The single most important objective for prospective cord cutters is to be able to view the same content we would on cable/satellite, except without cable/satellite and on as many platforms as possible (e.g. HDTV, Tablet, Smartphone, Computer etc.). The purpose of this article is to describe the tools you will need and steps you will take to access television content with out cable. I will discuss three important tools, a Digital Antenna, a home wireless internet connection and a mini PC or laptop. But first I want to make clear that the term “cord” in “cord cutting” really means a cable cord for the purpose of accessing television content, typically through one of the major cable or satellite service providers, such as Rogers, Bell, Shaw or Videotron (Comcast if your from the United States). If you use internet using cable or DSL from the big telcos, this is an issue I will address in part 4.
Most cable or satellite service providers typically sell far more channels than their customers would typically watch. In Canada, customers who want access to a small variety of channels are often forced to absorb the additional cost of channels that the customer may not watch. For example, if a package included 57 channels, with only 11 channels in which customers can select their specific programming, that’s 46 channels that customers have no control over what programming are included.
However, since the CRTC required major Canadian broadcasters to transition to a digital signal by August 31, 2011, Canadians living in urban centres now have an opportunity to access the most popular content through a digital antenna at no cost. Digital over-the-air (OTA) television channels are different from traditional bunny ears which often have mixed results with respect to quality of broadcast. Digital OTA typically broadcasts in the highest quality the TV can support. Broadcasters such as the CBC-Radio Canada, CTV or TVA broadcast on OTA in HD. Digital OTA does not have the “snow effect” typically found using bunny ears. Content on digital OTA either airs in perfect quality or it does not air at all.
Majority of Canadians now live within a short drive to a major urban centre, which means that most Canadians should have access to content through a digital antenna. Here in Ottawa, folks have reported receiving up to 8 or 9 channels, many in HD quality, including people with outdoor roof top antennas. Ottawa is some distance from the nearest US urban centre so unfortunately, we only have access to 8 digital channels from Ontario and Quebec.
I personally use the Terk HDTVa Indoor Amplified High-Definition Antenna, which is a digital antenna that has received positive reviews on web forums. Others have had success by building their own digital antennas using coat hangers and a piece of wood. If your like me, you probably aren’t very handy, the only retail store in Canada that carries the Terk HDTVa appears to be The Source, which sells the antenna for about $50. You can probably get better prices online such as on Amazon or eBay.
I personally receive about 8 channels including CBC-Radio Canada, CTV, CTV2, OMNI (Multicultural television), TVA (French), TVO (Ontario), and the Christian Television Network. Larger cities such such as Toronto and Montreal have reported receiving up to 40 digital channels, including both Canadian and American television channels using both an indoor and outdoor digital antennas. For most people, an antenna alone should be sufficient to start viewing digital OTA television for free, but if you have an older television, you may require an ATSC tuner. Most HD TVs should support digital antennas without a tuner. However, for those who require one, an ATSC tuner costs about $70 in Canada and can sometimes be found at The Source. I cant seem to find it anywhere else. ATSC tuners are widely available in electronic stores in the United States and have a tendency to be much cheaper, so if you happen to be doing some cross border shopping or are travelling in the United States, pick one up. The other option is to treat yourself to a brand new HDTV. With the savings you’ll achieve as a cord cutter, you’ll pay it off within a few months.
Wireless Internet Connection
In an era of the digital video recorder (DVR), the challenge with viewing television content exclusively over the-air is that you have no control over when to watch specific programming. However, more and more broadcasters in Canada, including Global, CTV, the CBC, City TV and others have begun streaming content online and on-demand. So if you missed your favorite television show OTA, you can catch up by simply viewing online. Over time, the quality of online streaming television has improved significantly.
Online streaming began as a grey market industry with overseas broadcasters illegally streaming popular American television content online free of charge. Broadcasters and major content providers fought hard to end illegal streaming, but eventually broadcasters started to negotiate with producers for the rights to stream online legally. The demand for online streaming grew when over-the-top broadcasters such as Netflix entered the market and began selling low-cost $8.99 monthly subscriptions for online access to HD quality blockbusters. These new over-the-top competitors fast tracked the major broadcasting industries delivery of streaming content supported by advertising.
Today, legal online streaming television is not limited to the major broadcasters. Specialty channels such as Food TV or HGTV also stream limited content online. For Mac users, iTunes has started selling content on an a la cart basis, again allowing consumers to save money since you only purchase specific content you want to watch. For Android users, the new Google Play (formerly known as the Android Market) now sells content a la cart to Android users. YouTube, has also began renting on-line streaming blockbusters on an a la carte basis. Streaming websites such as Youtube and Vimeo has increasingly produced better quality content not found on traditional cable or satellite subscriptions.
For Sports fans, most North American leagues provide online subscription to games, including NHL, MLS, Major League Baseball or the NFL. Often the cost of these subscriptions are significantly less than the total cost of a cable/satellite subscription because 1) your paying for what you want and 2) your only paying for the season, and not the off-season.
When watching television, most people are more comfortable sitting on their couch relaxing after a long days work. Sitting in an office chair watching television on a 15 inch screen isn’t every bodies idea of home entertainment. However, if you have an HDTV, their are many options out there for folks that want to watch streaming television on their television, even without an expensive smart TV. This is where the mini-PC comes in. While optional, it is highly recommended if you want to replicate your cable television viewing habits as a cord-cutter.
Their are many options out there, streaming television on your HDTV can be as simple as plugging your laptop into the television through an HDMI cable, if your laptop supports HDMI. More permanent solutions are also available such as box-tops. The most popular box-top is the Apple TV. However, with an Apple TV you are limited in the type of content you can stream, since the box top revolves around content available on iTunes. Other alternatives to the Apple TV include the Roku or the Google TV, but again, these solutions are limited in the type of content you can stream.
The best solution is the solution I use, and that’s the use of a Mini-PC. As you see in the photo, the Mini-PC is essentially a PC except its small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. Here is the equipment I used to access streaming television on my HDTV:
- HDMI Cables, which allows me to plug my Android Tablet, laptop and mini-PC into my HD television. ($30)
- A Mini-PC. (Approximately $450)
- A wireless USB keyboard/mouse which I use lieu of a remote control. ($79)
The Mini-PC device uses the same eco-friendly components found in laptops in order to keep the device small. Mini-PC’s also use far less energy, which negates the need for a fan that takes up space. When looking for a Mini-PC, be sure that it has the following components:
- Support for HDMI cable to plug into your TV
- Supports a Wi-Fi
- Support for USB in order for your wireless keyboard and mouse to plug in
- Windows 7, you may need to purchase this separately. You should be able to install windows using a USB stick. Alternatively if your comfortable with Linux, Ubuntu is a great operating system that supports HD streaming. Best of all, its free.
As I stated in Part 1, I encourage my readers to shop around, but for me, I felt the Zotac Zbox was the best solution. Other manufacturers such as Asus also produce a Mini-PC. At $450, the Mini-PC is about the price of a Digital Video Recorder, something you’d rent or purchase anyways, if you had cable or satellite. The Mini-PC works like any computer, and so whatever you typically stream on your home computer, such as Netflix, YouTube, Vimeo or your favorite television shows, you’ll be able to stream it directly onto your TV.