Despite all the big tech news this week J.D. takes a few minutes to help El Kaiser work up the courage to cut the cable, um, cable. In the news Microsoft buys Nokia’s phone handset division; CBS and Time Warner finally make up; Big announcements at the IFA Berlin show; Google acquires a smartwatch maker; U.S. retailer Target gets into the streaming video game; another government agency trips through U.S. phone records; and Skype celebrates its 10th birthday.
Even though the month-long hissyfit between CBS and Time Warner Cable finally ended this week, the notion that you can still watch your favorite shows without spending a huge chunk of money lives on. If you’re one of the viewers out there thinking of downsizing your monthly bills, here are a few options to consider for cheaper television:
- Antennas. A good old-fashioned antenna won’t help for premium cable channels, but could yank down digital broadcast signal from the regular TV networks if you live within range and do not have any major obstructions. (Time Warner Cable was even offering a limited amount of free antennas at one point, with $20 coupons to pick up one at your local Best Buy instead; Radio Shack does some bang-up antenna business in some parts of the country too.) Next time you’re at the newsstand, check out the October issue of Consumer Reports magazine, which tests some digital antenna options priced between $10 and $80. Antennas in big cities can be hit or miss, but the magazine reported that testers got anywhere from no channels to more than 40 over the air. Consumer Reports also pointed out that even without a cable company-network dispute, an antenna could come in handy in other situations like ditching a set-top box for that bedroom TV you only use to watch network shows anyway, or as a backup if the cable service goes out. (Just remember that all TV signals are digital now after the switchover from analog a few years back, so your television set needs to either be digital or have a converter box attached to get the broadcasts with the antenna.)
- Network Web sites and mobile apps. You may be able to watch some shows on the TV network’s own Web site or through its mobile apps. CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX and PBS all have some shows available.
- Third-party streaming TV services. Although mired in legal battles of their own and not available everywhere, services like the Aereo and FilmOn can bring local broadcast channels right to your computer, tablet, smartphone or other compatible device. Aereo, which is available in New York, Boston, Atlanta and Salt Lake City so far, starts at $8 a month and also includes 20 hours of online DVR recording so you don’t miss your stories; your first month is free. FilmOn has a variety of subscription plans with $20 a month for HD streams as a starter course and you can pick up online DVR recording as well. You can also watch local broadcast stations in standard definition for free, with ads. And don’t forget Hulu or if you’re catching up on older seasons of some shows, Netflix.
- TV Tuner cards. If your computer didn’t come with a TV tuner, you can buy internal cards for desktop PCs or external models on USB sticks for laptops. Expect to pay around $50 or more for a good one when you shop savvy around the Web. You’ll also need the software that goes with it to view shows. If you ever had a Media Center PC or other tuner-equipped desktop that’s up in the attic, maybe it’s time to go dig it out for a second life.
- Legal downloads. Many shows are available the next day from services like Amazon Instant Video and the iTunes Store. Sure, you may be paying a la carte (unless you’re an Amazon Prime member) and the show you want is available, but hey, a season pass for a couple of shows is cheaper than taking the family out to the movies in New York City. Plus, you don’t have to sit through commercials and you get to keep the show for rewatching whenever you want.
- Slingbox. The Slingbox connects to a regular TV and lets you watch live and recorded shows from that TV over the Internet on your laptop or mobile device. The Slingbox isn’t cheap — $180 or $300 —depending on the model, but even if you keep the cable around, you can watch your shows in more places than just on the TV linked to the cable company’s set-top box.
If you do decide to totally slice the coax and lose the cable bill, you can put those savings toward a really nice television set or tablet. And the next time the local cable carrier starts dropping or blocking channels due to a corporate smackdown, you won’t have to care.