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All posts for the month August, 2014

Tiers upon tiers upon tiers….

Eliminating tiers of cable TV service can be painful. My tactics:

First, print out a complete list of all the available channels and tiers of service from the cable company’s website. Start crossing off what you don’t need:

Consider premium channels, such as HBO, Showtime, Cinemax and STARZ. How often does your family watch them? Did you get the channel for a particular show, but now tend to overlook it?

Certainly the pay channels have created some great content. I would go so far as to say that we are in another Golden Age of TV, thanks to the many incredible series greenlighted by them. But Netflix and Amazon have most of this available to watch (or binge on) at your leisure, albeit not all the current episodes.

We loved “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men”, but never watched them on AMC when they were current because it just didn’t fit our viewing habits. We could have DVRed them in the den, but we prefer to watch full-attention shows in our theater room. We also don’t like to make too many appointments with our TV. But if you do not need to be on the front line of office coffee machine conversations, you can catch the shows at your own pace on Netflix or Amazon.

Does your family watch more Sports than those offered on broadcast TV or basic cable? Does your need for News go beyond CBS, ABC, NBC, FOX on broadcast, or CNN, CNBC, Fox News, msnbc on basic cable? If you answered ‘No’ to either or both, you may be able to lose a tier or two.

If you have Netflix, do you need a Movie tier (besides the Premium channels)?

Second, highlight the remaining channels you and your family watch. Write down next to each the shows that make it of value. Are they available on Netflix/Amazon/Hulu Plus? Do you like them enough to acquire DVD copies, or can you add them to your home media library? (another future post)

Talk with family members to find out whether it is acceptable to lose a tier that has only a few channels of interest. Maybe you don’t need the Cooking Channel if you have the Food Network. (There are also food/home-oriented channels on local broadcast TV)

When we completed this process, we wound up with the equivalent of the old basic and extended cable channels (aka TV Essential), plus HD and DVR (aka Advanced TV).


Also: do you have multiple cable boxes? Our bedroom box has now been replaced with a digital TV converter box (since our TV is older) and a flat, square indoor antenna. This $30+ box also has a DVR function that works with a USB or external hard drive. I auditioned it as a DVR replacement in the den, but it really wasn’t polished enough to inflict on my spouse. But it works very well providing broadcast TV to our bedroom set. We also have a Roku box in the bedroom.

Our theater room cable box was expendable as well. We watch only network broadcast shows in there (along with Netflix, etc.) I added another indoor antenna to our relatively up-to-date TV with a built-in tuner. I was lucky: there were sweet spots for both antennas that gave us good reception for all the channels we cared about (including RSUTV in Claremore). You may or may not be as lucky, depending on where you live, where your TV room is within the house, your house’s construction and wiring. Experimentation is the only way to go, even if you need to put an antenna in the attic, or mount it outside your house.

Despite losing the two cable boxes, we still have cable TV available in those rooms. Turns out that if you hook a cable directly from the wall to your TV, you return to 1990s cable TV: channels 2-63 in glorious analog. This is an unadvertised feature, and works for those with at least the Essential level of service. But there is no guarantee how long this will be available. The cable company will no doubt delete this anachronism without warning at some point, could be a year, could be 5 years. But since we all must consider becoming TV gypsies (switching between cable and satellite to get the deals for new customers), it’s good enough that it works right now.

An additional benefit of this whole process is that you can more effectively bargain for lower rates if you demonstrate that you have done your homework, and are willing to take action. It has worked for me twice, though the third time may not be the charm.

Maybe YOU can go with broadcast-only TV supplemented by Netflix, YouTube, etc. We’re not quite there yet.

But there is more to come.

streaming-netflix-amazon-hulu

The three services we use.

Speaking of Netflix, there are a number of paid streaming sources of TV shows and movies.

Personal opinion:

Netflix, the oldest, is the best. Their streaming catalog is far smaller than their DVD catalog. But it’s still large, and will likely have quite a few of the series and movies you watch on cable. Led by Netflix, all the other streaming services are now creating exclusive content not available on cable, some of which is truly excellent.

All these services make deals with content owners for specified periods of time. This is one reason it may make sense to use several services, as their offerings are not heavily duplicative.

Netflix’ web user interface on computer and set-top box (e.g., Roku) is far and away the best organized and easiest to use. If you had to have only one streaming service, this would be it. They are all about $8/month, less than a tier of cable service.

I acquired an Amazon Prime membership as a TCC student a few years ago. This was mainly for the 2-day shipping, as I saw no need to stumble through their clunky interface looking for the TV/movie content that might or might not be free to Prime members. However, in the last couple of years, we have found a number of series, e.g., The Sopranos, Workaholics, that fill a niche in our viewing.

The price has gone up from $79 to $99 per year, students at half-price. Since I completed my Cloud Computing cert, I am a student without portfolio, which Amazon does not honor with a discount. We do a lot of business with Amazon, so we will probably continue anyway.

Hulu Plus: we took a trial membership just to see if it could work as a replacement for some of the cable content. It can, but it skews more to current series rather than older ones. Nevertheless, it offers series we like. The Hulu Plus user experience on the Roku is sad, as the 30 second commercials they insert sometimes hang the Roku box, necessitating a reboot. Hulu Plus has the worst user interface of the three by far. Still, it may have some of what you need if you are considering cutting the cable.

I put together a Word document list of the shows we like by service, and placed it on Google Drive. We both have a link to the doc on our phones and tablet, so we can pull it up and be reminded of what’s available. (Our viewing is via Roku boxes in three rooms.) I periodically update the doc as I find new content on these services, or create it for the Plex Channel (a future topic).

My objective is to recreate as much of the cable experience as possible. We will evaluate how well that is working out in future installments.

netflix

The biggest bandwidth hog in our house is Netflix.

According to Netflix, you need:

  • 2 Mbps (Megabits per second) for viewing standard definition video on a TV
  • 4 Mbps for viewing High Definition video
  • 5 Mbps or more for the best audio and video experience

We were on a cable plan that provided 15 Mbps, and experienced no problems with buffering or poor quality.

I heard from several people that downshifting to the 5 Mbps plan still worked well with Netflix. We tried it, and this seems to be true.

Admittedly, if you have kids or teenagers who spend a lot of time watching YouTube and the like, you may need the higher bandwidth. There is also a cap of 100 Gigabytes (GB) that you can download in a month (vs. 250 GB for our previous plan). We found from the online data meter that we typically use about 50+ GB per month.

So if you feel that your household might function within these limits, give it a try and save some money on your cable bill. You can always return to a higher tier of service if it proves unsatisfactory.

MOTOGO EX431G

I do have a large hand, but this phone is small.

My wife bequeathed her previous smartphone to me, no service plan active.

I added the Google Voice app, making it a free wifi texting phone. I also rooted it, and use it to control home automation, and various home theater devices, to be detailed later. It can even administer this website! I love it.

But all I need when out of wifi range is an occasional/emergency cell phone to fit easily into my pocket or running belt.

I recently cast a jaundiced eye toward my two year old cell phone deal. I was on a Net10 200 minutes plan costing $17/month. I had so many minutes accumulated I could have talked continuously for days. But apparently, I didn’t have that much to say.

Tracfone offers a MOTOGO EX431G for $10. Very thin and small with a keyboard. Using their Pay As You Go plan, the cost comes to about $7/month. I kept my previous cell phone number at no charge.

Clark Howard would be proud. (Later note: but not as proud as he would be of Sir Paul’s cousin.)

From CBS Moneywatch: Living with a smartphone — and no cellular plan

Linksys WRT54G router and Ooma Telo

Our new phone setup: Linksys router and Ooma Telo

A springtime cable bill proved to be a call to action.

We had come to the end of a year of $50 off the monthly bill. I had “earned” that by vaguely threatening to cancel more TV service, having set the stage by cancelling a couple of non-essential tiers over a year prior.

But now, the bill was back in its full glory. I didn’t think the same ploy would work again, and I don’t like to be bluffing, so I started looking into ways to seriously lower the bill.

The phone was a good place to start. Consumer expert Clark Howard recommends Ooma, a Voice over IP (VoIP) provider. They sell a box that plugs into your router and your phone jack to provide free internet calling, except for the monthly FCC fees of under $4.  I found a refurbished Ooma Telo on either Woot! or 1Sale, I forget which.

The instructions recommend that you place the Ooma box after the cable modem, but before the router. I tried it and it worked, but the X10 server software running on our main computer got confused. So I switched the Telo to connect out of the router, and it was fine. I also adjusted the router’s Quality of Service (QoS) settings to prioritize the phone traffic.

I have been totally satisfied with the result. Pick up one of our landline phones, hear the Ooma dial tone, then make the call as before. Sound quality is indistinguishable from the cable provider’s service. You do not need a high level of internet service for this to work (more detail in a future post).

Ooma offers a Premier service for $10/month, which includes a second line, call forwarding, caller ID, and all the trimmings. I took advantage of the free trial, but since the object of the exercise was to save money, I opted out of Premier. One nice bonus: caller ID seems to be part of the basic deal. The FCC fees were as advertised, under $4. I did elect to port our existing phone number to save everyone the trouble of updating. That was a one-time $40 charge.

After the porting took effect, I called and cancelled the cable phone service. It didn’t save as much as you might suppose, since it broke the “bundle” discount. But from here on, any further downgrades would bring full savings.

Oh, and I got another $10 off the bill for the next year.