Point One- Metrics and Variables
How much do you pay for TV service? What is that number annually? Is it bigger than $500? How many (non broadcast) channels do you watch? Can you count on your fingers all the shows that you really care about? Jot these answers down, and we'll come back to them. For me, these were the numbers-
Former Monthy Dish Bill: ~$75.00 (basic and HD package on one TV, with no DVR)
Annual cost: ~$900
Channels watched: 4 (Discovery, Comedy Central, History, and ESPN- during football season)
Counting on fingers? Yes
Point Two - Opportunity and Options
Do you live in a metropolitan area big enough to have local network affiliates like ABC, CBS, CW, Fox, NBC, and PBS?
Sorry Havana, North Dakota. Do you know since the digital television cutover, most of these stations are now able to broadcast multiple channels in the same frequency as they used to use for just the one channel? You now see decimal channel numbers, like 4.1 and 4.2, etc. in that all live in the spectrum that used to just be channel 4. Did you also know that these channels are broadcast in HD that is in every way better than what you get from Satellite providers? Huh? Yup. Crazy but true. Satellite providers send you the same shows in the same resolutions (more on this in a sec), but they compress the image to save bandwidth (more on this in two seconds), and loose image quality in the process.
* Explanation one- When you hear the pimply headed salestard at Best Buy say "blah blah blah ten-eighty-pee!" do you know what he's on about?
Well, odds are, he doesn't either, but here goes. Resolution. Huh? "Like megapixels?" you say. More or less, yes. The images are made up of dots of light (okay, don't bust my balls- strictly speaking there are three dots of primary colors that work together to act as one dot of any particular color you need, but that's really looking up the telly's dress). So, you have these "dots" and when bunched up with a gazillion of their friends make up the picture you see. How many dots matters to the picture, and is influenced by the overall dimensions. For example, if I have 10,000 dots, I could arrange them in a grid of 100x100. If that grid is on my phone and is two inches or so, I'm probably looking at a decent screen. Suppose I spread those dots over a one foot square. Bleh. It's a fucking Lite-Brite. With me so far? Great. Now, scale stuff up to the gajillion dot size and say we're looking at a couple of 30" tellys. One has 1,920 dots of light by width, and 1,080 dots by height (being a rectangle and all) and the other has 1,280 across and 720 high- both being 30" screens. The first one will look sharper than the second, because there are more dots of light relative to the overall dimensions. That one is the 1080p and the other one is the 720p. Oh, and the "p" stands for "progressive", and that means that when it draw the image, it starts with row one, then draws row two, and so on. This is as opposed to interlacing (like 1080i and 720i) where these displays draw rows 1, 3, 5, 7 and so on, then come back and draw rows 2, 4, 6, and 8. I don't think you can find interlaced screens anymore, so that's not going to be on the test.
** Explanation two- Bandwidth. It's a nerd term for sure, but it's a big deal. I'll try to keep this simple. Go to McDonalds and grab a straw. Now go to Niagara Falls and try to funnel all that falling water through your McDonalds straw. Frustrating, right? That's not enough bandwidth for the job. It's the same for the satellite folks. They have a limited number of McDonalds straws, and they want to get as much corn-syrupy goodness through it as they can, so they start squeezing things to the extent that they start removing ingredients. Maybe you'll still get tooth decay and empty calories, but you'll know you aren't getting the "good stuff". To a lesser degree this also applies to the wired Cable companies. They have bigger straws, but they still compress. The only uncompressed (or nearly uncompressed) signals you are likely to see are local HD broadcasts, and Blu-ray high definition DVD's.
Point two stroke "i"- The Internet
It's not just for porn, you know? Odds are, you can get most of the things you watch online, and many of those for free. There are occasions (football season) where without Cable or Satellite television you won't see out-of-market games. The NFL is apparently now offering online packages that will stream these too online, but I've not tried the service, and I'll be damned if I'm going to pay them.
(Take a breath)
I'll be shifting gears in a moment to talk about hardware and fancy stuff, so before I do, let me recap- keep in mind how much you are spending, where you live, and what shows you really care about. In all likelihood, you will be able to get everything you are after in an a la carte manner for less money, but to know for sure we have to survey some hardware needs.
Assumptions About Your Telly:
I'm expecting that your telly is at least capable of 720p, but hope that you could support 1080p. I'd also expect that you have at least one free HDMI or DVI input on the telly.
These two are basically the same thing (shape notwithstanding) but the HDMI has audio and video, where DVI just has video.
Optionally, you may have a stereo receiver or home theatre audio system in the same place as the telly, and you may want to run sound through it, in which case you'll need some available input to the receiver. I'm not going to go to deeply here. If you are that much of an audiophile, you'll already know analog from digital inputs.
I'm also expecting that you'll have somewhere you can put an antenna. In fact, let me start from here. Most of the time, the $10 "rabbit ear" antennas are all you need to tune in local off-air digital television, but if you are a bit farther out of town, you may want to invest in one of these outdoor varieties.
I picked up one online for ~$50 because at the time I needed it for my local Fox affiliate. Since then however, they (Fox) have added "repeaters" (other station numbers that broadcast the same thing) that I can tune in with any old bit of foil or wire, so don't rush out and spend on an antenna until you know that you need to. There was a window of time when televisions were being sold without tuners- you couldn't just hook an antenna into them and see something. This practice appeared to end about two years ago, so if your set is of that age have a look first (or ask an 11 year old). If in fact you need an antenna, have a look here first at Antennaweb to see what type you'll need given your area and distances from the transmitters.
Okay, so at this juncture you could hook an antenna to your telly and see what you have locally off-air. That's a good start, but there is still much to do.
In order to have something that compares to Cable or Satellite, you're going to need to [begin the "Poindexter" voice] ENHANCE IT WITH TECHNOLOGY!!!
That means a computer. You could use anything really, but in this capacity, I am endorsing a Mac Mini.
If you are a Windows-only-friend-of-Bill, that's cool. I'm merely saying I think the Mini is the best tool for the job, but you can adjust this general advice to your Windows system of preference if that makes you feel better. Before I get started on the Mini, let me mention a category that has potential but is not quite there:
Close, But No Cigar Department-
XBox 360's, PLayStations, Netflix-enabled Blu-Ray players, and the like. These get pretty close to the mark, but without the ability to access the Internet natively (in a conventional browser), I'm going to disqualify them. Also, the inability to access iTunes is a disqualifier.
The "Media PC" (or Mac, as it were)
I'm using and advocating the bottom-of-the-barrel Mac Mini, which is still a spendy $599 (unless on sale/refurbished). Why? For a variety of reasons, which should become clear as I describe the ways I use this system. For starters, it is very quiet and power efficient. Apple claims it's the most power efficient desktop around, and I expect that's true. 110Watts max, 1.5Watts sleeping, and 20Watts idle- those are very low numbers for a computer. Why does it matter? I leave it on 24/7. That means leaving it on and idle all month (figuring the nation average $0.11/kWh) it costs me $1.58 on the electric bill. I assure you that 99.9% of the Windows machines around will cost you plenty more. Now obviously it's not idle all month, and I plug in an external drive to it as well, but you get my point. Additionally, it's VERY quiet. I don't know why Windows users aren't more demanding about noise, but that is the hallmark of a Microsoft system. Enough fans to get liftoff. Listen to an XBox 360 some time. You can hear mine outside the room. For watching telly, this background noise issue is significant. Also, depending on the version of Mini, it has a digital output that is easily adapted to HDMI or DVI.
Other than a keyboard and mouse (which thanks to remote access seldom get touched), the only things plugged into the Mini are an external 1TB disk drive and an Elgato EyeTV Hybrid:
That is a digital TV tuner for the computer. One end is a coaxial cable jack (where you'd plug in your antenna) and the other is a USB plug. At a little over $100, it turns the Mini into a DVR and supports full 1080p HD resolutions. That means I can record off-air stuff at a quality that is akin to Blu-Ray. I'll admit that I'm not wild about the software that is the "TV Guide" role- it's pretty awful, but the TV tuning software is solid. I can rewind live broadcasts and all that fancy stuff too. Now, you may be wondering why I need this, and in the strictest sense, I don't. My telly has a tuner built in, and I could watch off-air broadcasts that way, but by having this little guy, I can record, rewind, schedule, etc. Plus, I don't have to change interfaces when I want to watch the off-air instead of all the other things I might watch.
The Mini also is an "upsampling" DVD player. This means that it tries to make the images of all my existing regular DVD's look better on the larger screen by adding data to the image. There are mathematical algorithms for this that take the known signal and stretch it out a bit and work to fill in the gaps. Yes, that's an oversimplification, but the idea is that the DVD player included with the Mini is as good as you are likely to find short of some HD standard like HD-DVD (which was abandoned like Betamax) and Blu-Ray.
I put the Mini on my home Internet connection, an that allows me to use iTunes to buy shows. A lot of shows. Only the ones I'm interested in, and I get to own them. I keep them on that external hard drive (which is backed up elsewhere) and can watch whatever I like whenever I want. The HD downloads from iTunes are not Blu-Ray quality, but they are better than DVD. The pricing for shows still seems high for shows that I want to see but not keep, but it's still a fair value when compared to what a box set of DVD's would cost.
"But hey- wait a minute- what if I want to burn these shows to DVD and/or share them? Isn't there copy-protection DRM crap on those?"
Why yes, Redbeard, there are measures designed to keep you from piracy, and while I won't for a moment pretend that the copyright laws are defendable, I also won't tell you how to get past this. I will only say that it is possible and pretty easy to do.
Next up is Hulu.com. If you don't know this one already, it's a site that streams a lot of television programming over the web with considerably fewer commercials than what you see on Cable, Satellite, or off-air. The video quality is not as good as iTunes, but it is watchable, and unlike iTunes, you need not download something before you watch it. There are some networks that also stream shows online in a similar manner, like Comedy Central and Fox. These resources are free and cover much of what you pay for with Cable/Satellite.
In the legally grey area, there are ways in which you can download television shows that are of a good resolution and commercial free online. These appear to be from other people with computer attached tellys that have recorded these shows and shared them online. I don't know the likelihood of my getting sued for downloading some off-air show that I forgot to record or missed from some other person online (like Fringe on Fox- one my only passions), but this again is where the ugly specter of copyright law rushes in to screw everything up. Let's just leave it at this- there are ways to download shows (maybe every show you care about) for free. Is that scrupulous? Doubtful. But then, NO ONE in the television industry has scruples. When in Rome, bugger the mangy bastards.
I reconcile my inclination toward a life of crime by paying for Netflix, which also has a very good and commercial free streaming service. I have the three DVD plan and that's >$20/month. The library of shows is big enough that I'm never at a loss for something of interest, and getting disks in the mail is a nice thing too.
So let me recap the viewing options-
Off-air programming- ABC (x2), CBS (x2), CW, Fox (x2), NBC (x2), PBS (x3, but one is Español), and like 5 more independent networks that never seem to have anything I want to see, though the Asian one is a trip when I've been drinking.
DVD's- I have hundreds, and Netflix sends more.
iTunes- Lots of shows to buy from a long list of cable networks.
Hulu.com - Lots of shows to watch free online from a list of networks
(optional for an added cost) Netflix- Tons of DVD's delivered and a good number of streaming commercial free choices
Piracy- enough said.
Monthly recurring cost- >$20 (for the Netflix- and other plans cost less)
* I don't include the negligible iTunes spending, since it would otherwise go to DVD sets.
One time hardware costs- $725 (the Mini and the EyeTV)
Two year total under this model- >$1205
Two year total previously- ~$1800.
Savings (in the first two years) >$595
And the real benefit is that even two years old, the Mini is still serviceable and going strong. December 2010 will be three years and that will only help my overall savings. The real barrier of entry financially was the cost of the Mac Mini, and if you can reduce that (or already have one) than the number become even more advantageous. Plus, I don't have to give a penny to goddamn Comcast- a company so shitty they had to change their name. Plus, being able to have a computer in the house with a nice 46" screen is a blast.
Clearly, one size cannot fit all, but I think most people would benefit from this topology. When I speak of this to others, they so far have been unable to name one thing that they care about (save for out of market live sports) that this doesn't deliver. If I've missed anything, please let me know.
And no- I won't come over and hook it up for you. Well... Not without a bribe of Scotch.