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Summary:

The only problem he ever faced with cord cutting was finding a mouse that works well when used on the couch, writes our reader Mark Smith, who is using a combination of HTPC, projector and a few set-top boxes to satisfy all his TV watching needs.

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What is it like to cut the cord from pay TV? What’s working, what’s missing, and what kind of equipment does the best job replacing the cable box? In our new weekend series, we’re asking cord cutters to tell us about their experience. This week we have the story of Mark Smith, who swears by his home theater PC.

My wife and I ditched our basic (local only, $7-9/mo) cable TV subscription several years ago, when Hulu first went live. Naturally, we kept our cable broadband connection, and actually upgraded from “lite” to “full” RoadRunner, to help with buffering halts after a few months. Since than we have switched to FiOS, for customer service reasons.

By the time we began using the Internet for our shows, we had already weaned ourselves off premium content, preferring DVD sets through Netflix for the occasional show we actually cared to watch, and gotten used to a non-traditional viewing experience a year or so before, when I replaced our bigscreen (32″/125lbs!) Sony Wega with an Optoma projector.

After the first few days of fooling around with plugging and unplugging the laptop, I went and got an off-the-shelf HP home theater PC. That one box replaced a five-disc CD/DVD changer (for long-play background music), a DVD recorder (used as an off-air TV tuner and DVR), a single disc DVD player (for movies), an XM Skifi (for “radio”), and a whole mess of wires and switches. Between the browser (which we use for Netflix streaming), Pandora, Hulu, the built-in Windows Media Center (for recorded off-air network shows), Windows Media Player (for my painstakingly ripped CD collection) and ArcSoft TotalMedia for DVDs and BluRays, we didn’t need any other components besides an amplifier. I did have to add a second, smaller, monitor to an end table to quickly access the computer for computer-y things like e-mail, web-surfing, and all that Facebook my wife does so that we didn’t have to fire up the projector constantly.

Oddly, the only headache I have had to contend with is an ongoing battle to find the perfect “couch mouse” and keyboard. After the first wireless keyboard which came with the computer met an untimely demise one winter, we have struggled to find aftermarket wireless sets, mice in particular, which are worth a damn on pant legs or any surface other than a mousepad. We tried the GlideTV trackpad last year and, though beautiful, it was awkward for click-and-drag operations like moving a file or scaling a window. It turned out to be an overpriced fiasco. We are currently using a very cheesy mini-keyboard/trackpad/laser pointer combo I got from ThinkGeek. Apart from the less-than-awesome build quality, it is definitely the most satisfactory wireless human interface device we have used yet.

A month ago I re-cased the computer body in a big aftermarket tower, mainly to properly mount the several 2TB hard drives I had crammed inside the original mini tower, and also to reduce fan noise to the room. We have also added “extenders” – set-top box clients – to the bedroom and excercise room TVs, which use the HTPC as a server. Now we can watch recorded shows in bed. I only wish it were possible to also watch Hulu on those boxes, but it is not that big a deal.

Unless The Man takes away my ability to watch network shows online, I will never go back, and even then I might start reading books and taking walks instead, just to spite Him.

Mike Smith is an engineer living somewhere in the eastern part of the U.S.. Smith is not his real name, but he asked us to mask his identity because he is actually working for a company that counts major cable TV operators as its clients.

Check out the most recent episode of our weekly web series Cord Cutters below, leave feedback for Mike in the comments, and send us your own cord cutting story to cordcutters@gigaom.com!

Image courtesy of Flickr user viZZZual.com.

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  1. I’ve got a number of internet enabled boxes to choose from but the laptop w/ HDMI is by far the most powerful option. I’m actually watching this cord cutters episode on my big screen right now. What I like about the HDMI solution is that you don’t need to wait for your box provider to create some type of Hollywood relationship in order to get online content. As far as the studios know, I’m on a laptop, so there aren’t any bogus restrictions that others have to deal with. The disadvantage to this solution is that it doesn’t make it very easy to control things via remote (a 50 foot hdmi cable seems like the best option right now) and it’s not very good at organizing your content (on my TiVo it will always record new shows when they air and it’s easy to remember where I am in a series because shows don’t randomly disappear) This lack of a compelling UI isn’t a deal killer, but does make me root for companies who are trying to address the problem like Boxee.

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    1. Do you use a Mac or PC laptop? We have been very happy with the built in DVR and guide functionality of WMC, and, if you are using a W7 or Vista PC, I am surprised to hear you are disappointed with the UI. True, it does not fully integrate both the off-air or cable “TV/DVR/DVD” experience to the web-based one, but we have found that using WMC for one and a browser for the other is not too complicated. As you point out, at least it is all part of the same potent box, and not several.

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  2. For the mouse/keyboard problem, I can highly recommend the “Mobile Mouse Pro” app for those that have an iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad. I’m using it on a Mac, so only assuming it works just as well on Windows.

    Also, the GlideTV folks have put in a lot of effort to improve their software/firmware and the overall experience since last year, so it’s worth checking out again. Disclaimer: I worked with the team at GlideTV for a little while but have not been involved for some time and I have no stake in the firm or product.

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  3. You were kind enough to share that by the time you “made the switch” you and your wife had already weaned yourselves off of premium TV. Would you mind sharing with us what that was like and over what period of time?

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    1. We were never big users of “full cable” after college, prefering movies (either purchased or rented) and enjoying series shows like the Sopranos, Scrubs and Reno 911 once they came out as DVD sets, so time-shifted (often by months, not just days) content was just what we were used to. Neither of us is a sports fan, nor are we cable news afficianados (though I read the NYT and listen to NPR daily), so the absence of “live” programming is not a pain we keenly feel.

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      1. There’s other factors with cable/sat TV besides sports and live news. First, sports is pretty far along in terms of net content (probably right behind porn) with lots of choices for (pay) content. Likewise, most major markets have a few news channels that stream their broadcasts already too. Rural area news may be tougher, but you can get streams for national news (I’m talking legit btw, not “grey” streams).

        But a bigger factor for a lot of people is the social side of time-shifted TV, where you cannot talk about last night’s episode of Dexter or whatever around the water-cooler, or over dinner, because you won’t see it for 9 months

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  4. I am a news junkie watching MSNBC & CNN daily to see certain shows. How do the cord cutters get news in “Real time”?? I can’t seem to find any apps on my iPad , Boxee box, or logitech review google tv to fill in this blank.

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  5. Oh my god, this guy is talking about how a Microsoft product is the best around (if your a cord cutter). What a sin to come from a west cost centric Blog.. (Ie its not an Apple product).

    But seriously, its quite amazing. Everyone I know who has tried Windows Media Centre never go back. But your would never know it based on the One Eyed Apple bloggers on the West Coast.

    If Microsoft would only give a dame and bring it up to speed, it would really fly. (Ie ad all the streaming services into it native)

    The biggest WIN with Media center is that my Wife, a “Only us a computer if I have to” person, likes Windows Media Centre more then anything else I have put in front of her. And especially the fact we now only have 1 Remote control. For everything… VTR/Music/Pictures/webVideoDownloads

    The industry does not get how important that issue really is. Apple. especially. 5 Button remote. What a joke.
    Simple is good but to simple is stupid.

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  6. I thought I should point out something I never explicitly mentioned in my original text: that my cord-cutting experience was never about saving money. It has only ever been about enjoying programming on my terms, not those of the studios and cable companies. I get that it may be a minor sacrifice to not be able to watch some premium cable network shows the month they air, but I gladly give that up in order to see a Jon Stewart marathon on a Saturday afternoon, rather than staying up late every weeknight. I never even watched Conan until Hulu started archiving his show last summer while he was still on NBC. I like being able to see FX programming, without having to get a full cable subscription of crap I don’t care about. Granted, it means I have to watch three or four 30 second online ads about Axe Ball Cleaner, but it beats sitting through 3 minute stretches of Cadillac, Chase and Cialis ads on real-time. Even on nights when we watch “TV” broadcasts (like Wednesday on ABC, or Thursday on NBC), we typically wait a little while for the hard drive to buffer and then 30sec jump through the ads. Everybody’s got to get paid, but when the ads are utterly irrelevant to me, I support the model that is more relevant. I’ve corresponded with Jason Kilar of Hulu about this, because even his platform has a shotgun blast approach compared to the sniper rifle it could be, but he is gradually implementing what changes his network stakeholders will tolerate, and I applaud him for his effort. I will continue to support the modes that suit me better. I think it will just take a while for those modes to settle into a groove of viability. In the mean time, it will be messy, and I probably won’t get everything I want. Don’t forget, the music industry still hasn’t totally figured out how to live in the new media age, and its been almost a decade.

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