Step 4: Get a Media Streaming Device

Step 4: Get a Media Streaming Device

Step 4: Get a Media Streaming Device

Have you been feeling like everyone else around you has figured out this “streaming movies and TV shows” thing, and you are standing on the fringes thinking you’ll eventually figure it out? But so far you haven’t really done anything about it.  So let’s get into some of the products that can help you.  Let’s figure out how to get you a media streaming device.

On February 17, I started a series for “cord cutters”, with a Blog entitled 6 Steps to Cutting the Cord of Cable.  In that, I presented a summary of what would need to be done in order to dump cable or satellite TV in favor of using a combination of Over The Air (OTA) for local stations and Streaming content from the Internet.  In yesterday’s blog, I elaborated on Step 3: Get an Optional Digital Video Recorder.

In today’s blog, I elaborate on Step 4: Get a Media Streaming Device.

You can get streaming services built into the TV, BluRay player or game system.  You can also buy a separate box such as a Roku or AppleTV, or a dongle in ChromeCast.

a) Built into the TV – additional $100
If you read Step 1 of this series, you considered a new TV.  Some are marketed as “Network Ready”.  This generally means you have a set of built-in applications that can get you Netflix, YouTube, hulu+, and perhaps a few other oddball services.  This is great if you only plan to use one or two of these and don’t want to stream through a home theater system.  Otherwise, you’ll want a separate device, and all of the following fit that category.

b) Built into a BluRay player or Game System – $100 to $400
Panasonic, LG, Samsung, Sony and other BluRay players have a Network feature that, when connected to an ethernet or WiFi local area network (LAN) in your home, will access the internet to using many of the apps listed above.  Game systems, such as Xbox and PlayStation 3 (and the new 4) have the same type of functionality.  The benefit of this method is that you will probably be using your BluRay/DVD player or game system anyway, and it’s one less connection to your home theater.  The down side of this is that a component failure kills off two of your functions at the same time.  It may also make upgrades harder to afford.

c) Roku 3 (CNet Review) – $50 to $100
This small black box provides access to the most streaming services of any device known.  The interface has also gotten very good reviews from new users, meaning it should not be too difficult to learn.  With up to 1080p, HDMI, WiFi, 100Mbps Ethernet and a simple remote, this unit will let you watch shows on demand.  The “3” model has the faster processor and will help alleviate frustration when loading apps and shows since many of the previous models were underpowered and most of us have a low tolerance for sluggish technology.

d) Apple TV (CNet Review) – $100
Mac users have known about Apple TV for years, and have continuously thought that the next generation will fix their issues.  But each time the next generation comes out, the product has only been improved marginally and Roku has moved ahead yet again.  It’s like the guy who coughs around the office for weeks but won’t take a couple of days off to actually get well.  Apple has never committed itself to a “get well” program that would make this product completely outstanding, which is really disappointing to people like myself who see the potential, already enjoying the iTunes, video and audio support that is there.  The silver bullet would be a source-neutral interface that lets you find, let’s call them, “viewables” that are in any of the services to which you have access through login credentials.  For example, imagine that you could search for “CSI: Miami” and you don’t have to know which service it came from.  That would be completely amazing, considering how many stream options there are out there.  Lastly, the included AirPlay functionality helps with integration to other devices that support it.

e) Google ChromeCast (CNet Review) – $35
The ChromeCast is a “dongle”, a small device with no cable that plugs into your HDMI slot.  Well, that’s not entirely true since it requires power, so you’ve got to connect a wire to the nearest USB slot, or to a AC converter.  ChromeCast is very good with Google products, such as Play music and video.  Android smart phone users will find this an attractive option for them.  iPhone users will likely gravitate to AppleTV (Mac users) or Roku (PC users).  The next generation ChromeCast will likely be a leap above this one and you would be forgiven if you decided to wait until then to buy one.  One thing is undeniable… they are small and discreet, able to be hidden in the plan of a 6-yr-old child.

I am getting Roku if I buy soon.  If Apple finally releases an update to the AppleTV that is worthy of considering, I’ll probably get that too.  I’m likely to pass on the ChromeCast, unless the next generation is amazing.

Which one is right for you?  It may depend upon your intended use (home theater or simple TV) and what you are currently doing with your smart phone (iPhone vs Android) and home computer (Mac vs PC).  Is it obvious to you by now?

Step 3: Get an Optional Digital Video Recorder

Step 3: Get an Optional Digital Video Recorder

Step 3: Get an Optional Digital Video Recorder

Did you feel like the master of time and space when you first recorded a show to watch it later? Or did you get a thrill the first time you set up your DVR to record some favorite series of re-runs, and then you turned on your DVR to find that the station had a marathon on your show and you wound up with 12 episodes waiting for you?

On February 17, I started a series for “cord cutters”, with a Blog entitled 6 Steps to Cutting the Cord of Cable.  In that, I presented a summary of what would need to be done in order to dump cable or satellite TV in favor of using a combination of Over The Air (OTA) for local stations and Streaming content from the Internet.  In yesterday’s blog, I elaborated on Step 2: Get an Antenna for Over The Air TV.

In today’s blog, I elaborate on Step 3: Get an Optional Digital Video Recorder.

Backtrack: We used to pop in a VHS tape and record shows on a VCR.  This practice was so prevalent that we began using the phrase “…can’t program the VCR…” to imply someone was technologically challenged.  Then came TiVo and it used a hard drive, rather than removable media.  It was such a rush to realize that you could “tivo” 100 shows onto the disk and recall any one you wanted.  It felt like a video jukebox!

The generic term for this device is a Digital Video Recorder (DVR).  A competing brand at the time was ReplayTV.  Meanwhile, the more geeky folks were putting tuner cards or USB tuners on their computer and using software to record shows.  Even as I type this, I have the Elgato EyeTV on my Mac here.  It works well for Standard Definition and it used to work well for High Definition until the cable company began encrypting them (I shake my digital fist at them).

So here we are today… the cable companies and the satellite companies all have an integrated tuner and DVR that they will gladly put in your house for a monthly fee so you can record more shows than you can ever watch.  We’ve got it made.

But, we’re here to cut the cord, so surely there are DVRs for over the air tuning, right?  Surprisingly, the market is somewhat limited.  So, I’ll touch on a few.  Those of you who are complete nerds on this topic will undoubtedly tell me that I didn’t include your favorite model or some home-brew set up.  My answer is that I’m looking at commodity products for general consumers, so let’s run down my list, in order of my personal preference.

° TabloTV (CNet Review)
Comes in 2-tuner and 4-tuner varieties.  Uses your iPad or Android tablet as the remote control.  Plays shows to your TV using a streaming media device (see Step 4 tomorrow).  It will also play to your handheld mobile device, even if you are away from home.  Yes, you can watch your DVR while you’re hanging out at the coffee shop.  Due to this design, you only really need one of these for your whole house, not one for each TV.  The electronic program guide (EPG) that tells you what shows come on when, is a nominal fee (not yet published).  The dual tuner model is $220 before you add your own hard drive.

° Channel Master DVR+ (CNet Review)
16 GB of flash memory to record a couple of shows, and a USB port to add your own external hard drive.  Shaped like a thin crust 11″ square pizza.  The DVR+ has an HDMI jack so you can connect directly to your TV and you don’t need a streaming content box.  To get the program guide, you’ll need to hook it up to ethernet or buy a WiFi dongle.  The free program guide is appealing to those who want to avoid recurring costs of any kind.  The device is $250 without the external hard drive.

° TiVo Roamio (CNet Review)
500 GB built-in memory will record 75 HD shows.  Hooks directly to your TV.  Absolutely the best remote control I’ve ever used in my life.  The box is not much bigger than a BluRay player and the user interface is very good, including streaming services.  It requires a pricey subscription for the guide content and has built-in WiFi so you can download the guide and stream shows. The base box is $200 and the lifetime subscription for the guide is $500.

The DVR is an optional part of being a cord cutter.  But if you’ve ever gotten used to a DVR with cable or satellite, I’m betting you’ll have withdrawals if you try to go without a DVR.  Live TV is maddening for me these days.

You can go without, but honestly, don’t.  Part of cutting the cord is to experience the elation of freedom.  Don’t be a slave to live TV.  Get a DVR and pay for the electronic program guide.

Step 1: Start with a High Definition Television (HDTV)

Start with a High Definition Television (HDTV)

Start with a High Definition Television (HDTV)

On February 17, I started a series for “cord cutters”, with a Blog entitled 6 Steps to Cutting the Cord of Cable.  In that, I presented a summary of what would need to be done in order to dump cable or satellite TV in favor of using a combination of Over The Air (OTA) for local stations and Streaming content from the Internet.

In today’s blog, I elaborate on Step 1: Start with a High Definition Television (HDTV).

It’s hard to believe that just 10 years ago, I updated my TV to a Sony WEGA model that had a flat display (it was still a CRT), 480p (progressive scan), and could handle a 16:9 aspect ratio by putting black bars at the top and bottom. I was able to get very nice pictures with a progressive scan DVD player and later with a digital tuner box if connected into the component (RGB) jacks.

Today, LCD, plasma and LED screens are common.  They provide flat screen viewing, high definition resolution at 720p and 1080p with HDMI inputs.  The network-enabled versions can handle streaming content right there in the TV, without the need for an external box (to be covered in Step 4).  With sizes ranging from 20″ to 72″ diagonal screen measurement, they cover the whole range of table top and wall-mounted options.

While you can certainly make this whole setup work with 480 lines of resolution on a 4:3 standard definition TV, I don’t recommend it.  You’ll be missing out on the joy of crisp images and modern connectivity.  Some may tell you that you need to have 1080 lines, but my experience is that 720 is fine up to 45″ diagonal.

Then there are the technology options… should you get LCD, Plasma or LED?  These represent different methods of making the color picture elements (pixels) on the screen.  I’ve never been so techno-elitest that I can’t be happy with LCD, which has been around the longest and can be more affordable in the smaller sizes.  Plasma tends to have brighter colors and blacker blacks, and may be the best value today.  LED is the newest and usually costs more, but I’m not convinced the price differential is worth it.  The best advice I can give you here is to not spend as much time worrying about this as many people do.  In the end, you’ll care more about things like viewing angle, i.e. how far to the side can you still see the picture clearly?

If you are buying new, it’s worth considering getting an Internet-ready TV that can stream Netflix and other services directly into your TV.  I don’t own any of these, but it does cut down on the number of boxes and remote controls and that’s good for my parents, who have learned to use Netflix on their TV.  Sometimes simplicity rules.

In the end, you should expect to spend anywhere from $200 to $2000 on a TV.  You can overpay for a brand (Sony, Samsung), or go cheap on an off-brand (Insignia, Sceptre) that you might dislike once you begin to use it.  Middle of the road brands (Panasonic, LG, Vizio) are generally good safe value brands.  Just check the buyer comments and ratings before choosing a model.

For the record, I have two Samsung TVs, which I bought on sale in 2007, mounted on the walls and have never had a problem with either of them.  I also have an Optoma HD20 projector in the bonus room, now The Movie Room, which is mounted upside down on the ceiling.  I built a screen for the wall and installed a home theater sound system.  Pictures are up in my Facebook photo album for those of you who have access to my photo albums.

My plan is to use the existing TVs that I own now — I won’t be buying any new TVs.  But you might have to, so do a little homework and let me know if you have any questions.

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