Cutting The Cord And Getting Your TV On The Cheap (Without Using The Big Bad Cable And Satellite Companies)

A couple of years ago I wrote a post on this site called Ways To Watch TV Without Paying An Arm And A Leg For Cable Or Satellite where I talked about a variety of ways that you can find free or cheap TV, movie and other entertainment content online – while not spending an obscene amount on a monthly cable or satellite TV bill.

In the article I gave an inside look at the setup we have used at our house that gave us pretty much all the entertainment options that we would ever need.

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While our setup still works, it’s been a while since I wrote the post so today I thought I would write another post and do an update.  I’m going to look at some of the new ways you can access free or affordable video content online, examine some of the new features of the software that we’re using, and talk about some of the new devices that will work in helping you to cut the cord.  So without further ado, let’s look at ways to get free or cheap tv and movie content.

watch tv free or cheap with no cable

Why Do People Want Alternatives To Cable And Satellite TV?

Why is it that there is such a huge demand for alternatives to paying a monthly cable or satellite TV bill?  For one main reason - it’s expensive.  Not only is it expensive, but the companies have a myriad of ways to rope you into long term deals where incentives run out, and you end up paying crazy amounts of money every month.  It’s not uncommon to be paying $100+/month.   I think premium TV is starting to feel the pinch, however.  Because of lower subscriber numbers they’re beginning to try and find ways to offer cheaper alternative plans.

While subscribers to fiber-optic service and satellite saw last year’s average monthly bills jump 15% and 12%, respectively, research firm Centris found that cable subscribers are now paying 1% less,an average of $69.70. (It’s also cheaper than the average $76.80 for satellite and $99.67 for fiber-optic.) Experts say it’s the start of a shift as cable companies introduce new, lower-cost plans with a more limited selection of channels to grab market share from other pay-TV providers — and keep budget-conscious customers from cutting the cord altogether.

The introduction of more and better streaming video services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Instant has shown the premium TV providers that they can’t ignore budget conscious consumers anymore. They have to come up with some cheaper alternatives.

The thing is, even their “cheaper alternatives” really aren’t that cheap when you compare them to our plan, and they often leave out popular channels that many people want.

How Our Home Entertainment System Is Setup

Playon video streaming software

Because we wanted to have an alternative, we setup our own home entertainment system that didn’t include cable TV.  It basically involves a combination of our PC, our big screen TV, a networked media device, and a software called PlayOn installed on our desktop PC.  Here’s everything we use, and what they cost:

  • TV:   We have a 50″ TV in our basement entertainment area.  We use this as our main TV watching area.  Most people already have a TV, so this shouldn’t be an extra cost.
  • Networked Media Device:  We have an Xbox 360 at our house, although any DLNA compliant networked media device should work.  Things like Playstation 3, Nintendo Wii, Roku, Google TV, Android and Apple devices should all be compatible for this setup.  If you already have one of these it won’t cost you any extra to buy it.  Otherwise devices like the Roku are very affordable – around the $100 mark.  We found a second Xbox 360 for $50 on Ebay as well.  A ton of free and paid video streaming services work natively with the Xbox 360.
  • PlayOn Video Streaming Software:  This software is one of the keys to our setup.  It can be found at Playon.TV and allows you to stream online video from popular services like Hulu.com, Netflix, Amazon Instant and others straight to your TV through a networked media device. The software costs: one time fee of $39.99 (on sale), or for $69.99 and you get a Roku LT media device included. You can get a Roku HD for $79.99.  There is a 14 day free trial on the software.  That’s less than the cost of one month of satellite TV!
  • PlayLater Online DVR Software:  The folks that brought us PlayOn have now released a DVR software of sorts that works in conjunction with streaming services to record all of your favorite online streaming shows. It also includes features like being able to skip past commercials.  Just queue up shows you want to record, and they’ll be saved, just like a DVR with your cable TV service.The software costs either a one time fee of $49.99 (on sale now, normally $79.99) or an annual fee of $19.99.
  • Streaming Video Sites:  Video streaming services like Hulu, NetflixAmazon Instant have been gaining traction the last few years.  Now they’re easier than ever to watch as they’re all supported via the PlayOn and PlayLater software!  The software also supports plugins, so other channels are being added constantly including CBS.com, Youtube,  Comedy Central, HGTV, ESPN the Food Network, NBA/NFL content, and more.  Some services may require an extra subscription fee to watch, however, like MLB.tv.

That’s the basic setup we use at our house. A desktop PC that’s always on that streams video content via PlayOn to our 2 TVs with networked media devices (we have two Xbox 360s), along with our Android phones and tablet.  We can also use PlayLater to record shows to watch later – especially helpful for services like Hulu that only leave certain episodes on their free service for a short time.

If you want, you can of course also just connect a laptop to your TV to watch a lot of these services, but having something like Playon just makes it easier to have everything all in one convenient package, instead of having to bookmark 10 different sites and manage different logins.

Other Options For Home Video Setups

There are other good options for setting up a home video experience that’s more affordable than cable TV. Here are a few – chime in with your own in the comments!

  • Boxee Box:  If you want more of an all-in-one type solution, one that people keep telling me about is using the Boxee Box from D-Link. Basically you plug it into your internet, and start watching TV shows and movies from a variety of online services like Amazon, Netflix and others.  It also has a live TV Dongle that allows you to mix in live TV content with online content as well.  Definitely an interesting option – all for around $200.
  • Google Chromecast: The Chromecast is a $35 device that allows you to stream video from a wide variety of video providers like Amazon, Hulu, Netflix and more. Super cheap and effective – we own one! Read our Chromecast Review here.
  • Amazon Fire TV or Fire Stick: Chromecast competitors that cost $99 or $39. The pricier version comes with a remote with voice search, more memory and more functionality.
  • Smart TVs: Another good option for some people is having one of the newer smart TVs that include apps for Netflix , Amazon, Hulu and a variety of other services like Pandora and Facebook.  Throw in the fact that you have live over the air HDTV as well, and it’s a good replacement for many folks.
  • Your Laptop:  If you already have a laptop you can definitely just hook that up to your TV, and use that to watch all of your video content.  If you want to get a bit more fancy and don’t want to physically hook up the laptop using an HDMI cable, you can use a gadget like the Netgear PTVU1000 to wirelessly stream HD video from the laptop to your big screen.
  • Apple TV: This option will allow you to purchase or rent from the Itunes store, as well as from Netflix, YouTube, Flickr, MLB TV, NBA TV, Vimeo, and MobileMe.
  • Tablet Devices:  Apple’s Ipad, as well as a host of Android devices can all access your streamed content via PlayOn.  In addition you can download a variety of free apps like the ones from Hulu, Netflix and more.

Free And Cheap Video Streaming Services To Use

hulu

So now that we have our video setup all set to go, we need to figure out what streaming services to use.  Here are a few of our favorites:

  • Hulu.com:  You can use the free version of the service, or pay for a premium subscription. We just use the free version and make sure to watch or DVR our favorite shows.
  • Netflix.com: We use the lowest possible streaming only plan for Netflix, and stream via our Xbox 360’s native Netflix app.
  • Amazon Prime: If you sign up for Amazon’s Prime membership, you’ll also get access to their streaming video service for free.  Only certain videos are available for free, with a selection similar to Netflix – at $79/year, or $6.58/month. We stream this via PlayOn and now it streams natively via an Xbox 360 app. You also get free 2-day shipping at Amazon, and free Kindle books!
  • Itunes:  The Itunes store is an option if you have certain shows you can’t find online elsewhere at a decent price. One off rentals for your favorite show that can’t be found free online can still be cheaper than cable.  Works best if you use a device like an Apple TV or an Ipad.
  • Xbox Live:  If you’re an Xbox owner they have a variety of free and pay TV/Movie options. Not usually the cheapest, but if you want to rent a first run movie or show quickly, it could be an option. Xbox also has apps for a wide variety of paid providers like Netflix, Amazon Prime or services from pay TV providers.

While those are the main services we use and stream to our TVs, we also sometimes use the following, although quite a bit less:

  • TV Network Websites: PBS, ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX all have good full episode streaming options available which we usually watch via PlayOn.  I read somewhere that of the top 100 shows, I believe 80+ of them are available for free through the networks.
  • Vudu.com: Video rental and purchase.
  • Crackle.com
  • Joost.com
  • Veoh.com
  • Sidereel.com
  • CinemaNow.com
  • EpixHD.com
  • Sports:  If you need to get your sports fix, you may need to pay for a premium membership to the league of your choice’s online video streaming.  Some may not have live game viewing due to blackout restrictions.

Other Cheap Video Content Options

Beyond just online streaming video services, there are quite a few decent options for getting physical movies and TV shows.  Some of these options might be even better for those who don’t watch a lot of TV or movies.

  • Free Over-The-Air HDTV:  If you have a TV with a HDTV tuner and an antenna, you will have access to a ton of great free HD content via the big broadcast networks.  Quite honestly my wife could survive on this alone usually as most of her favorite shows are on those stations.  We use the Mohu Leaf 50 digital HDTV antenna.
  • Redbox:  You can rent a movie at your local Redbox location for about $1.20 per night plus tax. If you only watch movies infrequently, this is a good option.  Redbox is also supposed to be coming out with a streaming option soon.
  • The Library: Many local libraries have a surprisingly big movie collection, and getting a library card is free.
  • Your Friends:  We have friends that are movie buffs, and who have pretty much every movie ever released.  We sometimes will borrow a movie or two from them.  Again -free.

 Conclusion

When it comes right down to it cutting the cord and finding free, cheap or affordable video entertainment online really isn’t that difficult. While there may be some higher initial start-up costs if you don’t have any of the equipment, in the long run you’re usually going to be saving hundreds of dollars over cable or satellite TV.

The one caveat is that you need to actually sit down and figure out how much you’re spending on your “affordable” non-cable TV option, as you could easily end up spending more that way than if you had just stayed with cable.

At our house we already had most of the equipment, and we only spent money on the PlayOn and PlayLater software ($99) , on Netflix and on Amazon Prime ($79).  In total that comes out to about $273.88 the first year, and then $174.88/year in subsequent years.  That’s much cheaper than if we had paid $65/month or $780/year for cable like we have in the past. Even if you add in a few more rentals or premium season pass purchases for your favorite shows, it still comes out cheaper.

What is your setup for watching tv at home for free, or cheaper than you could using satellite or cable TV?  Do you use options we didn’t mention here?  Tell us in the comments.
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Last Edited: 5th November 2014

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Comments

    Share Your Thoughts:

  1. says

    Peter-Lots of cool options and I like the setup. I’d like to get all my device connected and be able to stream online content anywhere in my home.

    My problem is that probably 90% of what I watch is sports. If Cable had an option for just ESPN and a few other channels I’d be all over it. Do you know of any way to lessen the cost of a typical cable/satellite provider and still have all of the sports content available there? Would subscribing to all the league packages be cheaper than just biting the bullet of the cable bill?

    • says

      It might be something to explore as far as subscribing to all the league packages/etc – it may still be cheaper to do that than to pay for a premium sports package with cable or satellite. For us I love sports as well, but my favorite – football – is on free TV anyway. The other sports i can get on delay via one of the packages (since there is a live blackout a lot of the time).

      So yeah, sports is still one of the downsides i think, although online options are getting better.

  2. says

    We recently got a new TV. We hadn’t had cable or anything. We decided (on impulse) that we should get cable. Luckily we have not regretted the decision. I do think cable can be a waste of money and time (it is crazy how much extra time I sit around the TV). However, I feel like it is also a great place to just hang with friends and family watching some great show (not having to worry about if it is on the Internet or whatever).

  3. says

    It’s time we stop paying for 500+ channels that we’ll never watch anyway. Give up the cable/dish and watch your series online (goodbye DVR)! Besides, going out with friends to watch sports beats sitting at home and you get to meet new people :) Stay young and thrifty

  4. says

    I’ve seriously been wanting to give up my cable… I hardly watch it anyway. But there are always those one or two shows I’d like to see… now, it seems you might have pointed me to some viable options. Are the new episodes available quickly? While I don’t have to see it right away, I was thinking with sports, it’s nice to see it relatively soon after it’s played if not live.

  5. says

    When we first cut the cable, we used both PlayOn and Netflix. After a few months, we realized that Netflix could go. We now use PlayOn only via my PS3, and have not run out of shows to watch. Every single show that I’ve wanted to watch is available either through hulu or through the network sites. My wife and I probably still watch 2 hours of tv a night on average, but its watching specific shows we like, not “whatever’s on”

  6. says

    We have an Xbox 360 with Xbox Live. We downloaded the Netflix and Hulu Plus apps, and that gets us most everything we want to watch. We like Hulu Plus because it updates shows much more quickly than the free Hulu service.

    PlayOn is an interesting option that I had never heard of.

    Do you know if there is a good way to get things like Top Chef or Project Runway without paying for Cable? I haven’t watched either show in a while, so clearly I can do without, but I do miss them.

    • says

      I think you can get some Top Chef shows on Hulu, but i think it’s very limited. You may have to do some research to see if there are options available for watching those shows online for free. I know you can get them if you want to pay for a subscription to the show via Amazon or Itunes or something..

  7. says

    The option we took when cutting the cord was to just use an older computer and build out a Home Theater PC. Using a tv-tuner card we were able to put an over the air antenna in, which works great with Windows Media Player to watch and record live network TV. Then for Netflix/Hulu/Espn3 we just use a good old fashioned internet browser. It also has the added advantage of being able to check email and do everything else you can do on a computer from the laziness of the couch. :)

    • says

      We’ve done something similar to that at our house in the past as well. I just liked using Playon because it brought all of those things together in one place – minus the web browsing – which wasn’t as important to me. Now the home theater PC still sites behind my entertainment center along with the wireless mouse and keyboard cause we just weren’t using it enough. Definitely an option for a lot of folks though!

  8. Jason says

    I have a question. I am on day 3 of the free trial and have liked the program so far. The only question I have is……. Does anyone know if u are able to watch The Masters, the Superbowl, or any other major sporting event in real time which is usually aired on CBS, NBC, or ABC live

    • says

      To get those sporting events you’d probably want to just watch them over the air using an antenna. That’s what we do at our house at least – we get great HD reception for all the major networks. Otherwise you’re going to be a bit limited when it comes to sports content – one of the weaknesses of my plan. :)

  9. Dre says

    Thanks for the write up! I’ve been thinking about cutting the cord for a while! For HD OTA is that the only antenna required?

    • says

      You’ll need a TV with a digital tuner in it. If you’ve bought a new tv within the past 5 or so years, you will probably have one. With regards to the antenna, I found that the $8 at Target was crap, but the $20 one from Target works like a charm.

  10. TOMMY says

    I’m leaning toward getting the PLAYON software, but I have 2 bedroms downstairs with a regular tv in each room(kids rooms where they only really watch disney channel), I have a 42 inch flat screen downstairs in the livingroom, and a small 27 inch flat screen upstairs in bedroom, where my computer is . I also have an X-BOX 360, and a Wii, and I’m trying to figure out how to get rid of Comcast.

  11. Paula says

    You didn’t mention how much your Internet service costs. What kind of internet service do you have? I understand that movies and videos use a lot of data.

  12. Holly says

    Thanks for all this wonderful inforamtion. I have a question, though. At present I have FIOS TV and internet cable through Verizon. (I am using Ooma for my phone service.) You talk about “networked media” to connect the internet to the TV but I’m not sure how to do so.

    My computer is in my den and my TV is in my bedroom. How do I network the two devices so that I can stream video to my TV. Is that what the XBOX would do for me? I have wireless internet in my den. Could I use that to stream video?

    I watch very little TV and just can’t justify the ridiculous cost of cable. When I dropped my phone service, my monthly bill went up to $134! I’m more than ready to cut the cord.

    • says

      The computer and network media device (like the XBOX, roku or Smart TV) would have to be on the same network, in this case it sounds like it’s a wireless network. Basically you would just turn on the playon media server on your computer, and then connect to it on the XBOX (which is connected to your TV), and then stream shows/etc through your wireless network. As long as you have a fast connection it should work pretty well, we do it wirelessly at our house on one of the TVs.

  13. Nathan says

    Soi have a general question. i installed plyon, but it has a buffering issue. every so often it pauses or cuts out. did you have this problem and how did you fix it? i am running thru my ps3

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