xbox Live service (although it's also available with PlayOn if you have a Media Center PC serving your network). Xbox LIVE Gold members can download the Netflix application straight to your console and begin watching movies and TV shows instantly.
Another service list I like is the one offered via TVGuide.com DVR. Through this page (which you can link to Facebook no less) you can "subscribe" to various favorite shows and watch full episodes via content distributor web sites when available. Essentially it's a connector to various sites with pay and free content (via provides such as Amazon and Hulu, respectively).
The "My TVGuide.com DVR" provides personalization features for TVGuide.com's popular Online Video Guide, launched in 2007, which indexes more than 700,000 TV episodes, music videos, movies and Web-only video content. The feature also notifies users if there are new episodes of their favorite shows to watch.
We're only a couple of years away from seeing how the predictions panned out in IBM's report on "The end of TV as we know it." It provides their view on what the landscape in 2012 looks like across the industry for television programming, distribution and consumption. The authors interviewed a number of extensive interviews with analysts, pundits and execs from across a worldwide and industry-wide spectrum.
"Our analysis indicates that market evolution hinges on two key market drivers: openness of access channels and levels of consumer involvement with media. For the next 5-7 years, there will be change on both fronts – but not uniformly. The industry instead will be stamped by consumer bimodality, a coexistence of two types of users with disparate channel requirements. While one consumer segment remains passive in the living room, the other will force radical change in business models in a search for anytime, anywhere content through multiple channels."
This line has blurred with the Media Center now available on our TVs in the house. We're still keeping Comcast for the time being as it provides the most seamless experience (with a single box) to access the channels we watch today (simple = high spousal adoption factor ;). But I fully expect that the integration of OTA and Internet available content within Windows will get easier, and will be simpler to access on all devices in the home via Digital Living Network Alliance Support (DLNA) devices as I noted here…
I'm also happy to note the Digital Living Network Alliance Support (DLNA) in Windows 7. DLNA is consumer electronics industry consortium that promotes improved interoperability of digital content across networks, for sharing music, photos, and videos over multiple devices in, around and outside the home. Windows 7 implements several of the DLNA device roles and it also implements the DLNA protocols required for communications and media exchange. With Windows 7, your PC will be able to interoperate with a broad variety of DLNA certified devices like TVs, stereo systems, cell phones, DVRs, game consoles, etc.
Heck, with relatively inexpensive, multipurpose STBs like the Xbox 360 (no longer just a game device but truly an entertainment portal) and inexpensive yet powerful DLNA ready PCs with HDMI outputs, large hard drives (for digital video recording and network content cache) and consistent UI, it will only get better.
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