With the growth of social media, video games, and streaming services, many people are finding they don’t use their cable subscription enough to justify the continued expense. We get our news, entertainment, movies, and TV shows through other channels now. This guide is about getting the right gear to make a smooth transition away from cable or satellite into cheaper alternatives.
“Cord cutting” is the term people use when they refer to cutting off their cable or satellite subscription. Most do it to save money—TV subscription pricing alone has continued to tick higher year after year.
I want to start by giving you all the reasons you shouldn’t cut the cord. I cancelled my cable 2 years ago, but it’s not something I recommend to everyone. You can get quite a bit of US football on NBC, ABC, and Fox but, it doesn’t get you everything. Do you love the SEC Network? You’ll need a cable subscription for that. Do you love HGTV? You’ll need to stick with cable. Do you see the trend? If you watch a lot of content outside your local channels, you are going to have a tough time replacing that.
On the flip side, once you’ve cancelled your cable subscription, you may realize that you don’t watch the channels a paid TV service provides enough to warrant the expense.
With 2 young children at home, my wife and I don’t have time to watch near as much TV as we used to. The shows that we do watch are available for free using an over-the-air antenna (more on that later). Between the antenna and Netflix, we felt like we could get away without paying the large cable bill. Two years later, we are still happy without it. We’ve also found that instead of flipping the channels in search of something to watch or watching the same episode of House Hunters over and over, we spend our entertainment time more thoughtfully. We love waiting until a show hits Netflix, where we can watch an entire season over a few weeks rather than watching it weekly over 8-9 months.
All that said, without further ado, let’s get into the Tools & Toys Guide for Cutting the Cord.
Table of Contents
- Streaming Boxes
- Streaming Services
- Home Networking Equipment
- Home Media Servers
There are a wide variety of ways to stream content from the Internet to your TV. We will cover the various streaming services later in this guide, but this section is about the different type of boxes.
Editors Note: (2015-09-30) The new Apple TV has been announced. We will update this article once it is released
The Apple TV, while showing its age with the current hardware, is a very popular device. If you’re heavily into the Apple content ecosystem, it’s really a great choice. Movies you have purchased from iTunes can be streamed to it, your iTunes Match content will be available, and your podcast subscriptions will also sync. AirPlay functionality is also a great feature if you have an iPhone or iPad. It allows you to wirelessly beam content from a device to a TV. It’s currently $69.
My main complaints about the Apple TV are that:
- The remote is entirely too small.
- It requires line-of-sight to communicate with the ATV box.
- The hardware is outdated compared to other competitors.
The line-of-sight limitation is probably the worst aspect of the device. However, you can use the iOS Remote app with an iPhone or iPad to control your ATV over your home Wi-Fi connection, but it’s a bit clunky having to unlock your phone and launch the Remote app every time you want to control your Apple TV.
The Roku is my personal favorite — specifically the Roku 3.
Roku is different from the Apple TV in that it doesn’t sell content directly. Their money is in selling boxes. Content from M-GO is billed to your Roku account, but it’s still a third-party service. It’s no different than if you could pay for Hulu through your Roku account. The Roku UI isn’t as polished as Apple TV or Amazon Fire, but it’s a really great device. The Remote uses WiFi Direct for communication. It operates on the 5 Ghz band to minimize any interference (5 Ghz has 19-23 available channels).
I was given a Roku as a gift last Christmas and within a few months, I had sold all of my Apple TVs and replaced them with Rokus. Roku is focused on making a great streaming box, and I feel like they’ve accomplished that. With a remote that doesn’t require line-of-sight, solid hardware, and ample content selection, Roku makes a great choice for cord cutters.
If you are an all-Apple house though, there are some things to keep in mind. You cannot use AirPlay (without an additional channel). You also cannot play any media that is DRM’ed from Apple, though you can stream music and videos that are stored on your iPhone through the Roku remote app. It only works with locally downloaded music and not music stored in iCloud.
Amazon Fire TV
The Amazon Fire TV is the most recent entrant into the streaming box system. Amazon released their first version in the spring of 2014, and the current model has some unique features:
- Voice search
- Quad-core processor
- Dedicated gaming controller option
- Amazon FreeTime
- 4K support
- Expandable storage up to 128 GB
The first thing you need to know is that the Amazon Fire TV exists to serve your content from the Amazon video store. Does it have plenty of apps? Absolutely, but they are not the focus. The main app screen takes a few down taps on the remote to actually get to the third-party apps. There is a “Recently Used Apps” section, but the UI focus is about Amazon, make no mistake about it.
The voice search is actually very accurate. I was able to successfully search for multiple things even with my kids talking in the background. The box and remote both feel incredibly solid. They certainly have not cut any corners. In fact, the hardware design of the Amazon Fire TV is probably my favorite compared to the Roku and the Apple TV. My main issue with the hardware is the huge power brick. I guess this is the tradeoff for having such an incredibly thin device.
Amazon also has a nice feature called FreeTime. It allows parents to create custom profiles that can included pre-approved TV shows, movies, and apps. You can set daily screen time limits as well.
Amazon Fire TV Stick
Amazon recently announced the new [Amazon Fire TV Stick.]http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00GDQ0RMG/?tag=toolsandtoys-20) It’s very similar to the Amazon Fire TV, but way cheaper. For just $39, you get a dual-core processor inside a tiny HDMI stick. While I’d recommend the bigger Fire TV over the Fire TV Stick due to its superior power, the Amazon Fire TV Stick makes a great streaming box for a child’s room or patio TV. The Fire TV Stick also serves as an inexpensive solution for Amazon Prime members who want access to certain movies and shows that are on Amazon Prime Video, but not Netflix. For an additional $10, you can get a voice remote as well.
Google’s Chromecast is one of the more interesting options on the market. The $35 price point makes it one of the cheapest of the streaming boxes. Similarly to the Kindle Fire Stick, you simply plug the Chromecast in to your HDMI port and plug up to power. You then stream video, music, and photos to it from your smartphone. It supports quite a number of apps like Netflix, YouTube, HBO Go, Hulu Plus, Pandora, ESPN, MLB.tv, Plex, Crackle, Vevo, and Rdio. The new edition for 2015 also has an onscreen UI for YouTube, Google Music, and Google Play Movies.
A lot of game consoles can stream content as well. The Xbox 360, Xbox One, Playstation 3, and Playstation 4 all have a wealth of apps that can stream content, such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, WWE Network, MLB.tv, etc. And they are just as capable as an Apple TV or a Roku. If you’ve already got one of these devices, there is probably little reason to branch out and get another box. My main concern with using these boxes as streaming devices is that they draw more power than the standalone boxes.
Many modern Blu-Ray players also have streaming services built in. Different boxes have different mixes of services. In my experience, the software is hard to navigate and extremely slow. I wouldn’t recommend using one as your only streaming device.
Which Streaming Box To Get?
We think the Apple TV, the Amazon Fire TV, and the Roku are the three best options out there. The one for you really all depends on where you get your content from.
- The Apple TV if you are heavy in iTunes and Netflix.
- The Roku 3 if you mainly use Netflix and Hulu.
- The Amazon Fire TV if you use a lot of Amazon Prime video, or if you’re already an Amazon Prime member wanting to get a streaming service and don’t want to pay for Netflix.
While the Apple TV doesn’t have an App Store, they are continually adding apps (i.e. channels). Roku probably has the largest App Store, but the majority of its apps are terrible. Its selection of “good apps” is comparable to Amazon Fire TV. If you’ve already got an Xbox One, you might try just using it as your dedicated streaming box.
|Apple TV||Roku||Amazon Fire||Chromecast||Xbox||Playstation|
|Amazon Prime Video||✓||✓||✓||✓|
|MLB At Bat||✓||✓||✓||✓||✓||✓|
With the rise of cord cutting, an old technology has made a comeback: over-the-air antennas (OTA). By using an OTA, you can get quite a bit of HD content for free. My wife and I realized that the majority of our TV watching was on NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, and CW. These channels are considered “broadcast” channels, so they are available for free as long as you are in range of the station that is broadcasting. Depending on your area, you might get a lot more than just 5 channels. You can use AntennaWeb to get an idea of what you will receive if you are located in the US. You have quite a few options when it comes to antennas.
Your experience with antennas will depend on a few variables.
- Where you live in relation to the towers.
- Where the antenna is located inside or outside your house.
- The time of year with relation to trees, etc.
I’ve tried a number of antennas over the years, so I’ll share my experience, but you may want to be prepared to test a few of them to find the best one for your situation.
Mohu Leaf Indoor
The Mohu Leaf Indoor is the antenna I had until just recently. It’s very thin and easy to hide. We have an opening behind our fireplace (TV is mounted above it) that I hid it in. It worked very well.
The Mohu Outdoor antenna is what I just switched to. I had purchased the indoor model last fall and it worked great until this spring. I noticed that once leaves grew back on the trees, my reception on Fox and ABC got worse. We decided to switch to the outdoor model. I mounted it on my fence and wired it into the “in” jack of my coax splitter on the side of my house. This actually allows any TV in the house access to the antenna if it has a built-in tuner. My reception has dramatically improved.
AmazonBasics Ultra Thin Indoor Antenna
Amazon also has an indoor antenna that looks similar to the Leaf from Mohu. Depending on which model you get, it can be slightly cheaper. I would recommend the Extreme Performance model since its the most powerful.
Almost every Walmart and Radio Shack will sell a $10-$20 antenna. I’ve never had good luck with these, but it might be worth starting with. As I mentioned, antenna selection is a game of trial and error. Your environment (and time of year) will dictate your experience.
Digital Video Recorders
Digital Video Recorders (DVR) have been around since 2001. The advantage of having one is that you can “time shift” your TV shows and movies. Instead of having to be at your TV for your favorite show at 8:00pm, you can watch whenever you want. I’ve had one since 2004, and its my preferred way to watch TV.
TiVo has been the gold standard of DVRs for years. In fact, “TiVo” has even become a verb — I need to TiVo that — even when people are simply talking about the Whatever DVR box they have from their cable company.
Since TiVo is a standalone device, it works great with an antenna. There are two models on the market that work with OTA antennas. The first is the TiVo Roamio. It retails for $199, but Amazon usually has it for a lot less. TiVo also has a new DVR that is only for OTA usage. It’s not out yet, but more information can be found their website.
TiVo has a $14.99/mo service fee (1 year contract required), so it’s not the cheapest on recurring fees. TiVo also sells a TiVo mini that allows you to use your TiVo interface/service on another TV. The box retails for $99, but you can often find it for less at various retailers. It also has a $5.99/mo service fee. You have to connect it via coaxial cable or wired ethernet. TiVo also sells a TiVo Stream device that allows you to take your recordings on the go. It does not have a service fee. TiVo, while the most of expensive of the DVRs we list, works very well. If you want the easiest to use, it is the way to go.
Channel Master also offers and subscription-free DVR on their website.
Tablo and Tablo-like devices
Tablo is quite different that TiVo, but ultimately serves the same purpose. Rather than hooking up to your TV via an HDMI cable, it hooks directly to your home network (ethernet or Wi-Fi) and then there are apps that allow you to access your antenna. There are apps for Android, iPad, Roku (a new version of their app has just launched), Amazon Fire TV, and the web. The two tuner model starts at $199.99 which is comparable to TiVo. You can buy a four tuner model for $299.99. Tablo is drastically cheaper on the recurring fees, though. You can either pay $5/mo, $49.99/year, or a lifetime (tied to the account and not device) for $149.99. So instead of having another box, the Tablo is simply an app for your Roku. It supports AirPlay, so you can send content to your Apple TV from an iOS device.
Is Tablo better than TiVo? It’s hard to say. It’s certainly cheaper. The TiVo is probably easier to set up for the non-technical person, but Tablo extends to all of your devices without the need for an additional box.
Another similar type device is Simple.tv, but we’ve not had much experience with it.
Netflix is a staple services for most cord cutters. While it lacks a great selection of new movies, it has a wealth of kid-friendly content and many complete TV seasons. At $8.99/month, it’s pretty much a no-brainer.
While very U.S.-centric, Hulu is the opposite of Netflix. While it lacks a large catalog of back content, it does contain quite a bit current TV show seasons. At $7.99/month, it’s also a great service for cord cutters who still want to watch the most recent TV shows.
Amazon Prime Video
Amazon Prime Video is included free with your Amazon Prime Membership. It works pretty similar to Netflix and even has some better content than Netflix in certain categories thanks to Amazon scooping up exclusives (24, Downton Abbey, The Wire, etc).
Sling TV is a really great service for those who want access live sports. For $20/month (no contract) you get ESPN, ESPN 2, TNT, TBS, HGTV, Food Network, Adult Swim, Cartoon Network, and Disney. For an additional $5/month, you can add some additional tiers. The Kids tier includes Disney Junior, Disney XD, Boomerang, Baby TV, and Duck TV. The News tier includes HLN, Cooking Channel, DIY and Bloomberg TV. The sports tier includes SEC Network, ESPNU, ESPNEWS, ESPN Buzzer Beater, ESPN Goal Line, ESPN Bases Loaded, Univision Deportes, Universal Sports, and beIN Sports.
Sling works on a host of devices including iOS, Roku, Android, Mac, and PC. Xbox One and Amazon Fire TV are coming soon. You can currently only have 1 device watching at a time, and there is no DVR feature. A few channels include a 3-day replay feature that allows you to watch shows that have aired in the past three days (HGTV, DIY, Travel Channel, Cooking Channel, and Food Network are a few examples).
We’ve got a more detailed review of Sling TV in our reviews section.
Vudu is an on-demand movie rental service owned by Walmart. It’s one of the more popular Ultraviolet-enabled servies. Ultraviolet is aimed to be a way to buy content once and then access across various services. In practice, it’s a pretty terrible implementation.
Target Ticket is an on-demand TV and movie service from Target. Similar to Vudu, it supports Ultraviolet.
For a WWE Fan, the WWE Network is a no-brainer at $9.99/month. It contains all past, present, and future PPV events along with a host of past TV and other original content.
MLB At Bat
For the baseball fan who lives out of market from their favorite team, MLB At Bat is incredible. For $130/season, you get access to watch any game (other than your city’s local team) across pretty much any device.
NFL Sunday Ticket
While it’s not offered to everyone, certain people are eligible for NFL Sunday Ticket without a TV subscription. You basically have to live in metro New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, or live in an apartment where DirecTV is unavailable.
Home Networking Equipment
The reason we added this section is that cord cutters typically will have multiple streaming services (Netflix, Hulu, etc) that require access to the internet. Having a poor home network will dramatically impact your experience with these services.
While it used to be okay to go get a $29.99 router from Walmart, those times have passed. If you are going to cut the cord, you’ll want to get a high quality router because internet speeds are getting faster and faster and our devices are able to connect to high-powered WiFi routers in order to take advantage of those speeds.
While we recommend hardwiring as much of your home network as possible, it’s just not practical for most homes. Here are a few excellent WiFi routers.
Apple Airport Extreme 802.11ac — Apple’s routers are high quality. They are incredibly fast and simple to use. You can even configure them completely from an iOS device. While they aren’t the cheapest, they are worth the money.
ASUS RT-AC66U — If you want to go a little cheaper, Asus also makes a really nice router.
Amazon sells all of these, so feel free to compare them all and see which works best for your setup.
Gigabit Switches — If you do have a wired network, you’ll likely need some switches in certain locations. Switches allow you to take one ethernet cable and split it off to multiple devices. Any modern brand will serve basic needs for speed. I’ve used the TP-LINK TL-SG1005D and it works fine. You just want to make sure that it is a gigabit model. While very few streaming boxes support gigabit speeds, there is no reason not to have a gigabit infrastructure due to the marginal price increase.
Ethernet over Coax — If you want wired networking without having to run new wires, you can also send data over your existing coax network. You’ll need a way to convert your coax into ethernet. This product will do the trick. These are handy for locations where you can’t easily get an ethernet cable or strong WiFi signal.
Flat CAT6 Cable — If you have a location you want to run wire to, a flat ethernet cable may come in handy. You can tuck it underneath carpet and in other tight spots.
Running Wire — If you want to go through the work of hardwiring your entire house, you’ll need a roll of CAT6 cable. You’ll also need the ability to put ends on the cable and crimp them. I recommend the Platinum Tools Clamshell EZ-RJPRO HD Crimp Tool and EZ-RJ45 Cat 6+ Connectors. They are a bit more expensive, but incredibly easy to use (which you will be grateful for after cutting and crimping dozens of cables).
If you want to use wall jacks, this combo plate will save you from having to drill new holes, letting you use a single plate for coax and CAT6.
Home Media Server
A home media server is a great addition to a cord cutter’s life. I’ve found that by digitizing my DVD collection, we go back and watch them more. This is especially true for box sets of TV shows. Turning an old Mac into a media server is a great way to extend the life of a Mac that might not be ready to be “sent to the great Apple tree in the sky,” but isn’t powerful enough for daily use. Our editor-in-chief Shawn Blanc wrote a great article on setting one up. If you just want to get started ripping DVDs, RipIt is a great place to start.
Plex is one of the most common choices for folks wanting to build a home media server. It works on a wide range of hardware (Mac, PC, Linux, Synology, Netgear NAS, etc). The server software is free, but the apps aren’t. They have players for iOS, the web, Android, Roku, Amazon Fire, Xbox One, Samsung TV, Chromecast, and Google TV. It’s really fairly simple to setup and use.
The Plex software pulls in your media’s metadata automatically, so you don’t even need to use another app to add artwork, release date, etc.
Using the My Plex service, you can even access your home media library away from your home network. With the optional Plex Pass subscription, you can store media offline to watch when away from an internet connection.
Another feature that I really enjoy is the ability to share my library with friends. This allows me to browse their server and enjoy new DVDs they have ripped. Plex Pass also allows you to sync portions of your library with various cloud storage providers like Google Drive, Dropbox, or Box in order to have a backup server in case your primary server is offline.
If you are an Apple TV house, you will want to store your media in iTunes so it can be accessible from the Apple TV. I recommend iFlicks 2 for adding meta data to the files. iTunes does not attempt to add it like Plex does. Unless you use Apple TV as your way to view content on your TV, I’d recommend Plex over iTunes.
Kodi is — known as XBMC until only recently — can be installed on Mac, Windows, iOS, Linux, and Android. It’s an open source media center that has been around for many years. I’d recommend Plex though, unless you prefer Kodi for some reason.
Synology isn’t a media platform as much as it is a server that you can run media center software off it. Gabe Weatherhead has a ton of useful articles on using a Synology for many different things. If you’ve got a Synology, using this with Plex may serve you well. And if you are are considering getting a Network Attached Storage drive, we highly recommend checking out the Synology Disk Stations — they’re extremely powerful and versatile.
Cord-cutting isn’t as easy as having a paid TV service. It requires a lot more moving pieces than simply paying $70+ a month to your local cable company. It’s not right for everyone, but it is a quick way to save nearly $1,000 a year.
The nice thing about the paid TV market is that you are rewarded for being a new customer. So, cut the cord for a few months, worry-free. If you don’t like it, sign up for paid TV again. You will probably get a pretty decent discount for coming back.