Video streaming options for cutting the cable cord

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Various streaming video options mean it is now viable to cut the cable TV cord (Photo: Shutterstock)

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Have you wanted to get rid of your cable or satellite company and cut the cord for good, but aren't sure where to begin? Here's a look at some of the devices and streaming services that let you watch your favorite movies and programs when you want, and where you want.

There are several reason why you'd want to get rid of your cable or satellite subscription. The amount of money it costs, the annoying commercials, or paying for a bunch of channels you never watch. And with streaming services you're able watch your favorite shows on your own schedule, without even having to worry about setting your DVR.

Before getting into the streaming services and set-top box options, one of the first things you should get is a digital antenna so you can pick up your free over-the-air local channels in HD. If you live in an urban area, you can get by with an amplified indoor antenna. These aren't like the old school rabbit ears, today you can pick up modern looking antennas like the one shown below. If you live in a rural area and are just shy of the TV tower signals, you'll need to look into something you can mount on your rooftop.

Streaming entertainment to the big screen

Even if you have a Smart TV, typically using its streaming apps isn't the most intuitive or responsive experience, and your TV may not get the particular streaming services you want. So if your serious about cutting the cord, then a more specialized device with a bit more grunt should be your first step. There isn't one device that will suit everybodyl, but it's a crowded market, so you should find at least one to fit your needs. Most of these boxes and streaming sticks also have a proprietary video store that allows you to rent or purchase movies and TV shows. They also include the major streaming services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, and others where you pay a monthly fee for all you can watch.

The unit with among the best choice of streaming services is the Roku, with models starting at only US$49, or $99 for the Roku 3 shown below. In addition to its dedicated boxes, Roku also offers a Streaming Stick, and its own line of Smart TVs. Roku is largely platform agnostic, so it includes Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, Google Play Movies & TV, and thousands of other channels. In fact, if you're just starting out with streaming video, the Roku is one of the best devices to get you going.

Another player that is coming on strong in this market is Amazon. It offers the Fire TV set-top box for $99 and the Fire TV Stick for $39, and both of these devices regularly go on sale. Either is a good choice if you're already an Amazon Prime subscriber, which will give you access to Amazon's large library of movies, TV shows, and Prime music service. You can also play video games from the Amazon App Store with the optional game controller.

If you already have a Mac or iOS device, you might want to consider staying in the Apple ecosystem and going with an Apple TV, which has just been reduced to $69. With the price drop of the Apple TV, it was also announced that the standalone HBO Now (currently US only) streaming service that will kick off in April for $15/month, will premiere on Apple devices. The exclusive deal will last three months, after which it's likely to crop up on other devices.

But be warned, Apple's digital content is in a walled garden, and you can't access any shows or movies you rent on Apple TV on other devices (and iTunes for Windows is the only licensed way to watch purchased content on non-Apple devices). Apple TV does have apps for some popular streaming services like Netflix and Hulu Plus, and allows you to stream video from your Mac, iPhone, or iPad directly to the TV via Apple's AirPlay technology.

However, it's worth noting that the Apple TV hasn't had a full version update since 2012 (it had a minor revision in 2013), and newer boxes like the Roku 3 and Amazon's Fire TV are much more responsive and navigating their interfaces is a faster experience. Plus, with an Amazon Prime subscription, the Fire TV includes a free back catalog of HBO shows like The Wire, Deadwood, The Sopranos and others, possibly offsetting the current lack of HBO Now for some users.

A Google Chromecast is another device worth considering, but not necessarily for the beginner. It's not a dedicated box like an Apple TV or Roku, meaning, you don't just turn it on, connect it to the internet and start watching content using a remote. For the Chromecast you need a separate device to stream content to it. An Android phone or tablet would be the best option, but content can also be streamed from a Mac or PC with the Chrome browser, and even an iPhone or iPad with the Chromecast app. While it's not as straightforward to use as a set-top box, there are some interesting tricks it can do, and at $35 you really can't go wrong.

If you like the idea of a traditional set-top box and the features of Chromecast, then check out the Nexus Player. It hasn't picked up much steam since it was introduced last year, but it does allow you to subscribe to several streaming services and you'll have access to your Google Play music, videos, and other apps, including mobile games with its own optional controller. Like the Fire TV, it also provides voice search from the remote. It runs Android Lollipop 5.0, is Wi-Fi only, and costs $99.

If you find yourself missing that live cable TV feel, and being able to just channel surf, the recently launched Sling TV could be what you're looking for. The service from Dish Network is currently US only, and will cost you $20 per month for the basic package, which includes live cable channels like ESPN, TNT, TBS, CNN, the Food Network, AMC and others. If you want more, there are other channel "packages" like Sports or Kids Extra, that you can order for an extra $5 each. The Sling TV app works across multiple platforms, including Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, Fire TV and Fire TV Stick and Roku. Soon it will also be available for Xbox and Nexus Player.

Finding your favorite programs, movies, and sports

With all of the streaming services available out there, it can be difficult finding something specific. Thankfully, most of the streaming devices have a built-in search feature that will search across all services for what you're looking for. One notable exception to this is the Apple TV, which only searches the iTunes Store. Devices like Fire TV and Google's Nexus Player make it even easier by providing voice search through the remote.

Another service that comes in handy is Can I Stream.it. Just type in the movie or TV show you're looking for and it will bring up results showing whether it's free or not, and which service offers it – i.e, Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube, etc. It also offers free apps for Android, iOS, and Windows Phone, which lets you find what you need, and set up reminder notifications.

When it comes to sports, there is a wide variety of networks and apps available on most streaming devices. These include Major League Baseball, NBA, Major League Soccer, UFC, WWE, a variety of ESPN apps, and DishWorld Sports, which features soccer, cricket, sailing, cycling, and more. You can't watch live NFL games on demand quite yet, but there are services like NFL Game Access and NFL Now that provide some pre-season games, game replays, and in-depth statistics. Also, NBC Sports airs the Sunday night games live on its site, and last year's Super Bowl was aired live on several platforms. Getting live sports can be kind of tricky, even with the amount of services available, and that's why it's handy having your digital antenna to watch your local team in HD for free.

Data, data, data

There is one other important factor to consider when doing your own cost-benefit analysis – data download costs. Streaming video can chew through the gigabytes pretty quickly and see you hit your monthly download quota well before the end of the month. Netflix, which allows users to change the video quality of its streams, estimates 0.3 GB per hour for low quality, 0.7 GB per hour for standard definition, up to 3 GB per hour for HD, and a whopping 7 GB per hour for Ultra HD. So if you're currently on a plan with a low download limit, you'll need to take the cost of upgrading your plan into account when considering jumping in the video stream.

Summing up

It should be noted that not all of the popular streaming services listed here are available outside the US. But given the border-smashing nature of the internet, it's not surprising to see some of the big US names branching out into new territories. For instance, Netflix is already available in over 40 countries, including large parts of Europe and South America, and is set to launch in Australia and New Zealand in the coming weeks, where it will take on already established competitors like pay TV operator Foxtel and local streaming services like Quickflix in a battle for viewers.

However, you couldn't really say Netflix is a newcomer, as a large number of Australians already access US and UK versions of Netflix and other streaming services via a VPN workaround to avoid geo-blocking. Netflix even explains how to use a VPN service on its home page. If your area is blocked from a video site, make sure to read our article on how to bypass country restrictions on video sites.

But for those in the US looking to cut the cord, there are a plethora of options available without having to mess around with a VPN, and the market keeps growing. If you're not sure which living room device to start out with, I would recommend heading to the websites of the various streaming services and seeing whose list of content appeals to you most and then check out which device supports your preferred streaming service. Here's a quick look at which of the main streaming services are available on the devices we've mentioned in this story.

If you don't want to spend money on some new hardware, there's a good chance you already have a "smart" device that's capable of viewing streaming video, like your TV or a new Blu-ray player. If you're a gamer, your Xbox or PlayStation already has the ability to stream content from a number of providers, and streaming services also offer apps that you can download and watch content on mobile devices, not to mention your computer. The options are indeed plentiful, as are the viewing options they provide. Never before have viewers had so much content at their fingertips. So why not take advantage of it?

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