Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Cutting the Cord

This is a post I started months ago but never completed. Arriving back on the boat I have found that this may be of some interest to those on a boat as well as those saving up for the experience. So the following is edited from the original and mixes experiences from time spent living on land as well as on the water.  Hope you find it helpful and not too confusing.

For all of those people saving up to go cruising or even those just trying to conserve a few pennies, I thought I would take a few moments to write about something I discovered moving back into an apartment in the Denver Metro area.  In the past I have written about my experience with our low-cost phone service (still like it, btw.) and this is another one of those technology things.  The thing I am talking about is television, the ol' boob tube.

Streaming "Man on a Ledge" from Crackle...on the boat.
The cheapest way to go, other than tossing your TV out (or better yet, selling or donating it), is to use an antenna for the over-the-air broadcasts.  This works OK in most metropolitan areas...or at least did in the U.S. until much of the broadcasts have concentrated on programming that highlights the POTUS screw up du-jour. This is still handy for the occasional check of the local news, weather, or occasional diversion. Since I get enough of the political shenanigans online to make my blood boil, I'm looking for more a entertaining diversion.

To start with, we needed internet anyway, so the simple choice for the apartment was to see what the local cable company (Comcast, Xfinity, or whatever they are calling themselves this week) had to offer.  A quick call to them resulted in my hysterical laughter followed by hanging up the phone.  Their cheapest package that included internet and basic cable was over $120 a month. Internet only wasn't much cheaper at around $100 a month.  I did a little more searching and found that our phone company (CenturyLink) had 40 MBit access for just under $30 a month.  A much better price, but that didn't include any television programming...or so I thought. If you are living on the water, hopefully you have access to marina WiFi or an open hotspot (perhaps using a long range WiFi antenna). At the marina we have a fairly slow WiFi connection that ranges from around 3Mbit down to 0.5Mbit.

We looked into satellite TV but it would be a severe hassle to deal with in an apartment and when we last had one it was around $50 a month for the basic channels.  This is even more complex on a boat as a dish has to point at the satellite and a moving boat complicates that (although there are expensive dishes that track...but that defeats the idea of saving money).

Then I started looking at the new streaming services. These are some of the services that are collectively called cutting the cord (as in cable cord). Many of these services can be accessed via an internet connection, so having internet solves part of the problem.

You can watch many of these services on a computer using a web interface or using an app on a phone or tablet. If you want to watch streaming content on a real television instead of computer device or phone, you will need a compatible smart TV or the modern technology equivalent of the old cable box. This box is actually about the size of a stick of gum, plugs directly into the TV's HDMI port and comes with a remote control. Various devices are available from Amazon (FireTV), Roku, Google, and others. They seem to run around $30 for the device, but if you need or want more of a TV experience, they are a relatively economical means of making that happen. Some of the pay services will even give you one for free if you sign up and agree to use their service for several months to a year.

Related image
A few of the devices for streaming to a TV.
There are a number of content options available when you have an internet connection. Obviously several major broadcast and cable networks have some online content available on their websites or via applications.  In addition, there are free services like Crackle, Tubi, and Pluto that provide access to on-demand movies and shows as well as some free channels.  A step above that are services like SlingDirectTvNow and others that provide cable-like service (minus any local channels) at a lower cost than cable or satellite.

At the apartment I tried all the services mentioned above.  With reasonably fast internet, all of the services worked well except for one.  DirectTvNow seemed to have streaming or application glitches that caused the video to stop playing or would hang or skip on a regular basis.  On the boat, I've tried using all but DirectTvNow and have found that they are usable, but with slower internet connectivity, the video will occasionally pause during playback.  Best I can tell, the services need around 3 Mbit speeds to provide a reasonably watchable experience with a limited amount of interruption. They do tend to run on slower speeds, but will periodically pause to buffer the video stream.

The one service I found to work the best was actually Sling. The service (or application) has the ability to monitor internet speed and adjust video quality to provide a more fluid experience. On a large TV the video quality changes may prove to be annoying, but on smaller screens like you often find on a boat, tablet, or phone, I find that it is far less annoying than the video pause.  With this approach, Sling seems to be able to run with as little as 1 or 2 Mbit connections as best I can tell.

So, if you are paying upwards of $100 or more for cable, one of these options may help put some cash back into your wallet.  Or if you are on a boat with reasonable internet connection and in need of some entertainment on those rainy and windy days (like I've had here the past few days), you might want to give one of these options a try.

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