May 26, 2011  •  In Entertainment, Gadgets, Geek, Home, Personal

Going Cable-Free, the Geek Way

Late last year J and I made the decision to cancel our cable. Not because we had stopped watching TV, but because we were no longer watching our favorite shows as they air. Sure, the DVR that our cable company had provided was getting a lot of mileage, but we couldn’t ignore the fact that the majority of the shows we enjoy are available — for free — online.

So what is the best way to live cable-free in a technologically-driven household? Well, this is how we did it…

1. Connect a media computer to your television.

There are some great media streaming devices on the market today (Boxee, Roku, and Apple TV to name a few). However, we decided to go for an actual computer instead because a computer allows us to play DVDs, downloaded videos in practically any format, in addition to everything that a media streaming device would do.

J considered building our own computer. But after calculating all the parts we would need, we decided that getting a Mac Mini would be comparable in cost.

Our Mac Mini is directly connected to our television via an HDMI port, so technically, we are using our television as a giant LCD monitor. The image quality is great and having a 52″ screen to do the occasional Photoshop work ain’t too bad either.  :-)

2. Invest in a wireless keyboard and a mouse.

With the keyboard, we decided to keep it simple and purchased the Apple Wireless Keyboard. It’s small, unobtrusive, and perfect for what we need.


We went a fancier route with the mouse: the Logitech MX Air. When J first described it to me, I asked him, “You want to spend HOW MUCH for a mouse?!!” But once I tried it out in person, I was hooked.

What’s so special about a computer mouse, you ask? Well, the MX Air is designed to be used by home theater PC users and presentations by tracking motion even after you lift it off a surface. Which means you can hold it just as you would a remote control.


The buttons that run down the middle of the mouse can function as playback controls, and the smooth surface where the scroll button would be is actually a touch panel sensor where you can slide your finger up and down.

And for those who are wondering — yes, it can be used exactly how you would use a regular computer mouse too. I find that I use it on a mousepad (or directly on our couch ;-) ) when doing “computer” work, and lift it and use it as a remote when watching videos.

3. Purchase an HD antenna.

For the rare occasions when we are able to watch a television program as it airs, we use an HD antenna.

The very first time that we hooked up the antenna to our television, we couldn’t believe our eyes — the picture quality was better than what we had with cable! And while the channel selection was limited (which was expected), we were able to pick up a few channels that we would’ve had to pay extra with our cable company, e.g. a Korean channel and a Chinese channel.

We went with the Terk HDTVa Indoor Amplified HD Antenna due to is popularity and positive reviews on Amazon. But we have also heard that a $20 HD antenna from Walmart works just as fine, so I don’t think an antenna makes that much of a difference if you live in, or near a metropolitan area.

4. Subscribe to a video streaming service (or two…or three).

We’re currently subscribed to Netflix‘s $7.99/month unlimited streaming plan. We’re pretty happy with the service — the quality is better than we had expected, and there is practically no lagging. That being said, we do wish that more older movies and shows would be available for streaming (and not just on DVD, which we would need to pay extra for).

We watch most television shows which have already aired on Hulu. Again, the quality is pretty good (the picture quality on Hulu is better than that of most network websites that are streaming the same shows) and I wouldn’t be lying if I said that I have been tempted to subscribe to Hulu Plus on more than one occasion.

I have also recently discovered that with my Amazon Prime membership, I have access to over 5,000 commercial-free, streaming movies and TV shows.

We scour the web for websites that stream live sports games. We download television shows that are not available on Netflix or Hulu. We’ve also discovered new programs and movies that we would have never known about if we hadn’t canceled cable.


And that’s how we did it. Sure, the initial setup cost quite a bit a money, but considering that we were paying almost $90/month for cable, the investment has evened out after a few months.

30 Responses to “Going Cable-Free, the Geek Way”

  1. We gave up our cable months ago and wouldn’t go back. We have a blu-ray player that works the same and when we want, we can hook up one of our computers (for streaming sports from ESPN 3 for instance). It’s ridiculously more cost effective and we’ve never been happier!

  2. Greg:

    This is the EXACT same setup I have at home and love it. After this initial setup I added two things. 1) Buy an EyeTV One and hook your HD antenna directly to your Mac. You still get HD content but it also allows you to use the MacMini as a DVR. 2) Load up the free media center Plex. Think of it as a replacement for Front Row that works with a lot of free streaming content services. Hulu, Netflix, Comedy Central, NPR, PBS, and TED talks are just a few of the integrated services.

  3. Juskimo:

    I just switched to an apple tv and am loving it. The apple tv allows me to get Netflix, iTunes rentals, and the MLB package. Also, with my airport, I can stream almost anything from my MacBook or iPad to the tv, which makes sharing photos, YouTube videos, etc much easier to show to a bunch of people.

  4. We cancelled cable about 2 years ago and haven’t missed it at all. Similar set up as you – we watch lots of Netflix through our blue ray player, and Hulu by plugging my laptop into the tv. And occasionally over the air HD (mostly football during the fall/winter). Saves so much money, I can’t imagine going back to paying for cable again!

  5. JenG:

    We have the same basic set up – Mac Mini w/ Apple TV, Netflix and a lot of Hulu! The only thing we really need is a cordless keyboard and nicer mouse! It is so convenient and easy to use once it’s set up!

  6. We’ve actually started to seriously consider doing this as well, so this post was really interesting to me! And I had no idea about the Amazon Prime thing – I’m going to have to check that out!

  7. We’ve got the same basic set up (though a PC instead of a Mac), and I love it. We’ve had it for a couple of years now, and I can’t imagine going back to cable or anything else, because we watch so many things through Hulu or Netflix. Our only issue is that our antenna isn’t great (though I’m not positive whether it’s the antenna’s fault or just that we don’t get a great signal to our apartment). Either way though, paying $20 for internet sure beats out paying $90 for cable!

  8. Can you, or J, comment on whether or not you’ve had any internet issues in relationship to the amount of bandwidth you are consuming? Here in Seattle we are pretty much suckered into using Comcast (hate them) and I have heard from people that they are monitoring usage and charging higher rates.

    We currently have Directv and honestly haven’t had any issues (other than the $100 a month that includes HBO and such) but we also have a Netflix subscription.

    • I’m sorry about that! Our internet company doesn’t measure bandwidth, or if they do, they don’t change rates based on it. That being said, I’ve read that since so many people are ditching cable, and because the cable companies are usually one of the largest providers of high speed internet, more and more companies are starting to charge based on bandwidth. So I think we wouldn’t be able to enjoy our unlimited bandwidth that much longer. :-/

  9. Kiersley:

    Isn’t that the “Bad Robot” mascot?:D

  10. Star Anisette:

    Great post. I’ve also heard a few people have started to cancel their newspapers because apparently you can just get the news on the Internet now. You should do a detailed article on that, I would be really interested.

  11. suzanne:

    Thank you so much for the great post!! We have been talking for a while now about doing this and now we basically have a shopping list of stuff we will need. Thanks!!

  12. We have a similar set up with a Desktop pc that my parents were getting rid of hooked to the TV and we got a Sezmi box which is a DVR and atenna rolled into one. So, we can still record anything that comes through the antenna if we want. I do love that Logictech mouse, we might have to get one of those. Wireless keyboard was a must too.
    The only bad thing is that my husband is an avid Celtics and Bruins fan. I’m not sure about basketball, but I know the NHL streaming service he pays for blacks out all local games online, because they are broadcast in Boston on Versus or NESN, both pay cable channels. That is a bit ridiculous to me, since we are paying for that service. Not sure if other sports have the same issue, but I’m hoping somebody gets it soon and offers a better alternative. Otherwise, we do not miss cable at all.

  13. We also have a similar set-up. J & I have never had cable as a married couple… I gave it up when I got married and moved out of my parent’s house ;-) It’s funny because my parent’s have DVR and every channel imaginable on almost every tv in their house and we don’t have cable at all. We have a comp plugged into our TV, not Mac Mini, but a similarly sized PC version… that isn’t as fancy. We watch all our TV from Hulu, Netflix and other various internet sites. Occasionally we’ll order a series on Netflix, but I’ve been able to find most of what I want to watch online. Right now (knock on wood) we have pretty cheap internet as well (knock on wood, knock on wood). It’s DSL so it cuts out every now and then, but it’s not to bad that it’s worth paying the extra money (knock on wood). People as us all the time if we miss cable and I say, the only thing I really miss is watching/listening to Food Network while I cook or do homework, but I’m not going to spend $100 a month for background noise…. that’s what Pandora is for ;-)
    P.S. I WANT that mouse! The one we have now it horrible and that sounds like the answer to our problems. Great post!

  14. Matt G.:

    Pearl & I are totally on board with this. I haven’t had cable since 2003!

    One of the best things I ever bought was a Lenovo IdeaCentre Q150 (tiny like your mini mac AND comes with a sweet mini wireless keyboard/trackball combo). The Lenovo was my third attempt at a streaming device. Tried a Vizio internet TV (overpriced since you’re forced to get features you don’t need like 1080 on a 32″ TV and poor app support) and a Sony Network Media player (poor compatibility with my canon movie files and clunky interface). Like you said Jenny, you just can’t beat a computer. People are going to be sorely disappointed with so-called smart TVs. The Vizio had an NBA app that wasn’t updated. It only had highlights from May…and this was late November!

    We also subscribe to Hulu & Netflix. I’ve got an old PC in the exercise room as well. Can’t beat watching Modern Family on the treadmill (or p90x / Turbofire dvds ripped to the network!).

    I’ve got the same antenna. I bought a smaller one on Monoprice because I plan to try and hang the 32″ over the fireplace and mount the computer & antenna behind it.

    Love that Bad Robot mascot!

  15. Caryscia:

    It’s good to know there are others out there with this kind of setup. So many people I talk to look at me like I am crazy when I tell them I have a server in my closet that streams all my media though out the house as I please. Glad to know there are others out their with a household as geeky or geekier than my own. :D

  16. Brian:

    I love this post. I shared it with my friends on Facebook, haha. I have a question though, where did you install the Terk Antenna so it is discretely hidden?

    • We haven’t exactly “installed” it properly. :-P We just have it behind the TV most of the time, and if we ever have trouble with reception we just move it to the floor, near the window, and put it back when we’re done. (Obviously we don’t watch a lot of live TV.)

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  18. CM:

    How easy is it to watch shows on a second TV (either simultaneously or at different times)?

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