Monday, December 14, 2009
Welcome to our living room. Take a seat, make yourself comfortable. Would you like to watch a movie, or the new “Family Guy” episode?
Devices that fell short of providing the best TV viewing experience and program options lie discarded in the living room of Nick and Danielle Bilton.
Oh, that, over there. You want to know why there’s a pile of gadgets and wires on the floor? My wife and I usually don’t talk about that clutter. We actually refer to it as the Gadget Graveyard. Mostly, we pretend it doesn’t even exist. But since you asked, I’ll explain.
This digital necropolis isn’t your typical sanctuary for retired devices. Instead, here you’ll find technologies that tried to provide the best viewing experience and program options with a television, but ultimately fell short. Everything is relatively new, and comparatively unusable — to me at least.
Among this pile you can find my old remote controls and wires from my cable box. Then there’s the dreaded Apple TV, now a $250 paperweight. There’s also the $80 Roku box, a device that allows you to stream video from Netflix, Amazon.com and other sites directly to your television. But wait, there’s more! A Vudu player, a Slingbox and a handful of other single-serving contraptions.
Those devices are all behind me now. I disconnected everything, threw it to the side and canceled the cable months ago. Instead, now I have a Mac Mini, wireless mouse and a Microsoft Xbox hooked up to my television.
This quest for cable freedom has been a couple of years in the works. Before I called the cable company to bid my farewell I imagined that I would need a vast array of devices to fill the entertainment void: a device for games, something for television shows, a contraption for streaming movies through Netflix and, finally, something to control all of the above. But it turns out a computer can do all those tasks with some software upgrades and a wireless keyboard and mouse.
I have to be honest, this isn’t as easy as just plugging a computer into a monitor, sitting back and watching a movie. There’s definitely a slight learning curve. One difficult part of this equation was getting used to the wireless mouse. We use a mouse called the Loop, made by Hillcrest Labs, that costs $99. The Loop looks more like a chocolate-frosted doughnut with buttons than something that navigates a television set. To navigate the screen you hold it out and wave your hand from side to side as if you are conducting an orchestra.
As for the computer, you don’t specifically need a Mac Mini. This set up can work with most inexpensive PCs; just make sure the video card can handle the streaming video requirements. Our refurbished Mac Mini cost $380 online.
We still come home from work and watch any number of shows, just like the people who continue to pay for cable. We just do it a little differently, starting the computer and then using services like Hulu, Boxee, iTunes and Joost. Another interesting twist to this experience is that we’re no longer limited to consuming traditional programming. With these applications we can spend an entire evening flicking through videos from YouTube, CollegeHumor or Web-only programs.
Here are a few of the applications on our home setup:
Boxee is probably the most clicked icon on our television. You can download this free open-source application from Boxee.tv. It’s important to note that it’s still in test phase and a little rough around the pixels, but over all it allows you to access almost any type of video content online. You can easily stream CNN, Current TV, PBS and more. Most important for us, Boxee easily allows access to the Netflix streaming service, which offers up thousands of movies and television shows (just not always the most popular options).
Next there is Hulu Desktop, the joint venture among Fox, NBC, ABC and many other mainstream programming outlets. This service allows you to watch more than 1,700 television shows, including traditional favorites like “30 Rock,” “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and “The Office.” Hulu’s downloadable desktop application, as opposed to hulu.com, works extremely well with large screens. Apple’s iTunes application replicates all the features of Apple TV, allowing you to buy or rent movies and listen to your music collection.
Be warned though that iTunes can get expensive. If you watch premium-cable television shows, you can pay more than $40 for the season of a single show. But even that is less than one month of cable. Since there are so many other entertainment options online, we just skip “Dexter” and “Weeds.” Trust me, there is a lot of great free or ad-supported content out there.
Finally there’s Joost.com. Although it’s not a downloadable application and only accessible through a Web browser, Joost offers free streaming movies and a strange variety of cartoons.
While Microsoft’s Xbox 360 (starting at $200), is not absolutely necessary for this setup, it delivers an array of lively entertainment options. I can, of course, play video games, but I can also rent movies (through the Xbox marketplace or through Netflix’s online viewing service), and browse Twitter and Facebook, with a new feature that lets you watch a streaming interface of your social networks flow across the screen.
I understand this kind of living room experience isn’t for everyone. It’s a lot less work to just click a button up or down on a standard remote control. And it can be difficult to explain how to use this unfamiliar toolbox of buttons, programs and devices.
Over Thanksgiving a friend graciously house-sat at our apartment. It took my wife more than an hour to write a detailed description explaining how to use our new TV setup. After explaining how to use the mouse and keyboard, we had to describe how to switch among applications. The instructions read:
“If you want to watch “Ugly Betty,” or “Saturday Night Live,” you will need to load up Hulu. If you’d like to watch some of the movies we’ve downloaded, you will have to quit Hulu, open up Boxee and navigate to the movies folder. To use Netflix, you’ll need to switch to the Xbox and. ... ” But after a few hours of randomly clicking into cyberspace, our friend figured it out.
There is one other showstopper. I know the sports and technology enthusiasts don’t often mix, but if you’re one of the few people who live in both of those worlds you might have to look for other options. To watch baseball you can buy a little dongle that plugs into the back of your computer and streams free over-the-air high-definition channels. I bought this for the Yankees games and it worked perfectly. If you’re an ESPN fan you have two options. Stick with cable, or go to a bar to watch the basketball games.
Over all, I couldn’t be happier with our computer television setup. Now, I just have to figure out what gadgets I’m going to buy with the $1,600 a year I no longer send to the cable company.