Netflix

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You may be looking into a “Black Mirror” at this very moment.

You are probably looking into a “Black Mirror” at this very moment.

(The Cord-Cutting Blog was one year old two days ago.)

This blog’s mission statement:

“Cord-cutting: the final frontier. Our continuing mission: to explore strange new shows, to seek out new tech and new implementations, to boldly kludge where no one has kludged before. And save $$.”

The cord was cut on 2/7/2015. New (as well as old) tech has been spotlighted. A fair amount of bold kludging has been done. Plenty of $$ have been saved.

But one part of the mission has been neglected lately: the exploration of strange new shows. I’ve got a very good one for you.

“Black Mirror” is a UK import available on streaming Netflix. The title refers to all the TV screens, monitors, phones and tablets that hold so much of our attention today.

The show is near-future speculative and science fiction, satire, and a bit of psychological horror.

We have seen 3 episodes so far, all different, “Black Mirror” being an anthology show. They have in common that they feel immediate and are brilliant.

The first episode is not for the squeamish, but it isn’t about blood and guts. It concerns an outrageous ransom demand made of the British Prime Minister. Whatever happens, you can be sure it will be covered by 24-hour news networks and social media.

My favorite so far is the third episode, “The Entire History of You”. It suggests that photographic memory may not be a survival trait. It definitely wouldn’t win you as many arguments as you might suppose, even if you could rewind and cast it up on a screen for others to see. In light of the Snowden and Assange revelations, how would you feel about making your personal record available to whichever three-letter agency (TLA) decides they need to see it?

No point in going on, there are plenty of reviews out there. Just wanted to give you a heads-up.

Try it, this could be your weirdest Sci-fi Saturday in quite a spell.

TiVo's new OnePass feature is just what my wife needs

Just what my wife needed.

OnePass is how you set up series recordings on TiVo, with an added feature for the cord-cutter.

As mentioned before, the TiVo Roamio DVR series lets you add subscription content providers, notably Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu Plus. But provider content can now be integrated with your over-the-air recorded shows.

In an earlier post, Our post-cord-cutting TV menu, I displayed a list of some of my wife’s favorite cable shows that are available on Roku channels, Netflix and Amazon among them (we subscribe to both).

Previously, if she developed a yen to see “Wings” as a result of browsing the list (not a natural habit for her) she would see that it is on Netflix. Then she could go to Netflix on the TiVo (or the Roku box), select her account, find “Wings” in her list, and pick an episode. Doable, but multiple steps are required. Not the smoothest experience.

With OnePass, I was able to do a search for “Wings”, see that it is available on Netflix, then set up a OnePass that puts “Wings” on the same list as her antenna-recorded shows.

For example, when she is looking for something to watch on a Saturday afternoon, she might scroll through “The Bachelor”, “The Bob Newhart Show” and “General Hospital” recorded from broadcast TV, and…”Wings”, “Property Brothers” and “Hoarders” NOT on broadcast TV. The latter three are on Netflix, Amazon Prime and Netflix, respectively. But all are presented in the same list. She can select any of these series and then choose which episode to watch. Very smooth and integrated.

A bonus is that Netflix, Amazon or Hulu Plus offerings take up no room on your hard drive.

VUDU (Video on Demand) is another provider. If you can’t find what you want on the others, you might find it on VUDU. But it will typically cost 2 or 3 bucks per show. Anathema to the true-believing cord-cutter, but maybe worth it on occasion.

The limitations:

  • Lack of a unified exploratory mode for the content providers, i.e., you need to already know what shows you want to watch. I’m not sure how this could be done, anyway.
  • YouTube. It’s there, but it isn’t integrated the same way as the other providers. Plus, the user interface is tricky.
  • Lack of other content providers. In truth, TiVo has it pretty well sewn-up with the big three, Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu Plus. But it doesn’t eliminate our need for a Roku box. We still need Roku for Media Browser and Plex, the channels that allow us easy access to our home server content, plus Crackle, Sky News International and a few audio channels (though TiVo does have Pandora and Spotify).

Nevertheless, OnePass’ integration of provider content with over-the-air recorded content is a huge boon to the cord-cutter, unmatched by would-be competitors such as Channel Master DVR + and Tablo DVR.

MikeGayePlex

Tablet cam pic of me and my “client”, auto-uploaded to our home Plex server, ready for big screen display.

To date, we have:

  • Replaced cable landline phone service with a refurbished Ooma (cost is now only $4/mo in taxes), then bought a $15 used modem to save a rental charge of $7/mo added by the cable company because of the switch.

  • Taken internet service down to “Essential” level (saving $15/mo) without impairing our streaming Netflix.

  • Removed 2 out of 3 cable boxes (saving $17/mo), replacing one with only an indoor antenna, the other with a $35 digital converter box and antenna, and,

  • Hooked up cable directly to the 2 sets to get analog cable channels (a minimum of “Essential” level TV service is required).

  • Eliminated three tiers of TV service over a 2 year period (saving $30/month), bringing us down to Essential level, similar to the old basic and extended cable.  We still have “Advanced TV” for about $3/mo extra, required for DVR service (at an additional $12/mo). The only channels gained from adding Advanced on top of Essential are music channels. You also do not get HD without Advanced TV. Tricky price and service structuring.

  • Added another Roku box (in the bedroom) to stream Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, free Crackle, and our own media on Plex. Tried Hulu Plus, but it wasn’t worth it for us.

  • Added a number of Android remote control apps to my wifi-only smartphone.

  • (Tech talk alert!) Added a used bottom-of-the-line Windows 7 computer (thanks, Mom) with included Windows Media Center (WMC) software. With USB TV tuner plus antenna, acts as a DVR for broadcast TV and uses free ServerWMC software to stream to a $35 Raspberry Pi computer connected to the large TV in the theater room. Win 7 also runs Plex Media Server software to stream our local TV/movie content (mostly ripped from DVDs) to the Pi (running PleXBMC beta software over Raspbmc), and all Roku boxes (via the Plex Channel).

  • Added inexpensive enclosures to 2 unused hard drives to let them serve as external storage for digital content.

  • Previously negotiated a $50/month cable bill reduction for a year, followed by another $10/month reduction after all the above steps were done. You can bargain more effectively if you show the customer service rep that you have done your homework and are ready to act.

The bill is down from $215/month in April (TV/phone/internet) to $133/month (TV/internet) currently. That’s an $82/month, almost $1000 savings over the next year. The low-hanging fruit has been picked.

All these actions were expensive only in the time and effort it took to figure them out and make them happen, not in $$. I learned a lot, too, which was very satisfying.

(If my seeming obsession with $$ has suggested that we are in straitened circumstances, such is not the case. I get a kick out of seeing how much I can do with “found” and inexpensive resources, and cutting costs with minimal or no pain.)

Internet is a must-have. But we could save another $1000+/year by cutting the TV cable entirely.

To do so, a minimum WAF (wife acceptance factor) requirement would be reliable, user-friendly broadcast TV DVR in the den (my wife’s “office”).

Here are some improvements, combinations of which could make that possible. Each one could entail significant expenditure and/or handyman skills and tools:

  • Wire the house for Ethernet.
  • Put up an external antenna.
  • Add an HDHomeRun networked digital TV tuner.
  • Add Tivo-type product as broadcast TV tuner/DVR.
  • Add a Simple.TV box
  • Add a computer with HDMI output.

Which combinations?

One of the simplest ways to go is with an indoor antenna (we might need an external in the den; our reception isn’t perfect there), and a Tivo Roamio for live broadcast TV/DVR. However, there is a Tivo fee of $15/month.

We do have two other rooms where an indoor amplified antenna suffices. An HDHomeRun tuner could be placed in one of those rooms. Then Ethernet wiring could deliver the broadcast signal and DVR recordings to a computer ($35 Raspberry Pi or Windows 7/8 PC, or somewhere in-between) attached to a den TV via HDMI. That is one way for us to avoid both an external antenna and monthly fee.

Simple.TV combines some of the virtues of each setup. You attach an antenna and an external hard drive for DVR recording. It connects to your network via Ethernet. View over the Simple.TV Roku channel. Monthly fee is $5/month. Here is a 9/22/2014  Wired update on Simple.TV in comparison to Tablo DVR and Channel Master DVR+.

(I have considered replacing the TV in our den, a 2002 vintage 36″ flat tube HDTV without digital tuner, since it can only handle component, S-video and composite video inputs, not HDMI. To get around this, I have tried two different HDMI-to-component video converters without success. An HDFury Gamer 2 Component likely would work, but at a cost of $160, I may hold off until I reach a decision. Simple.TV would not require a converter.)

The cord-cutting crux of the matter remains: can we (especially my wife) do without the Essential (aka basic and extended) cable stations. If we can’t, then none of the above would enable us to cut the TV cable.

The most we could cut would be “Advanced” DVR/HD service, keeping only analog, saving about $15. And analog is an unadvertised feature that could go away at any time as the cable service evolves. Not a huge reward vs. the cost of bringing broadcast TV DVR to the den.

Of course, there is the “TV gypsy” path, moving from cable to dish and back every year or so to get special new customer deals. But by going away for at least 30 days, you become eligible for the deals. You could use Roku and broadcast TV to “survive” the 30 days. Maybe you could survive a lot longer.

2014-09-22 11.38.39

L to R, top: Roku, digital TV converter, remote A/B switch. Bottom: Harmony remote, manual A/B, X10 receiver.

This is our bedroom TV, fed since 2002 by a cable box at a charge of $8.50/month, which works out to over $1200(?!) for those years.

Here’s how I replaced the cable box using set-top boxes with one-time-only costs.

In the middle on top is a Mediasonic HW-150PVR HomeWorx Digital TV Converter Box with PVR (about $35). This provides HD as well as SD digital content. If you have a newer TV, it’s built-in.

The PVR (DVR) part functions, but was just too primitive for WAF (wife acceptance factor) in the den, so the box was demoted to the bedroom, where it works just fine.

We use a flat, square, amplified HDTV indoor antenna. You may not find an amplified antenna necessary. There is a noticeable, though not huge difference.

I found a location for the antenna where all the good stations have decent signal strength. You must experiment. If it doesn’t work well enough for you, an attic or outdoor antenna may be needed.

Broadcast TV might well be, and probably should be totally adequate for your bedroom, but we have other content available.

The leftmost set-top box is a Roku, which lets us take advantage of our Netflix, Amazon Video, and Hulu subscriptions, as well as all our local content on the free Plex channel. On this old TV, we have Roku on channel 91, an equivalent of L1 or L2 line-ins on “newer” sets.

Since we still have a cable subscription (though only one converter box/DVR in the den), we can still get the old analog stations by hooking up to the cable outlet without a converter box. We see channels 2-63, pretty much the basic and extended cable of the 1990s, (now called “Essentials”; what were once luxuries are now necessities?) Together with broadcast TV, especially the new digital subchannels, we have a full complement of channels available in the bedroom.

On the right-hand side, to switch between broadcast TV and analog cable, we have a remote control A/B switch for 75 ohm coax cable. The cost was less than $10, amazingly. I use one in our theater room, too.

I described the funky little UFO box on the far right in a previous post about our workout room TV. Since we use it infrequently in the bedroom, the manual A/B switch is adequate for it.

2014-09-22 11.42.05

Harmony “soft” buttons

It would be highly impractical to keep a bagful of remotes at the bedside to operate all this. I was able to shoehorn all these functions into the same Logitech Harmony 890 remote I use in the much more complex theater room.

I created the blue screen-labelled “soft” buttons to do important functions that could not be logically assigned to the other buttons: power on/off for the TV and converter box, remote A/B switching, special Roku buttons, and TV auto-shutoff timer setup. The buttons needed for changing channels, navigating the Roku and converter box, etc., are assigned to the “hard” buttons.

Sounds complicated (I did make a chart of the buttons for my wife), but it seems fairly natural to us both now.

(9/29: Bought a Logitech Harmony 650 for $34 on eBay to have a dedicated remote for this TV. Big improvement.)

She can again watch Mrs. Bucket or Basil Fawlty on our own Plex channel Sunday nights, which endeared the arrangement to her.

Another monthly charge eliminated.

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.