Friday, June 3

The Internet as Your Television

Mrs. Gray Geek and I were kicking some ideas around about ways we can save money. It's a brave new world out there, my fellow recessionists, and we all need to save dollars where we can. The path to digital enlightenment went as follows.

We don't watch anything "live" any more. Aside from sporting events, this is true. Now this really doesn't mean that we never, ever see anything when it's actually being broadcast, because we do. We turn on the TV when we want to be entertained in a manner that doesn't ask too much of our tired intellects and we will flip through the pages of the program guide on the Cable/DVR box, eventually winding up watching Yard Crashers or something like that on HGTV (that's a great show, by the way).

More accurately, we don't care whether anything is live or not. If we find something we want in the program guide in the first few seconds of looking, great! Otherwise we jump straight to the cable On Demand channel or switch on the XBOX 360 and Netflix.

We watch many things on the Internet already. Mrs. Gray Geek is a big fan of crime dramas (well, dramas in general), but they leave me cold. I feel as though I have enough drama in my life already, I don't need to get all worked up watching other people's pretend drama. She doesn't like putting things on TV that send me scurrying off to my office, so she will often watch her favorite dramas on her computer, back in her office.

You're not surprised to hear that Casa Lautenschlager has more than one office, complete with computer, are you? Good, I didn't think you would be.

The XBOX 360 just added Hulu Plus to its menus. Our game consoles, XBOX 360 and Nintendo Wii, are already connected to the television in our family room. We use the XBOX 360 for watching DVD movies and streaming Netflix -- it works superbly for both. Recently I noticed that Hulu Plus joined the Video Marketplace lineup, and that was what started the whole conversation.

Could we replace our cable TV subscription with just Internet programming?

Right off the bat, you have to realize that you're not getting rid of your cable company entirely. You're still going to need high speed Internet access to make this work. You'll notice I didn't mention "DSL," and for good reason. DSL at 1.5 megabits per second download and 256 kilobits per second upload is the new dial up Internet access. Don't believe me? If you like reading geeky government documents, give this one a look. That is a PDF file of an FCC report in which they define broadband as a minimum of 4 megabits per second downstream and 1 megabit per second upstream.

That's right, DSL is officially no longer broadband.

More to the point, a 1.5 megabit per second download rate just won't do for streaming Internet television programming, and it won't even come close to handling HD programs. So step one to cutting the cord (or unplugging the dish, as the case may be) would be to get a nice big Internet pipe. Cable, AT&T U-Verse, or Verizon FIOS will all do.

Comcast advertises high speed Internet for $12.99 per month. That's for six months, however, and then the price goes up. Depending on your location, it will range from $42.95 to $59.95 per month. That's quite a lot! Competing services are no better. Do not be fooled by advertised prices. Those are nearly always an introductory special and subject to increase after a short while.

Let's take $45 per month as our Internet cost. Now we have the cost of premium programming.

After taxes, Netflix will cost you $10 per month for a streaming only plan.

Hulu Plus will cost $8 per month.

Keep in mind, you're going to want to watch TV programming on your television (that's why you bought that big screen TV, right?). So you're going to need a game console like an XBOX 360 or a PlayStation 3, or some sort of dedicated streaming device like the Roku Player or a Logitech Revue with Google TV. If you don't already have one of those, you'll need to spend between $100 and $300 one time cost.

While Netflix and Hulu Plus will give you a lot of streaming programming, they won't carry everything you want to see. You will also need some other subscriptions, depending on your taste. For things that are streamed through a network's web site, you will need a computer connected with your TV set.

Yes, I know, it doesn't have to be a computer. It could be a tablet with the proper kind of interface, or any one of a number of things. But a computer will work best. My favorite computer for this application is Apple's Mac Mini. You'll need to spend about $700 for the base model Mac Mini, then you'll want to buy some options to connect it with your TV and control it from across the room, so figure on $900 by the time you're done.

Of course, if you already have a computer that has an interface to connect with your TV and a control system that lets you run it from your recliner, you can skip that. But don't overlook it without giving it some thought. For the perfect Internet television environment, you're going to want a web browser in the mix also.

So where are we? Cable Internet plus Netflix plus Hulu Plus equals $63 per month. You may want to add some other subscriptions to it, don't be surprised if you spend another $10 to $20 a month.

If you don't have a game console and a computer connected to your TV already, you'll be spending something north of $1,000 to buy that equipment.

And when you're done, you still have to be prepared to jump between devices and programming services to find what you want.

We haven't really answered the question yet, have we?

Nope! Because there is no hard and fast answer. You're not going to save very much money by canceling your cable or satellite TV service, and you're going to make controlling your programming quite a bit more complicated. Of course, if you are paying for Netflix and/or Hulu Plus already, you can see more savings than if you had to add them.

But is it better? It might be, but again there isn't a clear answer. These Internet programming services are getting better every year, but they still aren't as simple to use as your cable or satellite box's program guide would be. You'll have more choices, but will you be able to find them?

And don't forget, your cable or satellite TV service is more than likely feeding several rooms in your house. We have three cable boxes, for example. You'll need to do something for each of those locations also.

This isn't going to save you any great amount of money, not really. It may give you the geeky cool head rush of commanding your Starship Entertainment, but before you let that make you dizzy and start ordering parts, picture yourself explaining how the controls work to your spouse, or your children.

Here is what I think will happen to make this a moot point.

The future is on demand programming. We're already so close to it that it's at most a couple of years away. The program guide will go away, as we know it today. You'll choose the show and episode you want to watch, and it will come on your television right then. When you want it, not when they happened to schedule it.

For what it's worth, it will be delivered over what is basically a high speed Internet connection. It might be a private network instead of the public Internet, but it'll use the same technologies.

And it will all be delivered with a single box and a single remote control. The battle will then become, can the Internet providers like AT&T and Comcast find a way to block you from using the competing service's programming box on the other's high speed Internet network. There isn't any technical reason why you couldn't do it, but I can see them lining up for the battle now.

All this has made my head hurt. I think I shall open a cold beer and watch an old episode of Top Gear on Netflix...