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Posted at 11:29 AM ET, 02/17/2011

The cord-cutting conversation, cont'd. (with bonus Boxee Box review)

By Rob Pegoraro

My column two Sundays ago about my experience ditching subscription TV for a combination of free over-the-air broadcasts and online video is still generating comments.

I'll try to answer those questions and critiques -- and use this opportunity to post an overdue review of yet another online-video receiver you can plug into a TV.

How did you come up with that $1,120 savings estimate?

Easy: I was paying about $70 a month for my Dish Network TV service before; multiply that by 16 months, and you get $1,120. Now, I could have switched to DirecTV, Comcast or Fios for my TV service (and would have had to if I wanted to watch Nationals games in high definition, since Dish has yet to carry MASN HD).

But once I added costs for HD service and an HD DVR -- yes, we had a spreadsheet for this -- we would have spent about the same. Comcast would have cost $50 a month for the first six months (then $84); DirecTV would have cost $51 a month for the first year (then $72) and Fios would have run $64 monthly.

What about "triple play" bundles of phone, TV and Internet? Comcast was out -- I'd heard too many complaints about their Internet service in my neighborhood. Verizon's Fios didn't have that issue, but its advertised first-year price at the time ($110, I think) didn't include $15 a month for a high-def DVR. And the bill would have gone up after the first year. And the second. And the third...

What about all those online services you mentioned?

I don't subscribe to Hulu Plus, though I did have the luxury of trying it for a few months, then expensing that cost. And I don't pay for MLB.tv. (Hint: I might if I could watch my team, not some other city's.) We're on the fence about Netflix. The selection online can be so erratic, and, as mentioned, we don't watch all that much online.

We do rent a movie or two off Amazon's video-on-demand service, adding $4 to $10 to our video budget. Add that to the $50 we pay for Fios Internet (plus $22, taxes included, we pay for Verizon's second-most-basic landline phone service) and it's still the lowest home telecom-service cost I've had in about a decade.

No, really, you can afford the cost of cable or satellite.

So wrote a reader who opined that "Life is short, why not go for it. The money you're saving isn't that much." Sure; the money we save doesn't make a critical difference in our budget. But so what? Money I spend has to yield something of value. Spending ever more each month for the same set of channels I don't have time to watch did not yield value.

This fellow, an A&E fan, opened that pitch with the unintentionally amusing remark that "There's no close substitute to watching The First 48 or Intervention on a 72" Mitsubishi 3D TV." Well, I wouldn't know about that, as our living room couldn't fit a TV that size anyway.

Equally amusing was one reader's contention that "CNN/FNC/MSNBC are required viewing for many Washingtonians." We have news channels playing full-time on the TVs in the newsroom. They are about the last thing I want to watch when I come home.

Why did you get a DVD recorder?

Two people wrote in to praise the Channel Master CM-7000 PAL DVRs they'd bought. That device -- a rebranded version of the DTVPal DVR I favorably reviewed in 2009 -- offers the same simple recording as a TiVo without a monthly fee (or the higher cost of paying for "lifetime" service upfront).

But when I was making these decisions, we needed an up-converting DVD player, too. Buying one that recorded seemed like the obvious call. Not quite.

What TVs have the TV Guide On Screen feature you mentioned?

It's not easy to find. The lists of compatible models posted by TV GOS developer Rovi Corp. and the usually authoritative AVS Forum both leave out some newer models.

I've seen this feature on Sony and Vizio sets. Toshiba, Panasonic and Mitsubishi models have reportedly included it too -- but you'll just have to inspect the specs of a given model.

You'll have also have to make sure a TV station in your area transmits a TV GOS signal. Consult the database at the volunteer-run RabbitEars site.

What would it take for me to stay a cable or satellite customer?

Multichannel services would have to offer an option besides the traditional, something-for-everyone bundle. Will they? That's what I asked when Time Warner Cable chief executive Glenn Britt stopped by The Post last week to talk with a few writers and editors.

I told him that I'd rather have a la carte service, where I pay for only the channels I want. Britt said TWC's delivery and billing systems weren't set up for that but that he did want to offer subscribers a choice of more, smaller channel bundles: one for sports fans, one for movie enthusiasts, and so on.

We then discussed Time Warner Cable's ventures into Internet-transmitted television (for example, at CES it provided its full feed to a Samsung HDTV over an Internet connection). That raised a possibility: Why not sell Internet-only TV outside its existing markets, in places like Washington?

Britt ducked the question, saying TWC's current programming licenses prohibited that. So I had to throw a nice slow pitch over the plate: What if they didn't? Would you then try to win customers from other TV services by offering more choice (if not full a la carte) than they care to provide?

He whiffed, saying he didn't know.

Well, I guess I won't be signing up again for cable anytime soon.

Boxee Box

I've written before about Boxee's software, which offers a simple, remote-friendly dashboard for a variety of Internet content, as well as files on your own computer. But until recently, I hadn't had a chance to try out its first venture into hardware, the $199 Boxee Box sold by D-Link.

The company just didn't get a review unit sent my way until right before Christmas, which meant I didn't even have time to plug it until after I'd recovered from CES. But that may have been a good call on the part of Boxee PR -- this device just isn't that good.

boxee_box.jpg

Although this stylishly angular device is easy to connect and looks sharp, things started going wrong after I plugged it in. It twice failed to see my wireless network--with the router only two feet away--and needed two tries to connect once it did. Then it failed to detect my TV's resolution automatically.

Boxee's remote control features a miniaturized, thumb-typing-compatible QWERTY keyboard on its back side, but its front side has a layout of buttons that can feel the same whether you hold it pointed towards the box or you.

You can easily hear a small cooling fan purring away inside this box--not good in a living-room component. It draws about 9 watts of power, more than Roku or Apple TV.

The genius of Boxee's interface is its home screen's abstraction of video content from its sources. Instead of having to go to one site or app a a time, you can just look up a favorite show or movie by clicking the "Shows" or "Movies" buttons, then pick it off a list. Although Boxee doesn't connect to Hulu (after years of back-and-forth battling, Boxee now plans to add the Hulu Plus service as an option), it connects to enough other sites (frequently, Comcast's ad-supported Fancast) to provide plenty of viewing options.

A "Watch Later" option lets you bookmark a show or movie for later viewing.

For movies, your main options are Vudu and Netflix (added on Monday); Amazon's video-on-demand service remains unavailable.

But Boxee's interface breaks down once you use its Web browser and apps directory. That browser, for some bizarre reason, lacks a bookmarking function. So although it worked fine to watch sports on ESPN3.com, I had to type in that address every time. Navigating to a link requires mashing one of the remote's directional buttons to shovel the cursor around the page.

The apps screen, meanwhile, presents 184 options in a seemingly random order. You've got Pandora Web radio, Flickr, YouTube, the BBC and channels from the NHL, NBA and MLB; you also have The Daily Kitten and Scanwiches (look it up, but not if you're hungry). It needs a search function, but that's on a separate screen.

You can play files off a drive plugged into one of its two USB ports or off a shared folder on another computer, but in those cases Boxee leaves you to navigate through folders instead of simply presenting the music, photos and videos it can play.

Boxee says it's working to build its software into a variety of devices -- starting with an Iomega shared drive and going on to TVs, Blu-ray players and other home video gear -- which seems like a good idea considering the Box's limitations. But it also needs to keep working on its own software.

By Rob Pegoraro  | February 17, 2011; 11:29 AM ET
Categories:  TV, Video  
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Comments

Wish I could cut the cord, but I don't get good enough reception in the ground floor condo here in Falls Church. Doubt I could get my neighbors to go along with putting an antenna on the roof, either. Though I am going to try.

What I'd like is something like an AppleTV/Roku/etc. with a TV tuner and recording capability. If I got OTA TV I'd just buy a Mac Mini and use it as a PVR.

I did successfully root my AppleTV, and now I can stream from my iMac to my TV. Not bad for a $99 device.

Posted by: wiredog | February 17, 2011 1:10 PM | Report abuse

Rob, do you DVR all the OTA broadcasts you watch, otherwise how would you avoid sitting through all the commercial? One of the greatest values in keeping the cord is time-shifting and skipping commercial. Did you factor opportunity cost into your calculations?

Posted by: CafeBeouf | February 17, 2011 1:31 PM | Report abuse

@CafeBeouf: You're really saying I should spend $70+ a month so I can save a few minutes while watching TV? I find it just as easy, and a lot cheaper, to check Facebook/Twitter/e-mail or read the paper during commercial breaks.

- RP

Posted by: robpegoraro | February 17, 2011 3:41 PM | Report abuse

Rob,
That's a lame argument. Skipping commercials is not the critical feature. There are three critical features:
* time shifting
* dual record
* a simple user interface that gives quick access to content

OTA does not allow time shifting and as far as I know, there are no OTA DVRs that dual record. Hulu and Netflix are much more annoying to use than the TIVO or DirecTV DVR interfaces. It takes my TV longer to turn on than it takes for me to pick a program from the menu.

Yes, you can cut the cord but that doesn't mean you should.

Posted by: slar | February 17, 2011 4:04 PM | Report abuse

Rob, when I only have or will allot myself an hour and a half in front of the TV set on a week-night, I'd rather be able to watch a show in 40 minutes without the 20 minutes of commercials. And watch what I want when I want to.

I try to cut costs in other ways, and get my yearly fill of commercials during the Super Bowl.

Posted by: CafeBeouf | February 17, 2011 4:07 PM | Report abuse

@slar, @CafeBeouf: So the need for a DVR justifies spending more than $1,000 a year on a largely unwanted service? That logic seems a little distorted.

FWIW, I find searching for a program on Hulu far easier than navigating through any onscreen program guide with a remote.

- RP

Posted by: robpegoraro | February 17, 2011 5:26 PM | Report abuse

Hey, if TV doesn't interest you it doesn't interest you. I wouldn't call it "unwanted" and I don't see any way to come close to recreating my DirecTV experience with other means. Not even a little.

I have pretty much no interest in Netflix or other movie systems/packages. I rent about 2 movies a year so Redbox is all I need.

BTW, when I turn on the TV, the first place I usually go is the list of recorded programs, not the program guide. I almost never use the program guide.

Posted by: slar | February 17, 2011 10:39 PM | Report abuse

I'm surprised this is still such a debate, I cut the cord near 20 years ago for the same reason you stated: I wasn't allowed to subscribe only to those stations I wished to sponsor.

I have a big-time intolerance for commercial interruption except and more or less exclusively during the Super Bowl which is my annual ritual for observing popular culture trends. The song "67 Channels and Nothin' On" describes many pointless hours preceding the final cut-off.

If big-cable doesn't get it, let then continue dying their slow death. Once people are tuned into the real-time real-world happenings of the world wide web, programming becomes simply time-consuming waste matter.

Movies are different since they're art productions with messages, meanings, inspirations and presumably relevance, like many Super Bowl commercials. Instead of spending money on the latest/greatest new movie fad, however, I resort to internet clips and patience for when they're released on the used market. Just like I avoid theaters because of obscene expenses, waiting 6months or a year at most and paying 1/3 for an at-home experience on a 32" lcd and house sound has proven to save bundles over my more eager, and desperate friends and relatives.

Posted by: channing1 | February 18, 2011 7:54 AM | Report abuse

I'm glad to hear others have cut the cord! Every month I grin on bill-paying day when I send Comcast...nothing!! (They are "maroons", yes?)

My Sony (BDP-s570) and Netflix account are all I need to keep me happy.

Posted by: JakesFriend | February 18, 2011 8:27 AM | Report abuse

Good for you. Analyzing your fixed costs and attempting to only pay for what you use is a lesson many learned during the recent "great recession", but appears to be fading quickly. For a certain segment of the population it would appear that both time and money are not an issue. I guess my thought there is that should that be the case, I can think of many things I'd enjoy more that 100s of channels in HD or on demand - travel to exotic locals, high end luxury cars, great restaurants, beach house on St Barts....

For the rest of use looking to reduce overhead at home, I scrub my "communications" bills (Internet, TV, Cellphone and landline) for the same reasons I put more insulation in the attic to reduce my heating bill, or use a programmable thermostat - to save money.

I guess for some folks the whole IT thing is the means by which they compete or "keep up with the Jones". A Ford focus gets you to the same destination as a Lexis. Same works for cellphones, HDTVs, computers, tablets, ipods et al. For me I have a 46" HDTV and will say it is a noticeable improvement when watching sports and movies over my old 32" CRT TV, but for watching the news or most programing not so much.

I recently researched and bought my first smartphone (wife's had a BB for years, I used her old flip phone until the battery basically died). The current sales pitch is you gotta have iphone or Droid X on the latest high speed network so you can watch video on a screen that were it a TV you ask WTF? Access to my contacts to make voice calls and emails simpler - check. Maps that show me in real time traffic congestion - check. Ability to stream Pandora to my car, or hone stereo - check. Ability to watch videos or play games, check my facebook page - not interested and if I were, I'd need to get out the reading glasses or a magnifying glass.

So for me, 4G or LTE or whatever the most recent iteration of higher speed data is for smartphones is lost on me, nor am I inclined to spend any time squinting into a little 3" screen for entertainment.

So in summary, riddle me this is seems somewhat inconsistent to content that it's necessary to have the largest HDTV, but also have the same high speed access for the 3" screen on my smartphone. If that 3" screen is good enough, just prop that bad boy up on the mantel and settle in to watch the game with that bag of popcorn....

Posted by: Flyover_Country | February 18, 2011 8:36 AM | Report abuse

OTA net viewing are admirable cost-saving goals for all of us, but next to impossible when you get far enough away from the cities and sources (Same for 4G phones). Here in Winchester VA, living in a ground floor condo, antennae aren't a real option. Even living in a house, with a huge and tall antennae the selection would be limited.

Things like FIOS will probably never be available in my lifetime around here (I'm 60) at the rate they are going, so watching movies and TV on the net is a less than thrilling experience. And full versions of many of the shows I want to watch are not available on the net.

The cable and satellite providers have us by the short hairs, and the various government organizations have sold we citizens (the owners of the airwaves), down the river. A classic Rock and a hard place situation.

Posted by: tojo45 | February 18, 2011 9:01 AM | Report abuse

I watch OTA TV and I borrow movies from the library or I buy them. My television reception is not that great but I can deal with it. Most of what I watch I actually tape on my VCR and watch later. I am fully capable of fast-forwarding through commercials all by myself. I much prefer saving my money for more important things like ensuring I have enough money to save/invest for the future.

Posted by: rukidding4 | February 18, 2011 9:15 AM | Report abuse

tojo45's comment highlights a major failing of the DTV transition. There are a lot of Winchesters that ended up on the wrong side of the digital cliff in June 1999. Where are the low-power repeater stations that would have kept them OTA-compatible?

Posted by: mattintx | February 18, 2011 11:04 AM | Report abuse

Your review of the Boxee Box is very disappointing. Those guys sent you a demo, and I'm sure that they were hoping for a fair review. What you wrote is nothing more than false statements that only highlight your own shortcomings rather than those of the Boxee Box. While the Boxee Box could certainly use some improvement, it’s for the reasons that you’ve stated.

Comparing the Boxee Box’s power requirements to Roku or AppleTV makes no sense considering that they have different functions. While they all play streaming media from the internet, Boxee will also play almost any of video file that’s available on your PC, regardless of encoding. This requires more CPU power, and the Boxee box uses an Intel Atom 1.2GHz CPU with 1GB of RAM, it’s a full PC for less than $200. The Roku uses a 320MHz CPU with 256MB or RAM…almost half the processing power of my cell phone. Would you compare the power usage of your cell phone to your PC because they could both play Netflix? No, because much the Boxee Box, your PC has far more to offer…

I’m not sure if your remote is defective or you’re just always this melodramatic when reviewing electronics, but while you’re “mashing” buttons to “shovel” the curser, the rest of us are just simply pressing a button and moving it…it’s that easy. In addition to using the remote, you can also EASILY control it using any iphone or android device, but you left that out too.

As for the “random order” that apps are sorted in, there are three to choose from by using the button in the top right, you should try it. It should be clear which “random order” yours are sorted by after reading the large text at the top of the screen (popular, a-z, or recently added). To search, press the menu button, the menu is available from every part of the Boxee box, and that’s where the search box is located.

Most importantly though, your obtuse description of the device’s ability to play files couldn’t be further from the truth. Once you’ve located a source of files, you should add it to your library and set how often you want it to be scanned for updates. The Boxee then sorts all of the content, adds DVD (or CD) covers to it, and replaces the file names with the title (and episode number for TV shows).

When I initially came across your review, I dismissed it assuming you were someone who couldn’t operate simple electronics without disastrous results. You know, one of those people who can’t start up the AOL without downloading a dozen spyware toolbars. After reading your profile on here though, I was shocked to learn that your job is actually to write about computers and consumer electronics while it’s clear that you’re incompetent of even operating them properly. Your bigoted opinions are really a disgrace to the Washington Post, and to writers everywhere. Users on Amazon put more effort into reviews than this, and unlike you, they’re not being paid to do it! I can’t help but to wonder what other organizations paid you to write this attack.

Posted by: Verdilicious | February 18, 2011 11:13 AM | Report abuse

Correction:
*it’s NOT for the reasons that you’ve stated.

Posted by: Verdilicious | February 18, 2011 11:19 AM | Report abuse

For those complaining that there is no simple way to time shift OTA broadcasts or to dual-record OTA, there actually is. If you put a TV tuner card into a PC running Windows Media Center or other similar software you can do all those things. You can hook the PC output to your TV, getting the appropriate video card that has an output compatible with your TV. OTA TV is high def and less compressed than that provided via cable. In my case I have a video card with standard def S-Video output to feed my old CRT TV. TV tuner cards with dual tuners are available for those who wish to dual-record, and they are not that expensive (less than a month or two of cable bills). Windows Media Center automatically downloads the program guide from the internet, and you can easily browse through the listings and click on the shows you want to record. Even if watching live TV, you can hit pause or stop and it will start cacheing the program, so you can go back later and continue watching, and fast forward through the commercials to catch back up to real time. Getting the TV tuner into my PC has done wonders for my TV viewing. I have found there is plenty of stuff to watch OTA, and would never consider buying cable or dish service and then paying extra to rent their DVR box when I can use my PC to do the same thing. I can also increase my storage capacity by putting another/larger hard drive into the PC or adding an external USB drive, and can save shows I want to keep by burning them onto DVDs - you can't do that with a DVR box from the cable company. Yes, you do need an antenna, but even if you have to mount one on the roof the cost of that is quickly repaid from the savings. I am using the same rooftop antenna I installed back in the 1990s for my analog TV.

Posted by: alrob8 | February 18, 2011 12:18 PM | Report abuse

For "June 1999" in my 11:04a post please read "June 2009." Full moon . . .

Posted by: mattintx | February 18, 2011 12:35 PM | Report abuse

I just built my own home theater PC last weekend by visiting Microcenter. I ordered a nice case online that looks great under the TV and bought all the computer parts (motherboard, processor, power unit, hard drive, blu-ray drive, two dual tuner cards, etc) at Microcenter and I put it together myself. I never put a computer together before, but it worked the first time I plugged it in!

The best thing is now I have four digital tuners and a blu-ray drive, and it's a full computer so Hulu and Netflix work perfect on them in the plain Chrome browser. Windows Media Center is great for watching live TV and recording shows to watch later. I did all of this for about $1000, but that was because I ended up buying a solid state drive for Windows 7 and a separate hard drive for all the storage of the media.

It allowed me to cancel Comcast which cost me around $120 a month just for TV! It will only takeme around 9 months to make up the cost of the cumputer.

Posted by: inlogan | February 18, 2011 12:59 PM | Report abuse

Win7 Media Center's [WMC]built-in Clear QAM support is still the way to go. I get all the digital OTA signals for my area and using a multi-tuner I can record and watch up to three programs at once. The built in Netflix via the WMC interface is much better than the Wii's or Roku. I can use the WMC remote for 99% of my use and use a wireless keyboard/trackball unit for the 1% of the time I want to watch something via the internet (hulu, abc.com, youtube) and since it's IE (and a PC) I don't get blocked by services trying to keep people from watching HD content from their websites on their HD TV.
Add in the ability to create a DVD library that (you have to rip your own dvd's into this) you can browse via the WMC interface and now my toddlers don't destroy my DVD's.

Posted by: lesatwork | February 18, 2011 1:34 PM | Report abuse

The history of TV quality standards has been poor quality analog cable and VHS video. A large part of the reason I resisted cable was that OTA analog gave better results. A second issue with cable is that generally I can't watch it and record it on my computer. It is a one person solution. But, for one person, a $200 or so 24 inch display produces very good results for viewing HD TV, for doing computer work, and even for reading digital books. Those in the hot set can spend their money on cable, on large 3D TV's, and on a tiny Kindle. Cheer them on, they are helping the economy. But I am happier with the results that I get with a single set of lower cost quality components that do an excellent job meeting my needs.

Posted by: dnjake | February 18, 2011 1:55 PM | Report abuse

The best content is on public broadcasting (and let's keep it with adequate funding) where commercials are not an issue. As for time shifting, I can't think of anything on tv I can't afford to miss.

Posted by: vmax02rider | February 18, 2011 3:03 PM | Report abuse

slar wrote: "OTA does not allow time shifting and as far as I know, there are no OTA DVRs that dual record."

If the ChannelMaster 7000 PAL is the same DVR as I got on clearance from Sears (when it was changing from the DTV Pal to the ChannelMaster brand), then it can dual record.

I'm 99% sure it is the same, though ChannelMaster's web site really seems to underplay its features, especially for their $350 price (I got mine at half that).

It doesn't have the best features of a Tivo, but I assume that's to avoid lawsuits from Tivo, and it does have slar's list of features: dual record, time shifting, and the quick-skip-ahead for commercials. That last feature is like the button on "Lost": once you have it you have to press it, otherwise you're just wasting your life in 30 second increments.

Posted by: iMac77 | February 18, 2011 3:10 PM | Report abuse

Cut the cord in July 2010. Don't have OTA reception in our house (except for some foreign language channels), but we save $60 per month, after our newly acquired Netflix subscription... (Have a PC connected to the TV, HDMI. Use Hulu desktop (free) and individual channel websites in addition to Netflix). Do miss a few things--had to go somewhere to watch the Superbowl and Ken Jennings lose to Watson, but... all in all we get enough entertainment, and have yet to go through everything available and conclude "there is nothing to watch" which happened often enough with the Comcast cable line up.

We are not big live sports watchers except for Hokie football, which this past fall was all online, mostly free and even if I had to pay for a few games (which I chose not to do), I'd still be saving a bunch of $ over the months worth of cable TV bills. I would imagine that cutting the cord, especially without any OTA reception, would be very difficult if you want to watch a lot of live sports...

And I finally feel like I'm getting my money's worth from my Comcast HS Internet--YAY! (When can I get FIOS, already?)

It is a bummer (wrt the fact that I know several people who lost some, or all, of their OTA reception) that the digital switch was allowed to go through. At our old house we got ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and WETA, NBC was fuzzy, before the digital switch. After the switch we got the foreign language channels and ABC. We started getting cable TV after the switch...

Posted by: KCHKI28 | February 18, 2011 3:52 PM | Report abuse

when he said "cut the cord" i thought he really meant it, but it's mostly just weaseling around to try to find ways to watch the same crap for less.

I save more than all of you -- no over the air (digital conversion killed my tv), no cable, no satellite, no nothing. I buy videos at the thrift store for a buck each and toss them, so I don't even have to pay for gasoline to go to the red box.

Posted by: summicron1 | February 18, 2011 5:22 PM | Report abuse

Sorry, I bought a TV tuner card from Pinnacle and abandoned it. What a piece of junk. It's UI was terrible and it wasn't stable. Using Windows Media Center was no better.

And besides, even in Alexandria, my OTA reception blows. There is nowhere I can put my antenna in my first floor viewing room that will receive the four major networks without dropouts. I even bought an aftermarket antenna but it was not a significant improvement.

The whole OTA experience is a mistake. Nice idea in theory but in practice it just doesn't work.

Posted by: slar | February 18, 2011 5:27 PM | Report abuse

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