Help me go cable (tv) free!
December 7, 2008 1:44 PM   Subscribe

I would like to cancel my cable and watch tv shows on my tv from my computer.

I currently don't feel that I watch enough tv to justify the cost. I currently only care about watching Lost (ABC), Mad Men (AMC), True Blood (HBO) some shows on PBS (primarily Frontline) and Top Chef.

Basically, I am realizing I am paying $80 a month to watch two tv shows at a time. It's not worth it. I have a series 2 Tivo, and an Xbox 360, and a netflix subscription.

Basically, I want to set up my media for the most ideal conditions, and to be able to watch tv shows from my computer on my tv screen. I am interested in hearing specifics from people on how you have done it, what tech/media items you have purchased, and what the pros and cons are of doing this, although I am 99% I am going to cancel my cable and start this transition.

I am considering the following:
- upgrading my Tivo
- getting a nice new flat screen HDTV
- getting Apple TV

I've found this article really informative.
posted by hazyspring to Technology (26 answers total) 66 users marked this as a favorite
I use bittorrent to download all my TV shows - I love for finding the torrents - download speeds from that community are really fast, and content is available speedily after broadcast. I will send you an invite to TVTorrents if you need one.

I stream the files I download to my XBOX 360 and watch them on my TV - on my Mac, I use a small app called Connect 360. Apparently, this is even easier to do with a PC, but I don't know what software specifically to use. If I don't want to stream content to my 360, I can put the files on any FAT32-formatted USB drive and attach it to the 360.

Using the 360 this way is easy and mostly fool-proof. The XBOX plays all the standard file types you'd expect to find via torrents, even HD stuff.

The cons to doing this exclusively, with no standard TV subsciption, are bandwidth use, storage space and the occasional difficulty finding a show for download. With the shows you watch, I wouldn't anticipate any problems, however.
posted by chudmonkey at 1:56 PM on December 7, 2008

Upgrading your TiVo serves you absolutely NO purpose if you're cancelling cable. While you CAN stream media to it, it's a nightmare, since it doesn't support DivX or any decent codec. You'd be better with Apple TV, but the Xbox can stream media from any box on your network that you share with it already. Try that, play around with it. It plays DivX and Xvid files just fine.

TVTorrents is your friend. MeMail me for an invite. Everything is sorted, clean, and organized by show/season. It's brilliant and shows are up within 2 hours of broadcast usually.

HP also makes their MediaSmart Connect for streaming media from your network to your TV as well, which I don't have experience with, but which might be very useful as well.
posted by disillusioned at 2:00 PM on December 7, 2008

Seconding Connect360 for the Mac. I watch all of my downloaded media on my HDTV streamed directly from my MBP.
posted by nitsuj at 2:00 PM on December 7, 2008

Hah, great minds, chudmonkey.
posted by disillusioned at 2:01 PM on December 7, 2008

I use Xbox Video Marketplace to watch Lost. It cost about $20 to watch all of last season that way. If you connect your PC to your Xbox over a network, you can stream a lot of non-DRM video files from your computer to your Xbox. Xbox support has a lot of information about how to do that. Torrenting the video and then streaming it would probably be the easiest outside of using Apple TV and buying things from iTunes.
posted by Phoenix42 at 2:09 PM on December 7, 2008

The cons to doing this exclusively, with no standard TV subsciption, are ...

And, of course, the fact that it's massively illegal and that the content companies have started going after individual infringers, especially those who use so transparent a protocol as bittorrent. Just, FYI.

In our house, we've also just recently given up cable itself, keeping only the Internet. We stream netflix to our Xbox 360, and are planning on taking the video out from my macbook and hooking it up to the tv to handle downloaded shows from iTunes.
posted by Inkoate at 2:13 PM on December 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Much of this depends on your needs and wants.

My weapon of choice is the popcorn hour A100. It will play nearly anything (Xvid, divx, h264) off of anything (NFS, CIFS, UPNP). I have it connected through my home network to a file server running samba. It works, but the interface is clunky.

You could do something similar with your Xbox 360/Windows PC with Windows Media Player, but the codec support is lower. I watch some things with odd formats, and the popcorn hour plays everything I've thrown at it.

Their was a similar question posted that had a really good answer.
posted by zabuni at 2:21 PM on December 7, 2008

Best answer: Lifehacker has a list of apps that you can use to turn your computer into a media frontend. Since you have a netflix subscription, you can stream that content in addition to other sites like hulu. Throw in an antenna to catch OTA feeds, some kind of wireless input device, and you're set! I went down this route as well and only turn to live local tv to catch sports or when friends are over to watch The Office (but even that hasn't been necessary in most cases because of espn360).
posted by palionex at 2:22 PM on December 7, 2008

Best answer: I have a HTPC (home theater personal computer) system. It requires a computer with decent power, and a HD-ready video card, and an internet connection. Most computers purchased within the last couple of years are already mostly HTPC compliant.

I primarily watch shows in HD by streaming from websites like,,, etc. You may have heard of them. also occasionally has HD content of great shows. I use Miro to find other shows.

Here's a decent guide showing how I watch TV shows without a need for cable.

My computer streams all that HD stuff directly to my HDTV in 720 if not 1080 resolution.

Not having cable is liberating.
posted by jabberjaw at 2:23 PM on December 7, 2008 [3 favorites]

Yeah, the legality is pretty clear on a site like TVTorrents but I'm less concerned because it's a private torrent.

Hulu represents a good option for a lot of shows, legally, but getting it to a TV would require sending the screen, and so you'd be taking a hit unless you have a media center pc and HDMI out from the pc and in to the tv.


I only had two TVTorrents invites to give, and they hath been given. Damn, you people are quick on the draw.
posted by disillusioned at 2:33 PM on December 7, 2008

Depends on if you want to do this without any cost, or if you're willing to pay for the media you consume. You will have to infringe on the copyrights of HBO to do this if you want it to be free (and to actually see shows near when they are aired/premiered). This is illegal. I am not a lawyer, so take that with a grain of salt. But it's definitely immoral.

For broadcast TV (Frontline), I don't know about the legality, but, if you were to use bittorrent (I use Vuze) to find shows, it's in a legal gray area; you *could* have legally gotten them on the tube (but, truth be told, you didn't "pay" for the show by watching the ads). For cable shows and HBO, unless you are a subscriber (which I am), then it's definitely not okay. Not to say that people don't use bittorrent to find and download these shows.

If you look at what iTunes has, in terms of HBO shows, you will be disappointed. Apple has a deal with HBO (and Showtime and others, like AMC) that allows them to sell shows on the same schedule as DVDs that you would buy in a store. So you can't "keep up" with Mad Men; the third season is not yet on iTunes and it's already over.

You can watch a lot of stuff at the network's sites (such as ABC, CBS, and NBC dot com). And there is also Hulu is the orbitz of television; it's a joint venture of the networks, so there's a lot of bigname content. It's got a very good player and we use it at the zpousman residence to watch shows in bed. Note that many shows are lagged from their broadcast. They are not posted right away after airtime; the lag is usually 1 week. But for your It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia fix, it's good enough. I don't know what the lag is for The Daily Show or Colbert Report since I watch these on TV one day late since we have Tivo. Joost has some good video content (better than youtube), as does I like to watch me some surf videos, and everything on youtube is all dvd rips and the same damn clip from Laird Hamilton over and over again.
posted by zpousman at 2:47 PM on December 7, 2008

While I would never get rid of my cable, I have gotten to LOVE SurfTheChannel. It's great when I miss a show...
posted by keep it tight at 2:56 PM on December 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Playon from media mall is a $30 one time fee. But it will let you stream hulu (fox & nbc shows, older shows, & movies) espn, cbs, and youtube to your 360.
posted by Dreamghost at 3:22 PM on December 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

This is the sort of thing that Boxee is designed for. It's built on top of the XBMC codebase, and it's an early alpha, so it's rather rough... but it's likely to get a whole lot better in the near future. It aims at a level of Spouse-Acceptance-Factor that the Popcorn Hour and other similar devices won't achieve in the near future. I've recently started running it on an old thinkpad connected to my TV.

Rumor has it you can get an invite by signing up after following this link, which identifies you as a friend of one of the investors.

It streams current commercial material from Netflix, Hulu and others (without infringing copyright). It'll play files from a network share. It will connect you to the official (noninfringing) Frontline video offerings (which generally appear just after a Frontline episode has been aired on PBS). If it's on the internet, and available in mp4/xvid or flash video format, Boxee will probably be able to play it. (In other words, it makes the AppleTV useful for more than just buying shows from the iTunes store)
posted by toxic at 3:31 PM on December 7, 2008

TVRSS + uTorrent + old XBOX running Xbox Media Center. Takes a little setup, but works great.
posted by chrisamiller at 3:43 PM on December 7, 2008

So you can't "keep up" with Mad Men; the third season is not yet on iTunes and it's already over.

The second season just ended; it is on iTunes.
posted by Lucinda at 3:46 PM on December 7, 2008

I'd pick up an antenna and an HD converter box. I get all the major networks but NBC where I live (and the NBC thing is a weird, regional fluke--plus, I heard we're getting it soon!) with a very, very clear reception. Friends are frequently shocked that I don't pay for cable.

As for everything else, well, torrents, yeah. Anything I haven't been able to torrent I've managed to stream online with a bit of searching. Unfortunately, many of the legal ways to watch online (, for example) are unavailable to me because I use linux. Hulu's good, too.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:52 PM on December 7, 2008

I have an old Dell GX260 which I've set up as a file server and multimedia computer, using my television as a monitor. It's not a very powerful machine, but it doesn't need to be. It's about the size of a large VCR.

I decked it out with the following hardware:
  • This video card. It took me forever to find this model, as I had some rather particular needs: S-video out, a PCI interface, a low-profile form factor (the GX260 doesn't have full-width PCI slots), and not outrageously expensive. It's worked fine so far.
  • A 500GB hard drive, to provide plenty of room for media files. That was probably overkill; I haven't come close to filling it up yet, and I've found myself doing most of my viewing on Hulu, Netflix (their "watch online" feature), and the various network sites lately.
  • A wireless keyboard and mouse, which I keep on the coffee table.
  • A pair of wireless game controllers (I also have a wide selection of console emulators and game ROMs on the machine).
  • A wireless-N network card.
The machine doesn't have a DVD-ROM drive, but I already had a DVD player, so I just use that.

I run my BitTorrent client on my main workstation, but I have the download directory located on the multimedia machine. This lets me manage my torrents conveniently, and eliminates the need to copy huge video files over the network.

Most video files stream off the multimedia computer quickly enough to watch in realtime, so once new files are available, anyone in the house can watch them on any networked computer without having to copy the file first.

Note that televisions do not make good computer monitors. Video looks fine (surprisingly good, actually), but your desktop, web browser, etc. will be so blurry you can barely read the text. Be prepared to jack up all your text-size settings.

There's not a whole lot to it, really—the only special hardware you need is a video card with a TV-out connector that will work with your television (either RCA or S-video, though the latter is preferable). Beyond that, it really just depends on what you want, and what you're willing to spend (for example, you might not want/need all the fancy wireless stuff or the game controllers).

With streaming television exploding these days (classic Star Trek on, anyone?), I'd say this is a great time to make this investment. If you're paying that much for cable, it will pay for itself pretty quickly.
posted by greenie2600 at 4:15 PM on December 7, 2008

Frontline's episodes now go online rather quickly (I think they have much of the archive up), and I've had a really easy time watching them streaming. Its not podcasted, but still. A lot of other PBS, including the NewsHour, is either podcasted or streamed.

Seconding Hulu. The TV options on Hulu are going up all the time, and I wouldn't be surprised if AMC buys in before the third season of Mad Men starts.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 4:34 PM on December 7, 2008

Check out TVersity. It's a free program that lets you stream media--music, pics, video, podcasts, Internet radio, TV torrents, etc.--from your computer to your Xbox 360.
posted by prinado at 8:42 PM on December 7, 2008

After going through a similar process, I discovered that my appetite, though small to begin with, decreased even more once I pulled the plug. Jabberjaw is right: it is liberating to cut free from cable. Cutting free from broadcast was another step that brought immediate rewards. I was surprised to discover that replacing my netflix with the local library (cost: $0/month) was a positive step as well. (Though, I do miss netflix occasionally. I'll probably sign up again next year and keep it up for a few months before I cancel again. Hell, it isn't a marriage: I *should* be able to start and stop at will. I am willing to embrace streaming, on-demand movies from netflix, though. That sounds cool.)

My addiction to LOST was shockingly easy to break. You might be surprised to discover that the shows you enjoy now seem less entertaining when you're not looking to justify your cable bill.
posted by terceiro at 9:48 PM on December 7, 2008

My addiction to LOST was shockingly easy to break. You might be surprised to discover that the shows you enjoy now seem less entertaining when you're not looking to justify your cable bill.

Ironically, I find LOST more enjoyable now that I'm not paying for it. Seriously, for anyone looking to get rid of cable, look into old fashioned broadcast TV with an antenna and HD tuner. While torrents/netflix/the library are definitely valuable, I'd argue that being able to veg out in my living room and watching Antiques Roadshow or Supernanny every once in awhile, or being able to invite my friends over to watch Top Model when it initially airs, is more than worth keeping some broadcast TV. And while yes, there are commercials, they're much less irritating than the same commercial six or seven times (what you get with hulu) and much, much less irritating than having to watch commercials on cable--because you've already paid the cable company once and you really shouldn't have to pay the stations by watching their advertising.

Contrary to popular Mefite belief, broadcast TV is not inherently evil, and you'd be able to satisfy half of your viewing desires (PBS, Lost) by making one payment that constitutes less than what you'd pay for a month of cable. I'd say that services that force you to pay for the cow when you can get the milk for free (*cough* Tivo) are much worse--and I'm not entirely sure how the cable companies managed to convince America that we need to be tethered to monthly payment plans to watch what used to be freely available, anyway.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:35 AM on December 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

I haven't had cable since May and I'm loving it. The only thing I really miss are Daily Show and Colbert, since I couldn't keep up with them when they weren't being broadcast at a regular time.
Here's a detailed post of how I get my TV shows automatically. I use for feeds to torrents, pytvshows to download the torrents each time a new episode comes out, and rtorrent to pick up the .torrent files. Your mileage may vary if you're not using linux.
posted by valadil at 8:32 AM on December 8, 2008

I've noticed that internet-only packages tend to be more expensive (for internet) than with bundles. I have no need for cable or a telephone, since I have a cell phone and computer. For example, 15Mb down/768Kb up from Road Runner in the Cleveland area is $55 by itself.
posted by vkxmai at 3:50 PM on December 8, 2008

Erm, I may be stating the obvious here, but for lost and the pbs shows, you can still use an antenna. Granted you have to live somewhere that gets reception and all that.
posted by d4nj450n at 7:35 AM on December 9, 2008

Apologies if this was mentioned already in the thread, but I didn't notice it: Get one or two of these coupons before you buy the converter box. The government is giving the money away, you might as well avail yourself of it -- and the box options now are much better than they were in the springtime when I got my coupons.

If you dump cable you will NEED one of these boxes to tune in ANYTHING over the air starting in February [and some stations, like Michigan Television, have already made the switch to digital-only].
posted by britain at 5:02 PM on December 10, 2008

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