I can’t say when, but at some point, the cable companies broke my will to accept their horrible service. Was it when I took time off from work and the service guy never showed? Was it sitting in their office with a little tag displaying a number that would take 45 minutes to be called?
Yet, I know there is something to be said for the value of watching TV via cable. For one thing, one never has to change apps to watch a different channel. There is no distinction between broadcast and cable channels. They all appear in the same guide. With all the mistakes that the cable companies made, that was one thing they got entirely right.
Comcast, with its, Xfinity service started to move in the right direction. You could schedule the DVR from any device and watch your channels on any device. But if you want to cancel or change your subscription, there is equipment to return and automated answering systems to work through. They will make you pay for your disloyalty in royal inconvenience.
Spectrum offers streaming local channels where I live. I tried their service with the hidden fee (what’s a cable company without hidden fees). It was so buggy I quickly gave it up and went back to my antennas.
And we really can’t emphasize enough that, after that first promotional rate year, cable TV is stinking expensive.
Here is my dream. I have one channel guide for everything that is live now – over the top (OTT) cable channels or broadcast. That guide can also serve to schedule recording programs. Recording includes the options of new episodes only or includes repeats or just the one episode. For sports events the scheduling includes padding the beginning and end times.
There is also a Watch Next section that shows me which of my favorite shows I have not yet viewed. I can edit this list when I decide that show is no longer a favorite. This list includes recorded programs and programs that stream whether from Hulu, CBS All Access, Vue, Sling, DirecTV or another source. The Followshows app Tracker tab is a good example of how this would work.
One Guide to Rule Them All
To my knowledge none of the OTT services besides Sling integrates antenna channels with cable channels in their channel guide. As a work around, Sling coordinates with the AirTV or AirTV Player and an HD antenna. Why isn’t this the most exciting news in this article?
The AirTV guide only integrates with the Sling TV guide on mobile devices or the AirTV Player which connects directly to a solitary TV. It doesn’t work with Sling TV on your Roku or Apple TV (although both devices do support an AirTV freestanding app). If they worked on these big screen devices, the universal guide would have been their biggest selling point.
With all OTT services on a Roku or Apple TV, one has to change inputs on their TV or apps on their device to watch OTA TV. There is no unified guide except with Sling and AirTV and that is only mobile devices or the AirTV Player, which works with only one TV at a time requiring a Player and an antenna for every TV in the house.
Sling has My TV which includes recorded shows but not series you stream on Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon etc. Other OTT providers have some means to see which of your favorite shows you have yet to watch. The catch is that you need to open each of their apps to see which of the shows specific to that app are coming up.
Apple TV tries to fill this gap with their class leading and still flawed Apple TV App. Their ‘Up Next’ shows programs from Hulu, CBS All Access, PBS, CW and Amazon that are series you have watched in the past. Sadly, Netflix is absent from here. What’s missing besides Netflix? Shows from your OTT provider (e.g., Sling TV, DirecTV, Hulu Live, Vue, etc.).
Bonus: Use Movies Anywhere to bring all of your Vudu and Google Play movie and TV purchases into the Apple TV App alongside your iTunes purchased movies and TV episodes.
Roku’s My Feed is a much weaker compendium of shows available through your Roku channels or to buy or rent. Unlike the TV app, it does not offer movie previews to help you to decide if you want to follow an upcoming movie.
Neither the Apple TV App or My Feed include shows what you have on your OTT or OTA DVR.
There are a number of ways to enjoy broadcast TV. Typically, I watch only news, award shows, and sports live. CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox I watch commercial free through CBS All Access and Hulu Plus. That leaves the CW and PBS which each have their own app. But if you’re not inclined to pay for CBS and Hulu or to change apps to watch CW or PBS or to change inputs to watch live TV, what’s a viewer to do?
For OTA DVR, one could use a Tivo Roamio ($400) and change inputs on the TV to see what is on the DVR. Or, one could use a SiliconDust network tuner and NAS or always-on-computer, a Tablo network tuner, or a less known system. Most over the air (OTA) DVR services require a subscription if you want to have the kind of DVR options mentioned above. These services require an additional app to those already on your device in order to use them.
My preferred versions of the above network tuners are the SiliconDust Connect Quattro($150) paired with a WD My Cloud NAS or a Tablo 4 Tuner DVR ($250) paired with USB storage. The Quattro needs a $35 per year guide subscription to work best. The Tablo offers a $5 per month, $50 per year, or $150 lifetime guide subscription. Both of these can stream to smart TVs, set top boxes, or mobile devices.
There is no SiliconDust app for Roku or Apple TV. You could watch using the Plex app with a Plex Pass subscription ($5/month, $40/year, or $120/lifetime). The live TV and DVR Plex Pass approach only works with Android TV and iOS devices – not Roku or Apple TV, however. The even more costly Channels app ($25 plus an $8/month subscription) does allow one to watch live or recorded OTA programs from a SiliconDust network tuner on the Apple TV. The initial cost for that approach would be $175 for the tuner and the Channels app and then $35 per year for SiliconDust DVR service and $8 per month for the Channels app subscription. The subscriptions alone run about $131 per year – for now.
Tablo has both a Roku and Apple TV app that allows streaming live OTA channels as well as an OTA DVR. Is that worth an extra $100 and more expensive subscription?
If I only had a one TV household, I would add for consideration the Tivo Roamio which includes a lifetime guide subscription, but few people only have one TV. And even if you only have one TV the AirTV Player would beat out the Tivo because the AirTV Player integrates the Sling and AirTV program guides. (Tivo Roamio doesn’t work with any of the OTT services.)
If you’re paying $23.54 per month for CBS All Access and Hulu Plus commercial free, you are paying $282 each year. You would pay off the Tablo with a lifetime subscription ($400) in 17 months. After that it would be free. The SiliconDust and Channels app approach has a lower initial cost but ongoing subscription costs. The cumulative cost for this approach becomes cheaper than CBS and Hulu in about 10 months. (But with either the Tablo or SiliconDust DVRs you have to skip through commercials.)
Apple’s TV app cannot keep track of what you watch on the Channels, Plex, nor Tablo apps. It works beautifully with the Hulu and CBS apps. None of the OTA program guides integrate with your OTT channel guide either.
As much as I like putzing around with electronics, I don’t want to manage a set top box and a tuner and a DVR.
I wish that Apple TV offered YouTube in 4K. It’s just lame that doesn’t do so. However, the TV app more than compensates for this. With its hooks into CBS All Access, Hulu, the CW and PBS I can watch all of my time-delayed broadcast shows from one App. What I can’t do is record the evening news or late night ball games. On rare occasion I would like to do that.
Having said all of this, my sweet spot is the Apple TV 4K, with its awesome Apple TV App which integrates with the CBS All Access, Hulu, CW, and PBS apps for shows from broadcast TV. I only need to leave the Apple TV App to watch Sling, Netflix, or YouTube or to start watching a new-to-me television series. If I were on cable I would still have to leave my cable box to watch Netflix or YouTube, so mostly I’ve lost the unified program guide and having to change between Apple’s TV app and the Sling TV app. That’s a price I’m willing to pay to never wait on the cable guy, stand in line at the cable store, or go through all of the hoops of dealing with their customer service calling tree on the phone. Even though it is more expensive than using Tablo or SiliconDust, I save about $50 a month over what I was paying Spectrum for cable.
I have to admit the thought of ditching the need for an antenna at every TV is enough to make me consider buying a network tuner, too. I could put the antenna where I get the best reception and the network tuner somewhere out of sight. If I get the not-yet-widely-released AirTV, my Sling and AirTV program guides will be unified (possibly on Roku but definitely not on Apple TV) and I can stream to a device that is not on my home WiFi network. As an alternative, if I got a Hauppauge Cord Cutter, I could pause live TV or record broadcast TV straight to my Apple TV. Viewing the Cord Cutter outside its home network is a planned software upgrade for this year, but it isn’t yet available.
Or maybe I’ll just put Linux on an old Windows computer, use one of my old tuners, and setup a Plex Server.
Stay tuned to find out what I choose. (See what I did there?)
Fellow cord cutters, I would love to know how you handle simplifying your cable TV replacement. Feel free to reach me on Twitter (@tom4surfing).