Remember when entertainment choices were simple? Television, movies and home video may still be around but with the advent of the Internet your options to pass the time have greatly increased. And with that influx of choice comes the best part of capitalism: lower prices. As you are no doubt aware the cost of cable has skyrocketed over the last decade. Today you can expect to spend no less and $50 for a basic cable package. Add to that the cost of “renting” the cable company’s equipment (which usually includes a dedicated fee for remote control rental – and that is not a joke) and you are easily up to $80. Luckily for you technology has once again come to the rescue of both your free time and your wallet. Here are just a few of the many alternatives to paying the astronomical prices that cable and satellite companies charge.
The first thing you will need is a device to deliver the media to you. These are commonly known as “set top boxes”, though they are shrinking in size quickly and can even come in a package as small as your thumb. The most popular set top box in North America is called Roku. The device itself is around four inches square and the included remote has a refreshingly sparse layout: the usual stop, play, rewind and fast forward buttons, an enter key, home key and a few dedicated shortcut keys to popular apps (more on those in a moment). There are currently four different Roku devices in the lineup and they start at $49 and top out around $89.
A great alternative to the Roku is the Apple TV. As of this writing the Apple TV is similar in shape and size to the Roku but has a much simpler interface. The remote is almost comically small and has even less buttons than the Roku. That said, if you are already in the Apple ecosystem and have an iPhone you can use it to control your Apple TV. In addition, you can also wirelessly play any media (movies, music, etc.) from your Apple computer, iPhone or iPad on your television through the Apple TV. A new version of the box is due in late 2015. It will still provide all the functionality listed here but is rumored to include applications that will significantly improve the usefulness of the device.
Lastly is the Amazon Fire TV. This comes in either a set top box or “flash drive” that plugs directly into the HDMI port on your television and is completely unseen. Again, this offers the same basic applications and programming as the Roku and Apple TV but has the added benefit of allowing those who subscribe to Amazon Prime to stream all the movies and music they want for the yearly subscription fee. It also has the added bonus of being able to play many popular casual games (such as those on your phone) – and they offer a dedicated controller for this at an additional cost.
Now that you have a set top box you will need something to watch on it. The devices listed here all come equipped out of the box with Hulu Plus (starting at $7.99 per month), Netflix (starting at $7.99 per month), and Amazon Instant Video and Music ($99 per year). These major brands are a great start but only scratch the surface of the possibilities out there. Roku has the most robust app selection by far – more than 2,000 and counting – and will appeal to the widest audience. Even paid cable networks have made the leap to these devices. For around $15 per month (as opposed to a majority of the apps which are free), you can enjoy everything HBO has to offer via their HBO Now application. Showtime has one as well called Showtime Anytime. Both have a wide selection of movies which change periodically and both post new episodes of their original programming within a day of its airing. Sports fans have not been ignored either. ESPN has a variety of apps which allow everything from viewing clips, watching past episodes of SportsCenter and even tape delayed sporting events.
The newest addition to this app field is something called Sling TV. To be more precise it is more of a service than an app, since you can stream the programming not only on a set top box (support for the Apple TV is coming soon) but you can also use any computer with a web browser. For a base fee of $20 per month you get LIVE streaming of more than fifteen leading cable channels – everything from HGTV to Disney Channel to History Channel and even ESPN. These are live streams of the actual cable channels in real time. That does mean there is no “on demand” option, though they have hinted that it may come in the future. The biggest perk of Sling TV is that you can add more channel packages as you like and remove them if needed. There is a set of news channels, sports channels, children’s programming – the list goes on. And each package only adds $5 to your bill. This is truly the best deal for television programming without cable.
We would be remiss should we ignore an important point: due to current regulations, without a cable subscription you cannot access most over the air local programming (CBS, NBC, ABC, etc.). This also means you will not receive any emergency alerts from local agencies. For this you may want to purchase an external antenna. Just as the old rabbit ears brought down the signal the new batch of antennas pull the FREE signals from the air so you can watch all your local news and favorite sitcoms at no extra cost to you. Oh, and these signals are high definition. When you consider that these antennas can cost as little as $10 or around $30 for a decent unit and provide you with free HD programming the investment is a trifle.
Entertainment is something we all require to help distract us from the hectic world around us. And despite what big cable and satellite companies would have you believe you can be entertained for a fraction of what they charge. No matter how you do the math the amount of money in your bank account will only grow when you choose one of these options for you viewing pleasure. But we’ve forgotten some, haven’t we? What do you watch and how do you watch it? Let us know in the comment section below!
Written By: Bob Skrezyna