Monday, March 23, 2015

Cutting the cord and a Sling TV review

About a year ago, my wife and I decide to cut the cord. We were tired of paying $120 a month for cable through AT&T U-verse. We didn't have any trouble with it--we actually liked U-verse a lot--we just felt like we were paying too much and wanted a little more flexibility in our monthly budget.

The TV package had a base price of $74.99. They got us in all of the add-ons, taxes, and fees. Since we had three TVs hooked up to U-verse, we were charged a fee for each box, bringing the price up to $89.99. Then we got the $10 HD fee, making it $99.99. Add in local taxes, broadcast licensing fees, and other miscellaneous BS, and our bill was around $120 a month. We just didn't like paying for it, so we made the decision to stop TV service.

I've heard a lot of horror stories about people who've had to deal with AT&T, but I've never had a problem with their service. I called, talked to a customer service rep, and explained that we wanted to drop our TV service. After about 20 minutes of conversation in which the agent very kindly tried to find options that would work for our budget, he agreed to unhook our TV service. It's kind of unfathomable that you can't just call and have something that you're paying for turned off, but that's how it works. The rep was never pushy and simply did everything he could to retain us as TV customers. I get that. He actually lowered our cell phone bill (we get our cell service through AT&T) and upgraded our internet service for no extra charge. I'd set out to lower our bill by cutting TV; I ended up cutting TV and lowering our other costs.

So the $120/month disappeared off our bill the next month. Before canceling, I bought a Mohu Leaf antenna for $25 to make sure we could get local channels. It worked just fine; we live on the south side of Indianapolis, and get about 30 channels or so. Most of the networks have digital subchannels, plus you get a few shopping channels (QVC, HSN), a smattering of independent channels, and some religious channels. Really, all I cared about was getting CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX, and CW (Arrow!, The Flash!). The antenna works like a charm, although I only bought one for the TV my wife and I watch the most.

Up next, the Roku. I'd thought about getting a Chromecast, but the Roku Streaming Stick felt like the better option. The stick connects to our TV via HDMI and offers an assortment of "streaming channels," which is code for "apps that work on Roku." We can watch Netflix, Hulu, and buy/rent movies on the Roku stick. We've had a Netflix subscription for a long time, so Netflix didn't add any extra costs after we cut cable. We didn't subscribe to Hulu, however, so our cable savings decreased by $8.55 a month so we could subscribe to Hulu. It's definitely worth it. I haven't found a great DVR solution for over-the-air TV yet (there are several options, but I haven't seen one that "clicks" for me yet), so Hulu lets us watch our network shows if we're busy at night and can't watch them when they air. Most of the big network shows are there, although you won't find much in the way of CBS programming (we don't watch any CBS shows, so no big loss for us).

I also purchased Plex for $5. It's an online media server for your computer. The Plex Roku app allows me to watch movies I've ripped from DVD onto my PC remotely. Plex takes care of the transcoding and streams the media from my PC to the television. The biggest reason I did this was Seinfeld. Currently, aside from Sony's Crackle service, no one has Seinfeld available for streaming. Even then, Crackle selects ten episodes a month, which I can burn through really quickly. Since I have all nine seasons of the "show about nothing," I ripped them onto my computer, organized the files via Plex's naming conventions (fairly easy but it certainly had some caveats), and added the library to Plex. Now, all nine seasons of the show are organized and easy to watch.

Trust me, it's a lot better than juggling 30+ discs and trying to remember which season "The Chicken Roaster" was part of (it's season eight).

After the success of ripping my Seinfeld sets, I worked on my DVD collection. There's something really cool about having your own movies available on-demand. Thank you, Plex.

I don't have a Blu-ray drive for my PC, so I'm relying on Ultraviolet digital copies for some of my most recent purchases like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and X-Men: Days of Future Past. For about a year, I relied on the Target Ticket service to stream my Ultraviolet movies, but Target shuttered the service this month--a cautionary tale about the hazards of digital locket services. I liked Target Ticket's interface, and they had a lot of good sales, but not many other people used it. Thankfully, Target Ticket users could transfer their accounts to Best Buy's CinemaNow service. Oddly enough, I've started using Walmart's VUDU. The Roku app has improved tremendously over the last few months, and VUDU also aligns with Disney's Movies Anywhere, giving me access to all my Ultraviolet movies in addition to Disney's streaming catalog. Roku also has Google Play Movies, another service aligned with Disney Movies Anywhere. Google Play isn't tied into Ultraviolet--they want to see you their own movies and TV shows--so I don't use it as much.

Basically, I have plenty to watch when it comes to TV even though I scrapped cable.

There are some drawbacks, though.

Not having a DVR is frustrating, although Hulu covers that for the most part. On occasion, I'm busy and would like to record a live ball game, but those occasions are rare and I work around them.

The biggest problem is sports. I love to watch football, basketball, and baseball, but unless the game is on broadcast TV, I'm out of luck. I listened to more games on radio this year for IU football and basketball as well as Indiana Pacers games. Football wasn't a problem; Notre Dame's games are almost always on national TV, and every Indianapolis Colts game (my true passion) is available on local TV via CBS, FOX, or NBC. Monday Night Games on ESPN are picked up by a local channel as well. Radio will be my choice for Cincinnati Reds games; MLB's draconian TV contracts prevent me from watching in-market games via the otherwise excellent MLB TV app.

March Madness was a problem, however. The games air on four channels: CBS, TNT, TBS and truTV. CBS picked up most of the ones I wanted to watch, but the Valpo-Maryland game was on TNT or TBS (I can't remember exactly). I could watch a good measure of the games via my Android tablet, but who wants to watch on a 7" screen when there's a 42" TV right in front of you?

The solution?

Sling TV.

It's owned by Dish Network and offers a small selection of cable TV channels for $20/month. The bundle includes ESPN and ESPN2, AMC, TBS, TNT, IFC, Food Network, HGTV, ABC Family, Disney, and a few others. You can also add some different "tiers" for an additional $5/month. They just happened to have a seven-day trial that's perfect for testing out the service AND watching March Madness.

I signed up for the trial on Friday, entered my information, downloaded the Sling TV Roku app, and had the service up and running. The whole thing took less than five minutes to set up from registration to Roku streaming. I watched Valpo lose a heartbreaker without having to use the tablet. So far, so good. I thought maybe I'd be interested in the service for $20/month.

Then, Saturday night happened. Two of the teams I follow, Butler and Notre Dame, played a late game on TNT or TBS (again, I don't recall which one). However, Sling TV's Roku app wouldn't load ESPN, ESPN2, AMC, TNT, or TBS. I could, for some reason, watch "Chopped" on Food Network and some of the other channels, but the ones I wanted wouldn't load on Roku. I have no idea why.

Curiously, Sling TV worked fine on my Android tablet, so I watched it through there (the picture was better than the one on the March Madness app). I was thankful to be able to watch the game, although seeing one of the tournament's best games on the tablet screen instead of my regular TV rankled me a little.

I had other options, of course. I could've gone to a local establishment to watch the game (the admission fee being drinks and chicken wings) or gone over to a friend's house to see it. The drawback was that this was a late game (tipoff around 10 p.m.), and I didn't really want to be "out" that late. Call me a curmudgeon; that's fine.

Sunday, Sling TV was working fine on the Roku. I watched a game on CBS and loaded TNT on the Sling TV app so I could flip back and forth between games. On occasion, I'd get an error from Sling TV telling me I was "not authorized to watch this content." I'd exit out of the app, reload Sling TV, and everything would be fine.

When the seven-day trial ends this week, I don't think I'll pay for a full month of service yet. Sling TV is an "almost" product. I clearly see the potential, but being unable to watch Notre Dame and Butler--one of the reasons I signed up for the trial in the first place--showed me Sling TV isn't dependable yet. I imagine these issues will get worked out, and when they do, I think it'll be a great service. It's just that having service disruptions on two days in a row for a big-time event like March Madness doesn't give me a lot of confidence in it yet.

I think it's worth a try, though.