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Cutting the Cord or How to Live Without Cable

7in_cutting_cableWe used to have the full deal.  Digital Cable and all the trimmings.  HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, you name it.  Slowly, over the years we’ve cut back.  This was mainly because we realized that we simply didn’t use the services we were paying for.  We’re a movie family for sure, but we had already seen everything that was hitting the big movie networks.  Kinda pointless to pay for something you’ve already seen and have no interest in seeing again.

When we moved to northern New York, we started out on Dish Network.  Being a Media Center household, this posed it’s own issues, including IR blasters, STBs, and problems that can arise from using this equipment.  It worked quite well, but once again, we found ourselves not fully utilizing the content we were paying for.  This led us to wanting to cut back even more.  Never mind that our income situation changed drastically.

The next step was standard cable.  70 channels, about 10 of which we actually watched.  After sending that bill in for several months I came to realize that I was spending more money for less content than I had with Dish.  Forget that.

For the last year, we’ve had basic cable.  This includes 12 channels.  Locals plus TBS and one or two others, mainly from Canada.  They’ve been utilized and while it chaps me that I have to pay for locals (due to location) I haven’t had much to complain about at $13 a month.  Well, make that $23 with our Netflix subscription, but I’ll get into that soon.

While I haven’t had any issues with my current setup, I’ve decided that it’s time to turn us into a fully streaming family.  The fact is that while $13 a month isn’t a huge amount of money by any stretch of the imagination,  it’s more than I want to spend considering that we currently record ONE show per day, and this ONE show can be found online with the right software and equipment.  At this point, cable is no longer needed.  What is needed is that right software and equipment.  While this new setup won’t be perfect, it’s going to get the job done and we’ll actually be expanding our content availability.  There’s some up front cost involved but after that you’re all set.  The monthlies will be lower so in the long run, you’re coming out way ahead.  About the only way this won’t work for you is if you’re a sports fan.  If you insist on watching live sports then you’re stuck with cable or satellite.

First, let’s start at the beginning and for this project, everything starts out on the Media Center HTPC.  If you’re running MC in your home then you’re half way there.  The other hardware needed is simply extenders attached to each of your televisions.  We have three and all three sets are powered by Xbox 360 extenders.  Our hardware is already in place so obviously if you’re not an HTPC user, you’ll need to start a ways back.  For the purpose of the rest of this article we’ll assume you’re a Media Center user.

playon_logoThe first piece of software you’ll need is PlayOn.  PlayOn basically runs on your HTPC (or other PCs in your home) and acts as a DLNA server, pushing content to other DLNA devices in your home.  It pulls it’s content from various sources around the web and when properly configured, can get you content from Hulu, Netflix, MLB.tv, and more.  Community plug-ins expand the feature set to where you get almost a full cable subscription out of the software.  These are the three listed on Playon’s own site:

Keep in mind that Playon isn’t free.  It’ll run you $39.99 up front and $19.99 per year after that.  This is a new pricing structure and I have to assume that some of this money is going to Hulu and the likes.  I can’t think of any other explanation since Hulu has been very strong on shutting down ways for people to get their content on their TV while PlayOn has maintained the ability.

Now that we have a gateway to the content, we need a way to get it into Media Center.  This isn’t quite so easy.  Trying to get flash and other various types of content to play on a MC extender is like pulling teeth.  It’s painful and more likely than not, the results won’t be pretty.  Playon’s sole purpose is to get this content to your game console and it does a fairly decent job if you want to use the Xbox 360 dashboard to watch this stuff.  The goal in our home is to have it available in Media Center though.  So we need some more software.

Lately I’ve been playing around with TubeCore.  This application pulls the content from PlayOn and makes it available within Media Center, including extenders.  There’s some transcoding involved so believe me, it isn’t perfect.  The software works and seems to do the job.  I do get annoying popups from time to time within Media Center on my extenders though.  These seem to be some weird coding thing as they say “Error-please try again” and “The operation completed successfully” all in the same window.  Figure that out.  The software still works however as you can hit play again after closing the popup and your video should run fine.  Again, the software works, but in my experience so far, it needs some polish for the $8 it’ll run you after the trial.

There are other options out there for you if you’d like to take a look.  One is vmcPlayIt, which basically does the same thing as TubeCore but in a different way.  The transcoding is still there and what it all comes down to is getting the files to play nicely with Media Center on extenders.

Conclusion

While the system I’m using isn’t perfect, so far, so good.  We’ve gone full streaming in our home and we’re not missing any of our favorite shows.  Between Hulu, Netflix, CBS and some of the plugins I run, we actually have access to more content at a lower (monthly) cost.  With PlayOn only being $19.99 a year (since I had already purchased a license the first year was only $4.99) and Netflix at $9 a month, we’re coming out ahead.  That may change if I need to spring for HuluPlus at some point but we’re not there yet.  At that point it’ll be time to re-evaluate of course.

Have you completely dumped cable?  Can you?  It’s hard cutting that cord but once you do it’s rather freeing.  Even if our overall cost ends up being the same, I just like knowing that I’m streaming everything.  If you’ve told cable and satellite where to go, leave a comment and let others know how you’re doing it!

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