Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Digital Savant: cutting the cord? Know your options

Omar Gallaga

In this week’s Digital Savant column, available in Tuesday’s American-Statesman print edition and on MyStatesman.com, we take a look at the wild and wooly world of getting your TV online.

In the column, I explain some of the options you have as far as devices to stream TV online and services such as Netflix, Hulu Plus and Aereo that can, for a fee, give you lots of content to watch. One I neglected to mention in the piece: Amazon Prime TV, which comes with a $99-a-year subscription ot the company’s Prime shipping service. Prime TV just got a slew of HBO shows, so it’s become a much more attractive deal.

Here’s an excerpt from the column:

For those considering cord-cutting, there’s great news and not-so-great news. The great news is that there’s more hardware, online services and free TV shows online available than ever before. About 40 million Americans use such tools to watch online TV, according to NPD Group Inc.’s latest Connected Home report.

The bad news is that no streaming set-top box or online service is going to give you everything you may want if you’re a voracious TV viewer with broad interests. Also, summer TV has gotten pretty great; it’s no longer a dumping ground of reruns and bad reality shows.

Speaking of NPD, one thing I wasn’t able to fit into the column was some insight from Mark Kirstein, president of entertainment for NPD Group. Thought there’s a lot of noise about cord cutters parting ways with cable and satellite companies, Kirstein says that Roku boxes and Apple TVs may be more supplemental for TV addicts.

“We don’t see evidence of significant cord-cutting,” Kirstein said. “In fact, what we’ve seen is that most SVOD (Subscription Video On Demand) subscribers have added the service on-top of their Pay TV service, rather than replacing it in any way. In addition, many of the subscribers even have more than SVOD subscriptions, as well as premium TV subscriptions. In short, SVOD subscribers are super-video consumers, willing to pay for content.”

And one more option for those making the leap. A reader who asked that his name not be used, considered looking at a Windows Media Center PC as a way to get Internet content to your TV:

“Great cord cutting article today! Here’s another HD DVR option - Windows Media Center. TV DVR is included free with Windows 8 Pro, 7 Premium and above. Just add a couple of digital TV tuners and an antenna. The guide similar to cable and satellite boxes.

“It’s easy to connect PCs to HDTVs because most PCs have HDMI output with audio (often 5.1). IR remotes are also available, complete with USB IR dongles.

“MC can also be viewed in other rooms on Xboxes via the home network.

“MC can also receive cable signals but it’s tricky. More info is available online.

“PCs can render excellent quality video. Media Center records MPEG2 signals directly from the station with no additional processing or compression. Network video quality doesn’t get any better.

“MC has been around since the XP days but not many folks know about it. With all the recent interest in cord-cutting, perhaps the time has come. Why use Aero when you can do it yourself for free?”

My response to that was that most readers will probably find the costs (including energy costs for a PC, costs for cable tuners and costs for the software itself — it no longer comes free with new consumer versions of Windows such as Windows 8.1) will make cheaper, easier options like Roku even more attractive.

The reader wrote back with a pretty convincing defense of Windows Media Center that I’m including here. Like I say in the column, it’s good to have options.

Happy to hear you’ve had direct experience with WMC. I must admit to a little bias here. I’ve been using it for years and wouldn’t want to do without it.

I would like to offer few more comments.

The PC doesn’t really have to be on all the time. MC does a pretty good job managing its sleep state transitions. It automatically wakes up to record and then goes back to sleep when it’s done.

Recorded over-the-air TV shows can be played on any PC by simply copying the file. I sometimes use this feature when traveling … nothing like a 10 hour flight to catch up on programs I’d normally never have time to watch. Just drag and drop the files onto a laptop and you’re good to go. (Not true for premium cable content captured with a CableCARD tuner.)

There are two things that WMC can do better than my OTT boxes (Roku, AppleTV, smart TVs, etc.). (1) DVR for over-the-air TV and (2) photos. Although DLNA devices also do photos, WMC is faster, starts up immediately, navigates smoothly, has unlimited directory size, and supports all media formats (including raw, etc.). I haven’t found any DLNA device that does all this.

There are several big issues that have prevented WMC from taking off. (1) Cost. A new, dedicated PC is expensive. However, it’s possible to recycle. I use an obsolete clunker with a fairly good graphics card in it. WMC is a great application for a past-prime PC, especially if it’s loaded with W7 Home Premium or above. Tuners also add to the cost; about $25-$30 for USB stick devices. Amazon has the dual tuner networked HomeRun device for $109 today. Geeks can address the Windows cost issue by using Linux plus Myth TV or other DVR application. (2) Complexity. There are a lot of parts to the solution and setup can be tricky sometimes. (3) Motivation. In my opinion, this is the real reason WMC is a niche product. It duplicates the functionality found in cable and satellite DVRs so consumers don’t see much unique value. Will cord cutters give this underappreciated product a new lease on life?

So, I’d sum up like this. WMC isn’t for everyone but it does provide cord-cutters with a way to get excellent quality DVR functionality for the cost of couple of tuners plus maybe an IR remote dongle. It’s a great way to get network, local, and live content without any sort of subscription. Our local TV stations provide million watt signals (literally) with the best quality video available (other than Blu-ray) and it’s totally free to watch and record. Use it or lose it. Why pay for what has always been free?

Be sure to check out the full column here and let me know in the comments if you’re sticking with pay TV, returning after trying life without it or cutting the cord and never looking back.