cord cutters Tag

Diary of a Cord Cutter

Diary of a Cord Cutter

Humans are creatures of habit. We fall into routine with our diet, job, schedule and, for me, satellite service. I’ve been with DirecTV for well over a decade for no better reason than they had the best deal for my lifestyle at the time that I got fed up with the local cable company (which has since gone out of business). I’ve grown to appreciate the 4K they offer, the multitude of sports packages, and the DVR service. But as more of my friends eschew the traditional cable/satellite model, I yearn to know and understand the life of cord cutting.

 

Not to sound pretentious or elitist (which means I’m about to sound pretentious and elitist) but generally the home theater experience required by my friends doesn’t quite approach my expectations. Theirs involves uncalibrated televisions with the sound coming from the (gasp!) TV’s own speaker. Nothing like the 4K HDR and 5.1 (minimum) surround sound I’ve grown accustomed to. So while they’re happy with some limitations in their streaming services, I still need to fulfill my desire for high-end content.

 

And therein lies the challenge. How can I continue my indulgence of high-quality material and grow my offerings without losing key programming, such as sports and children’s shows. (I have a three-year-old son.) Is there enough Atmos content available to stream or download, or will I only find suitable soundtracks on UHD Blu-rays? Will relying on a collection of different services wreak havoc with my home automation? Over the upcoming entries, I plan to delve into what’s available that meets my needs, and describe how I overcome the hurdles and roadblocks I encounter. I’ll more than likely learn a few things about myself and the limits of my own sanity along the way.

 

But the big question is: Can I both cut the cord and create an even better home-entertainment experience than I have now. We’ll see . . .

 

John Higgins

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN,
or 
Wirecutter, he’s a professional musician and sound editor for TV/film. During his down
time, he’s watching Star Wars or learning from his toddler son, Neil.

How the XBox Became My Favorite Video Player

Xbox One X

I just finished reading Dennis Burger’s ode to his Roku Ultra, and it inspired me to write one of my own—to my Xbox One X gaming console, which has positioned itself as the preferred video playback device in my everyday home entertainment system.

 

I reviewed the Xbox One X for HomeTheaterReview.com a few months back. As I stressed in that review, I’m not a gamer by any stretch of the imagination, but I have reviewed my fair share of Ultra HD Blu-ray players, as well as many generations of streaming media players from Roku, Apple, Amazon, and Nvidia. My approach to the Xbox review was to answer this question: Does this gaming console succeed as a complete all-in-one media player? Spoiler alert if you haven’t read the review: It does.

 

What’s my proof? Well, four months later, the Xbox One X remains the sole set-top box connected to my living-room TV, while an Apple TV 4K, Roku 4, and Amazon Fire TV sit idle in a box in my office/test studio. Sure, I’ll pull one of those players out when I’m reviewing a TV or projector, along with my Oppo UDP-103 Ultra HD Blu-ray player.

 

But the player I choose to use on an everyday basis is the Xbox. Why? Because it really does give me everything I want in one box, with one common user experience.

 

First of all, the Xbox One X is the only gaming console to sport an Ultra HD Blu-ray player, so I can pop in UHD Blu-ray discs when I want the highest-quality video experience. I use a Polk MagniFi Mini soundbar in this everyday space—but if I had a surround sound/Atmos system here, the Xbox One X could accommodate it, too. I can also pop CDs into the disc drive . . . and only listen to them halfway through.

 

Second, the Microsoft Store includes all the streaming apps my kiddo and I use on a regular basis. That includes Netflix, Prime Video, Sling TV, Vudu, Tablo, PBS Kids, YouTube, and Pandora. Here I will confess that I do miss the convenience of voice search offered by Roku, Amazon, and Apple . . . but apparently not enough to make a switch.

 

As a cord cutter, I no longer have a cable or satellite set-top box. If I did, though, I could pass it through the Xbox’s HDMI input and unite that source into the user experience as well.

Xbox One X

And then there are the games. Over the years, the kiddo and I have casually enjoyed the simple, family-friendly games that are available through platforms like Fire TV and Apple TV—such as Crossy Road, Pacman 256, and Hill Climb Racing. But now my daughter’s eyes have been opened to a glorious new world filled with Minecraft, Super Lucky’s Tale, Star Wars Battlefront, and Rush: A Disney Pixar Adventure—and I’m afraid there ain’t no going back to Minion Rush.

 

As I said in my original review, if you look at each of the above categories individually—UHD Blu-ray player, streaming media player, or music player—of course you’ll find better performers. Products that deliver a higher level of AV performance or a better user interface. But the Xbox One X does it all quite well, and for me the convenience of being able to jump from a game like Minecraft to a streaming source like Netflix to live TV through Tablo and then to Planet Earth II on UHD Blu-ray—without having to switch inputs or remotes—is just too darn enticing to pass up.

Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer than she’s
willing to admit. She is currently the AV editor at Wirecutter. Adrienne lives in Colorado,
where she spends far too much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough time
being in them.

Internet TV: Not Quite Ready for Primetime

Internet TV

Last week, I talked about my cord-cutting experience and how, after trying to go on-demand-only with Netflix and Amazon Prime Video for a couple months, I realized I still valued the live-TV experience. So I turned my attention to the new crop of Internet TV services: Sling TV, PlayStation Vue, DirecTV NOW, and YouTube TV. I’ve auditioned all four, and I’ve found that none of them hits the nail squarely on the head.

 

Sure, all four services have benefits that make them more desirable (at least to me) than a cable/satellite subscription. The starting price of most packages is under $40 per month, and there’s no equipment rental fee. If you’re already a cord-cutter, then you already own a streaming media device through which to use these services, so no equipment investment is required. Plus, the services are easy to access through mobile devices and Web browsers, so you can watch your content (most of it, anyhow) anywhere you wish.

 

Probably the biggest selling point, though, is that none of these services requires a long-term commitment. DirecTV, Dish Network, and (in my area) Comcast all want me to enter into a one- or two-year agreement to get any kind of a deal on their TV service. I’ve enjoyed long-term relationships with both DirecTV and Dish Network in the past, but I’m just not in a commitment kind of place at the moment. I want the freedom to play the field.

 

Despite all the benefits, something is missing. For me, a “complete” TV package consists of four things: The channels I want, the DVR functionality I need, a user interface I like, and the picture quality I demand. In some way, each service falls short.

 

Sling TV has the lowest starting price and the most flexibility to tailor a package to my wants, but it doesn’t offer any local channels in my area and charges an extra $5/month for DVR functionality—which, by the way, doesn’t work on a number of channels. Can you imagine your cable/satellite DVR just not working on ESPN?

 

YouTube TV offers all the local channels in a simple, one-size-fits-all package, plus a cloud DVR with unlimited storage. But I can’t manage recordings the way I like, and YouTube TV’s picture quality is the poorest of the group.

 

DirecTV NOW offers a whole lot of channel options and on-demand content, and the four major networks are now available in my area (but not all areas), yet the service’s cloud DVR function can’t seem to get out of the beta-testing phase.

 

Lastly, there’s PlayStation Vue, which also has a lot of channel options as you move up the price chain. ABC, CBS, and NBC are offered in my area, but not Fox. PS Vue has a lot of sports options and unlimited cloud DVR functionality, and it offers the best picture quality. But I’m not a big fan of the interface. In typical Sony fashion, the channel guide is laid out differently than every program guide on the planet, and it’s kind of laborious to move through the design.

 

The good news is, these services seem to be updated regularly—new channels get added, and the user experience gets tweaked. I’m confident we’ll eventually get to the point where Internet TV is indistinguishable from the current cable/satellite norm.

 

In the meantime, I’ve settled down with Sling TV, mated with a Tablo over-the-air network DVR to tune and record my local channels. We’ve got a pretty good thing going—but, I confess, there’s a new guy that’s caught my eye: Hulu with Live TV.

Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer than she’s
willing to admit. She is currently the AV editor at Wirecutter. Adrienne lives in Colorado,
where she spends far too much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough time
being in them.

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The End of Appointment TV?

appointment TV

I cut the cord about a year and half ago. I bid adieu to Dish Network and tried to embrace a purely on-demand TV experience—via Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, specifically. It worked for a couple months. I watched a lot of movies and stand-up comedy specials. I binge-watched shows like Stranger Things, 13 Reasons Why, Grace and Frankie, and Mozart in the Jungle.

 

But something just didn’t feel right. The honeymoon quickly wore off, and I really missed the live-TV experience. I missed channel surfing. I missed primetime TV. And I especially missed sports. As a football fan, Saturdays and Sundays (and Mondays, Thursdays, and sometimes Fridays) just weren’t the same without live TV in the house. I mean, sports bars can be fun, but I don’t want to have to take up residence in one just to see all the games I’d like to see.

 

Eventually, I subscribed to an Internet TV service (Sling TV) and added an over-the-air DVR (Tablo) to get the local channels in my area. That combination has worked great for me—my TV viewing feels whole again. Yet I can’t help but wonder how much life this TV-viewing model has left.

 

Baby Boomers and Gen Xers like me were raised on the model of “appointment television.” Shows air at a certain time each week, during certain seasons of the year, and you either watch the new episodes live or record them. The rise of the VCR and especially the DVR, with its easy programming and robust storage capabilities, certainly altered appointment television—but didn’t kill it. Instead of adhering to specific appointment times, we became more like the cable guy: “I’ll watch The Big Bang Theory some time between the hours of 8:00 and 11:30 p.m.”

 

And that still holds true for me today. With the exception of sports and special events like the Oscars, I seldom watch anything live. It’s all recorded . . . but it’s also a safe bet that I’m gonna watch my favorite shows (This Is Us, Speechless, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) within a few hours of recording them. The cord may be cut, but the appointment mindset remains.

 

But what about those people who haven’t had “primetime” ingrained in their psyche since birth? We’re seeing the rise of an entire generation of cord-nevers—people who have never subscribed to a traditional pay-TV service. They watch what they want, when they want, how they want. They expect you to release the entire season of Stranger Things 2 at once so they can binge on it as they desire. They don’t watch reruns. They simply rewatch the really good stuff. I don’t think my nine-year-old has ever uttered the words, “Mom, what time does [insert favorite show of the moment] come on?”

 

For now, the rise of Internet TV services like Sling TV, PlayStation Vue, and YouTube TV shows there is still an audience for appointment TV, even amongst the cord-cutters. I just read a story from FierceCable.com that Internet TV providers gained 2.6 million customers in 2017, totaling about 4.6 million subscribers in all. But the story goes on to say that those numbers only represent about one-third of the people who have walked away from traditional pay-TV service since 2010. The other two-thirds have presumably gone on-demand only (or tuned out entirely).

 

It seems almost inevitable that on-demand will become the new normal, and live TV will become the bonus content. If you’re wondering how that might play out, look no further than Amazon’s deal with the NFL to stream Thursday Night Football to Prime customers this past season. It’s on-demand, with a hint of appointment TV thrown in for good measure.

 

—Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer than she’s
willing to admit. She is currently the 
AV editor at Wirecutter (but her opinions here do not
represent those of Wirecutter or its parent company, The New York Times). Adrienne lives in
Colorado, where she spends far too much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough
time being in them.