Cord cutting – The practice of canceling or forgoing a pay television subscription or landline phone connection in favour of an alternative Internet-based or wireless service. Source: Lexico.com
With the rising cost of cable and satellite services, many are looking for cost-saving alternatives, while others are looking for more streamlined a la carte offerings without all of the so-called fat. Cord-cutting has become a popular option, and there are several different ways to go, but it is not something to go into without research and is not for everyone, and many may not see any cost savings.
I recently cut the cord in October 2019, as my two-year contract with DirecTV was coming to an end. It was a killer deal, mostly due to mistakes and broken promises made during installation (of which I won’t go into but were not the fault of the installer) that essentially netted me a monthly cost of just $15 per month after customer retention and internet bundle credits. I was unable to negotiate a new deal with AT&T that came anywhere close to what I was paying previously, and decided that I needed to find another option. The local cable company Spectrum (formerly Charter) was not exactly an option, since at the time of conducting my research, their DVR options were antiquated, to put it politely.
You need to ask yourself “Is cord cutting for me?” If you are currently a DirecTV subscriber and routinely renew and watch NFL Sunday Ticket every season, then quite obviously you are not a likely candidate for cutting the cord, as that is still a DirecTV exclusive.
The first thing I did was make a log of all of the shows and channels those shows were on that every member of my household watched. What I found was that nearly everything we watched (roughly 90%) was on regular broadcast or over the air television. The remaining shows would eventually be available on streaming services we subscribed to like Netflix and Disney+. With OTA being a definite possibility, my next step was to purchase a quality indoor antenna to see how many local channels I could receive on my television. I purchased from Amazon a ClearStream Eclipse flat indoor antenna manufactured by Antennas Direct. Do not waste your time or money on a cheap no-name indoor antenna, as chances are it won’t pick up much more than connecting a bare wire to your TV. Also, don’t be fooled by marketing claims of an antenna being HD or 4K ready or capable. What is important is if it is VHF and/or UHF capable, and I would recommend, to be safe, make sure the antenna is capable of both frequency bands. When it arrived, I connected it to my TV per the installation instructions provided and taped the antenna to the window facing the repeater towers located in my remote rural town as indicated using an app called quite appropriately TV Towers, and was amazed at how many channels it picked up after running the channel scan – all four major networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX), plus PBS and The CW. The real eye-opener was that The CW was broadcast in HD on channel 8.3, while that same channel was re-transmitted in window-boxed standard definition on both cable and satellite. There was some minor breakup in the signal from time to time, which I had attributed to the indoor antenna, which I then promptly returned. So far, so good.
My next step was to find a DVR solution that was affordable, worked well with OTA, and delivered an acceptable picture and sound quality. My first choice was TiVo, possibly the most recognized DVR brand. I once had a TiVo DVR Receiver several years ago with DirecTV, and liked the interface. There were two DVRs to choose from – TiVo Bolt (1TB storage) for $249.99 or TiVo EDGE (2TB storage) for $349.99, plus either $6.99 per month or $249.99 lifetime to receive the program guide. That seemed a bit steep to me, plus the fact that there were reports that TiVo was going to begin forcing their own ads each time you started a recorded program. Oh, and if I wanted to watch something from the DVR in another room, that was an additional $179.99 per room for the TiVo Mini VOX.
I also looked at the Tablo DVR ($150 for the 2-tuner model and $199 for the 4-tuner plus an external hard drive and optional $5 monthly programming), Channel Master Stream+ ($129 plus an external hard drive, available directly from Channel Master), Sling AirTV 2 ($100 plus an external hard drive), the HD HomeRun Scribe Quatro ($250 plus optional $35/year programming fee). Reviews for all of these options were all over the map, with the HD HomeRun having the most complaints with regards to setting up. There were also compatibility issues with external hard drives to contend with, program guide data not loading properly, etc.
I then looked at some of the streaming options that try to compete with cable and satellite packages. Services like Sling TV, Hulu + Live TV, YouTube TV, etc. Unfortunately, because I live in a smaller market where all of the network affiliates are not owned by the network or even a large broadcast group, very few if any local channels were available on those services for my area. These services, though, are a good option for those living in a major metropolitan area and/or want a sports package as part of their TV programming. I then took a look at Spectrum TV, which is the streaming option for my local cable company. It was a bit pricey for what it offered ($29.99 plus $4.99 to add a cloud DVR, and that was the “guaranteed” rate for the first two years). While it did offer local channels plus a nice selection of what us old-timers refer to as “basic” channels, I did not like the clunky interface. What I really disliked about nearly all of these services was the fact that video resolution topped out at 720p (and quite often there would be macro blocking and other compression artifacts) and audio was limited to 2-channel stereo. Very disappointing! I will say this, though – if you are a cable TV subscriber and happy with the service you are receiving, one way to lower your monthly equipment rental fees is to switch to the cable company’s streaming app in rooms where picture and sound quality are not that important, such as a bedroom or guest room, as that can shave $5-10 per device off of your monthly bill.
If receiving local channels are not important to you and/or mounting an antenna is not a feasible option but you still want to receive local news broadcasts, there is an app called NewsON that provides the most recent local news program for at least one local channel in most markets. For example, here in the Reno market, NewsON offers news programs from ABC affiliate KOLO 8, NBC affiliate KNRV 4, and FOX affiliate KRXI 11. NewsON is available on Roku, Fire, and Apple TV devices. National and international news is available across several free news apps, including CNN Go, NBC News, ABC News, CBS News, Newsy, etc. You can then add both Hulu and CBS All Access to get most of your favorite prime time broadcast network shows the following day. Both services offer an ad-supported option for $5.99 or a mostly ad-free experience for roughly twice the price (CBS is $9.99 while Hulu is $11.99). If someone in your household is a fan the The CW, they have a free app to watch their prime time shows, too (although the ads have a tendency to be very repetitive at times). One of my favorite streaming apps for its variety of offerings is Pluto TV, which resembles a basic cable TV package offering viewers a selection of hundreds of “channels” of live programming including news (NBC News, CNN, Cheddar, CBS News, Newsy, SKY News, etc.), movie channels, classic TV, music channels, and even on-demand movies and TV shows. Like most “free” services, it is advertiser supported. There is also a plethora of free movie channels (with ads, naturally) available on most streaming platforms, including Tubi, Sony Crackle, Filmrise, XUMO (a Pluto TV competitor), and many others.
You can also add Pay-TV favorites like HBO Now, Showtime, and STARZ for an additional monthly fee. If you are a sports fanatic, then you will probably want to add ESPN+ to your streaming device, and/or Sling TV or Fubo-TV (both have some sports channels/packages). You may want to add Sling TV, Philo, or FRNDLY to your streaming lineup if someone in your household simply must have Lifetime, Hallmark, BET, SyFy, USA, TBS, TNT, etc. These add-ons are where many cord cutters realize that they may not actually be saving money after ditching cable or satellite, yet they may find solace that they are not paying for channels no one in their household is watching. With the way cable and satellite are losing customers with their mandatory packages of useless (and expensive) channels, we may see more channels offer an al a carte streaming option in the future.
Installing and Set-up
I finally settled on the 4-tuner, 1TB Amazon Fire Recast, which happened to be on sale for $219.99 (it later dropped even lower during Black Friday/Cyber Monday), the ClearStream 2V outdoor TV antenna (as recommended by Antennas Direct), and two Firestick 4K devices for each of my televisions. Once everything arrived, I installed the two Firesticks to each room’s AVR. I then got out my extension ladder and hopped up on my roof. If you are afraid of heights or just feel uncomfortable getting up on your roof, it is highly recommended you hire a professional to mount your antenna. Over the summer, I had my roof replaced, and quickly noticed that the roofers had placed the new shingles over the mounting feet of the satellite mast, so removing the entire mast was not going to happen. I then proceeded to remove the satellite dish from the mast, disconnecting the RG6 cable from the LNB. I then mounted the mast that was included with the ClearStream 2V to the old satellite mast using two bolts. I then installed an app on my smartphone called TV Towers, which shows you the location and distance of the nearest transmission (or repeater) towers to your installation site, and even helps you rotate the antenna in the proper direction. Once that was completed, I mounted the antenna on the mast, pointing it in the direction the TV Towers app instructed me, and connected the RG6 cable to the antenna. Inside the house, I connected the other end of the RG6 cable to the Fire Recast DVR, plugged in the power cord, and followed the set-up instructions provided. This included installing the Fire TV app on my smartphone, which I needed to connect the Recast to my home network and eventually run a channel scan.
This is where things got a little tricky, because not all of the stations were available after several channel scans, and a few were unwatchable. Confused, I disconnected the RG6 cable from the Recast, attached the cable to my television’s antenna input, and ran the channel scan on the TV. All of the channels came in crystal clear. I disconnected the cable, connected it to the Recast, ran the channel scan again, and got the same results. Apparently, there is either some signal loss when the Recast splits the signal between the four tuners or the tuners Amazon uses on the DVR are not as robust as on most TVs. Getting desperate, I then ordered a UHF/VHF pre-amplifier from Amazon (Antennas Direct model PA-18), which would arrive a few days later. Do not confuse a pre-amplifier with a distribution amplifier. A pre-amplifier is used when incoming signals are weak and gets attached as close the the antenna as possible. A distribution amplifier is used when you are splitting the signal to multiple devices and is installed in place of a splitter. Once the pre-amp arrived, I got up on the roof again and installed it to the base of the antenna and the power supply at the entry point inside my house. Crossing my fingers, I ran the channel scan again on the Recast and was relieved when all the channels showed up with no major signal issues or interference. I then gave the Recast a few hours to install firmware updates and download the program guide for the next two weeks, came back and began scheduling programs to record.
I’ve been using my Fire Recast DVR for almost four months now, and both my wife and I have been very pleased with its performance. It took a few weeks to get used to Amazon’s Fire interface and having to go back to using TWO remotes. The Firestick’s remote uses Bluetooth, which is not compatible with the Logitech Harmony 650 remote we use in the living room, but I was able to program the Firestick remote to control and mute volume on the Denon AVR-X2400H receiver. So now we hit the Fire TV activity on the Harmony, wait for everything to power on and switch to the proper inputs, then use the Firestick remote to control the DVR, Firestick, and volume, and then use the Harmony once again to switch activities or power down. We did run into one or two quirks where a show would not playback, and that was resolved by simply restarting the Fire Recast. Other than that, our favorite shows have recorded without any major issues, all in HD and with a 5.1 audio track if it was broadcast with one (otherwise stereo). Two things to note, though. First was that the Recast transcodes video to 1440x720p. I am not using a projector to view my recordings, so the slightly lower video resolution is not an issue for me. The Firestick 4K, when Surround Sound is set to “Best Available” in the Display and Sound Settings Menu, will transcode most audio into Dolby Digital+ regardless of what codec was used in the stream. This may explain why audio sometimes sounds a bit muffled at times, whether we are watching a DVR recording or Netflix through the Firestick, although it is never to a point where one cannot hear dialogue clearly.
You are probably wondering what I am currently paying for my television programming now that I have “cut the cord.” I could say that I’m paying nothing, but that would not be entirely true. One thing to keep in mind if you switch from a cable or satellite package to antenna, is that you will lose any on-demand options you once had for those rare occasions when a show did not get recorded for one reason or another (schedule conflict or weather are the two biggest reasons) or you simply forgot to record that holiday special for the kids. Antenna users lose virtually all TV Everywhere privileges. What is TV Everywhere? It is apps like NBC, ABC, FOXNow, etc that you can get on your smartphone or on streaming devices like Roku, Firestick, and Apple TV. In order to use those apps, they require you to login using your cable or satellite username and password. For that reason, I ended up subscribing to the ad-supported versions of both Hulu and CBS All Access. Having taken advantage of Hulu’s Black Friday/Cyber Monday offer, I was able to sign up for Hulu for $1.99 per month for 12 months (my rate will increase to $5.99 in December 2020). CBS All Access had a free month trial going at the time of my installation, and after that the monthly fee was $5.99. So, until December of 2020, I’ll be paying around $8.00 per month for those two services, and we use those mostly for On Demand when a show fails to record (although we will be watching Star Trek: Discovery and Picard on CBS All Access). I also subscribe to Netflix, Prime Video, and Disney+, but I was subscribing to those (or planning on adding them) prior to cutting the cord, so I am not including the costs of those services.
My situation is probably a best case scenario, where I am saving money and not really paying for channels I will never ever watch (which was the case when I had DirecTV). We are not sports fanatics, so neither of us miss ESPN or any of the other sports channels.
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Amazon Fire Recast:
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