The most intimidating part of cutting cable TV is figuring out how you’ll get all your favorite shows. Oh, intellectually, you probably understand they’re all available “online”, but how do you reconcile that with your brain, which is used to picking up your remote and just cruising through 500 channels? Online programming is offered through a variety of services with silly-sounding names, like iTunes, Hulu and Netflix. What does it take to access these services just as easily as you used to access the cable box?
You need some sort of internet-enabled setup for your TV. One of the most heavily-marketed solutions is the “Smart TV”, which I’ll rule out right away. These are consistently the worst possible ways to access streaming services, with clunky designs and poor long-term support. In addition, it’s just a flawed concept: I don’t want my TV to be smart, I want it to be as dumb as possible. It only has one job, to display whatever content I give it. Let the boxes underneath do all the thinking… and for this task, I nominate four different choices: the Home Theater PC, the Modern Game Console, the connected Blu Ray player, and the set-top box.
Home Theater PC – The option that literally can’t fail, if you’re willing to put the work into it. Small form-factor PCs and HDMI compatibility have finally made it easy to slap a full-fledged desktop computer under your TV, giving your TV access to any programming that could be streamed through a PC (read: everything), the wide world of PC gaming, and even a large chunk of console gaming via the legally ambiguous path of emulation.
The weakness of HTPCs is, unfortunately, that for all their strengths, you’re still ultimately using a Desktop PC in the living room. Some people can’t get used to forgoing the remote control to use a keyboard and mouse (I’ll admit, after trying it for 5 years, I just found it to be more trouble than it was worth). Then you have all the hassles of PC use, such as software updates and virus checks, thrown into your TV time. Believe it or not, a lot of the general public still struggles with basic PC skills, so asking them to adopt the HTPC is a giant step backward in terms of their enjoyment.
Bottom line: This option can give you anything, but it asks a lot of you as well.
Playstation/Xbox/WiiU – Video game consoles are, on paper, the absolute best design for streaming. Heck, nearly every console since the original Xbox was designed to be an online media center. It sounds great in theory, because the interface is already designed for a living-room setting, and the hardware is the most powerful you can get without going the route of building a HTPC. There really should be nothing you could ask of a console that it wouldn’t be able to deliver on.
Where these things fail is on execution and focus. Game consoles are sold as “media centers” early in their life cycle (which is usually about 5 years), but soon after the games become the main focus. There’s no real incentive for the publishers to continue to grow and develop the multimedia features when the console itself starts to reach the end of its shelf life. That’s one reason the Wii-U’s TVii feature has been largely forgotten, and the Xbox One’s OTA tuner isn’t supported on the 360, even though it would be trivial to do so. If you’re using a console as a TV device, you need to get used to the idea that you will never be a priority.
Bottom line: Game consoles are relatively short-lived formats compared to TV standards. The two simply don’t have compatible schedules.
Connected Blu-Ray Player – I’m probably going to get a few scoffs and perhaps even a guffaw at this, but I steadfastly refuse to ever give up on physical media. For all the advantages streaming gives us, I contend that there are equal and complimentary advantages to owning your content outright. So I always suggest having a BluRay (and by extension DVD) player under your TV. As an added bonus, most of them do offer streaming services like the game consoles, but often in a much more streamlined fashion.
Unfortunately, the features tend to follow the same dynamic as the game consoles: offered enthusiastically at first, but gradually forgotten as time goes on. They also tend to be limited to what features are installed out of the box—unlike HTPCs or game consoles, software updates on BluRay players are comparatively rare, and usually are done to fix bugs instead of add features.
Bottom line: A lot of the same flaws as the game consoles, but still a solid contender. Much cheaper than a game console as well.
Set-top box– Enter the new hotness: the Roku, FireTV, AppleTV, and ChromeStick. Granted, they’re unimpressive technically, obviously designed just for streaming and only streaming, but what they lack in specs they make up for in ease of use. The worst of the worst of these boxes is way more intuitive than any cable box I’ve ever had to use! Not only that, they’re CHEAP! At under $100, in some cases, under $50, you can try any and all of them out to see which ones fit your needs the best.
If there’s any disadvantage to these, it’s that each manufacturer seems to have a vested interest in using their box to push their own services: the AppleTV is first and foremost an iTunes portal, FireTV is a vessel for Amazon, ChromeStick for Google, and so on. This doesn’t negate their usefulness, it’s just worth considering when you wonder why no single box seems to offer every service. It sounds nice in theory, but economic reality makes it unlikely.
Bottom Line: Even if they’re imperfect, the low price and ease of use make having at least one of these gizmos highly recommended.
Conclusion: Pick two, any two.
Obviously no one solution is going to cover all the bases, and that’s unlikely to change soon. However, most TVs offer at least two HDMI ports, so find the two choices that appeal to you most and run with them. At first, it’s likely to be a bit confusing trying to remember which device provides what feature, but after a while you’re likely to start to appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of each. For instance, in our house, each TV has an AppleTV and a BluRay player (granted, one of the BluRay players is a PS3). Between the two, we have access to iTunes, Amazon, PBS Online, and YouTube, which seems to be all we really want. No one ever said you had to settle on just one. Instead of surfing 500 channels, 490 of which mean nothing to you, grab two solid options and start actually enjoying TV again.
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