My wife and I are television addicts. I know from an intellectual standpoint, it's easy to look down your nose at us.
"Television rots your brain."
And when discussion turned to the fact that our cable TV bill had skyrocketed in recent years, it was even easier to argue for turning it off altogether. "Just go read a book!" "Go outside or something." Yeah, yeah, I know. But in our defense, the quality of television has skyrocketed in the last decade. You have actors, writers, and producers who would never have dreamed of touching TV fifteen years ago putting out amazingly good programs. Just look at True Detective, a show that I swear would garner multiple Oscar nominations (and wins) if it were an 8-hour movie, rather than a TV series.
Also, it's in my lifeblood. I'm an aspiring screenwriter, so it's important to me that I keep up on current trends. And you know what else? I'm an adult so I do what I want. Judge all you want.
Okay, I'm getting off track now. I've been unemployed for about 7 months now. We've managed okay so far, but my unemployment benefits ran out about a month ago, so we've had to start making hard choices. It's difficult to justify a $200 monthly cable bill when you're trying to calculate how you'll afford food that month. So I began to look into other options.
We were already Netflix subscribers — have been since the DVD-by-mail days — and I'd sooner die than give up my Netflix membership. We were considering Amazon Prime, which is a good deal, except for the fact that the annual cost must be paid upfront, instead of smaller monthly installments, like Netflix. Then a friend recommended XBMC.
The true answer to "how we pulled it off" is that we're now using a multitude of services, but XBMC was the one that pushed me over the line and made me say, "Yeah, we can totally do this."
Is it as easy as having cable? No, absolutely not. And I miss my DVR like I mourn the loss of dear friend. But the benefits outweigh the costs by far. Let me break down for you what we're doing, one at a time:
This is the biggest "duh" of the bunch. With an HD antenna, we get all of our local network channels in glorious HD (slightly better than our cable box, actually; the HD antenna gives us a 1080p picture, whereas the cable box was only 1080i — a slight difference, but I can tell).
In addition, with an HD antenna you get a multitude of channels that weren't available in the pre-HD days. Most of them are garbage, but it's nice having options, and with a toddler, the four PBS channels are a godsend.
I will say that quality counts when it comes to your HD antenna; a lesson I learned the hard way. I had purchased an antenna a few years ago for $5 at Goodwill and never used it, so that's the one we're now using. It's not great; the picture occasionally becomes pixelated and even unwatchable at times, depending on the channel. I'm going to have to upgrade to a better antenna soon.
I know, I just said we cut the cord, yet HBO GO requires a cable subscription. Oh, how wrong you are.
Unlike other services, like Netflix, that have limits on how many people can be logged into one account at the same time, HBO GO has no such rules. And, as HBO's CEO made clear in a January interview, HBO doesn't care if you share your password! Now, the hammer is sure to fall on all of this at some point, but in the meantime, HBO GO is yours for the taking. All you have to do is find a friend willing to share their login with you.
In addition to streaming all of HBO's current programming, HBO GO also has EVERY EPISODE OF EVERY HBO SERIES EVER MADE. That's huge. And you won't find that content anywhere else (i.e., Netflix, Amazon Prime, etc.). There's also a huge catalog of movies available through the services, and that list is updated constantly.
You can watch HBO GO on a number of devices; my personal preference is on my Xbox 360.
As I said, we already had Netflix so we aren't using it too tremendously differently than we already were. The main exception being that without access to Disney Junior or Nick Jr., I find myself playing more shows for my 18-month-old daughter on Netflix than I previously did.
There is one significant change to how we now use Netflix, though, and it's a big one. Which brings us to...
I'd already been using Hola Unblocker for a few months before we cut the cord, but I'm using it a lot more now. Basically, Hola is a VPN service; it's not a new idea, people having been using VPNs to circumvent geo-blocking for years now. Hola just makes it incredibly simple.
Basically, you download the Hola Unblocker extension, and anytime you want to switch your IP address to that of a foreign country, you just click the Hola icon and select your country. Boom — done. Now you can access BBC iPlayer, Netflix, Hulu, and Pandora no matter where you live.
The only website I use Hola for is Netflix. You probably don't realize it, but Netflix has different movies and shows available in each country that it's available. By using Hola, you can make Netflix think that you're logging in from one of those countries, and thereby access content that you normally wouldn't be able to see.
Now, it can be daunting trying to determine what content is available in each country, and there's where Moreflicks comes in to play. Moreflicks is a constantly updated database of what movies/tv shows are available on Netflix in each country around the world. It also has listings for Vudu, Hulu, iPlayer, iTunes, Fox, and Crackle, but you can filter those out if you're only looking for Netflix programming. The one caveat is that Moreflicks isn't very user-friendly when it comes to browsing. If you just want to see what's available, you're going to come away frustrated. But if you know specifically what you're looking for, you can do a quick search and be on your way.
I'll give you an example. On of our current favorite shows is NBC's Hannibal. My wife had actually never seen Manhunter or Red Dragon, which are the previously filmed versions of the tale. So, one night when we had nothing else to watch (a rare occurrence), we decided to watch Red Dragon. It's not currently available on Netflix here in the US. Not a problem — I pulled up Moreflicks, typed in "Red Dragon," clicked on the Netflix icon, saw that it was available in Brazil and Columbia, clicked Hola and switched our country to Columbia, and we were in business.
Now that you have the pros, let me give you the cons. Hola is a browser extension, so you must be on a computer to use it. You cannot switch your country and watch foreign Netflix offerings on Xbox, Roku, or the like. (Actually, there are ways, but it requires additional equipment and it's MUCH more complicated than Hola). We simply hook an HDMI cable into our laptop when we want to use Hola, but for that reason, we admittedly don't use it very often.
Hola has also started inserting ads. In order to avoid them, you must pay $27 a year for a "premium" account. Now, I personally have never seen a single ad when using Hola. But, as I've said I don't use it very often. There are alternatives, such as ProxMate, but I've never tried them, so I can't vouch for their usefulness.
Finally, a bit of a disclaimer: although using Hola to access foreign versions of Netflix is not illegal, it does violate Netflix's terms of service agreement. So use at your own risk. Personally, I think it would be a HUGE undertaking for Netflix to try and prove that its users weren't actually visiting all of those foreign countries, and it would be a PR nightmare to try and shut down all of the offending accounts. But that's just my take.
Popcorn Time made a big splash in the media a few weeks ago. It's an open-source program that streams HD movies for free as easily as Netflix. Technically, everything it does has been around for ages; Popcorn Time just packaged it up and made it SUPER easy and attractive to use.
Within a week of its newfound media attention, its creators caved to the pressure and shut it down. Fortunately, considering it's an open-source platform, another team of developers quickly picked it back up. There are now multiple versions available, including one that promises TV shows as well (but doesn't work). You can download the "official" new version here.
Now, obviously this is PC software, so like Hola, you're going to have to hook a PC to your television in order to view.
A number of networks have apps for the Xbox 360, on which you can watch a good chunk of their programming. Unfortunately, almost all of them require a cable subscription login to access (including FOX, which makes no sense whatsoever).
The CW app does not require a login, however, and has the last 5-6 episodes of every CW show available in brilliant HD for your streaming needs. Since we actually watch a good deal of their shows between the two of us (The Vampire Diaries, The Originals, Supernatural, Arrow, The 100), this app works out perfectly for us.
At last, we come to the star of the show. If you haven't heard of it, XBMC is an open-source home theater program originally developed to run on the original Xbox. Hence the name XBMC: Xbox Media Center; it no longer runs on Xbox, but the name stuck.
The original intention of XBMC was to organize the media you already owned, such as DVDs/Blu-Rays, CDs, MP3s, photos, and other digital media, and to make it easily accessible through your home theater. It still does this, and does it well. In fact, officially, that's all it is designed to do. However, over the years, third-party developers have come along and starting creating various add-ons that increase the function of XBMC by a large margin. It is now, in fact, the ultimate streaming software.
Through these add-ons, you can now use XBMC to stream almost any episode of any television show or any movie ever made (including those that are still in theaters). And most of it is in stunning HD. Now, obviously most of this content is not being made available by the people who own it — it's all pirated. I'll fully admit that I'm no lawyer, but my personal understanding is that as long as you don't download and/or host the content on your machine, you are legally in the clear. Meaning, as long as you simply stream the content from wherever it is hosted, you are breaking no copyright laws. I could be wrong. If so (well, either way actually), then it's a moral decision on your part. As an aspiring screenwriter, I'll admit to being conflicted about streaming content without paying for it; but as an unemployed poor person, I'm more than happy to do so.
As I said, XBMC no longer runs on Xbox, so you'll need a PC to make it work. I originally installed it on our laptop, just to try it out, but hooking and unhooking it from the television quickly became old. If you have the extra money to buy a dedicated PC for XBMC, by all means do it. If, like us, you're looking for a cheap alternative, consider a Raspberry Pi.
Raspberry Pi, for the uninitiated, is a tiny, credit card-sized computer designed to be cheap and easy to modify. The Model B Raspberry Pi, which we bought, costs all of $35. Now, bear in mind, that $35 buys you nothing more than the Pi itself. You get no power supply, no mouse/keyboard (not necessary if you're hooking to a TV), and no case. That's right, the Raspberry Pi comes as an exposed circuit board; you'll want a case to protect it from dust and other elements. You can make your own or buy a cheap case online; I ordered one for $6 from the same company I bought the Pi from.
Now, the Raspberry Pi runs on Linux, so you have several options when it comes to installing XBMC. The two most popular are Raspbmc and OpenELEC. I chose Raspbmc because it's incredibly easy to install and run, but there's are pros and cons to each. Installing the software requires a few additional steps and equipment, but it's very easy and cost-efficient.
Once you get it up and running, you have a myriad of options when it comes to add-ons. 1Channel and IceFilms remain the most popular choices for viewing TV shows and movies, but there are countless alternatives. Some are redundant, some don't work at all. You get what you pay for. My personal favorites are GoTV and GoMovies. Other add-ons will live-stream cable channels and international networks, but the quality is usually poor. I've spent a little time watching BBC and ITV, simply because I'm a glorified Anglophile. You can also find web content, such as Funny or Die, The Onion, Machinima, and much, much more.
Bear in mind that even the best add-ons don't always work as you'd expect. Sometimes video or audio is poor quality, and you'll have to try multiple sources before you find one you like. If a show has just aired, it can take hours for it to be available through an XBMC add-on. Also, since XBMC is open-source, it is highly customizable and therefore, highly breakable. I wouldn't say it has the biggest learning curve I've ever seen, but it's not something your grandma could do.
Also, since Netflix uses Microsoft Silverlight to display its videos, it will not run on a Raspberry Pi. Supposedly, Netflix is planning a move to HTML5, so this won't always be the case. There are workarounds, but I haven't tried them; just thought it was worth mentioning.
A few other notes about XBMC and Raspberry Pi: if you have a CEC-compatible television (which we do), then you'll be pleased to discover that you can control the XBMC with your existing TV remote. If not, there are plenty of alternatives out there. You can even use your smartphone! Most often, that's what I find myself doing; it's much easier to use the on-screen keyboard on my phone than to peck-and-click with the remote. There are several apps, but the one I use is an Android app called Yatse.
I didn't mention Hulu separately, although I know a lot of cord-cutters use Hulu as an alternative. You can actually access Hulu through XBMC, and you don't even have to have a Hulu Plus account to do so (although without it, you'll be limited to the basic Hulu programs). I actually find us using it very little, since it's actually easier to just stream our programs through the other add-ons.
Also, I didn't know this when I first purchased our Raspberry Pi, but having a good power supply is very important. The Pi uses a micro-USB port to charge, like most modern cell phones. I went to Walmart and bought a cheap universal charger for $6. At first, I had the cord plugged into the USB port on our TV, but that caused the Pi to lose power every time the TV was powered off. So I now have it plugged directly into the wall, but we're having issues. Without a proper power supply, your Pi will frequently freeze and/or shutdown. I'm going to have to remedy this soon, it's already annoying.
My bottom line on XBMC is this: it's glitchy as hell, takes a lot to work to set-up and use properly, but it's free. And you can't beat free.
So, in closing, the thing I miss the best about our cable is still the DVR. And there's several reasons for it. I do miss being able to pause and rewind live TV (although that is definitely possibly with XBMC using an external HDD and a PVR add-on), but the thing I miss most is just knowing what's on. With the DVR, I never had to worry about missing my favorite shows; if it was on, it got recorded. Now that I have to either watch my shows live through the HD antenna, or hunt for them on XBMC after they air, it's incredibly difficult keeping track of when shows are on and whether or not they're first-run episodes or reruns. There are a couple of tools I've found to help with this, but I haven't tried any yet. I signed up for Trakt account, but haven't used it. EpisodeCalendar and SideReel look promising, too.
Believe it or not, even with all of these tools, cutting the cord has actually caused me to watch less TV, and experience more freedom. Sure, having a DVR to record all of your shows is incredibly freeing. But the constant threat of filling the DVR to capacity forced me to watch a lot of shows when I might not have otherwise felt like it. Now I can focus on the shows I really love, and know that the other time-wasters I enjoy like Toy Hunter, Tattoo Nightmares, and Hoarding: Buried Alive will still be there to watch, but when I actually feel like it. I beat an Xbox game last week, something I haven't done in quite a while, and I read an entire stack of graphic novels from the library.
So take that. I did read something. And I still watched enough TV to rot my brain.
For more tales of the mundane life of an unemployed aspiring screenwriter, follow me on Twitter @barryerice.