The cord-cutting conversation, cont'd. (with bonus Boxee Box review)
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?
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.
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.
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.
| February 17, 2011; 11:29 AM ET
Categories: TV, Video
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