Unplugging the Cable
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A few months ago I made the decision to stop paying for premium cable services. The belt-tightening is now a necessity in this economy, but it doesn’t mean I gave up any of the entertainment choices I once enjoyed. In fact, when I include independently produced content, the number of entertainment options has been somewhat overwhelming.
Let me start by describing how my setup works. It isn’t the only way, or even the best way, but it has worked well for me. First of all, a broadband internet connection is a must. The faster the better. I use an old Pentium 4 PC running Windows XP. I spent about 30 bucks to put 1 GB of RAM in it and another 25 to add a mediocre graphics card, one with a DVI connection. The television I have is an older HDTV built by Sanyo. It has one HDMI connector (most modern TVs come with a number of inputs including HDMI and the HD-15 connectors commonly used by computer monitors). I use a DVI to HDMI cable to send video to the TV and a mini-stereo to RCA cable for audio. I also purchased a cheap wireless keyboard with a built-in mouse to control it. I’ve literally turned my TV into a computer monitor.
Windows comes with its Windows Media Player. It works well enough. However, I recommend using VLC (VideoLAN Client). It is the Swiss Army Knife of media players. iTunes and Miro are also must-haves. I’ll come back to those when I discuss content sources. Firefox is my web-browser of choice. If you’re not using it on all of your computers, you should be! Finally, make sure to install the latest Flash player from Adobe. Now, you’re ready!
The amount of video content that can be found online is virtually limitless. I’m going to divide this topic into two categories; “legitimate” and “watch out for the cops!”
Legitimate: In recent years many mainstream content producers have been putting their shows online. Some must be purchased while most are freely available. The TV networks as well as most cable stations stream full episodes from their websites. Other sites, like Hulu and Joost serve as one-stop destinations where you can watch TV shows and films from multiple sources. Most shows from sites like Hulu contain short commercials, much like traditional broadcasts.
There are paid options. I currently subscribe to Netflix. For as little as 9 dollars a month you can rent a DVD of your choice and instantly watch movies and TV shows from a library of 12,000 titles. Amazon has a similar service called UnBox. If you have iTunes you can purchase movies and television shows from the iTunes store.
Video podcasts are another option. Content is available from traditional and independent sources. Both iTunes and Miro support podcasts. There are other sites like Stickam and Ustream from which users can create their own live broadcasts.
Watch Out for the Cops: One word! Bittorrent! A vast community exists in which TV shows and movies are digitally recorded and shared online. Many are completely legitimate, but much exists that clearly violates copyright law. I am in no way advocating breaking the law. But if you add the use of RSS and it becomes diabolically easy. Miro supports RSS and bittorrent. If you use sites like tvrss.net or mininova.org you can subscribe to a tv show. Miro will then download the new episode when it becomes available.
There are lots of other options. More are becoming available all of the time. Most gaming consoles have methods of downloading and displaying content from some of these online sources. Media center software like Boxee, XBMC, and Plex add an easy to use interface. Specialty devices like the Roku and Popcorn Hour provide some functionality without the computer. The choices are almost limitless.
Next time I’ll explain how I use Tor (The Onion Router) to view BBC iPlayer content.