Friday, May 01, 2009

How to Switch from Cable/Satellite TV to 100% Internet TV (with pictures)

Summary: When it came time to abandon our much loved satellite TV service (DirecTV) we made the big decision to go completely IPTV – all our television entertainment from Internet sources. It took some research and some fiddling with gadgets and TVs, but it was worth it. Now, almost a year later, we couldn't be happier. We went from paying $110/month with DirecTV down to only $17/month. Read to find out how you can do the same with just a normal broadband Internet connection. FAQ at the end of the article.

We Like TV

We were pretty happy. We had a good TV life. My wife, who is a seamstress, really likes to have the TV on while she does her cutting and sewing. Background noise, but also giving her the ability to look up and see the show whenever she wants.

I like to watch a movie almost every night, plus I love watching Jon Stewart's Daily Show. On the weekends, we usually watch one or two movies on Saturday night and something on Sunday night as well.

So we are not TV-o-phobes. We like our TV.

We have three main places where we watch TV in the house: my wife's cutting room (used to be a dining room), her sewing room (kind of a den) and the loft (living room).

The Trees, The Trees

What happened was our neighbor's trees grew too high and blocked our satellite reception. It also happened last year. At that time, we asked our neighbors if they would mind if we trimmed the tops of their trees, they said it was no problem. But this time, we realized it was going to keep happening every year, and we'd have to ask them to chop the trees down, which they wouldn't agree to. So we needed another solution.

From Satellite to Cable?

Should we go to cable? My wife and I had both used cable services before moving in together, and we hated them. Bad quality reception, bad customer service. No thanks. But what was the alternative?

Finally we decided to make the move to 100% Internet television. But this was going to take some research.

Our questions were:

  • Could we get television in all the rooms we needed (cutting room, sewing room, loft)?
  • Did the Internet have the particular TV shows that we liked?
  • Was the bandwidth of our connection fast enough to provide full screen video?
  • Was the equipment to get us set up going to cost too much for the savings per month?

The answers were Yes, Yes, Yes and No.

The Equipment

After looking on the Web for articles (one like this one would have been good!) on people's experiences (not vendor success stories), I decided to get the following equipment:

Eee PC (Linux)

Roku Player

A GigaWare PC-to-TV Converter (Radio Shack)

and a DVD player (no photo)

The Eee PC cost about $400 (then, now it's below $300). The Roku Player was $99. The DVD player was about $50. The GigaWare converter was around $100 once you got all the cables with it. It seems like GigaWare doesn't sell that box anymore, so maybe this would work instead.

$650 Invested in Equipment

Total investment = $650. Equal to about 6 months of DirecTV.

The purpose of the Eee PC is to act as a television for my wife's cutting room. It is super-portable, so she can carry it around if she wants to watch TV elsewhere, like our screened-in porch. She does that a lot after she finishes her work.

The Roku Player we set up in our loft / living room. It connects easily to a television with composite video connectors (there are a bunch of options). We have a 55” rear-projection TV (about 12 years old) and this combination works great.

By the way, we have wireless Internet all through our house. This is a NECESSITY for this plan. Roku depends on it, as does the Eee PC.

The reason for the GigaWare PC-to-TV converter is to be able to connect one of our laptops to a TV. To explain that a little more, we will have to get into the next topic: Content.

Can We Still Get the Movies, TV Series and Specials We Want (Need?)

We knew that we had a diverse set of content that we really wanted to get with our new setup. Here was a sampling of our regular watching (just to get this list took some analysis!):

  • Movies, movies, movies – from the latest releases on DVD to foreign films to back catalog
  • The Riches
  • The Daily Show
  • The Colbert Report
  • South Park
  • The Simpsons
  • King of the Hill
  • Nip/Tuck
  • Weeds
  • Sledge Hammer
  • Married with Children
  • Desperate Housewives
  • Dancing with the Stars
  • Family Guy
  • American Dad

Neither of us watch a lick of sports, nor do we pay attention to the local or national newscasts. No soap operas, daytime talk shows or kids' programming (unless you count South Park).

This was our target list. As it turned out, we were able to use to get most of the TV shows (Riches, Daily Show, Colbert, Simpsons, King of the Hill, Nip/Tuck, Married). For others, we were able to use (Desperate, Dancing). South Park actually has its own Website, where their content is available a few weeks after it airs on Comedy Central ( Cost so far? Nothing.

Now for movies. Hulu definitely has some movies, but not much. Especially when we were doing this experiment (early 2008). We needed a bigger variety. So we decided to get started with NetFlix. We knew that NetFlix had a dual service, where you could get DVDs in the mail and also have simultaneous access to another set of movies through an Internet download service. This sounded like the ticket. The price was nice: $17/month for three DVDs at a time. (Now it's gone up a bit - $17/month for only 2 at a time, including access to Blu-Ray).

And NetFlix had another advantage. Now we had access to the HBO and Showtime series we were missing on Hulu and elsewhere. We have always liked watching the pay-TV series throughout the years, like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Weeds, Huff – you name it. Now, through NetFlix, we had access to these series either through instant download or as a mailed DVD.

Now we had it! For $17/month, we had as much content available to us as before, but most of it was on-demand - even better!! We could pick from a few hundred movies on or over 10,000 on NetFlix download. On mailed DVD, we had over 120,000 to choose from. And for TV series and specials, it was all there.

Frequently Asked Questions

In this section, I'll try to ask some of the questions I've heard from friends as I've described our set-up (my friends are bored hearing about this already).

Q. Isn't the picture jerky on movie downloads?

A. Depends. Hulu had lots of problems with jerky pictures early on, but they seem to have fixed this. All you have to do is bring up the show initially, let it cache for a minute or two, and you can proceed with no jerkiness. NetFlix download through Roku is never, NEVER, I mean NEVER jerky. I don't know how they do it.

Q. How is the picture quality?

A. On Hulu, the picture quality is excellent. They even have some of the shows available in HD. On NetFlix download, the picture is okay to good, depending on the day. No complaints, unless you are a very picky TV watcher.

Q. Do you have to have Windows for this all to work?

A. We do not allow the Windows operating system in our house. Everything runs either Mac OSX or Linux. Hulu runs everywhere, even Linux on the Eee PC. It just requires Flash or an open-source Flash player equivalent. The NetFlix player works on the Roku, but you can also watch any download on your computer. The NetFlix player is very picky. It works on Windows, of course, as well as Mac OSX (Intel only). It does not work on Linux nor on the older Mac PowerPC boxes (we have a Mac Mini like that). Has something to do with DRM (digital rights management).

Q. Why didn't you go with Apple TV or Cinema Now?

A. I've heard the Apple TV is very nice. Easy to use, fast to set up, lots of content choices. The reason we didn't go that route is that my wife is a penny pincher. If we sign up for a monthly “all you can watch” system, she will watch shows freely. But if we had a per-download cost (like on Apple TV or Cinema Now) she would penny pinch and end up postponing watching her TV show for days and days to save money. So, to save us both that headache, we stuck with everything being all-you-can-watch.

Q. Why still use the NetFlix mailed DVDs if you have so much online?

A. I can't give a logical answer to that logical question. The only logical reason could be that there is a much larger library on DVD than from NetFlix download. The real reason is an emotional thing. We like the excitement of getting a DVD in the mail. Even though I know what it's going to be. I can't explain it.

Q. What about other basic cable channels like Discovery, SciFi, Food Network, HGTV, PBS, etc.?

A. At the time last year, most of these networks were not online yet. But now they are. You can find at least some content for all these networks these days. Just check their “full episode” line up to make sure they have your favorites online.

Q. Don't these Websites force you to identify yourself as a cable or satellite subscriber? How can they give this away for free?

A. None of this content is truly free. On, and, all shows are supported by commercials. And you cannot really skip the commercials (without some additional effort and hacking). The good thing, though, is that the commercial breaks are very short. Usually only one 30 second ad per break – that's it. I'm sure that will change. With NetFlix, the downloads are part of your paid service, so no commercials there. As a result, we tend to watch NetFlix downloads a lot more than Hulu (except when it's my wife by herself, then Hulu is usually her choice). We are certainly concerned that the cable companies will see all this revenue escaping from them and put demands on services like Hulu to make sure that every Hulu viewer is also a subscriber of a cable TV service. But so far, that has not happened. (Please, please, don't let it happen!)

Q. What about sports?

A. Sorry, I don't have a clue. Do some research on ESPN, etc. maybe they have some options. I think the NHL has an online viewing package for all the local games.

Q. How long do you have to wait before a show begins on download?

A. On NetFlix, it is usually about one minute. Then it starts, and never skips, jerks or has to reload. Hardly ever. With Hulu, you put it on pause at the beginning, wait for about two minutes to let it load, and away you go.

Q. Does this work on slow DSL connections?

A. Yep. That's what we have. We probably have the slowest broadband you can get. (If you still have dial-up, stop reading now.) However, if you have the slowest cable connection, you might have trouble. I think most cable Internet providers have higher bandwidth choices, so definitely factor that additional cost into your calculations before switching.

Q. Do you watch other content besides the professionally produced TV content?

A. Oh yes. We watch video podcasts and other TV series that are only available on the Web, like the excellent “Something To Be Desired” (now in its sixth season). Most YouTube videos we watch are on our computers, not through the TVs. It's funny to find old, dead networks like The WB on the Web as well. This was their opportunity to recycle all that old content, some of it is pretty good. You can also use directories to find new independent video.

Q. What do you do about high-definition (HD) content?

A. It costs $3/month extra at NetFlix to get Blu-Ray DVDs, which we gladly pay. We have an HD projector and a Blu-Ray DVD player, so we use these on special occasions (most weekends) to play some big epic movie or whatever. It projects out to about a 6 ft by 5 ft image – really impressive. It's so nice to have a big white wall. NetFlix has HD downloads on some movies (very few) and the Roku can easily connect to our HD projector. Hulu also has HD content, for that we connect our Eee PC or other laptop to the HD projector. I would say we watch less than 10% of our content on HD. Even the HD movies seem to download in a reasonable amount of time and do not have jerkiness thereafter. Amazing - I don't know how that's possible with just a normal DSL connection.

Q. Is the Eee PC powerful enough to watch full-screen video?

A. We've never had a problem. The only problem is with the bandwidth coming in, and that is solved by pausing the show for a minute or two to let the content cache, then it's fine.

Q. What about when you travel?

A. I'm a computer consultant, so I travel a lot. No problem. My NetFlix downloads and Hulu come with me on my laptop. Hotel Internet connections are always too slow, however, so I always use my wireless modem from Verizon Wireless.

Q. How does this work for people outside the U.S.?

A. Not worth a crap. Sorry.

Q. Do you use Boxee, Square Connect or another service as an content directory?

A. We don't. I just set up a Web page for my wife and we left it at that. These services are very intriguing, and once they have Hulu and the NetFlix content all integrated into one service, we will probably switch.

Q. Are you happy with Internet TV?

A. Yes, extremely. It's been almost a year post-satellite and we don't miss it one bit. It is scary to think if our Internet connection would ever go down, we'd have no e-mail, Web surfing or TV. But, luckily, that hasn't happened yet.