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 [email protected]!
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