TV Without Cable: How to Cut the Cord

Last Updated Apr 28, 2011 12:20 PM EDT

All you disgruntled cable customers out there — in other words, anyone who is not a cable executive — now is the time to rejoice. With the latest improvements in technology and growth in online content, you can disconnect the cable box without giving up TV. In fact, the number of cable TV and satellite subscriptions fell last year for the first time in the history of the business.

To be sure, ditching your cable or satellite provider isn't exactly painless, especially if you're a sports junkie. (You didn't think your cable company was going to make this easy, did you?) But with a moderate amount of research and tinkering, you can replicate much of what you'd be getting via your cable subscription for significantly less money. In my own case, I used to pay more than $100 a month to the cable company; now I pay about half that for a combination of streaming, downloaded, and over-the-air content.

Here's a quick primer on ways to keep your TV screen lit up with entertainment, news, and sports, without surrendering to Big Cable.

1. See What’s Available Over the Air

Many people are shocked when they find out they can receive free high definition TV from major TV networks simply by connecting a basic over-the-air antenna. In fact, in most cases over-the-air HDTV has slightly better image quality than the HD cable you’re paying for, since cable companies often compress their signals in order to include more channels. Every modern HDTV has a built-in tuner, and in my case, I only needed a $23 indoor antenna to get crystal clear over-the-air HDTV.

You can check what kind of TV reception you’re likely to get by visiting AntennaWeb and entering your street address. The site will tell you how far you are from transmitting stations and what channels will come in easily. Of course, even if you get great reception, you’re still only going to get access to the major network channels, such as ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox, as well as PBS and regional channels. But that means no Comedy Central, HBO, or AMC. To get access to shows on those cable channels, you’ll need to consider streaming and on-demand video services, which brings us to steps 2 and 3.

2. Choose Streaming Video Services

There are plenty of streaming video services out there, but Netflix is the most popular. For $8 per month, you get unlimited access to Netflix’s instant streaming catalog of 20,000 films and TV shows, which you can watch on your computer, iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch, and any other Netflix-enabled home theater device, such as a Wii or certain Blu-Ray Disc players. (For more on connecting your TV to a video service, see item 4, below.) In the past, much of Netflix’s streaming catalog consisted of older movies and TV shows, but the selection has been improving rapidly, including a recently announced deal to make available every episode of AMC’s Mad Men. And for just $2 more per month, it may be worth adding on a one-DVD-at-a-time plan that will get you access to newer content via discs sent in the mail.

To watch recent network television, you can sign up for Hulu Plus, a partnership between NBC, News Corp., and Disney. You can watch TV shows on Hulu.com on your computer, but Hulu Plus has the advantage of being easily viewable on your television and/or mobile device; it’s also available in HD and has more comprehensive content. Hulu Plus costs $8 a month and gives you full-season access to popular shows such as “Modern Family” and “30 Rock,” with new episodes available right after their live airing.

3. Buy Cable Shows a la Carte

Current episodes of popular cable shows such as Justified and The Walking Dead aren’t typically available on Netflix, but you can get access to most of them via Amazon Instant Video and iTunes, typically a day after they air. Episodes usually cost about $2 for standard definition and $3 for high def, and since you’re actually purchasing the shows (rather than renting them), you can go back and watch them any time you like. Last year, for example, I was able to watch every episode of season four of Mad Men (this was before the deal with Netflix) on Amazon Instant Video the day after it aired. If you’re using Apple TV to watch iTunes shows on your television, be aware that some shows need to be downloaded first to a PC, which can take some time. (For more information, check out my full review of the Apple TV.)

4. Consider a Streaming Video Box

You may already have a device that will let you watch the services mentioned above on your big-screen television — many Blu-ray players and HDTVs sold in the past few years have built-in support for these services, and all the modern game consoles (Xbox 360, PS3, and Wii) also support Netflix streaming. If you do need to buy a separate box, though, the $99 Roku XDS is a good choice, as its support of Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, and Hulu Plus gives you the most options to stream TV. The $99 Apple TV is also a great box that’s easy to use, but its TV rental options for direct streaming are limited to only some Fox and ABC shows.

If you don’t want to buy another box and are willing to put up with a little hassle, you can connect a laptop directly to your TV. It’s not the most convenient solution, since you’ll have to fuss with a computer connected to your TV instead of simply relaxing on your couch with a remote, but you’ll only need to purchase a cheap HDMI cable to be able to watch any Internet video that’s available via your browser, including old episodes of Star Trek.

5. Consider an Over-the-Air DVR

Getting free over-the-air TV is great, but if you’re used to the convenience of watching shows whenever you want using a digital video recorder (DVR), it can be jarring to be stuck watching primarily “live” television. Luckily, there are several DVRs that can record over-the-air shows. For ease-of-use, the $100 TiVo Premiere is the hands-down best option, although you’ll have to pay $20 a month. It might be tough to swallow a monthly fee when you’re trying to save money, but TiVo’s excellent user interface and convenience options, such as Season Pass recording, can make it worth it for heavy TV watchers. The Channel Master CM-7000PAL costs more upfront (about $300 to $350), but doesn’t have a monthly fee. It also lacks a lot of the perks of the TiVo. You’ll need to tell it what channel you want recorded, at what time, and for how long, as opposed to just choosing shows on the TiVo.

Finally, it’s also possible to set up an over-the-air DVR using your PC and Windows Media Center software, although you’ll need to be moderately tech-savvy to get it up and running. On the other hand, it is free. You can get an idea of what’s involved by checking out the Windows Media Center quick guide.

6. Watch Sports Live Online (if You’re Out of Market)

There are a surprising number of sports options for cord-cutters, although most of them are not cheap. Services like MLB.TV ($99 a year), NHL Gamecenter Live ($175), and NBA Game Time ($45) are all available via the Roku XDS and offer live, streaming games. Aside from the price, the big catch is that all of these services are subject to blackout rules if you’re “in market,” so you often won’t get to see your hometown team play.

At the same time, remember that if you’re able to receive over-the-air HDTV, you’ll get lots of live sports from the major networks. And if you’re lucky enough to be a fan of a team that gets regular national coverage (yes, we’re talking about you, Yankees and Lakers fans), you might not be in such bad shape. But if you don’t want to miss your local team’s home games, then yes — this could be a deal breaker. Consider finding a local bar that carries the games, or sweet-talking a friend who hasn’t cut the cord yet. Just remember to factor in the cost of a six-pack when you’re doing the cable-free math.

7. Make Sure You’re Not Spending More Without Cable

Once you add up all the subscription fees, new hardware costs, and video on-demand purchases, cutting the cord can be as expensive as having cable — if you’re not careful. That’s why you need to keep track of your purchases and make sure you’re actually using everything you’re paying for. My personal situation is close to a best-case scenario. I already had a lot of the hardware I needed and am not a particularly heavy TV watcher, so I spend about $50 a month on digital video content, less than half what I had been paying for digital cable.

Despite the challenges, cutting the cord doesn’t require a Ph.D. in Geek, and it can save you real money. If you’re in need of cable-cutting inspiration, check out my own personal experience as a cord-cutter for the past four years. (And if you’re looking to justify your own monthly cable habit, check out my colleague David Katzmaier’s unsuccessful cable-cutting experiment).

Matthew Moskovciak is a Senior Associate editor at CNET, where he reviews home theater devices.

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