Note: We’ll be updating this article as new information, devices, and services become available. If you spot anything that needs an update, feel free to nudge me on Twitter. Now let’s go save some money.
Cord Cutting Guide Part 1: Before The Snip
If you’ve never owned a cable box, skip ahead to part 2 and see the bounty of device options at your streaming disposal.
So you’re fed up with paying for channels you don’t watch. Considering the average person watches somewhere around 17 channels of the astronomical number available, you’re getting a raw deal.
You know it, and you deal with it. The television networks are held hostage, too, because their biggest revenue stream is tied to advertising to the largest number of viewers possible. The cable companies damn well know they’ve had a good thing for a long, long time. Still, they’re savvy enough to realize, even if they’ve been slow to it, their model needs to be tweaked.
“Cord cutting,” getting rid of your traditional cable box, and “cord nevering,” younger folks who opt to bypass cable altogether, are buzzwords that have put cable companies and television executives into a state of hysteria. They want to protect business models that have been lucrative since the boob tube was invented, and for good reason. The public is well aware of the monopolistic practices of certain cable providers. Our saving grace could be that technology is simply evolving too fast for providers to keep up.
There are 453 cable broadband providers in the United States and the top five largest cable broadband companies (which all provide cable TV service) alone are available to more than 230 million people or 72 percent of the country’s population. While this article is titled How to Beat Cable, it’s really a celebration of a “cord-cutting” movement, which has given us more competition and options for our entertainment choices than ever before.
That being said, you didn’t land on this page to congratulate the tech industry for going through its natural evolution. You’re here to get one question answered: How Do I Spend Less Money?
Whether you’re talking about cable, grocery shopping, or your general finances, the answer relies on a number of variables, but the biggest one is you. If you’re serious about streamlining your entertainment options and saving coin, the first step is to take a few weeks, maybe a month, to keep track of your viewing habits.
When you watch television, which channels are you most frequently watching? Does watching live events, i.e. sports, news, political debates, or catching the season premiere of Real Housewives of Wherever the Fuck in real time matter to you? How often are you cheating on your cable box while you cozy up in bed with Netflix on your laptop? Does that make you feel ashamed? A little dirty perhaps?
Truthfully answering these questions is the best indicator of whether snipping is the right move for you rather than me dismissing the value of cable companies altogether. As fed up as you are, taking a scissor to your cable box isn’t such a simple decision.
Before I begin outlining all the ways to get around cable, you need to know that divorce is only one option here. I’m not doing my job if I make this an all-out assault on the cable providers, especially because some companies are taking steps to diversify their television packages into affordable tiers while incorporating the luxuries of the streaming world.
Factoring in that a comprehensive list of all the affordable packages across the country would be a massive headache, I have a few examples of how you can begin to repair your holy union with your cable provider. To keep it simple, I took at look at the best available deals from some of the major cable and satellite companies. If these options seem reasonable to you, I suggest reaching out to your provider and ask if similar packages are available.
Time Warner Cable is offering a trial package in the NY/NJ area that could be a model we’ll see around the country soon enough. For $50 per month for 12 months, you’ll ditch the cable box for a Roku 3, a streaming device that will give you access to a 20-channel basic package (the broadcast networks and select other channels) along with all the streaming capabilities of the Roku device (including apps like Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, the list goes on and on). Included in the deal is internet service with speeds of 50 Mbps, which is good for 3-5 devices at once.
The value here is the Roku 3, which retails for $99.99, and comes free with the package. To play devil’s advocate, you could also buy 50 Mbps internet service for TWC for $35 per month, save $180 for the year, and purchase a Roku player on your own. So this package comes down to: Is spending an extra $15 per month worth having the most basic cable package possible? Of the 20 channels, three are C-Span, so buyer beware.
Comcast’s XFinity service covers the largest population of any cable broadband provider in the US. Though it may be an introductory rate for new customers, XFinity puts together an appealing package that could well suit a family of four or more. At $54.99 per month, customers get more than 45 channels (a fairly decent selection that includes sports channels), 75 Mbps speed internet, and a choice of either HBO or Showtime to sweeten the deal.
The satellite companies are a little trickier to nail down if you’re looking for an internet/cable bundle. Both DirecTV and Dish Network offer internet bundles if you’d prefer not to mix and match television and internet service. Essentially they are mixing and matching because they’ll use other broadband companies based on your area for internet service, but it will all show up on one bill.
Both the DirecTV and Dish Network websites are unclear when it comes to the full cost of bundle, so I’d recommend giving them a call. After chatting with DirecTV, they offered me the lowest tier of the television service, 145+ channels with three months of the premium movie package (HBO, Starz, Showtime, Cinemax), along with bundled internet service from the internet provider in my area, Version Fios, for $89.95. I couldn’t get the exact speed of the internet service out of them, but considering I asked to hook up one TV, chances are it wasn’t the highest speed available. DirecTV is promising to lock in rates for two years, but with the way this market is evolving, why lock that price in when these companies are bound to lower them?
Again, this is antidotal, based on the services available in my area. The bottom line is these cable companies have more incentive than ever to lower prices and offer perks for loyal customers. They will fight for your business as more a la carte options become available.
If it’s not enough to keep your business in the short term, it could be attractive down the line, particularly for consumers hesitant to forgo live events, news, and sports.
Cord Cutting Guide Part 2: The cord is cut, I have no content, and my life is in despair.
After reading part 1, I imagine you opened the kitchen drawer, yanked out the scissors, and rushed over to the cable box in a panic ready to snip while your spouse looked on in horror. You slashed your portal into the entertainment world and let it bleed out into oblivion. “Be gone vile cable connection!” you shouted.
The deed is done. Now you need devices because, well, are you really going to read a book? No. You need new video content! The good news is if you’ve bought one of those fancy TV machines in the last three years or so, you might be halfway to living a cheaper and more satisfying life.
A “Smart TV” should already come with an interface that allows you to download apps like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video without needing an external device. Smart TVs, like everything else in this crazy world, can be powered through your Wi-Fi or an Ethernet port. As we talked about earlier, you’ll still need to find quality internet service to make your investment in a streaming device worthwhile. Don’t skimp on the internet speed, you’ll want your videos to load fast.
If you don’t have a smart TV or you want a device that gives you more premium features, there are plenty of options for you to choose from. Keep in mind I’m not reviewing the following devices since I haven’t used all of them, but I hope to make you aware of their existence, the basic functionality they possess, and public opinion so you can do your own due diligence.
Streaming Devices: Stick it in!
So you want to plug and play. Keep it simple. All you have to do is stick these in your TV’s HDMI port, follow the easy setup, and enjoy:
The lowdown: Chromecast is the device of choice for multi-taskers like myself. You can seamlessly ‘cast movies from Netflix, videos from YouTube, or any other number of apps to your television through a tablet, phone or computer. Using my phone as a remote and pretending I’m a traveler from the future is often the best part of my day.
A minor drawback is that it could take some time for the less tech savvy to fully understand Chromecast’s capabilities. Our friends at Alphr dove into some of the tricks and best uses of the Chromecast for the full experience.
Amazon Fire TV Stick
Retail: $ 34.99
The lowdown: Much like with Apple products, staying in the Amazon family provides added value when using the Fire TV Stick. Along with the standard apps that these devices tend to have, the Fire TV Stick allows users to turn their Amazon Tablet into a second screen or mirror the tablet to the TV. By all reports, this is the best way to access Amazon Prime Video, which tends to be clunky on smart TVs and other streaming devices. If you’re a Prime subscriber, it’s worthwhile to stay on-brand. Plus free shipping, right? (Full disclosure: Den of Geek is part of the Amazon Partner Program, meaning orange links are revenue-share ads from our commerce team)
The lowdown: The first of three devices in the Roku family, the Roku Stick is the cheapest option. It’s also highly praised. In its review, CNET called the plug-and-play device the “best value in video-streaming hardware, period.” Roku Stick users boast about the streaming speed, portability of the device, and customization of the homepage interface. The mobile experience is what sets the Roku Stick apart from a Chromecast by allowing users to not only stream from their mobile phone to the television, but also listen privately through a headset on either the phone or through the remote. Highly recommended for parents who want to opt out of the children’s sing-a-alongs.
The lowdown: The big difference between the Roku 3 and the Roku Stick is an Ethernet port in the Roku 3 that allows you to stream without having to chew away on your wireless network. It also comes with a microSD port that offers more internal storage. On top of that, the pricier Roku devices have some pretty damn cool features like a voice-controlled remote that will make Siri fume with jealously in your pocket. Most reports have the Roku 3 and Roku Stick running at comparable speeds, so the Stick is likely a better value unless your heart is set on talking into your remote.
The lowdown: Roku 4 does everything above, but is ideally the way to go if you have a massive TV that plays 4K ultra-high-definition video (UHD).
The lowdown: Remember when I said Siri would get jealous of the sexy new Roku voice in your TV? Well, you can double down on Siris with Apple TV. A Siri threesome! Voice control, Apple product compatibility, and one of the best streaming remotes around make Apple TV appealing, though similar streaming experiences are out there for far cheaper.
The lowdown: Nvidia Shield looks like a slick game console for a reason. For its high-end price, you’re getting apps with 4K Ultra HD, voice-control capability, and what’s regarded as the fastest streaming product on the market. Make no mistake: this product is for serious gamers who are interested in bringing their favorite Android games to their television in high resolution. Nvidia is pushing Google with this platform, and all the features of Chromecast are essentially included here.
We’ll continue to update this post with new streaming devices. Check back later in the week for Part 3 of our Cord-Cutting Guide as we begin to analyze all the streaming services out there.