Cord cutting is commonplace these days, and there’s no limit to the different combinations that’ll turn your computer, smartphone, and TV into a dedicated streaming player.
Growing up on military bases in the 1980s, I’ve long been fascinated by broadcast television, radio, and recording. The only channel we had overseas was the Armed Forces Network (AFN), and commercials were public service announcements (PSA) and military propaganda.
When the 1980/1990 cinematic versions of Batman and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were released in U.S. theaters, my brother and I watched VHS copies filmed by soldiers in other areas who traded them among their brethren.
In the analog cable days, we used black boxes to descramble pay-per-view, HBO, Spice, and other paid channels. It wasn’t long before black-box functionality was built into the television sets themselves, and my friends and I were fine-tuning the reception for free premium channels.
Soon the internet popped up, and digitizing and trading video collections became easier…until Hollywood and the RIAA started cracking down on piracy.
But as time moved on, the internet and television continued an unholy alliance that shaped where we are today.
The Current Digital Video Landscape
These days, Hollywood content like movies and television often takes a backseat to “real” content posted by independent creators. Platforms like YouTube, Instagram, and Twitch show how varied our tastes for programming really are.
When comparing cable and satellite TV to online streaming, cost is definitely a factor. Convenience comes into play too – access to show archives, DVR functionality, and live streaming are all differentiating factors between services.
When deciding whether to cut the cord, you should also factor in how much you pay for internet. If you’ve never gotten a notice from your ISP that you went over your allotment, your internet can probably support the data transfer rates of cutting cable.
It’s also very likely your cable and internet service provider are the same company. Cutting cable may trigger them to provide a deal for free cable anyway.
And some of these video services are bundled in with hardware and other services, like AT&T wireless. Finding out how much you really have (and how much you’re paying for it) is getting more complicated than ever, even though we have more options to watch.
I’ll do my best to make it easier.
Let’s start by exploring the hardware options available for cord cutting. Know that I’ve received many of this hardware for free from the companies to review in prior blogs.
Cord Cutting Hardware
Computer monitors used to be just screens, and TVs were screens with speakers. Now TVs have sophisticated hardware built-in that makes live cable or satellite feeds simple apps among many. And there are streaming devices that give this functionality to your old traditional TV too (so long as it has an HDMI port).
Then there are video game consoles with video options, converters to feed a cable or over-the-air (OTA) broadcast signal into your network. Each serves a different purpose and has different options, so let’s break them down:
If you need a new TV, buy a smart TV for the most seamless experience. Accessing online content is much easier than it used to be, and you’ll even gain power features like voice and smarthome control.
- LG webOS – Originally designed by HP in 2013, LG’s webOS is consistently rated the best-designed smart TV platform. It includes premium video services like YouTube, Hulu, and Netflix and music services like SiriusXM, iHeartRadio, Pandora, and Spotify, along with a web browser, support for local video, and ScreenShare using Miracast/Intel WiDi.
Downsides of webOS include low app support (notable missing apps include HBO, Showtime, network apps, and most sports apps, sans MLB.tv). These can be added via Kodi and Plex, both of which support webOS.
- Samsung Tizen OS – Tizen is an open-source mobile platform developed by the Linux Foundation and used in Samsung smart TVs, smartwatches, smart home appliances, and more. Not only does Tizen offer broader (albeit still limited) app support than webOS, but it also now supports SmartThings, Samsung’s SmartHome platform and its TV Plus option provides free live channels you won’t get OTA.
Downsides of Tizen include some lag and the inability to customize. Both Kodi and Plex support Tizen OS to fill in any gaps.
- Vizio SmartCast – Vizio has always been an entry-level budget option for TVs, and its SmartCast smart TV lineup is no different. It has many of the same options as the above, but with a less sleek interface. It does, however, have Google Chromecast built in, making it a great way to connect a budget smarthome theater.
Downsides of SmartCast is budget-quality video/audio, lack of third-party support, and a laggy interface. Plex is supported in Vizio’s app store, but to use Kodi, you’ll need to mirrorcast your smartphone/tablet screen. Since audio won’t cast, you’ll also need to pair your phone/tablet with a soundbar for a decent viewing experience.
- Roku TV – Roku isn’t satisfied selling one of the best streaming players on the market. Its proprietary TV platform can now be found on models from Insignia, TCL, Sharp, Hisense, Philips, Sanyo, Element, JVC, RCA, Hitachi, and Magnavox. Roku has a ton of content and the best universal search on the market, not to mention voice search and easy access to options like Netflix built-in to the remote control.
Downsides of Roku TV include a GUI straight out of 2000 and lack of marketplace support. Plex is available on Roku, but to use Kodi, you’ll need to mirrorcast as described above.
- Fire TV – If you need a sign the smart TV wars matter, Amazon and Best Buy partnered to integrate the Fire TV platform into TVs from Toshiba, Insignia, and Element sold exclusively on these formerly competitive outlets. Could this be the start of an Amazon buyout of Best Buy?
Downsides of FireTV are a clunky interface and entirely too much integration with Jeff Bezo’s empire. If you’re not a Prime member, it’ll constantly remind you, and you know they’re watching what you’re watching (everyone on this list is, except me because I don’t care).
Both Plex and Kodi support Fire TV.
- Android TV – Google’s flagship Android TV platform includes support for Chromecast, Google Assistant (which also includes the Google Home ecosystem), and even Alexa. Android is the most robust ecosystem and easiest to customize and personalize, and it’s included on all Sony and some Sharp TVs.
Downsides of Android TV include a more difficult UI to browse, and it’s a bit buggy and prone to crash (especially as you continue adding programs). Both Plex and Kodi support Android TV.
Smart TV Streamers
If you already have a TV and just want to add smart TV functionality, smart TV streamers are the way to go. They start at sticks with basic functionality and start beefing up with a quickness.
- Fire TV – Amazon’s Fire TV family of streaming products includes the Fire TV Stick (HD or 4K), Fire TV Cube, Fire TV Recast (discussed in the DVR section), and Fire TV Edition TVs mentioned above. Prices range from $40-$300+, depending on what device you get, but the OS and Alexa integration is mostly the same. Also Amazon constantly runs Prime sales on Fire TV devices.
Using a Fire Stick, TV Cube, or Recast on older TV models will provide inconsistent results, but IR blasters and universal remotes (discussed below) bridge the gap. Fire TV is the most versatile streaming stick option, and smarthome integration pulls the experience beyond the screen. It supports both Kodi and Plex.
- Roku – Roku also has streaming options for older TVs, including the Roku Express, Express+, Premiere, Premiere+, Streaming Stick, Streaming Stick+, and Ultra, ranging in price from $20-100. The proprietary OS is a bit limited in expandability (i.e. – no Kodi support), but what it does have is an amazing content library.
Roku remotes have quick options to connect to popular apps, listen with headphones, or use voice search. It’s one of the most robust ecosystems, as closed as it is, and you can get Plex and fake a Kodi experience.
- Apple TV – If you’re an Apple fanboy, you’re already familiar with Apple TV 4K, the fifth generation in Apple’s TV device lineup. AirPlay casting, iTunes app support, Siri, HomeKit, and all things Apple makes this the only smart TV choice for iPhone and Mac users.
Both Plex and Kodi can be installed on Apple TV.
- Chromecast – Google’s Chromecast devices are designed with the idea that your smartphone or tablet are the best ways to control what’s on your screen. Mirror anything within your Chrome browser to your TV screen with this device enabled.
Chromecast is easily the most annoying and featureless options for most streaming options. However, it’s great for viewing pirated content through a web browser, and, since content is being broadcast from your smartphone, it’s the easiest to secure with a VPN so you don’t get caught.
- Shield TV – If you’re wondering if Nvidia’s $180+ Shield TV 4K is still worth it in 2018, the answer is a resounding yes. This is the most full-featured streaming player on the market, and you can stream a ton of games through your computer with a good enough Nvidia video card installed.
Shield also has optional SmartThings integration, making it the perfect companion to a Samsung smarthome.
- PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch – These consoles do have access to many video services, but they’re clunky and difficult to use compared to other options. If all you have is a video game console, spend $20-40 on an entry-level streaming stick and see for yourself the massive difference it makes in navigation speed, voice control, and access to content.
OTA TV Tuners and DVRs
The downside to digital is you don’t always get live TV streams and local news (although some apps can fix this). Here are some options available for pulling in OTA TV and free-to-air (FTA) satellite broadcasts.
- SiliconDust HDHomerun + Plex – SiliconDust makes OTA and Cable TV tuners that pull your signal into your network. From there, you can access it through SiliconDust’s cloud DVR service (which has a $35/year subscription fee) or Plex Pass, which costs $150 for a lifetime subscription.
I have Plex Pass, and the feed from HDHomerun isn’t too bad when recording to a Synology NAS. You can also watch some content through SiliconDust’s demos of networks like MTV, USA, TBS, CNN, and ESPN.
- Tablo Dual + USB HDD – I also have a Tablo tuner hooked up, as I fell in love with the DVR service, which is similar to SiliconDust and Plex. However, it’s necessary to attach an external USB drive to Tablo, as it doesn’t like working with NAS drives.
Tablo can be used without the DVR service, but the $150 lifetime subscription fee is a worthwhile investment to forever make OTA signals feel like premium cable.
- iSmart Technology F1HD – If you’re more than 100 miles away from the nearest TV broadcast tower, it may be necessary to pull a FTA satellite feed. All you need is a dish and an F1HD digital satellite receiver from iSmart Technology.
The F1HD combines FTA satellite feeds with online content for an immersive experience that won’t cost a dime (besides the up-front equipment costs). If you already have a dish on your property, it’s probably already pointed in the right direction too.
- Fire TV Recast – Realizing it wasn’t serving a subsection of the market, Amazon released the Fire TV OTA DVR in 2018, with 500 GB and 1 TB models available. Instead of using Plex, Tablo, or HDHomeRun apps as pass-throughs, Recast puts the live signal directly into your Fire TV menu.
To get a live TV signal, you’ll need an OTA antenna or satellite dish. Your best option is dependent on how close you are to the broadcast towers. If you’re too far away, a satellite dish or internet streaming are your only options.
- ChannelMaster SMARTenna+ Indoor TV Antenna – I have this ChannelMaster antenna hooked up indoors. It’s powered for an amplified signal, and once you plug it in, it automatically scans 7 channels to determine the best reception. If needed, it can be automatically adjusted.
- GE Pro Outdoor Antenna – If you get an outdoor antenna (they can even be used inside), pick one that’s best suited for your particular situation. In mine, the content I wanted was broadcast by one tower, and the mountains blocked the rest. Pointing this antenna at that tower gave me a clear HD signal across the board for the Tablo DVR.
- DirecTV or Dish Satellite – As mentioned above, used DirecTV and Dish Network satellites still have utility when paired with an FTA receiver. You should be able to pick one up for $100 new and $10-50 used, if you don’t already have one.
Essential Cord Cutting Accessories
There are a lot of accessories that really make your smart TV powerful. From keeping things charged to extending your control, here are some things that make the experience more comfortable.
- APC UPS – An Uninteruptible Power Supply (UPS) is a battery backup and surge protector for your home entertainment system. This is a must-have in my personal opinion, as the last thing you need during a storm is for the power outage to cut off your movie or broadcast at a pivotal moment.
- Caavo Control Center – The remote on the left above is a smart remote for Caavo’s $100 Control Center. It’s a lot more powerful than your average TV remote, as it is able to control my sound bar, Fire TV Stick, Roku Ultra, and can even connect to my PS4 (although it can’t control anything).
If you have too many smart TV devices hooked up, this is the perfect way to combine four in one. Control Center also works with Alexa and Google Assistant for an integrated smarthome experience. IR blasters help older products connect too.
- Logitech Harmony Elite – At $350, the Harmony Elite isn’t cheap, but it is the most comprehensive smarthome and home entertainment controller you’ll find. It can connect all your smart products into a touchscreen interface that’s intuitive to navigate. If you’re serious about home entertainment (cord cutter or not), this is a must-buy.
- Synology NAS – Regardless of your streaming needs, there’s a Synology NAS for you. From HD to 4K, gaming, and more, these dedicated network-attached storage drives are a great place to centralize your home video collection.
- QNAP – QNAP is one of Synology’s main competitors on the NAS market and another brand to consider for local storage needs.
- WD My Cloud – Western Digital has been making computer storage products for a long time. Even my Synology NAS has WD server drives in them. My Cloud is a simple consumer product that’s easy to set up and take advantage of local storage, OTA DVR, and more.
- Nekteck Type C Power Adapter – As you add devices and removes, you need USB charging hubs to keep things powered. Nekteck chargers have the juice to power any smartphone, laptop, tablet, remote, or other device.
- Lenovo Google Assistant Smart Display – Lenovo’s Smart Display is a different kind of Smart TV. You can ask it to play videos for you and access a wide range of content. It can also connect through Google Home to any of your smarthome devices. If you have a compatible smart TV or streaming device, it’ll control that, and you can make video calls too.
- Amazon Echo Show – Echo Show is Amazon’s answer to Google Assistant-powered Smart Displays. This device can play online videos and stream to smart TVs too. It’s voice powered and can control any Alexa-enabled smarthome or IoT device.
- Aukey WiFi Smart Plug – If your TV, Blu-Ray player, and other devices aren’t smart, Aukey WiFi Smart Plugs may be able to fix that. Plug your device in, and you’ll gain control via Aukey’s app, Alexa, or Google Assistant.
- Boll & Branch Waffle Blanket & Pajama Pants – You want to feel cozy while binging on a series or preparing for a night of Netflix and chill. Boll & Branch makes heirloom-quality products with a focus on quality, transparency, and consciousness throughout the supply chain. I’m wearing their pajama pants and bundled in their waffle blanket as I’m writing this and during most TV viewing.
Streaming Services and Cable Alternatives
And, of course, if you’re going to cut cable, here’s how you can access the best variety of content and streaming options. For brevity, we’ll just highlight the prices and an overview.
- Hulu – $7.99 (Basic), $39.99 (Live TV), $3.99 when added to Spotify.
Add-ons: $4 no commercials, $14.99 DVR, $14.99 unlimited screens. HBO, Showtime, and Cinemax are also available for premiums. Because Hulu is owned by the TV networks, it plays by the old-boy rules of cable, and content is regularly rotated out. Hulu creates original, exclusive content. Hulu is available on every smart TV platform.
- Netflix – $7.99 (Basic), $11 (HD + 2 screens), $14 (4K UHD + 4 screens), DVDs and Blu-Ray disks can also be rented for $5-15 a month extra. Netflix creates more original, exclusive content than any other service. Netflix is available on every smart TV platform.
- Network Channel Apps – As of December 2018, every TV network also streams online. Access to 1-5 episodes is typically free, and you’ll typically have to wait until the next day to watch content. If you login with your (or your friend or family member’s) cable login, you can access more content, and sometimes even a live stream. CBS sticks out for forcing you to pay for CBS All Access to watch any of its lame, boring, out-of-touch content. These apps are available on most streaming devices.
- Premium Channel Apps – Premium channels like HBO, Showtime, and Cinemax have their own apps, and you have to pay for them, just like CBS All Access. Unlike CBS, these networks actually have premium, watchable content worth paying for. These apps are available on most streaming devices. Web access is also available.
- Professional League Apps – From the NFL to the WWE, every professional sports league has its own app with access to both live and archival content. These apps are available on some streaming devices. Web access is also available.
- Pluto – Pluto is a free, ad-supported online TV provider that includes a lot of popular streams. You won’t find the traditional TV networks you’re used to, but the online alternatives do have entertainment value. Pluto is a great way of blending online content with traditional TV.
- PlayStation Vue – If your only issue with cable is the cable providers, fork $45-80 over to Sony for its PS Vue service. Here you’ll get the same packages you’ll find on cable, and it’s available on much more than the PS4, despite the deceptive name.
- AT&T WatchTV – AT&T gives you 30+ live channels for $15. The service is also included in its Unlimited Data wireless plans.
- Philo – For $16/month, Philo TV gives you a “cable login” to use on any of the network apps, along with on-demand, DVR, and other premium functionality.
- Vudu – Vudu provides paid and free (with ads) access to a wide library of movies and TV shows. Rentals range from $0.99 to $5.99, and purchases costs $4.99 to $24.99, depending on title and quality.
- Amazon Prime Video – Included with Amazon’s $99 a year Prime membership, Prime Video has a ton of Hollywood content available to stream. Amazon Studios also makes exclusive original content, and whatever isn’t available for free is available for sale on Amazon, either digitally or physically.
- Kodi – Kodi is the ultimate home entertainment software. It’s free, available on nearly every platform, and add-ons can be installed to access any of the content listed here (and then some).
- Plex – The Plex media server brings a user-friendly graphical interface to your home video collection. It’s available on every smart TV platform and can even be accessed from Kodi. With a Plex Pass, you add live TV, DVR, and other functionality for a $150 one-time fee.
- Crackle – If you’ve been sleeping on it, Sony’s Crackle TV streaming service is coming to its own and definitely targeting the 18-35 male demographic with funny, action-packed content. Sony makes exclusive, original content for Crackle, and it regularly rotates content. Best of all – it’s free.
- YouTube – $11.99 (YouTube Premium), $40 (YouTube TV) You can access a lot of free content on YouTube. In fact, you could start watching now and never run out of content for the rest of your life, even if everyone stopped posting on YouTube right now. But YouTube also offers live TV and original, exclusive content for a price.
- Sling TV – $25+ per month plus add-ons makes Sling TV very close to traditional TV. It’s also a subsidiary of Dish Network.
- fuboTV – FuboTV is the streaming option for sports fans. If you only have one particular sport, choose that league’s app. Otherwise, fuboTV starts at $45/month with a ton of add-ons. Fubo has the most comprehensive sports packages of any of the non-cable companies.
- Shared Cable Login – Obviously if you don’t have cable but know somebody who does, their login info can be valuable to you accessing content on some of the individual network apps and the cable company’s apps. Cable company apps are very limited in what you can watch outside the home, making them pretty much pointless.
- Piracy – And of course, for everything else, there’s torrents, TOR, and other piracy options.