Blog Post

Cheap(er) Ways to Stay Entertained During the Downturn

The year of hope and change is certainly off to a grim start in the tech world. Last week alone saw layoff announcements from stalwarts like Intel and Microsoft, as well as Web 2.0 companies like Digg, just to name a few. If you’ve lost your job or had your salary frozen and are seriously tightening your belt, the (slightly) good news is that there are more options than ever to keep yourself entertained during these economic end times.

A few months ago, I defended the value of cable, writing that $70 a month wasn’t a bad deal for what you get. But as your wallet gets lighter, you may not want to spend $840 a year for service. Before you fire off a comment saying “Just watch Hulu!” yes, that is a good idea. Between Hulu and the network sites like and, you can watch just about any program you like for free. But then you’re watching on a small laptop screen while that big TV sits there, idle. You bought the big TV; you should use it.

boxee-video-browsing-screenshotIf you’re a bit more tech savvy, you can connect your PC to your TV, and if you’re a Mac Mini or Apple TV user, you can install Boxee, the free open-source media center, on either. It’ll allow you to watch Hulu, Joost and CBS (among others) on your big TV.

For between $50 and $100 you can get an HDTV antenna setup, allowing you to get your local broadcast HD channels over the air. However, having an HD antenna does not guarantee that you’ll get a clean signal. Any number of factors could inhibit your ability to receive some stations, and you won’t get cable channels like ESPN or FX — but hey, once it’s set up, it’s free.

img_1972For a little over $200 you can get a Roku set-top box ($99) and a year’s worth of service from Netflix (1 DVD at a time for $8.99/month). That baseline Netflix subscription gives you unlimited access to its “Watch Instantly” service, which lets you stream all-you-can-watch movies directly to your TV through the Roku. The Watch Instantly titles available are mostly older and not that great, but they’re getting better — and some are in HD. Plus, the Roku will soon be opening up its box to other video providers, starting with Amazon VOD, so if you really need to see a new release movie, you can rent it for $3.99.

Speaking of movie rentals, I’ve become a big fan of Redbox. There are 12,000 self-service rental kiosks all over the country located in places like supermarkets, and movies are only $1 per night. While Redboxes have new release titles, oftentimes the one you want is out of stock. But if you go online beforehand, you can reserve films at the location you want ahead of time. Yes, you have to physically go somewhere, but you can return your movie to any Redbox kiosk, and you’ve got to go grocery shopping anyway.

And, though I’ll sound like a mom saying this, don’t forget that your local library probably offers free DVD rentals as well.

Of course, if none of these solutions appeal to you, The Wall Street Journal reports that you might be able to get a discount from your cable provider. Hopefully you’ll have better luck than me; I tried negotiating with Comcast here in the Bay Area, but was denied. Maybe I shouldn’t have defended them after all…

This article also appeared on

7 Responses to “Cheap(er) Ways to Stay Entertained During the Downturn”

  1. Funny, I called Comcast to look at discontinuing my basic cable. My internet+basic cable is $57/month. They said that is a discount package and internet by itself is $59. So it costs less to keep basic cable ;)

  2. Also, if you get home broadband from Verizon, AT&T or a handful of other regional companies, you can get ESPN360 for free. I watched Duke’s destruction of Maryland on ESPN360 on Saturday. It’s not HD, of course, but the picture quality is pretty good for live streaming video.

    Downside: ESPN360 is a little buggy in Firefox, so you’re pretty much stuck using IE7 to watch. Also, 360 only shows games, so you still have to pay ESPN money for an Insider account to access all the video on their web site. ($40/year) Oh, and if you’re a soccer fan like me, it’ll be at least another 18 months until ESPN has the U.S. broadcast rights to the English Premier League.

  3. HULU is also available as a Video Plugin for the Original Xbox running XBMC .You will need to hack your Xbox but its fairly easy to do with a memory card these days .There are a few other video plugins from CNN .Revison3 and the Onion for example that will stream to the Xbox also.

    So if you have an old Xbox sitting in the closet collecting dust definitely breath some life into it and turn it into a very capable media center .

    Old Xbox’s can also be found for less than $50 on ebay and reconditioned at places like Gamestop.