My Life Without Cable

Old TV with rabbit ears
Remember when you WERE the remote control?

The first time I ever had cable TV was my freshman year of college. When I was growing up, our TV came through the finicky rabbit-ears on top of the TV. I’d watch shows on PBS and during the summer the FOX MLB Game of the Week (when I got my chores done in time). My TV experience changed dramatically in my freshman dorm room: SportsCenter in the morning, Tom and Jerry during my lunch break, and frequent Seinfeld reruns in the evening.

It’s easy to become accustomed to having such a variety of content available to watch at any time. Then I moved out on my own after college and, wow! I was hit by sticker shock when I saw how much even basic cable would cost me. I went to RadioShack (now out of business) and got my own rabbit-ears for my Indianapolis apartment.

My setup has changed since then. I’m not advocating going without a TV, although I admire that if you’re able. I’m talking about finding alternatives to cable. Most of them aren’t free. But I’m not burdened by a pricy monthly cable bill, and you don’t have to be either. Here’s how.

Over-the-air TV channels

When you think of a TV antenna, do you think of rabbit-ears sitting on top of the TV or a gigantic rooftop antenna that looks like it communicates with UFOs? Modern antennas are often much less unsightly than these. And if you live in or near a city, you can get some TV channels free…and in high definition if you have an HDTV.

Mohu Sky 60 antenna
The Sky 60: certainly not invisible, but I think it looks a lot better than rooftop antennas of yesteryear.

I live about 50 miles from most of the transmitters in Indianapolis, so I’ve installed Mohu’s Sky 60 antenna. It’s designed to be outdoors or in an attic, but it’s far from an eyesore (in my opinion). It’s only about 3 feet high and maybe 1.5 feet wide. Since I’m near the edge of this antenna’s range, a few of the channels don’t come in cleanly, and this is made worse when storms move through the area. But we usually get FOX, CBS, ABC, and PBS in high definition, plus some secondary channels like 24/7 radar or oldies TV shows.

Mohu Leaf 30 antenna
The Leaf 30: very inconspicuous. Not sure why they didn’t install it with the white side facing out though!

For those of you who live closer to a city than we do, there are cheaper and less conspicuous options available. For example, Mohu’s Leaf 30 indoor antenna is about the size of a sheet of paper, only 1/16th in. thick, and can be painted to match its location. Its 30-mile range should be plenty for folks living in a city or suburbs.

I’ve had mixed results with reception at the edge of my antenna’s advertised range, but I’ve been impressed with Mohu’s customer support. There are certainly other options available for HD antennas as well.

Streaming options

If you’re a cable user, you probably have favorite shows on cable channels like History or ESPN. Well, you won’t be able to get those with your antenna. But there are ways to see many of those shows after they’ve aired.

The most common of these are streaming services Netflix and Hulu Plus. Both are monthly subscriptions, and they include episodes of current TV shows, shows that aren’t currently airing, and lots of movies. (We had Netflix for a while, but after some months decided we didn’t watch enough to justify our subscription.)

Other streaming services are also available, such as Amazon Instant Video (free to Amazon Prime members).

Roku 3
Roku 3 streaming media player

Streaming services are available directly through smart TVs or through streaming boxes like a Roku or Amazon Fire TV, which plug into your TV through an HDMI cable. Netflix and Hulu Plus are available through almost every smart TV or streaming box, but often you’ll find “channels” specific to a cable network, such as Fox News Channel. Some of these channels will require you to sign in with a cable provider, but others will let you watch recent episodes or clips for free.

Often you can also watch the most recent episodes of cable shows in full online after they’ve aired. You’ll have to keep up with them, because they usually only keep the few most recent episodes available.

Sling TV from Dish will stream certain cable channels for a monthly rate.
Sling TV from Dish

If you’re willing to pay more, there are more options coming in the months ahead for “cord-cutters.” HBO, a “premium” cable channel, recently announced it will soon allow people without cable to pay for access to its shows. In addition, Dish TV announced a new standalone service offering live streaming of cable channels such as ESPN, CNN, and Food Network for $20 per month.

Don’t forget discs

Remember when Netflix sent DVDs by mail? Well, they still do! You can sign up for a Netflix DVD or Blu-ray plan separately from a Netflix streaming subscription or along with one.

My wife and I rarely watch more than a few movies per month. For us, Redbox is also a nice option for one-night DVD rental. allows us to find a location nearby that has the movie we want in stock.

Free options

If going without cable is starting to sound almost as expensive as cable, don’t forget about great free options! Your local library should have plenty of choices of DVD and Blu-ray movies and TV shows available.

And of course there’s a good chance if you don’t own a movie, you might have a friend who does. We’ve often borrowed movies and TV shows from our friends, and vice versa.

Have you quit cable? What’s your setup like? Let me know below!


Brands and deals – Television buying guide part 3

Note: this is the third and final part of my TV buying guide, 2014 edition. In the first part, I talked about high definition options and 3D. In the second part, I discussed the pros and cons of smart TVs.

As I mentioned in last week’s post, if you’re buying a smart TV, make sure the user interface is easy-to-use and all the apps you want are available. You’ll want to try out your options in person, like in a store or at a friend’s house. As you do, I think you’ll find that the brand name makes a big difference.

The importance of the brand

The biggest brand names in the TV market these days are Samsung, LG, and Panasonic. These four brands make up the vast majority of Consumer Reports’ top 2014 TV sets.

Sony and Sharp are also very popular TV brands. Vizio is a newer, American brand that’s become popular by offering TVs with premium features with a lower price tag.

There are a few names, such as RCA, Philips, or Westinghouse, that are recognizable but still definitely budget options in the world of TVs. Other budget options include store brands, such as Best Buy’s Insignia line, and newer Asian brands, like Hisense and Seiki.

So what’s the difference between them?

In general, the picture quality of your TV depends more on the settings you select in the menu than the manufacturer of the TV. In fact, the LCD panels in many off-brand TVs are actually manufactured by big names like Samsung.

You’ll probably find that the menus and settings options are easier to use and understand on the higher-end brands. For example, many of their TVs come with “picture modes,” which can adjust the settings to various presets. I’d recommend looking for a Cinema or Movie mode.

If you’re upgrading from a TV that’s more than 5 or so years old (and especially if it’s the old tube-style CRT TV), you’re likely to see an impressive improvement in picture quality with a new TV from even the cheapest manufacturer.

When it comes to smart TVs, though, the brand name can make a HUGE difference. This is because the quality of your experience depends largely on the software the manufacturer has designed for the TV. The ease of navigation and search, plus the pleasantness of the visual layout, are very different between a top brand and a budget brand. There are certainly exceptions, which is why I recommend trying before you choose.

Looking through Consumer Reports’ 2014 TV ratings, there’s definitely a pattern: Samsung has by far the most recommended models (32), with Panasonic (18) and LG (12) coming in next. Sony (6), Vizio (4), and Sharp (4) are the only others with multiple recommended models. That’s pretty top-heavy, and if you know Consumer Reports, you know they don’t recommend products based on brand name but rather on testing the product itself.

Samsung logo
Samsung gets my recommendation for best TVs.

In my limited experience, Samsung also leads the pack in smart TV features and ease-of-use. (Again, take that with a grain of salt and try them for yourself.)

Samsung is easily my top recommendation for a smart TV.

When to buy?

The most advertised TV sales are almost certainly during the week leading up to the Super Bowl and Black Friday. According to Consumer Reports, the best times to buy a TV include January (pre-Super Bowl) and November (Black Friday), but also March and December.

Black Friday line at Best Buy
Black Friday shoppers wait in line at Best Buy

Why? December coincides with holiday shopping and the related sales. March is actually the time of year when many TV manufacturers release new models. So if last year’s model will suit your needs, you may be able to find the best deal in March (if you get to your choice before it sells out). Plus, you won’t have to wait in a crazy line for hours.

Keep in mind, though, that there are sales all year round, and if your research reveals a particular model that fits your needs and budget, you probably won’t have to wait months to find a deal on it. There are websites that can track the price of a certain product and notify you when it goes on sale.

Extended warranty?

Whether you buy in a physical store or online, you’ll more than likely be offered the chance to purchase an extended warranty or protection plan. I’ve previously discussed why I don’t feel these are worth adding on to your purchases, and my thoughts are no different on TVs. In fact, Consumer Reports’ research shows that most TVs encounter problems within their first year, or not until the end of their lifespan. The manufacturer’s warranty should be enough for you.

Deeper discounts available?

I mentioned earlier the best times of the year to get great TV deals, including March, when last year’s models go on clearance. Even deeper discounts can often be found in open-box items.

If you’re thinking about getting an open-box TV, make sure to check whether it was purchased and returned, or a floor model. If it was purchased and returned, feel free to buy it after checking the store’s return policy. The customer might have brought it home only to find it was too small or the wrong style for his living room. If by chance he wasn’t happy with the quality of the TV, you should have a chance to try it and return it if you’re not happy. With TVs, most manufacturing problems will be noticeable right away.

On the other hand, stay away from floor model TVs. The bulbs in a TV have an expected lifespan, and that floor model was probably running on full brightness for at least 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. Even with LED TVs, whose bulbs should last a long, long time, that’s a lot of time those bulbs have already been burning by the time you bring the TV home.

Final thoughts

  • As I mentioned in part 1 of this buying guide, look for an LED TV that’s 1080p HD if your screen size will be around 50″ or above. 720p is fine if your screen is smaller than that.
  • Make sure it has enough ports for what you’ll connect, especially HDMI ports.
  • In part 2 I explained why I’m skeptical of smart TVs’ longevity, but the newest and best TVs are all smart TVs. If you go with a smart TV, make sure to get a top brand with an interface that’s easy to use.
  • Speaking of brands, Consumer Reports shows Samsung to be the best overall manufacturer, and LG or Panasonic look to be your other top choices.
  • Avoid extended warranties and floor model discounts, but a great deal can be found in a clearance model from last year or a returned open-box TV.

Let me know if this helped. If you have other questions, please ask me below!


Smart TVs – Television buying guide part 2

Note: this is the second part of my TV buying guide. The first post discussed TV resolutions and connections.

If you’ve been shopping for TVs lately, you’ve come across the term “smart TV.” So what’s a smart TV? It’s a TV that connects to the Internet and allows you to watch content from online: movies from Netflix, TV shows from Hulu, or (my guilty pleasure) YouTube compilations of cats falling clumsily.

Skype on a smart TV
Your family can literally be larger than life with video calls on a smart TV

The fact that the TV is connected to the Internet also allows for more unusual uses, such as Skyping with an attached webcam or listening to music through your surround sound speakers with an online music service like Pandora.

These activities used to be relegated to your computer. Now you can enjoy them in your living room on the biggest screen in your house. It’s fantastic to have those abilities.

But I’m still not sure my next TV will be a smart TV. And here’s why.

A potential downside: longevity

Ever since televisions were invented, they served as passive screens simply displaying the video signal fed into them. The video signals came from devices such as antennas, then cable and satellite dishes, then VCRs and DVD players.

A smart TV is different; it’s essentially an all-in-one computer, like an iMac. There’s a small, streamlined computer housed behind the screen, connecting to the Internet and serving you content from various online sources. It works well, and frankly I’ve been pretty impressed by how it works on demo units I’ve seen in stores.

But how long will that computer, and the “smart TV” experience it provides, feel quick and modern?

My suspicion is that the TV’s computer “guts” will feel slow and the software will feel outdated long before the TV screen itself seems inadequate. (This is the same reason I’m skeptical of cars with a built-in screen and computer system.)

Now, it could be argued I’ve kept using my current TV longer than the average person…but I doubt it. I won’t embarrass my parents by publishing exactly how old their TVs are, but both are much older than their computer. I suspect the same is true for most people.

If you tend to get a new TV every few years, this may not be much of a problem for you. But for those of you who don’t, there are other options for accessing online content.

Another option: streaming boxes

Amazon Fire TV
Amazon’s new Fire TV streaming box

In fact, you may already own a device that can access online content. I’m thinking primarily of streaming boxes, such as a Roku, Apple TV, Fire TV, or Chromecast. Gaming consoles such as a Playstation or Xbox also have some streaming connectivity, and so do many Blu-ray players. And of course, your laptop might also able to connect to your TV when you want to watch something on it.

The benefit of a smart TV over these is simplicity (in theory). Instead of connecting another box and having another remote, it’s built into the TV itself. The ease of use may vary widely, depending on the TV manufacturer and the software it makes (more on that later). But in general, it means one less box to connect, one less cable to plug in, and one less remote to keep track of.

However, streaming media boxes such as a Roku or Apple TV cost $100 or less, and the Google Chromecast costs only about $35. I can live with having to replace one of those with the latest version every few years. I don’t see myself replacing my whole TV that often.

My worry is that when the computer components of your smart TV are out-of-date, you’ll be left with a screen that still works great. You’ll have three options: buy a new smart TV, use your smart TV with its slow or frustrating interface, or buy one of the aforementioned streaming boxes to do what your smart TV no longer can…which is exactly the thing you were avoiding by buying the smart TV in the first place.

That’s why I won’t be paying extra to get a smart TV. A dumb TV will still allow me to plug in my antenna, Blu-ray player (which streams Netflix, YouTube, etc.), and even my computer if I want.

If you don’t use or plan to use streaming video services, then a smart TV would probably be just adding an extra layer of complexity to your living room relaxation.

That being said, you rarely have the choice between a smart TV and a “dumb TV” these days. At the more expensive end of the TV market, almost every single TV is a smart TV. If you’re getting a TV above $1000, it will almost certainly be a smart TV, and even most TVs above $500 are smart TVs now.

Even if you don’t plan to use smart TV features, there’s a good chance you’ll end up with one, and you might be surprised how much you enjoy some of the features on it.

What to look for

So what separates one smart TV from another? The apps that are available and the televisions’ ease of use.

Samsung app store
Samsung’s smart TV app store

Almost every smart TV includes Netflix support, but if you want to use other streaming services or social media, make sure all those apps are either pre-installed or available through the manufacturer’s app store. If you want to use your new big screen for video calls, see if there’s an included camera or if you’ll need to connect a webcam on your own. Most smart TVs connect via Wi-Fi, but make sure yours does, because you probably won’t want to run an ethernet cable to it to provide Internet access.

The other big question: how easy-to-use are the smart services? A smart TV that’s frustrating to use defeats the whole purpose. If you stream content from multiple Internet services, see if the TV will show you results from all the services when you search for ‘Forrest Gump.’ Does the menu feel cluttered, or is it easy to find the app you’re wanting to use?

Samsung QWERTY remote
An example of a QWERTY remote

A key factor in ease-of-use is the remote. A full QWERTY keyboard on the remote will help you search much more quickly. Newer smart TVs come with remotes that let you move an on-screen pointer by aiming the remote at the screen (a la the Wii remote). Are there shortcut buttons on the remote for the streaming services you’ll use most often?


LG smart TV interface
LG smart TV interface

Differentiating between smart TVs is difficult to do unless you’re using them in person. If you’re looking at the latest and greatest sets, the manufacturers’ websites may give good demos of their smart TV features. For last year’s models or budget brands, you’ll probably need to try out the smart TV at a friend’s house or in a store.

Think of smart TVs as an all-in-one computer, one with an operating system you’ve never used before. You shouldn’t buy just based off the screen size and quality; you’ll want to see how it actually functions first.

In short, I don’t recommend you pay more for a smart TV, if a dumb TV model fits your budget and suits your needs. But if you do get a smart TV, make sure you’re getting one that’s easy to use and has the apps to meet your viewing habits. That will probably mean looking for a model from a top brand.

Speaking of brand names, next week’s post will cover which brands to look for, and how much brand name matters. Plus, what time of year is best to buy a TV, and more!


Got an idea for a future blog topic? Send it to me below. Thanks!

TV resolution – Television buying guide part 1

Family watching TV
A stereotypical family watching TV together…don’t they look like they’re having fun?

I recently heard from a reader in Boston who told me he and his wife are thinking about buying a new TV in the near future. What options are there in the TV market these days, he asked, and what should they look for?

The television market has seen a couple major shifts over the past decade or so, first from “tube” TVs to flat-panel LCD models (and high definition capability). Within the past few years, we’ve seen so-called “smart TVs” appear and become quite popular. It seems we’re starting to see another big shift that seems imminent: the arrival of “Ultra High Definition” TVs.

My wife and I are also thinking about a new TV, so I’ve been researching these options and I’ll break them down for you here.

This week, we’ll cover what to look for in TV hardware.

In part 2, we’ll look specifically at what smart TVs offer, and whether they’re a good choice for you.

In part 3, we’ll take a look at whether brand names are important, and I’ll give advice on how to find the best deals when TV shopping.

Let’s dive in!

A first warning!

TV wall in-store
Don’t compare the pictures among the TVs on the TV wall!

The first thing I want to mention (and I can’t stress this enough) is NEVER EVER UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES choose a TV based on how the picture looks on the display wall at a store. NEVER!!!

Why? The lighting in the store is totally different than the lighting you’ll have in your house when you use it, plus the brightness, contrast, and other settings are cranked all the way up to make the TV wall as eye-catching as possible. You will never adjust the settings like that at home, so it doesn’t at all give you a realistic idea of what the picture will look like in your living room.

On the other hand, comparing options in person can be very helpful in other ways. For example, you get a good idea of how wide the bezel is (the frame around the edge of the screen) or how deep the body of the TV is. Plus, you can get a clearer perspective of how big a 32-inch or 65-inch screen actually is[1].

LCD vs. Plasma

The vast majority of TVs available today are LCD TVs. Plasma TVs are the main alternative, especially in larger screen sizes. Another description you’ll see often is LED TV. Let’s break those down.

An LCD TV weighs much less than a similar size plasma TV, is usually thinner, and typically uses less electricity. LCD screens also have less glare than plasma screens, so I’d recommend plasma screens only for people who will usually be watching in a dark environment. The main advantages of plasma TVs is that they have deeper blacks in the picture (again, great for dark rooms) and they’re usually a bit less expensive.

LED TVs are simply a newer kind of LCD screen, and LED TVs are lighter, thinner, and have deeper blacks than older LCD screens. If you happen to be comparing a TV that says “LED” on the box to one that just says “LCD,” the LED one is better. By now, almost all LCD TVs in stores use LED technology, so these terms are pretty much interchangeable.

For most people, I definitely recommend an LED TV[2].

Only look at a plasma TV if it’s going in a place where you’re always going to watch in the dark, and you don’t mind a heavier and bulkier TV.

3D or not 3D?

3D technology in TVs is fairly new, and it remains to be seen if it’s a lasting trend. My guess is it’s a fad. 3D movies are available, but more expensive, and 3D live television doesn’t seem to be catching on.

That said, I’ve only watched a 3D TV in a store, never someone’s living room, so it may be a much better experience than I know. Many high-end TVs include 3D capability anyway, so if you’re getting it, why not use it?

I advise you not to pay more for a TV simply to get 3D. If you do go with 3D, you’ll also need a 3D Blu-ray player and 3D movies, plus perhaps extra 3D glasses.

HD, but which HD?

Just about every single TV available today is a high definition TV (HDTV). However, there are different “levels” of HD, and they affect how much detail you can perceive in the picture[3].

720p HD is high definition, but it has the fewest pixels of the HD sizes — in other words it shows less detail than the others. Many smaller TVs are 720p HD, but as I’ll explain in a moment, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

1080p HD is also known as “Full HD,” and it’s the next step up from 720p. Until the past year or so, it was the best resolution you could buy, and it’s still the most common format you’ll see in stores.

TV resolution chart
This chart will help you see whether you’ll notice the difference between HD resolutions, depending on your screen size and distance from the TV. Click to enlarge. (Chart courtesy of Carlton Bale)

Whether you’ll notice a difference between 720p and Full HD depends on the size of the screen and how far away from it you sit. The chart to the right is from a very detailed article by Carlton Bale. From 10 feet away (the distance I’m guessing is in the average living room) your eyes probably can’t see the extra details of Full HD on screens smaller than about 50 inches. If you sit closer than that or watch a bigger screen, you’ll start to notice more detail in Full HD.

The newest level of HDTVs is “Ultra HD” (often also called “4K”). These TVs can show even more detail than Full HD, but again the difference you see depends on your screen size and distance from it. As the chart above shows, at 10 feet away from the TV you’ll need a screen larger than 75 inches to start noticing the difference between 4k and 1080p.

Plus, at this point, it’s still hard to find content to watch in Ultra HD resolution, and Ultra HD TVs are still very expensive. I think Ultra HD is the way of the future, but it’s a future that’s at least a couple years away. Don’t buy a 4K TV yet.

Bottom line: for TVs 50″ or above in a typical living room, make sure you’re getting a 1080p (a.k.a. Full HD) TV. For smaller TVs, 720p should be fine, but 1080p won’t hurt.

The right connections

HDMI port on a TV
HDMI port on a TV (in the red box)

The other main thing you’ll want to look for in TV hardware is connections. HDMI is the most common and highest quality connection, so make sure you have enough HDMI ports for all the peripherals you have or might get (such as Blu-ray player or Xbox). If any device can connect to the TV with an HDMI cable, do it. So the more HDMI ports the TV has, the better.

A USB port can be handy for viewing photos on a USB thumb drive. Also, if you have a standard definition device like a DVD player that connects via another connection (such as red, white, and yellow component cables), make sure the TV has those connections as well.

Next week: Smart TVs

The outside of the TV isn’t the only part getting changed lately — the insides of many TVs have also been undergoing a serious overhaul.

I’m referring to “smart TVs,” and next week I’ll explain what they are and whether you should get one. Stay tuned!


Let me know below if there’s a topic or question you’d like me to tackle next!

1 – TV screen size is measure diagonally from corner to corner. So if you’re trying to visualize how big a TV will be in your living room, break out the tape measure and hold it diagonally across the rectangle you’re visualizing. Make sure to add an inch or two for the bezel around the screen.

2 – One other option you may see is OLED screens, which are currently only found in a few high-end TVs. These combine the best of LED and plasma TVs, but they’re at least a few years away from being affordable for the average family.

3 – I need to point out that the detail you can see if affected by both the source and the screen you are viewing it on. For example, DVDs are NOT high definition picture quality, so if you watch a DVD on a high definition TV, the TV can’t show an HD picture — it won’t be showing all the detail it’s able to. The same is true with cable or satellite if you don’t have an HD subscription. On the other hand, if your source is HD, such as a Blu-ray movie, you can only see its high definition details if your TV is an HDTV.

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