Monday, March 10, 2014

Cutting The Cable

The contract period recently ran out on our Verizon FiOS Triple Play (phone/internet/TV) service. As a result, our new monthly bill would be roughly $160, an increase of ~$10-30 depending on which features we were using at any given time. I don’t really have any complaints with the FiOS service, and the internet speeds are great, but this finally reached the mark of feeling too expensive for what I was getting. We didn’t have any movie channels, we only had the 2nd-lowest tier of internet speed, and we only used a single cable box (albeit with DVR). And rarely use the phone.

This prompted a rethink of our television needs. We rely heavily on the DVR, and really only watch live TV for sporting events or mostly for background noise. That’s not to say we don’t ever watch live TV, but we don’t watch it so much that we feel we must have it. Then it was a matter of determining what our online options were for watching our favorite shows. So I went right down the list of series in the DVR, and searched around for online availability. For probably 80%+ of what we watch, online options that were either free or cheap were readily available. The remaining shows went on the list of “Here is what we lose if we do this."

So here is where we wound up, and then I’ll circle back around to why we did what did:

  • Reduced FiOS service to phone + internet (faster, actually), dropping the TV portion
  • Purchased an Apple TV
  • Signed up with hulu.com for TV shows (they also have some movies)
  • Started utilizing our Amazon Prime membership for movies (they also have some TV shows)

We had Amazon Prime already to save on shipping, so for our TV watching purposes it is free. If you don’t already have it, then obviously it will cost you money, but at $79/year [Edit: just a couple days after posting, Amazon announced that the rate will increase to $99/year in 2015] it is cheaper than Netflix. We’ve had Netflix in the past, and found that we didn’t watch DVDs often enough to justify the price. Their online-only catalog isn’t super compelling compared to average TV channels, so we didn’t strongly consider it. Without Amazon Prime, we absolutely would have used it, and some of their exclusive content is becoming interesting, so it may wind up back on the table here soon.

I was totally willing to drop the home phone service as well, but when actually looking at the available packages, Verizon offered no discount for dropping it, meaning it was effectively free, so I kept it. But considering that the vast majority of calls coming in are telemarketers, I’m about done with having a house line.

The FiOS service is now $84.99, with a realistic bill of $90-95 (should be closer to $90). Hulu Plus is $7.99/mo. Combined that should be under $100/mo. If you want to be picky and consider the Amazon Prime cost as well, it is still under $110/mo. This represents a savings of at least $50/mo, meaning we absorb the cost of the Apple TV within 2 months. After that we save money. And if we decide to add Netflix at some point, we’re still coming out ahead.

I was able to figure out all of these numbers before pulling the trigger, so then the mantra became “Is this worth 50 bucks?” for everything that we thought we might lose. Yes, we’ll miss some football and basketball games. Is that worth 50 bucks a month? No. Yes, we’ll miss some other live TV shows. Is that worth 50 bucks a month? No. How about all of these things combined, is that worth 50 bucks a month? That’s a harder question, but we finally decided that no, it’s not. So we cut the cord.

We are now 2 months in as I write this, and so far it is going well. We have over 1000 items in our Hulu queue, so we will have plenty to watch for the foreseeable future. For the most part, instead of watching stuff off the DVR the next day, we watch the same stuff off of Hulu the next day. In fact, considering that our DVR service was something like $16/mo, Hulu really has turned out to be quite the bargain, and we will almost certainly keep it if at some point in the future we decide to resume television service. Yes, we have missed out on some televised events, but so far we’re enjoying the lower bill.

That’s not to say that everything is great. There are hoops to jump through. Right off the bat, Amazon Prime is not available on the Apple TV. We have a Sony Blu-Ray player that is capable of connecting to Amazon Prime and streaming the video content. But honestly that experience is sub-par. It is very slow, and has a really awkward user interface. It is usually a better experience to use the Instant Video app on an iOS device and throw it onto the Apple TV from there via AirPlay.  And despite the numerous “channels” that the Apple TV has, most of them require a login through your TV provider, and since we no longer have TV service we don’t count, so most of the channels are unavailable to us. Hulu has some issues that I’ll talk about in more detail in a future post, mostly dealing with content availability.

In general, sitting down at the TV used to be a pretty brainless experience. Turn it on, pick a channel, watch. Now watching stuff requires more planning. Ok, I’m sitting down to watch a movie, flip on the Apple TV, oh crap, that’s actually on Amazon Prime, so I need the Blu-Ray player instead, turn that on, etc.  Even within the Apple TV, the show you want to watch could be in any of a couple dozen apps/channels, and then within each app could be anywhere within that UI to find what you want. Specific to the Hulu app, after selecting it, I will have to click to the right 4 times to get to the queue page, and then click down a couple of times to find our favorite shows.  95%+ of the time when I go to the Hulu app, I want the queue page. But there is no way (that I know of) to make that the default page.

There is a lot of industry expectation that Apple is going to do something to shake up the TV industry. Honestly, all I would want them to do is to make a standard launch screen with “TV Shows” and “Movies” as selections, and then it automatically pools together everything that has been favorited in any/all apps on the device. They’d have to get all of these providers to agree upon some kind of scheme for defining watch lists, but that hardly seems like an insurmountable problem. I don’t imagine it would be too hard to place an icon next to each show so that these providers get their branding, too. I don’t care if Apple ever makes an actual TV - probably wouldn’t buy it anyway since I don’t need it - but there is still a ton of opportunity available to significantly improve and simplify the experience on the device they already have.

I will talk more about the specific services in future posts, but for now, if you are considering dropping cable, then my advice would be to test these things out before making the decision.  Hulu is cheap, and within a single month you should be able to figure out whether or not it meets your needs. If it doesn’t, cancel it. At minimum, you may find it to be a viable/cheaper alternative to your DVR, even if you ultimately decide to keep your TV service. I don’t regret it, but the actual service has fallen short of what I expected in some ways, based on my preliminary research. If you’re going the Apple TV route, poke around the apps and pay attention to how many of them require a TV provider credential. Those are off-limits once you cut the cord, so you can’t really count on them, even though the Apple TV seemingly offers a lot of content. Depending on your needs, AirPlay alone can make an AppleTV a worthwhile purchase, even if you don’t cut the cord. And if you truly hate the Apple TV, you can sell it. I’m pretty solidly in the Apple ecosystem, but there are alternatives such as the Chromecast or Roku that can be used instead of or in addition to everything that has been mentioned so far. Bottom line is that it doesn’t cost very much money to find out if you can get by with these services alone, so I’d encourage you to try before making the decision to cut the cord.

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