Cutting the cable (or satellite dish) is much easier than most of us think and it can be set up with just a few pieces of equipment and can be active in less than half a day and watch many of your favorite shows and even watch sports. A few months ago my family and I decided to cut the cable and are now saving almost $84 a month ($1,005 a year) by going with over the air / streaming instead and we really haven’t missed much.
In this post I’ll walk you through all the steps you need to set up. For your convenience I’ll link to the equipment on Amazon when possible but most of what you need is available in electronics stores like Best Buy or in department stores like Walmart or Target.
Table of Contents
What Equipment Do I Need?
The typical cable cutter’s setup consists of the following items…
- An HD digital antenna for local channels
- A cable modem and router (preferably with WiFi)
- A streaming media player
- A streaming content service
- Over the air (OTA) DVR Recording equipment (Optional)
How Do I Watch Local Channels?
Remember the government’s “Switch To Digital” initiative a few years ago? This pushed TV networks to broadcast their signal in digital instead of the old analog signals the rabbit ears used to pick up and as a result you can now get crystal clear HD signal absolutely free if you use a digital antenna.
What type of antenna do I need?
To receive local channels over the air (OTA) you’ll need either an indoor or outdoor digital antenna. If you use an outdoor antenna you may be able to use your existing cable line to send signal throughout your home but you’ll need to be able to install it, probably on your roof. If you hate ladders like I do you’ll need an indoor antenna for each TV.
A typical indoor digital antennas is roughly the size of a sheet of paper and costs between 17 and $100 (roughly) depending on how powerful you need it to be. If you live close to your local station’s broadcast towers then you can get away with a less expensive version but the further away you live the more powerful antenna you’ll need.
There are a few models you could choose from but I’ve tested the Mohu Leaf and the AmazonBasics HDTV antennas and they both worked great (note: we live within 25 miles of a medium sized city so your antenna may vary based on where you are).
The best brand of antenna is the Mohu Leaf digital antenna which features models that range from 25 miles to 60 miles and cost between $38 and $150. AmazonBasics also makes a nice antenna with models that range from 25 miles to 60 miles and range in price from $18 to $105 depending on which model you choose. We live close to a medium sized city so we went with the 25 mile AmazonBasics model and it works great.
To use the antenna all you need to do is screw the coaxial cable from the antenna in to the back of your TV, switch your TV’s input to antenna and scan for your local channels.
I would recommend testing out your antenna before cutting the cable to make sure you can get your local channels. If you’re having trouble picking up channels you may need to move the antenna around for best results. Placement near an unobstructed window is your best bet. Some houses made of brick and/or metal may have issues, so be sure to test in a few locations around the house to see which works best.
If you do have trouble receiving channels with an indoor antenna you can also try an outdoor antenna. I haven’t been able to test any outdoor models yet but the Winegard HD7694P model has been recommended by someone I spoke with who lived 45 miles away from their local stations and they were very happy with it.
Overall we were really surprised at how clear the broadcast picture was – it’s actually clearer than most cable carrier’s signals because they compress it – and I’m sure you’ll be impressed too.
Streaming TV, Movies and Other Content
To stream your television you have a few different options. Since we’re talking about cutting the cable I’ll focus on watching on your television but please note that most services will let you stream content on your phone, tablet or computer.
To get started with streaming you’ll need an internet connection, a streaming media player and a subscription to a streaming content service.
What Kind Of Internet Connection Do I Need?
By now most of us have internet in our homes (or at least available) but not all internet connections are created equally so you want to make sure you have a decent connection since the quality of the device you choose will only be as good as the quality of your internet connection.
When we tested out the services and devices below we used a 20mbps connection (which is about average) to test all of these, but more is always better. If you’re not sure how much you need, 5 mbps for every streaming TV is a good rule of thumb so if you’re planning on streaming 4 TVs at the same time you’ll want a 20mbps connection. Always test your internet first to make sure it works though because any number of factors can affect your signal quality.
Most internet service providers will give (or most likely lease) you a modem and/or wireless router so you can use theirs or buy your own. The advantage to buying your own is that you can save the monthly lease fee, but we’ll discuss that in a separate post. For now just be aware that most modems and/or routers will work just fine.
Note: We’ll get in to the streaming devices in a minute but if you’re planning on using any of the streaming sticks (Roku stick, Fire TV stick or Chromecast) then you’ll need to make sure you have a WiFi connection available since these devices can not be connected via ethernet cable. Roku 3, Fire TV box and Apple TV can all be connected via cable.
What Streaming Media Player Should I Buy?
There are a number of streaming media players available on the market today, plus there are “Smart TV’s” and some gaming systems can be used to stream content, but most cord cutters will want a device specifically for streaming content so that’s what we’ll cover here.
All of these players do essentially the same thing, with a few minor differences and which one is “best” depends on what you’re looking to do with it, so we’ll go over them briefly so you can make that decision for yourself.
Please note: you’ll want to make sure that your TV has at least one HDMI input to use these players. Don’t worry, most TV’s made in the last 10 years have at least one.
Roku is one of the original streaming media devices, and also one of the most universally accepted among streaming services. Roku features thousands of available channels (some requiring a subscription) including all of the popular options like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and Sling TV. If you’re new to streaming and aren’t sure which box to buy this is a good one to start with.
There are a few versions of the Roku player but the most recent are the Roku 3 Streaming Media Player (around $100) and the Roku 3500R Streaming Stick (around $50) which plugs neatly in to the back of the TV. The Roku 3 is a faster and more powerful device than the stick version, which can be a tad slow at times. If you don’t mind having a box visible I’d recommend the Roku 3, but both work well so it’s really a matter of preference.
Like all devices Apple makes, the Apple TV features a very pretty and user friendly interface and gives you access to many popular channels like Netflix and Hulu and if you’re looking to use your iPhone/iPad to stream content, pictures or videos to your TV or if you have iTunes content you want to watch then this is a good bet. At the moment the Apple TV will cost you around $100.
There are a few services conspicuously absent from the list including Sling TV (coming soon) and Amazon Prime (not likely coming soon). The Apple TV hardware has also not been updated in a while so it may be outdated sooner than later if they release a new version. There is also no streaming stick version available for Apple TV at this time.
Amazon Fire TV
Like Roku the Fire TV comes in both set top version (around $100) and Fire TV Stick (around $40). The Fire TV is a very fast device that works very well, but it steers users toward the Amazon Prime Instant Video services while tucking most other services off in to the apps section.
That said, almost all popular streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Sling TV are available and work well with the device. If you’re an Amazon power user then this is a great device for you, but it also works well for most other services.
If you’re looking to stream content from your phone, tablet or computer then the Google Chromecast is a good option for you. Besides the low price ($25-35) Chromecast is a relatively simple plug and play stick that is easy to install and use, but if you’re planning on being a full time streamer it’s a little light weight.
How Do I Connect My Player To My TV?
Connecting your media player is a really easy process. All of them connect your device to your TV via a HDMI cable or in the HDMI port itself if you’re using a stick. Once you’re connected just plug it in to the wall and connect it to the internet either via cable or WiFi connection and you’re done. The process varies slightly by device but all of them can be set up within a matter of minutes even if you’re not the tech savvy type.
Please note that some devices don’t come with an HDMI cable, so you’ll want to make sure you have one handy unless you’re using a stick device. HDMI cables are all basically the same and are fairly cheap. They can be purchased online at Amazon.com or at nearly any electronics store or department store.
What Streaming Services Can I Use?
Now that you’ve chosen a streaming media player, it’s time to give yourself something to watch. As I mentioned there are literally thousands of options to choose from – some free and some paid – but we’ll focus on the most popular services for now.
When it comes to streaming video Netflix is usually the first name that comes to mind, and with good reason. With a huge selection of movies and TV shows – including their own House of Cards and Orange Is The New Black, Netflix is the standard bearer among streaming services. The service runs for $8.99 a month (with additional options for premium channels and/or DVD delivery) for unlimited streaming of everything in their catalog. If you want to test out their service you can get a free 30 day trial.
Amazon Prime Instant Video
Amazon offers their own Netflix-like service as well in Amazon Prime Instant Video which includes not only their own catalog of movies and shows, but it also includes free two day shipping for all qualified Amazon purchases. Amazon charges $100 per year for their service, which works out to $8.33 a month – right in line with Netflix. If you want to test it out Amazon will give you a free 30 day trial.
While Netflix and Amazon offer streaming movies and TV shows around their DVD release date, Hulu Plus offers many current TV shows as soon as one day after original air date. They have a wide variety of popular TV shows including many on Fox, ABC, NBC and FX, among others. Hulu Plus currently costs $7.99 a month. (Please note that Hulu does not offer all network shows on their service so I would recommend testing it out before cutting the cable cord.) You can test out Hulu Plus for 7 days.
The Dish Network backed newcomer Sling TV is taking the streaming industry by storm, by offering a limited selection of live streaming cable channels like ESPN, ESPN2, HGTV, Food Network, ABC Family, Disney Channel and a few others for just $20 a month with no contract with a free 7 day trial period.
We’ve been testing Sling since it’s public release and I have to say it’s worked very well and while there have been a couple of very minor hiccups and it’s worked extremely well overall. I’ll write up a full summary of our test in a separate post.
SlingTV is also offering a special promotion where they will give you a free Roku Stick or Fire TV stick, or give you a discount on a Roku 3 or Fire TV box if you pre-pay for 3 months of their service. After using Sling for their 7 day trial we chose this option and got a Roku Stick within a week.
If you’re a baseball fan who loves to watch games for every major league team on your TV, phone, tablet or computer then MLB.tv is a service for you. You can watch streaming MLB games in HD and even pause and rewind. I’ve used the service for years and like it a lot.
The service runs around $130 per season, which is about $40 less than most cable companies charge. Instead of a free trial period MLB.tv offers a free game of the day on most days throughout the season so feel free to pop in and check it out for yourself.
The only issue is teams in your local broadcast area are blacked out. If you’re a fan of a team from another area like I am it’s not an issue but if you are it might not be an ideal fit.
Other Streaming Options – There are literally thousands of choices for streaming content so we can’t list them all, but other popular options include:
Kids programming – PBS Kids, Sesame Street Go
Movies and TV – HBO Go (coming soon), Vudu, Crackle, RedBox
Sports – NBA League Pass, NHL GameCenter Live, WWE Network
Connecting Your Player With Your Device
Once you’ve signed up for a service you’ll need to connect it with your streaming media player to get the content on your TV. Most of the media players already have an app for the popular services, but if you don’t see it follow your device’s instructions to add it in. Be sure your player and service are compatible to avoid any issues (ie… Amazon Prime and Apple TV are not compatible).
When you log in to a service for the first time on your player, you may be asked to log in via one of two methods – with your username/password on screen or sync via a website.
If you need to sync via a website your device will ask you to visit their login website and enter a code specific to your advice (which will be displayed on screen). When you enter the code your device should refresh and you’ll have full access to their content library. Fortunately you should only need to do this once per device unless you reset the device.
How Do I DVR My Shows?
One of the biggest concerns most people have about cutting the cable cord is about DVR’ing their favorite shows. Depending on which shows you watch you may not need to DVR since services like Hulu Plus offer shows on demand, but there are a few options to DVR over the air programming. Please note that I haven’t tested these services yet as we elected to go without DVR so if you have any feedback on them please leave it in the comments!
TiVo is the biggest name in DVR and fortunately for cable cutters the Roamio device offers over the air (OTA) recording for $15 a month. This gives you access to TiVo’s on screen guide, and the ability to schedule shows to record.
There are two Roamio devices you can use for OTA DVR. The standard Roamio box runs around $180 and lets you record 4 shows at once up to 75 hours of programming. This box also lets you record through regular cable/dish services as well. TiVo also recently released a $50 OTA only version of their device for cord cutters that lets you record 75 hours of shows.
The drawback to the Roamio is that it is only available on the one box unless you buy a TiVo Mini to extend it to other rooms. You will also need to pay an additional fee on top of the $15 a month to do this. Otherwise I’ve heard nothing but great things about the service.
Another option for over the air DVR is the Tablo TV DVR service. The Tablo has a lower monthly fee than the Roamio at just $5 a month but it requires more up front expense as the unit runs for around $200 for the 2-Tuner device or $300 for the 4-Tuner device plus you need to supply your own external hard drive for the device. If you don’t want to pay for their $5 guide you can use the device without it, but it will function like the old VCR’s did where you record from a start time to end time and that’s it.
If you aren’t sure whether or not you’ll need a DVR service I would recommend making a list of shows that you watch and then look in to how many of those shows are available on demand from a service like Hulu Plus, or if you don’t mind waiting a year or so on a service like Netflix or Amazon Prime. We elected to go without a DVR for now, but we may choose to add one in the future.
The Best Is Yet To Come
Although streaming entertainment is still in it’s infancy, it’s clearly the wave of the future. The number of cable cutters are growing every day and the cable/dish providers know it which is why they’re fighting it so hard. Fortunately for us the number of available a la carte TV option is growing every day with services like HBO Go on the way in the very near future. So if you’re sick of spending $100-200 every month for cable you barely watch why not cut the cable and use that money for something better?