Cut the cable

You don’t need cable to watch your favourite TV shows. Many are connecting a laptop or gaming system to their TV instead.

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by

From the Dec/Jan 2010 issue of the magazine.

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The living room in Eugene Leung’s Ottawa home features a large-screen HDTV and an audio system that’ll blow your ears off if you dare to test its upper range. But if you ask this media fanatic whether he prefers cable or satellite, he’ll say neither.

“We haven’t had cable for 12 years now,” says the nuclear medicine specialist. “There are only a handful of stations and shows we would actually watch and the cost is excessive.”

Leung represents a wave of media consumers eschewing traditional TV services and turning to the web to access shows, movies and other content. While some viewers, like Leung, prefer to download programs and watch them later, a number of alternative services now give people the ability to stream video content directly from the Internet to their TV sets.

So should you kick your cable box to the curb? The answer depends on the sort of media consumer you are. If you’re looking to save money, then consider doing away with traditional TV services. However, be prepared for a software and hardware configuration maze.


READ: The best music streaming service for you »


The gaming solution
One option is to use a gaming console, such as Microsoft’s Xbox or Sony’s PlayStation. For people who already own one of these devices, it’s relatively easy to transform it into an Internet-video-playing media centre. But if you’re in the market for a gaming console with the added advantage of media centre, bear in mind that the Xbox has a DVD player, while the PS3 has a higher-quality Blu-ray drive.

A dedicated laptop
For people who don’t have gaming consoles, one surefire hardware option is the laptop computer. With a set of audio-visual (AV) cables to connect the computer to the television set, it doesn’t take much to stream from the web to the TV. Use the laptop to find videos on services such as iTunes and Netflix; watch the content in the comfort of your living room.

It’s worth shelling out for a high-end laptop with a good video card or a Mac Mini to get the best picture. To connect to the Internet, a direct Ethernet link between the modem and the computer is ideal; it provides the highest data through-put for top-notch video and sound.

When it isn’t feasible to use Ethernet, consider a wireless local area network. For the best wireless connection, get a wireless router that runs the 802.11n networking protocol. It’s very fast, so you’ll get a better web stream, with high-quality pictures and sound.
With a Blu-ray player on the computer you’ll have a fully-fledged media centre for watching not only web content, but Blu-ray movies too.

Apple TV and Boxee Box
If you don’t want to use a computer, you might want to consider a dedicated media device, such as Apple TV or D-Link’s Boxee Box. They let you stream movies from services like Netflix to the TV. Apple TV is less expensive than Boxee Box, but the Boxee’s creators claim that it connects to more online sources than Apple TV does.

Either way, keep in mind that these devices are somewhat limited for now. For example, in Canada, Apple TV doesn’t actually let you access TV shows—it links to video services such as Netflix and YouTube instead.

Now, what to watch?
Once you have the hardware set up, it’s time to find something to watch. There are a few places you can go hunting for shows, each with its pros and cons.

If you want to download movies and TV shows to your hard drive, you can search for online content via a peer-to-peer service, such as BitTorrent, which lets people share movies and shows online for free. While the selection is top-notch, be careful: you risk viruses and running afoul of copyright laws by down­loading movies and TV shows without paying for them.

To ensure you stay on the right side of the law, it’s simpler to pay for your shows using services like Netflix—which started serving Canada for only $96 per year (or $8 per month for unlimited viewing). But avid movie and TV watchers could be disappointed with Netflix’s limited selection for Canadian subscribers.

For better selection try a paid download service, such as iTunes. But watch the cost. You can end up paying $2 per TV episode, $5 to rent movies, and a whopping $20 to buy—making this option good only for occasional viewing. But check back in a year. New options are hitting the market at a rapid pace, and prices are bound to come down soon.

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