Cord Cutting Thoughts

The Markel home has been free of traditional pay TV for about a year-and-a-half now, and we’re hoping not to go back anytime soon. Historically, we have bounced between having it and not having it, but I’m hoping that we’re at least close to done with it now.

We have some basic family desires for paid TV service. They are:

  • Baseball.1
  • Hockey.2
  • The Olympics when they come around.
  • A couple of shows here and there.3
  • Access in both rooms where we have TVs.

Right now, we’re able to manage all of this. I wanted to take a bit and break this down to show what we are paying, why we’re using each service, and show some of the frustrations with cutting the cord and dealing with new ways of watching content that are still constrained by antiquated business practices.

Pricing Pay TV

Point to make first: I do not care about home phone service. I am not interested in home phone service. Triple Play bundles are stupid and I do not want them.

OK, so to get the service for two televisions in my home (assuming that DVR service and HD are necessary), here’s what I need to spend with Charter, who is my internet provider:

  • $19.99/mo for DVR service
  • $13.98/mo for the second set top box
  • $59.99/mo for the actual channel package, that covers the things listed above

So to get what I want, I’m paying $93.96/mo, and I’m pretty sure that price is a promo for twelve months. The total cost for a year would be $1,127.52, and I would guess there will be taxes and franchise fees and whatnot adding to that as well.

Services

I try to cover the above bases with a set of streaming services. It’s not perfect yet, but it’s getting there. Here’s what we’re using:

  • $5/mo for Unblock Us, which is a service that allows me to evade geolocation blocks on content by using their DNS network. This solves the problem of blackouts on sports streaming sources and gives me access to things like BBC streams, which enables me to watch things like Olympics coverage.
  • $129.99/yr for MLB.tv, which when combined with the aforementioned blackout dodging allows me to watch every baseball game of the season.
  • $149.99/yr for NHL GameCenter, giving me access to hockey (blackouts nonsense applies as well).
  • $7.99/mo for Hulu Plus, which covers the ABC and Fox shows I’m interested in, with some added bonus stuff, like the best available streaming library of classic Doctor Who and some other British oddities that they bring over.
  • $7.99/mo for Netflix, which we hadn’t had for around a year until last week, when they made their announcement regarding Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Netflix also has a few TV shows that aren’t covered by Hulu.
  • $59.99/mo semi-annually for (at least for six months) the WWE Network, which I’m choosing to support because they are actually trying to disrupt the existing pay TV model by pricing themselves in direct competition with cable providers for PPVs. Their streaming offering is also being assisted technologically by MLB Advanced Media, which is a weird but very interesting alignment.4
  • Absolutely nothing for the aerial antenna I have in my attic, which gives me OTA HD for my local networks. This covers news and weather.

My grand total for this setup is $651.72 per year, which is still a decent chunk of change but around half what I would be paying for traditional pay TV through Charter, and has the added bonus of putting more things in an on-demand relationship rather than needing to manage DVR space, which is almost always a fruitless effort.

Most devices that are out there can manage these streams, but admittedly, I have to do some gymnastics to get everything where I want it. Let’s talk about actually watching these things.

Devices

I have two televisions in my house: one in the main family room and another upstairs in our bedroom. The device layout is as such:

  • Family room
    • Apple TV
    • Mac mini
    • Xbox 360
    • Xbox One
    • PlayStation 3 (currently unhooked)
    • PlayStation 4 (currently unhooked)
  • Bedroom
    • Apple TV
    • Xbox 360
    • PlayStation 3

The sad thing is that even with all this, I don’t yet have the perfect media device, which I find personally pretty annoying. In reality, in end up using the Xbox 360 units and the Apple TVs about even amounts of time. With a little more work, the Xbox One is going to end up being the device I use the most. Here are some thoughts on devices:

Apple TV

Super-simple to use. Covers all the services that I subscribe to; if I ever switch to using Amazon Video, then it won’t be the device of choice anymore because it doesn’t have a client for that. It has clients that work for everything, but they tend to be the least fully-featured versions available.

My music and a lot of TV and movies are in my mammoth iTunes library, so I would be using this anyway because Home Sharing is boss.

Mac mini

My best friend during the olympics coverage; hook it up to an HDTV using HDMI, then full screen video you want to watch. Can watch anything with a web interface; navigation is done using VNC. Otherwise, a giant pain in the neck to use because it takes longer than the rest of the stuff to use.

Xbox 360

Currently the best option. Good apps for NHL and MLB (with one-touch scoreboards no matter what you are watching), and a Netflix app that’s been upped to the newest experience. Hulu Plus app is still the crappy “let’s make everything work with Kinect” version (read: awful), the Twitch app is similarly horrendous, and the NHL app has a habit of not liking you logging in on more than one Xbox 360, even if you aren’t using them at the same time (I have to keep putting my password in).

Xbox One

Will be the best option once more apps have been released. No apps for NHL, MLB, or WWE (though I’m assuming there will be an MLB app coming this spring). Better app for Twitch than 360, updated Hulu and Netflix experiences. Better dashboard UI than Xbox 360 as pins are on the front rather than hidden behind an option.

PlayStation 3

Good apps; can’t be controlled by IR. Non-starter.

PlayStation 4

Ditto. They couldn’t have spent $2 on an IR receiver?

Thoughts?

I’ve been staying current with it, but in my opinion cord-cutting for the masses is still a ways off. Geoblocks, content provider exclusivities, and traditional blackout-causing TV contracts cause enough problems for most people that it’s more pain than is worth it to do such a thing.

To top it off, there isn’t currently a device that is an obvious go-to hub for this kind of digital entertainment. Right now, it’s a dead heat for me between the Apple TV and the Xbox 360, and neither of those is the perfect solution. The Xbox One has a good shot at being the best available set top solution, but it’s still missing some key apps and is still a $500 investment.

I like my setup, but I know it won’t work for everyone. I’m probably using more of these things than the average person. Do you have any questions about my setup or about these services? Feel free to ask in the comments and I’ll be happy to answer them either here or in follow-up posts.


  1. The Cardinals. 

  2. The Red Wings, and increasingly the Blues. 

  3. Right now, this is mostly Castle

  4. I hope to say more about the WWE Network in a later post, but it’s a very interesting offering. 

PlayStation 4 Quick Thoughts

So my PlayStation 4 arrived today, and I’ve spent a little bit of time playing with it. Some quick bulleted thoughts on it so far:

Hardware

  • The DualShock 4 is a great controller. The analog stick is still in the wrong place, but it’s leagues better than the DS3.
  • The box itself is really small for launch hardware; it’s smaller than my PS3 Slim. And it’s really aesthetically pleasing.
  • It wins the simplicity award; as few ports as possible and really easy to connect.
  • I wish Sony would lose its apparently institutional fear of IR ports for use with universal remotes. It pretty much guarantees I’ll use the One for movies.

OS/Dashboard

  • The home UI is kind of a disaster. It’s like they took the PS3’s XMB and the Vita’s menu system and just mashed them together. That’s not a good thing.
  • Service integration is pretty painless, though it’s a notable omission that you can’t push your video to YouTube.
  • That said, the Twitch integration for broadcasting is badass.
  • I don’t always want to drop my screenshots to Twitter or Facebook; my friends don’t always need these updates. I may make a new Twitter account just for my PS4, which defeats the purpose.
  • The activity stream (“What’s New”) for your account and your friends’ accounts is a cool idea and looks really neat—but it’s way too busy.
  • Vita and/or iOS screen linking works well and especially on Vita is really cool.

Games

  • It would be nice if there were some that reviewed well and that I’m not buying on Xbox One instead.
  • Except for Resogun, which is pretty cool.
  • But losing Driveclub as a launch game probably hurt. (I don’t even know if it’s any good.)
  • Offering Cross-Buy on some games that I’ve bought on PS3/Vita already is really nice of them even if it’s to play the games I’ve already played.

Waiting for Novembermas

Screen Shot 2013-11-09 at 7.53.50 AM

I love the start of a new console generation. It’s full of weirdness, great ideas, fun, and mistakes.

In a lot of ways, you don’t know what you’re going to get. And this time, the competitiveness between the console providers has never been more fierce, so as consumers, the theory goes that we all win.

I plan on doing some live streaming around the launch weekends, so if you’re interested in that sort of thing, make sure you’re following me on Twitter.

PS Plus on Vita? Yes, Please

PlayStation Blog:

PS Plus will offer exclusive discounts and bonus features for both PS Vita and PlayStation 3 members. In addition to online storage for game saves, automatic updates and Trophy synching, PS Plus members will get access to the Instant Game Collection, a constantly updated library selection of games, starting when the PlayStation Store updates on Tuesday, November 20th.

Once you update your PS Vita to v2.00 and PS Store publishes next Tuesday, PS Plus members will be able to download the Instant Game Collection, which includes PS Vita games Uncharted: Golden Abyss, Jet Set Radio HD, WipEout 2048, Gravity Rush and Tales From Space: Mutant Blobs Attack!, as well as (PSP) PlayStation Portable hit Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions.

Having Golden Abyss and Gravity Rush available for free with Plus just basically made the $50 I spent on Plus this year worth it.

I’ve been critical of Sony’s online strategy in the past—and still am, but what they are doing with PS Plus and (specifically) downloadables is a great bargain.

We Interrupt This Game

Jim Sterling:

You can’t count on a publisher to be original or inventive when it comes to our entertainment, but they always seem brilliantly innovative when it comes to selling us more crap. Sony is today’s bright little star, having patented a way to inject commercial breaks into your play sessions.

Sigh. As if the Dashboard ads on Xbox Live—a service I pay to use—weren’t enough.

Let’s Get Ready To Rummmmbllllle (via Penny Arcade)

This E3 has been difficult to observe usefully from afar, because merely watching doesn’t convey the data it used to: so much of the offering is directly experiential. People are waving things, or they’re waving their arms in front of things, or they’re looking at magical screens that shit is popping right out of. It would be like if a person came out and started talking about chocolate, and then ate some chocolate, and then walked off stage. That is not data. There’s so much conjecture that whatever you come up with is almost hopelessly attenuated.

This is very true of what I’ve seen of E3 from here. Motion controllers, insanely expensive 3D setups for your living room, and other insanity are ruling the day.

There will be more posts on this—of course—but hardware aside, the games that are being revealed make me very interested in the next 12 months or so.

As a bonus, the comic from yesterday is quite vulgar but also quite funny, and is a very apt description of what the three major press conferences were like at E3.

(via Penny Arcade – Let’s Get Ready To Rummmmbllllle.)