Some new options for cable cord cutters

Aug 23 2013 - 2:43pm

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Google’s Chromecast is a 2-inch dongle, similar to a USB flash drive, that plugs into an HDMI port on the back of a TV and wirelessly connects to a home’s WiFi router.
Google’s Chromecast is a 2-inch dongle, similar to a USB flash drive, that plugs into an HDMI port on the back of a TV and wirelessly connects to a home’s WiFi router.

Cancelling cable is getting more appealing as service fees continue to rise along with more options to fulfill a viewer's appetite for entertainment. I cut cable about three years ago when I discovered the Mohu Leaf, an unobtrusive antenna that sticks to a wall with Velcro, and a palm-sized Roku streaming media player that added Netflix and other Internet-based programming to the TV. And in the last few months, new options have become available that are worthy of consideration.

Before we jump into what's new, let's look at the rising cost of cable. For instance, the cost of "triple-play" services -- cable, Internet and phone service -- has jumped about 6.3 percent a year for the past three years, according to a recent report from Macquarie Capital. Today's current average monthly bill totals $273.

Although few Americans have cancelled their cable service, 76 percent of adults in Macquarie's survey said cable would be the first to go. By 2016, an estimated 9 million households will cut their cable subscriptions completely, according to MagnaGlobal. So if you're thinking of doing it between now and then, you won't be alone. And, you'll have plenty to watch.

Aereo: Local TV plus DVR

Aereo, an Internet-based service for local programming, in August launched in Salt Lake City, the fourth city in the U.S. after New York, Boston and Atlanta. For $8 a month, Aereo subscribers can watch live TV on their computers, iPhones and iPads, as well as on their TVs through a Roku and an Apple TV box. Support for Android devices is on its way. In addition to live broadcasts, Aereo includes a DVR-recording feature, so users can save shows to watch at a later time.

The new service has not gone unnoticed by the cable industry and lawsuits were filed. However, a federal appeals court ruled in Aereo's favor, since the service sets up tiny antennas for each customer, technically grabbing the free over-the-air broadcasts just like a TV.

Chromecast: Cheapest streaming device

And here's another one: Google unveiled its cord-cutter solution, the Chromecast. It's a 2-inch dongle, similar to a USB flash drive, that plugs into an HDMI port on the back of a TV and wirelessly connects to a home's WiFi router. As for function, it's most like a Roku, but with fewer entertainment options. Chromecast currently offers YouTube and Netflix streaming and Pandora Internet radio is said to be on its way.

It also includes the Chrome browser, so you can stream almost any video from the Internet to your TV. Further, Google has opened the device to developers, so you can expect more offerings in the near future. Instead of a separate remote, viewers use their laptops or mobile devices (both Android and Apple) to select their shows. The cost? Just $35, half the cost of a Roku.

And don't forget about the mainstay services such as Netflix and HuluPlus, which can be viewed through an Internet-connected TV, by adding a Roku streaming device or via an Xbox or other gaming console.

New in programming

One of the biggest barriers to cutting cable is an attachment to HBO. You can get HBO Go on a mobile device to watch your favorites on demand, but not without a subscription. But Web-only channels such as Netflix and Hulu are increasingly following the HBO model and creating their own can't-miss shows. Last spring, Netflix premiered its original series "House of Cards," which earned nine Emmy nominations, including best drama. "Orange Is the New Black" is also off to a strong start. Netflix said it will have 20 original series over the next two years, along with additional comedy specials and documentaries. A Netflix subscription for streaming-only (no DVDs in the mail) runs $8 a month, the same price as Hulu Plus.

And there's another $8 option that's gathering steam. Redbox Instant, a partnership between Verizon and Redbox -- known for its ubiquitous kiosks outside your local McDonalds and 7-Eleven stores -- this month landed on Roku. The service sets itself apart from Netflix by offering current blockbusters. Those without Roku can stream Redbox titles on their iOS and Android devices, as well as through Xbox 360 and LG and Samsung smart TVs. Subscriptions also include four Redbox DVD rentals per month.

Finally, while not new, but often overlooked, Amazon offers a robust entertainment service through its Amazon Prime program. For $79 a year, subscribers receive free two-day shipping, free access to many shows and the option to buy TV episodes and movies through Amazon Instant Video. Most episodes cost $2 to watch and movies range from $4 to $5 for a single view.

One note of caution: Even at a seemingly low $8 or so a month, entertainment costs can add up, especially if you add on-demand fees to the mix. Set a budget and consider password protecting your on-demand accounts to avoid surprise charges from the media enthusiasts in your house.

Leslie Meredith has been writing about and reviewing personal technology for the past six years. As a mom of four, value, usefulness and online safety take priority. Have a question? Email Leslie at asklesliemeredith@gmail.com.

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