Cut the Cord: Cable TV Alternatives Including Roku and PlayOn

Cord cutting has gone from a niche experiment using a digital antenna to a practical way of watching the shows you want without paying for an expensive cable plan. There are a lot of suggestions out there as to the best way to cut the cord. One of the determining factors is what you want to be able to watch.

Rather than tell you some possible ways of cord cutting, I’m going to show you exactly how I cut the cord to save money on an ever increasing cable bill.

Cut the Cord, Alternatives to paying for cable TV. Save money by Streaming from the sites you want like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime video, YouTube and more using Roku and Play On #Cordcutter #cordcutting #cutthecordSome people turn off their cable TV service only to add a bunch of subscription services. Combining multiple subscription services can quickly raise your total monthly TV costs up to the point that you aren’t saving very much at all.

At my house I use an antenna, Roku devices and PlayOn to watch the shows my family enjoys. I have a couple of low cost services I use that I will explain in this post. So let’s get started.

 

What is Cord Cutting?

This depends on who you ask. One way to cut the cord is to literally disconnect the TV cable coming into your house (or more likely cancel your cable TV service.) If you completely turn off your service, you will not have cable TV, phone or Internet access. However, you can still watch live TV on local channels with a digital antenna. In my area I can view 8-10 channels. This option makes your monthly cost $0 after the antenna(s) purchase. For some people this is a perfect solution. For me it is not!

When I cut the cord I had a few requirements:

  • Watch live local TV stations for news and weather
  • Record TV shows to some sort of DVR
  • Be able to watch recorded shows on any TV in my house
  • System must be simple to use for the rest of my family

 

What to Keep and What to Cut

I still want my Internet connection. I do not have a home phone and haven’t for many years. The list price of bundling a phone line doesn’t look bad, but there are a lot of taxes and fees that come with a phone line. I’m sticking with my cell phone. So I have 20 Mbps cable Internet service (slow compared to new customer rates) and that is all.

 

Swap the Cord for an Antenna

cord cutting antennaThere are times that I want/need to watch live TV. Most of the time I do this during periods of bad weather or breaking news. For this I needed a digital antenna. You can setup your antenna(s) a couple of ways.

One option is to attach a small antenna to each of the TVs you want t receive the live local stations. This way is easier, but if you have several TVs it could get expensive.

The second option is to buy one antenna that feeds all of your TVs. I went with option two. I tested a small antenna and found I received more channels with the larger one. I suggest you do a similar test.

My neighborhood does not allow antennas to be installed outside. Therefore, I installed it in my attic. I was concerned that I may have signal issues, but I never have. I ran a coax cable from the antenna to the cable box on the outside of the house. Then, I connected all of the cables going into the house (except the one going to the cable modem) to the antenna cable.

Since the distances between the antenna and TVs were long, I installed a coax amplified about 6 feet from the antenna which needed to be plugged into an electrical outlet.

I talked about a lot of parts. Below are links to these items on Amazon. There are a lot of antenna options out there so you can pick the one that is right for you.

 

What is Roku

If you have never heard of or used a Roku, they are in the same device category as Apple TVs, Amazon Fire Sticks, and Chromecasts. Though all of these devices do similar things, they are not equal.

In my opinion, Roku works the best with the most flexible options. There are Roku channels for the big four: Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, & Amazon Prime Video. It also has a ton of other streaming apps you can add (most free) like ESPN3, PBS, and CBS.

Some streaming services are free, but others require a subscription. As I said in the beginning, if you keep adding service after service, the costs will begin to add up quickly.

Roku is great even if you want to keep your cable service. The major cable companies have apps that allow you to stream their content. The Interface looks very similar to newer cable boxes. You just have to be on your home network (one with cable and Internet service) to access most channels.

I have used a lot of different Roku’s. The LT, Roku 2, Roku 3, Roku 4, Original Streaming Stick, Roku TVs, and some of the new models. Now, I haven’t been replacing (most of) them, rather I’ve been adding on. Are you wondering how many TVs I have? Well, the Roku’s are not all in my house.

Others in my family liked my Roku’s and I have helped setup them up in their houses. Setup is not hard at all, I’m just the family tech guy so that’s what I do. My wife’s parents use them and my grandmother uses a few in her house. However, we are the only ones to completely cut cable.

 

Roku vs Smart TVs

There are a lot of smart TVs on the market with built in streaming apps for sites like Netflix. However, I would choose Roku over all of them for a few reasons.

  • Unless you already have a smart TV, buying one would be costly. Since we are discussing cutting our cable service to save money, buying a new smart TV in the process doesn’t make a lot of sense.
  • There are a lot of variations in which apps are available on smart TVs. With Roku, the apps and user interface are the same on each Roku tied to your account. So if you can use one Roku you can use them all, regardless of whether or not all of your TVs are the same.
  • In my experience most smart TV interfaces are slow. An exception to this is a Roku TV. What is a Roku TV? It is a TV with the Roku software and hardware  built in. The Roku TV remote can control everything. I have a few of these too. Here’s an example of a Roku TV on Amazon
  • If there is a new service or service feature (think Netflix profiles) you’d like to use, you’re at the mercy of the TV manufacturer to decide when or if to update the TV’s software. Roku is great about staying on top of these new features and adding Roku channels.

 

Different Roku Models

There are currently 5 Roku models on the market today: Roku Express, Roku Express+, Roku Streaming Stick, Roku Streaming Stick+, and Roku Ultra. I’ve listed the model differences and my opinion on each below. Prices will vary, but the models are listed from what typically would be cheapest to most expensive.

 

Roku Express

Roku Express (model 3900)

  • This is the Roku I would recommend for most people
  • It can be powered by the USB port on many TVs or using the included power cable
  • Roku Mobile AppsIt supports all of the features of the free Roku mobile app for iPhone and Android . This includes using your mobile device as a Roku remote and listening to the Roku’s audio on your mobile device (Private listening)
  • It comes with an HDMI cable and the Roku can be attached to your TV using the included (removable) double-sided tape.
  • Video supports 1080p and the wireless is 802.11 (b/g/n compatible) 2.4Ghz
  • It includes a basic IR remote meaning you have to point the remote at the Roku (line of sight)

 

Roku Express+Roku Express+ (model 3910)

  • This Roku has the same capabilities as the Roku Express (model 3900)
  • composite connectorsAdditionally it comes with a yellow, white, and red composite connection. It is the only current model with this capability
  • It is only worth buying over the 3900 if your TV does not have an HDMI port.
  • It usually costs about $10 more than the 3900
  • Same Basic IR remote as the Express

Roku Streaming Stick

Roku Streaming Stick (model 3800)

  • This Roku can do everything the Express versions can do
  • It has 3 main upgrades from the Express
    • Upgraded remote with voice search. It does not have to have line of sight to the Roku
    • Smaller form factor. It’s like the size of a large flash drive
    • AC wireless support. Unless you have a newer wireless router and are using 5Ghz, you aren’t going to benefit from the AC support. Even then, several factors will effect whether or not you will see any speed improvement.
  • The Streaming Stick is roughly $10 more than the Express+

 

Roku Streaming Stick+

 Roku Streaming Stick+ (model 3810)

  • This Roku can do everything the  3810 model can do
  • It has 1 main upgrades from the 3800
    • It can stream 4K, Ultra HD, and HDR. Keep in mind your TV must also support this higher resolution. If not, you’ll have the same resolution as you would using the 3800.

 

Roku Ultra

Roku Ultra (model 4660R)

  • This Roku can do everything the 3810 can
  • Its as 3 major upgrades from the 3810
    • It’s remote has a headphone jack built it. So you can stream the audio from the Roku to the remote for private listening without the need of the mobile app.
    • It has an Ethernet jack. This is a great feature if you TV is located in an area where you could connect the Roku to your home router with a network cable. Again, this would cut down on wireless traffic in your home.
    • It has a USB port that you can use to connect storage devices containing pictures and video content you would like to show.
  • At around $99, it is significantly more expensive than the Express model.
  • It also also is the physically largest device.

 

Roku Model Comparison Chart

 

Roku Video Comparison

In this video, CNET compares the the 5 different models.

 

Previous Roku Models

I want to point out that some of the higher end features can be found in previous models. For example the previous Roku 4 (model 4400R) has the headphone jack remote and an Ethernet port.

You can buy certified refurbished versions on Amazon for around $50.

I would not recommend buying anything less than a Roku 3. Previous version than the Roku 3 do not support features like Netflix profiles.

 

A DVR is a Must Have

I use a software called PlayOn to record all of the shows my family likes to watch.

I started using DVRs over 15 years ago, back in the analog days. My first was a software called BeyondTV. I installed TV tuner cards in my computer which allowed me to record two shows at once and control the whole interface with a easy to use RF remote.

 

Windows Media Center

wmcFrom there, I moved to the free Windows Media Center which was a phenomenal product that myself and apparently about 20 other people used. The interface worked similar to what cable companies use today, but easier.

One of the best features of both BeyondTV and WMC was the ability to schedule recording from anywhere using a computer or a smartphone. I could also stream the recordings to other devices.

That’s right, I was streaming before streaming was cool. This was back when Netflix only shipped DVDs.

 

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Cable Company DVR

Sadly, Microsoft stopped development of WMC after Windows XP. Apparently myself and the other 20 users were not enough. You couldn’t even legitimately install it after Windows 8.1.

I started looking into what an equivalent system would cost me through my cable company. It would cost over $180 a month for a system that wasn’t even as good. I looked at cable DVRs at family and friends’ houses and the DVR interface was awful. It arguably still is. It would make you rethink whether you really wanted to record the show.

 

PlayOn Desktop: My Current DVR Solution

I knew I was not going the cable company DVR route. I wanted to shrink my cable bill not double it. That’s when I found PlayOn. This system works very different from your typical DVR.

For several years, PlayOn Logomany TV networks have let users stream their shows from their websites. Most limit the number of recent episodes of a season you get to watch (without a subscription) but usually it’s between 3 to 5.

Typically you can’t stream episodes until the day after they air on TV and the networks inject commercials into the stream similar to watching live on TV. Some even go overboard on the number of commercials.

Now right now you’re thinking, “I thought he said he liked his setup.” I do and it’s because of PlayOn. PlayOn will go to these sites, index what they have available, and you can tell it what you want to record.

PlayOn Main ScreenBasically PlayOn streams the video in real time and records it. If necessary, you can schedule the recordings to occur at times when you typically have low bandwidth usage (like the middle of the night.)

Besides recording individual episodes, you can setup series recordings. I record series from all the top broadcast networks as well as shows from sites like PBS Kids.

I do have a Hulu subscription and PlayOn can record from it too. Why record Hulu? Some Hulu shows have commercials. Also, shows/episodes do disappear from Hulu. Sometimes we’ll record an entire series and not watch any of it until the season is over. Plus, the basic Hulu subscription will only allow you to watch one stream/show at a time.

By recording them, you can watch multiple shows on different TVs, phones, tablets and laptops at the same time. You can also record from services like Netflix too.

Play On Notification ScreenPlayOn has two versions. One you install on your own computer. One you subscribe to in the cloud. I use my own computer.

You can buy a lifetime subscription to PlayOn and have no ongoing costs. I paid around $40 for it. They run deals and as of this posting it is even cheaper. Check out PlayOn’s current price on their website.

There is a free PlayOn app available on Android and iPhone for scheduling recordings and playing videos. There is also a free PlayOn Roku app for watching recordings on your TV.

This is the primary way I watch shows I’ve recorded. One of the best aspects of PlayOn is the physical setup. For my other DVRs I had to run cables from a computer to my TVs and coax cables from wall outlets to my computer. This limited where I could put the computer.

Since PlayOn works over your home network for recording and streaming, the computer can be anywhere in your house. You could run the PlayOn computer wirelessly, but I recommend connecting it to your home router via a network cable. This will cut down on the amount of wireless traffic. More than likely the devices receiving the streams from PlayOn will all be running wirelessly.

This YouTube video show PlayOn in action.

Are you ready to give Roku and PlayOn a try? I have links to the products and parts I mentioned embedded throughout this post.

I hope you found this post helpful and you are able to lower your cable bill while still enjoying many of the options you currently have. If you liked it, please share this post on your favorite social media platform.

Thanks for reading and sharing!

Cut the Cord, Alternatives to paying for cable TV. Save money by Streaming from the sites you want like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime video, YouTube and more using Roku and Play On #Cordcutter #cordcutting #cutthecord

2 Responses

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