Not yet ready to cut the cable cord

If you want to completely cut the cable cord, it isn’t easy. I have been waiting for technology to become spousal-ready, and we are still about a year or two away. Today you have a lot of choices in the $40/month range that rival what the cable companies offer you for TV programming. The trouble is you have to make a choice between user interface and great TV resolution: you can’t yet have something that delivers both, other than your cable company.

I pay AT&T Uverse $125/mo. for my TV programming. That includes two receivers, one of which is a DVR and a boatload of various taxes and fees. Is it worth it to move to one of the online TV providers and save $85 a month? Eventually, I decided no, after trying two services, You Tube TV and Hulu Live TV. You can follow along with this column if you are brave enough: both offer a free trial of their services for a week, after which the monthly subscription starts. There are other services; my patience wore thin after experimenting with these two however.

Let’s first look at the user interface and mindset of the two online providers. You can obtain your TV programming in one of two ways: either by selecting your shows using a channel via your web browser or via an app that runs on your TV equipment. The web browser has the better UI because the developers working at the providers have more to work with and are more used to building web apps these days. And, you have a real keyboard for input, unlike your TV where you have to navigate around an on-screen one that can be infuriating.

So how do you get the audio and video signals from your computer to your living room TV? Two ways: either by connecting your computer directly to your TV with an HDMI cable or using one of several devices like Google’s Chromecast that does this for you wirelessly. If you use the direct cable connection from your computer, you will have to figure out a wireless keyboard and mouse to control it. If you use Chromecast, you will have to figure out the sequence of controls using the three apps that Google has (Google’s Chrome browser, Google Home and the Chromecast app itself) to get it setup. The workflow isn’t immediately obvious, and I suggest you learn the process before bringing your spouse into the room for the demo.

The nice thing about Chromecast is that any content that is displayed in a browser tab can be quickly transmitted to your TV by clicking a few buttons. I say a few: my wife got immediately weary of the process when I showed her what was involved. Your own experience may be similar. The bad thing about Chromecast is that the resolution is poor: nowhere near HD quality and even below SD video quality. Even if you have an old living room TV (and mine is more than five years old), you will be disappointed with the Chromecast video quality. And by the way, Google sells two different versions of Chromecast: one is for audio only; the other is for video and comes with the HDMI connector.  Make sure you buy the right one.

Another difference is how you access TV shows that have previously aired. Hulu’s web UI is very akin to the Amazon and Netflix web UI. In order to get the entire season’s worth of episodes, you have to click on the name of the show in the “My Stuff” guide. You can’t reorder the shows listed. If you click on the video itself, you are taken to the current episode. You Tube TV lists each episode as separate videos, much like the way ordinary You Tube does for its videos. (You can see the web version of the live TV guide above.)

So far I have only talked about using the web clients of You Tube and Hulu. There is a second method, which uses the native apps that run on your TV equipment. If you have a new TV, chances are it comes with apps for a variety of video providers, including Amazon, Netflix, You Tube and Hulu. I tried the apps that ran on my Samsung Blu-ray player: it didn’t have a You Tube app, again because it was more than five years old.

Sadly, there are UI differences between what you see with your web browser and the TV-based app clients, with the TV apps being far less capable than their web cousins. One big difference is how the onscreen channel or movie guide is shown. Netflix has the longest experience with developing its apps, and there are major interface and stability differences between its Android, iOS, web and embedded TV apps. On my Samsung device, the Netflix app frequently can’t find the Internet, or just quits working entirely. On the web client, that rarely happens.

Like Netflix, You Tube TV and Hulu both allow you to segregate your family’s preferences, so you can keep track of your individual tastes and what you have already watched. You Tube allows up to six different family members. Hulu is more restrictive and confusing, and there is also an unlimited extra-cost option.

Speaking of extra cost options, this is where the two providers are showing their relative youth. If you don’t want to watch live TV programming, Hulu has plans that start at $8/mo., or $12/mo. if you want to skip most commercials. If you want everyone to watch different streams concurrently, that will cost another $15/mo. There are also premium channel fees for HBO, Showtime and Cinemax.  You Tube TV has Fox Sports, Starz, AMC, Sundance and Showtime premium add-on channels.

Finally, Hulu with Live TV doesn’t support viewing live TV streams on all of its devices, according to this very confusing webpage. I read over the caveat several times and didn’t really understand what they were saying.

Alright, let’s move on to discussing the real benefit with using the TV apps from the online providers (or Blu-ray player, in my case).  Your video quality will be as good as anything else you run on the TV, full HD. But you have to put  up with a sub-par UI to get it.

So, what should you do? First, if you are in the market for a new TV, sign up for at least one of the online TV providers before you go shopping, and set up a simple temporary login password too. Go to your store and login to your provider, using the embedded app on the TV, and see for yourself if the UI is going to give you fits in selecting your programming with a couple of sets that you are interested in. If you really want a true A/B test, buy a Chromecast and bring that along with your laptop and see what the resolution will be if you don’t believe me.

If you just bought a TV within the last couple of years, try my experiment at home and see if you get better results that I did with my tests. The apps could be better than I experienced. If you have a large family and many different TV sets scattered throughout your home, you will probably end up sticking with your cable provider.

9 thoughts on “Not yet ready to cut the cable cord

  1. NVIDIA Shield or Fire TV (not the stick). I would never use ChromeCast or embedded TV apps for this. Got burned with Google TV. Also, try Playstation VUE rather than Hulu or YouTube TV. Been cut for over a year. Would never go back.

  2. Hey, been a while since I have chimed in on your site.

    I have two chromecast devices and one old Roku. I have cut the cable knocking $100 off my charter/spectrum costs. I still use them for phone and internet. I was already subscribing to Netflix and Hulu because my wife likes to binge watch programs.

    The only reason that I was keeping cable was for live sports. When I saw Hulu live (still beta) I signed up and paid another $30 over what I had been paying for Hulu and cancelled $100 worth of cable. With Hulu live I get all of the ESPN family of sports services including the conference stations from my area. I also get all of the FOX sports channels including the two local channels and the general channels. I also get the golf channel, NBC Sports Channel, CBS Sports Channel and the Olympic Channel (NBC). I also get three of the four local network channels live plus all of the networks and more on demand. I can also send anything that I can view on my android phone or my chrome browser to either of the chromecasts. The cool thing about this is when one of Ferris’ volleyball players that I got to know went to play professional volleyball in the Czech republic I could watch all of the matches on a television.

    I don’t understand your picture quality problems. Every device I use delivers a high quality image to the televisions. I have a 4k primary tv plus a small 720. The 4k tv has the roku, a sony dvd player and the top end chromecast that can deliver a 4k signal to my television. I do have a 100mb internet connection that depending on the device is delivered through wifi n or ac to all of my devices.

    When I started with the Hulu live system it was a little shaky but has been getting better and better. The latest update to the android app makes it very easy to make it easy to switch between concurrent sporting events.

    For some reason that I don’t understand my wife prefers to use the old Roku to get to all of the things she watches. I go crazy trying to do a search in any service on the Roku. The old Roku 3 still delivers a very nice picture. I wonder if your quality problem has to do with network bandwidth.

  3. Here’s a bold approach to experiment with: cut the cord entirely! That’s right, unplug the TV. It’s amazing and delightful to reclaim all the extra time. Plus, after a little time away from the programming’s influence, imagination and creativity become stronger and there’s plenty of living to do.

  4. I cut the cord a few years ago after putting up with Dish Network fee increases every 6 months and was able to save $75/month on TV programming. When I did this, I purchased a Tablo DVR, which allows me to record OTA programming (yes, this requires an outside antenna) and a few Roku devices for the three TVs I was using at that point. I also picked up Sling TV so I could continue watching Blues hockey games. The initial investment altogether was about $500, but the overall savings made it worth it.

    My whole configuration is not for someone who is a technophobe. It definitely takes some getting used to because unlike with cable or satellite, all of your channel choices are not in one place. I think this is where the advantage of entertainment providers comes in – being able to bundle everything together in one easy to use device. Will I ever go back to cable/satellite tv? Probably not. Overpriced for what I watch.

  5. Thanks for the rundown. Let me just note that we’ve just signed up for Youtube TV via our Roku, and the picture quality seems to be better than DirecTV’s. The TV-based UI doesn’t seem that bad after a little familiarization, and the ability to skip through commercials on previously recorded shows works pretty well.

  6. I dropped DirecTv a month shy of 18 years. $142/month was just nuts. Cold turkey. We have a lot of DVDs and LaserDiscs. I went to Wal-Mart and bought an antenna and a Roku Premier for about $130 total. I get the networks and their sub-channels from Austin,TX. I already had Amazon Prime, they have a lot to watch “for free”.

    I have an almost nine year old 55″ Vizio and it was never on an antenna. Wow! Locals in HD! Three or four sub-channels on each local in 720 (guessing). I had no idea. DirecTv charged for HD but it didn’t seem like a big deal except on some nature shows.

    I like that over the air still works when it rains.

    The Roku has lots of free stuff to watch. Finding stuff can be a chore and it’s easier on the PC at than on the TV. Keyboard instead of clicking around with a remote control…

    Other than Amazon, all we pay for is Sling. Because Sling Orange for college football. Because Sling Blue for Nascar. Or get both for $40 + tax. Switching between plans is easy on the roku site.

    We now have everything and more than we ever watched on DirecTv except for the ID channel. I can get that with Hulu but I don’t care enough to pay the extra.

    From $142/month to $27 with sales tax for Sling Blue. Seems like a “win” to me. I don’t count Amazon Prime, I already had it. Same for my ISP.

    Roku handles the billing for Sling.

    My ‘net connect is from a wISP. 5 down/1 up. After they replaced my old radio and aimed me at a different tower the connection has been solid. A bit of a slowdown from about 4PM to 6PM on weekdays but not bad. In the house I have a Ubiquiti Unifi AP for wi-fi. The Roku is on wi-fi because I’m too lazy to find the Ethernet wire in the rat’s nest of wire under the tv. It all just works.

    The hardest thing I found to understand is that everything on the Roku is a separate app. Like on a phone.

  7. I think the key piece of insight was this:

    >>>The workflow isn’t immediately obvious, and I suggest you learn the process before bringing your spouse into the room for the demo.<<<

    Unless it satisfies that test it won't fly in my household
    Thanks for the update and saving me the exploration for now – I keep hoping. I have about another year of FiOS TV to run and then I'm done with it and will just live without live TV and accept the limitations – it will probably free up a lot of time anyway

  8. As others have said, it was a disservice to your experiment to use outdated equipment. A relatively inexpensive FireTV or Roku would have dramatically improved the usability.

    Assuming you have the bandwidth, streaming video is better than the over-compressed cable channels.

  9. Adding on a bit…

    We watch mostly OTA. Some news and “Price is Right” (for some reason) in the morning. Evening news and “Wheel of Fortune”. Then surf a bit. If we don’t find anything, we turn on the Roku. Or go find a DVD. It works for us.

    On a Facebook group about cutting the cord there are folks that want it to all wok like using a cable or sat box. There may be a way but what I’ve read doesn’t sound cheap.

    I have everything connected to the TV. It’s just a matter of pushing a button to change the input. If I want surround sound, the TV is connected to the stereo via optical cable.

    Pretty simple once you figure it out.

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