Life without cable, an Internet TV Guide

 INTERNET TV GUIDE [UPDATED OCT. 21, 2011]

I have been without cable TV service since April of 2010. One of the so-called TV cord cutters.

So for you, I’ll share my view (from the future perhaps). Here I’ve compiled a guide for those of us brave enough to live life without cable. In both written form and a chart for easier comparison.

Note: due to the complexity of these devices and the many different options, levels and subscription plans, some of this information may vary. For example, Xbox 360 requires no monthly subscription. But to access certain features, like its ESPN Internet App, an Xbox Live Gold Membership (roughly $3/mo.) is required. Additionally, Netflix starts at $7.99 for streaming-only, but an additional $7.99 for DVDs by mail, which I included below. I’m also focusing my guide on external devices, per se, and not TV sets that now have some of these offerings built-in, including wireless internet connectivity.

And now, a guide to Internet TV by Eric Zimmett.

[Click the guide to view full-screen.]

This guide is not meant to be a complete list of Internet TV services, but rather an overview of some of the best devices and services on the market. It does not include Internet-connected television sets, only external devices. As more services become available, and as current services change, this guide will be updated.

eab-internet-tv-guide-8-20111

CATEGORIES EXPLAINED: Unit Cost notes the cost of the device upfront, if there is one. Subscription lists the monthly cost to use the service. In some cases, it was an annual subscription. In those cases, I divided by 12 (thanks Math 004!) to put everything on a level playing field. Netflix notes whether or not the service has access to Netflix. A subscription to Netflix is still required. Hulu Plus notes whether or not the service has access to Hulu Plus. A subscription to Hulu Plus is still required. I-Net Videos refers to internet video found throughout the web like cbs.com, espn.com, etc and whether or not the device has free access to those videos. I-Net Apps notes whether or not the device includes its own set of internet apps like Break.com, Facebook, Twitter, USA Today, CNN, etc. Internet apps vary by device. Blu-ray Player notes whether the device plays Blu-ray discs. Rentals shows whether or not the service offers DVDs or Blu-ray discs by mail. Pay-per-view tells whether the service offers movies or TV shows on a per view basis instead versus by-subscription.

And now, the details…and “my take” on each.

Life Without Cable TV, The Landscape:

Streaming Services [content subscription plans]

Netflix* [subscription-based, streaming, plus DVDs and Blu-Ray discs by mail]

Users pay monthly for the Nextlix service, with a number of pricing options, starting at $7.99 for streaming-only, $7.99 for DVDs by mail. Netflix offers the largest catalogue of moves and a growing list of TV shows. No minimum contract length. No early cancelation fees.

My take: If you are going to go with only one subscription service, Netflix is it. The largest library, the best quality streaming plus DVD and Blu-ray by mail. Netflix has it figured out.

Hulu Plus* [subscription-based, streaming]

Users pay monthly for the Hulu Plus service. Cost is $7.99 per month. Hulu Plus offers the largest selection of TV shows and current season of TV shows. No minimum contract length. No early cancelation fees.

My take: If you are a Netflix subscriber, Hulu Plus is the perfect complement, offering you the new content, the current season that you don’t get with Netflix. Not nearly the quantity and streaming quality of Netflix, but Hulu is a great service.

Amazon Instant Video* [requires subscription to Amazon Prime, streaming]

Amazon Instant Video requires a subscription to Amazon Prime, which at first included only free 2-day shipping from Amazon.com. Amazon now lists Amazon Instant Video “free” with Amazon Prime membership. But since this isn’t a guide for the best free-shipping methods, Amazon Instant Video is about $7 per month (the price for Amazon Prime membership).

My take: Amazon Instant Video offers many of the same titles as Netflix (just not nearly as many). So if you’ve got Netflix, there’s no reason at the moment, other than free two-day shipping, to get Amazon Instant Video.

Internet-library streaming [connect with the internet’s library of videos, plus Netflix and Hulu Plus]

Google TV [purchase unit with Google TV built-in from Sony and Logitech, no subscription, streaming player]

One of the pricier options for streaming video, starting around $300. Sony and Logitech each make a box that when connected to your TV will open you up to the library of videos on the internet in addition to Netflix and Hulu Plus. When your set is hooked up to Google TV, the service creates a special page for every TV series, i.e. Men of a Certain Age, which lets you quickly watch any episode whether it’s on the web or cable (if you have a cable subscription). Note: Google TV also comes built-in to certain TV sets, but we’re focusing this report on external devices.

My take: Google TV’s biggest strength is merging Internet TV and Cable TV into a complete video experience. Since I am without cable, Google TV doesn’t really do it for me. But if you’re looking to get the best of both worlds, Google TV is definitely worth a look.

Boxee Box [purchase unit, no subscription, streaming player]

Boxee Box by D-Link is a nice player. Like Google TV, it connects your TV to the internet and all the videos that come with it. In addition to Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon VOD, etc.

My take: Boxee is a major contender in my mind (and in the running to be my next player). Boxee is clearly trying to set itself apart from the competition. Clever name. Clever box (check it out if you haven’t seen it). And a lot of great content. A couple noteworthy features: Boxee comes with a remote control with a QWERTY keyboard on the back, perfect for searching for a particular show or movie without having to navigate to each character with a remote control. Another advanced feature is Facebook sync (plus Twitter and Boxee Network), which displays what you and your friends are watching, allowing recommendations, etc. A little creepy, yes. But I believe this is an opt-in feature.

PlayOn* [no purchase required, free download, subscription-based, must have one of the following: Wii, Playstation 3, Xbox 360 or Google TV]

PlayOn is a cheap alternative to Boxee Box, Orb and Roku, connecting your TV to the internet through an external device like a Blu-ray player or video-game console – which gives you access to internet video from CBS, Comedy Central, TBS, Adult Swim, Spike TV, ESPN, CNN, PBS, Cartoon Network, YouTube, MTV, Pandora, Vevo, Revision3, SyFy, Food Network, TED and more, in addition to Netflix and Hulu Plus. PlayOn is a little more complex in that you have to download an application to your computer, then run the application and sync it with your compatible Wi-Fi device (PS3, Blu-ray, etc).

My take: I just picked up my subscription to PlayOn (free 14-day trial, about $3 per month thereafter) and I love it. Streaming quality depends very much on your connection speed, but for the price, you can’t beat the content it offers. It takes some know-how, as it requires not only a separate device to stream (PS3, Xbox 360, Wii, etc) but also a computer and Wi-Fi network. But for the money, it offers great internet content to your TV.

Pure VOD (video-on-demand) [today’s pay-per-view]

Vudu* [video-rental service, pay per video]

Some people refer to all streaming video as VOD (video-on-demand) but I try to differentiate it from subscription-based unlimited streaming. VOD lets you rent or purchase movies (per title). Vudu is available on a number of devices including Blu-ray players, Video-game systems, and all the Boxees, Orbs and Rokus out there.

My take: Today’s Pay-Per-View. I’ve rented movies a few times. The service is easy to use, quality was good, depends again on your connection speed. Prices, however, were average, $3.99 per rental for SD quality, $4.99 for HD on most titles.

Blockbuster On-Demand [video-rental service, pay per video]

Similar to Vudu and Amazon Video On-Demand, available on a number of devices including Blu-ray players, Video-game systems, and all the Boxees, Orbs and Rokus out there. Blockbuster is trying to save itself by moving into the internet streaming biz. There’s just about 10 years too late.

NEW: Blockbuster was acquired by Dish Network in April of 2011. In September, the company introduced Blockbuster Movie Pass. First touted as a Netflix-killer, the official news was less than impressive. This service is now an add-on to a Dish Network subscription for an additional $10 per month. Big disappointment from the Dish/Blockbuster acquisition pairing.

My take: Have not tried Blockbuster On-Demand or Blockbuster Movie Pass. But I don’t think I’m missing anything.

Amazon Video On-Demand* [video-rental service, pay per video]

Similar to Vudu and Blockbuster On-Demand. Amazon VOD is available on a number of devices including Blu-ray players, Video-game systems, and all the Boxees, Orbs and Rokus out there. Amazon’s extended its services to the video realm. In addition to buying DVDs or Blu-ray discs on Amazon.com, you’re now able to stream videos instantly.

My take: Amazon could have something here. If it’s able to compete with Netflix and Hulu Plus with content, Amazon will be a contender.

Media Streaming Devices – the Big Players [each with its own set of internet apps]

Sony* [purchase unit, no subscription, streaming player plus blu-ray player]

Upper-level Blu-ray players allow you to connect to the internet, often wirelessly, and stream video content from a variety of sources. Each company also has its own set of Internet Apps, including Netflix and Hulu Plus. Before buying a Blu-ray player, make sure it is able to connect to the Internet and access streaming video as not all players have this capability.

My take: I’ve got a Sony BDP-S570 Blu-ray Player. Blu-ray quality is excellent. Plus I can wirelessly stream movies, music and podcasts. Including Netflix and Hulu Plus (subscription required for those) as well as a selection of Sony Internet apps like YouTube, Blip.tv, Crackle, Dr. Oz, WIRED, Daily Motion, eHow.com and more, free.

Samsung [purchase unit, no subscription, streaming player plus blu-ray player]

Upper-level Blu-ray players allow you to connect to the internet, often wirelessly, and stream video content from a variety of sources. Each company also has its own set of Internet Apps, including Netflix and Hulu Plus. Before buying a Blu-ray player, make sure it is able to connect to the Internet and access streaming video as not all players have this capability.

My take: Samsung is leading the way in the internet apps game, particularly with its Internet@TV. The company is really ahead of the curve (just introduced a Wi-Fi connected refrigerator with Pandora). Watch for more great things from Samsung.

Vizio [purchase unit, no subscription, streaming player plus blu-ray player]

Upper-level Blu-ray players allow you to connect to the internet, often wirelessly, and stream video content from a variety of sources. Each company also has its own set of Internet Apps, including Netflix and Hulu Plus. Before buying a Blu-ray player, make sure it is able to connect to the Internet and access streaming video as not all players have this capability.

My take: Vizio players are usually lower in price than other models, like their TV sets, and they offer some quality apps. Vizio internet apps (via) include Netflix, Hulu Plus, Blockbuster, Amazon VOD, NBA Game Time, Flickr, Pandora, Rhapsody, Vudu, Twitter, Yahoo and eBay.

Apple TV* [purchase unit, no subscription, streaming player]

Apple TV just redesigned its little black box (smaller, more portable?) but it still packs a big punch. Apple TV will get you Netflix and a few VOD options (pay-per-view) and YouTube, Mobile Me, and Flickr. The device also lets you sling media from an iPad to your TV.

My take: Like all Apple products, this thing is slick. Navigation and quality is smooth and top-notch. Recommended for Apple fans or anyone looking to add Netflix to the home and isn’t swayed by Roku’s large library of Internet video.

Orb TV [purchase unit, no subscription, streaming player]

Orb is slightly more sophisticated than a few of the players in this guide, but that also means it’s more complicated. Orb connects you with the Internet’s library of video content, Netflix and Hulu streaming plus Sirius XM Radio but requires a little help from your computer (like PlayOn).

My take: Orb is a little more complicated than other devices, but offers some nice features. Comparable to PlayOn, just more advanced with a better interface and more features.

Roku* [purchase unit, no subscription, streaming player]

FOR MY POST ON ROKU, CLICK HERE.

No PC needed here. Roku is as simple as it gets. Like many players in this guide it connects wirelessly to your network. And Roku starts at just $59.99. Roku also offers one of the finer collection of Internet apps including: Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, Pandora, Roku Newscaster, CNet, Blip.tv, Break.com, Crackle, Facebook Photos, Flickr, Last.fm, NASA, Picasa, Revision3, TuneIn Radio and, actually, a ton of other applications.

Roku is the most advanced player I’ve used, incorporating premium channels like Netflix and Hulu Plus with free content from Break.com, Crackle and Newscaster. Newscaster displays up-to-date video content from the major news networks. FOX News, ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, PBS and more. One such source, Al Jazeera, even streams live in the mornings. News 3, Channel 3000, is a local news channel in Wisconsin. It is the first local news channel offered through the internet and into your living room.

My take: For anyone even considering ditching the cable box, Roku is a must. Roku is one of the least expensive options for streaming video and video-on-demand, with its first player starting at $59.99. Roku just released the Roku 2 line but I’m partial to the last release.

Video-game systems [with access to Netflix and Hulu Plus. Wii is the only system without access to Hulu Plus]

Playstation 3* [purchase unit, subscription required for Netflix or Hulu Plus]

Playstation 3 is the ultimate home entertainment system, built-in wireless connectivity, Blu-ray player and gaming.

My take: The PS3 is a great Blu-ray player and one of the best Netflix players on the market. Users can also upload their own videos, music and pictures to the system for easy viewing on a TV.

Xbox 360* [purchase unit, subscription required for Netflix and Hulu Plus. Xbox Live Gold required for ESPN3]

Xbox 360 does probably the best job of incorporating video-on-demand. Great video-game console able to connect wirelessly to Netflix or Hulu Plus. Xbox also features its own small line of Internet apps including ESPN3 that come with its Xbox Live Gold subscription. ESPN3 on Xbox 360 is exceptional, featuring a ton of sports content updated daily.

In October, Xbox announced a slew of partnerships with “nearly 40 world class TV and entertainment providers coming to Xbox LIVE including:  Bravo, Comcast, HBO GO, Verizon FiOS and Syfy in the U.S.; BBC TV and radio in the U.K.; Telefónica in Spain; Rogers On Demand in Canada; Televisa in Mexico; ZDF in Germany; and MediaSet in Italy, that will begin rolling out to consoles in more than 20 countries this holiday.”

More on this Xbox news soon….

My take:  Xbox Rocks. The new content on the way is only going to make it more a home entertainment system. Though some content will require a pay-TV subscription. Xbox Live Gold Membership is required to gain access to ESPN3 but some apps are free. Kinect also offers another way to control some of these apps including Netflix. Though connect, users can navigate Netflix with hand gestures and voice commands. 

Wii* [purchase unit, subscription required for Netflix]

Video-game console able to connect to Netflix. Wii is the only video-game system on the market that does not support HD video, making the quality the lowest of the bunch.

My take: Wii is lagging behind a bit in the streaming game, with access to Netflix but still no Hulu Plus. Wii is now the only system with no Hulu Plus support. Netflix browsing on Wii is a little awkward, not quite as streamlined as Playstation 3. Though a recent update made this experience much better.

*I have personally used the services or devices noted in this report (and marked with an asterisk).

Sources: All of the websites for devices/services listed in this guide plus google.com, gizmodo.com

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