Best option for a cheap cable alternative?
July 31, 2011 12:38 AM   Subscribe

I'm so very ready to give my cable company the boot, and questions like this one have convinced me to stop putting it off, but I feel pretty clueless about my hardware options for an internet-based replacement on the cheap. Would a Roku 2 make us happy? A Wii? Something else entirely?

Our primary motivator is to save money, so we're looking for an option that is relatively inexpensive while still giving us a little more choice than just our local broadcast stations. Having never done this before I'd also like something fairly easy to set up, although I'm okay futzing around or installing extra programs if need be (so long as I know what to install!).

Reading related questions here and elsewhere, it sounds like lots of folks are happy with their Roku, so for now I'm considering one of the new Roku 2s (the low-end, $60 one perhaps?). My second main contender would be a Wii (the fact that it can apparently be used for TV makes for a nice excuse to get one!), but I'm not really sure how either holds up in terms of:

- Selection of free channels: we have a Netflix subscription so we're good there, but is there much difference between the free channel offerings that Roku or the Wii give you access to? We mostly watch old sitcom reruns (Frasier, Seinfeld, etc.), some of the things on the History Channel and Food Network, some game shows, some kids' shows ... nothing that would be too hard to replace with non-cable alternatives, I hope.
- Non-preset(?) channels: I've seen that with the Wii you can use a web browser (Opera?), which I assume means that anything you can find online can be viewed via your Wii; is that correct? Is there anything similar that can be done with a Roku, or are you limited to the channels it provides? (I'd hate to be denied access to the old X-Men:TAS just because Roku wouldn't let me go to Marvel's website!)
- Compatibility with non-HD TVs: Our current TV just broke, so we're thinking of picking up a cheap one at a thrift store for the time being. It'll probably be analog (the one that just broke was also analog so we won't be missing anything), which I think will work with either a Roku or a Wii, but am I missing something there?

Given that we'll be using a pretty low-end TV, we're not super concerned about picture quality so long as something shows up that isn't completely unrecognizable. I think that about covers our main criteria; does anybody have any advice as to whether a Roku or a Wii would be suitable, or if there's something else we should consider?
posted by DingoMutt to Computers & Internet (15 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I would stick with the Roku. You'll be able to use it with an older analog-only set. The Hulu and Netflix apps are both very good, and there are a few other neat channels for online video providers (Revision3, for example).

The Wii is a gaming system first, and does internet TV second. Just keep that in mind.
posted by chrisfromthelc at 1:00 AM on July 31, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for the input, chrisfromthelc - I'm glad to hear that Hulu and Netflix apps aren't just available, but are actually good on the Roku. Are there things about the way that the Wii does internet TV that make it more cumbersome or significantly inferior? Part of me is kind of thinking that if the two are relatively similar, that the additional ability to play games on the Wii (though I did see that the Roku will play a few simple games) would give it a bit of an added bonus?
posted by DingoMutt at 1:21 AM on July 31, 2011

If you had an HD-TV (which you already said you didn't), I'd say to go for an AppleTV - I love mine to bits (not literally), but with the 'analog-only' requirement, yes, the Roku is probably your best bet.

We had some issues with the AppleTV - an iOS update bricked it, which is not unheard of - but I got AppleCare for it, and they just replaced it. During that time, my roommates used the XBox360's Netflix connection and complained a lot about the fact that it had a much worse selection (no idea why, but apparently in the 'horror' section it had access to 15 movies and they blew through that in a week). Don't know about the Wii selection, but that's my experience with a gaming device/Netflix situation.
posted by mephron at 2:32 AM on July 31, 2011

Maybe check out boxee?
posted by beisny at 4:38 AM on July 31, 2011

Contrary to mephron's roommates' experience, I have both a PS3 and an XBox 360. Both have the same (large) Netflix library options available. Not the cheapest option, but the selection on the consoles is not more limited than that on a Roku.
posted by ellF at 5:46 AM on July 31, 2011

The Wii is great fun, but it really depends on your interests and personality. If you're the kind of person who is willing to come home, fire up a game, and spend a few hours playing each evening, a Wii is a great choice. (See also PlayStation 3, which also doubles as a Blu-Ray player, a Netflix client, etc.)

If, however, you prefer to come home and flop back on the sofa a lot of the time, the Roku 2 really is the ultimate cheap, easy "help me watch TV and Internet video" box. If you want just a few casual games, you can get the top of the line Roku 2 with the game controller. You could also pick up a cheap used Wii, PS2, or other gaming system to supplement a Roku, if you find yourself wanting the games.
posted by maxim0512 at 5:55 AM on July 31, 2011

I just cut the cable. I got a Roku box and a Mohu Leaf antenna. I already had an Apple TV. I also have Netflix and Amazon Prime, so I have a good amount of access to streaming stuff.

Food Network is pretty much out. I signed up for Hulu Plus, but only a very few Food Network shows are available and most (all?) of them are web-only. I'm not sure about History Channel shows. There seem to be a ton of kids' shows, and if you have an antenna and decent reception you should be able to pick up local channels, PBS, that sort of thing. There are private channels on the Roku but I haven't explored those much.

I've found that for the most part I'm completely fine without cable. When Doctor Who comes back, I'll get it from iTunes. Same for Top Chef. But you'll probably surprise yourself with how quickly you stop caring about the stuff you think you might miss.
posted by sugarfish at 7:06 AM on July 31, 2011

I'm planning to cut the cable soon and set up an HTPC myself soon, and the biggest hurdle I've run across so far is content restrictions. A lot of the content providers, like the network sites and so forth, have free programming available online, but restrict their playback on any system that identifies itself as an HTPC rather than a regular computer system.

We currently have Netflix and browser based access on our Playstation, and most of the network content I've tried is blocked. You can go to or, if your browser supports HTML5, to find available programming across the different sites. That's a really useful starting off point, BTW. They search all of the major legal sites, including TV network sites, Netflix, Amazon on demand, etc., and give you options

As such, I'm probably going to put together a homebuilt system that just identifies itself as a regular OS and a regular browser, to avoid the restrictions and get more content.

Another factor to take into consideration is that the Wii doesn't support HDTV for Netflix. I know that's not going to be an issue for you now, but it would lock you into that limitation if you do get an HD compatible TV some day. So unless you're looking at the Wii for other reasons, I'd recommend against it.

If you have or could get a netbook or some other regular computer with the right outputs to work with your TV, that might be your best solution.

Oh, other complicating factor: Netflix currently does not stream on Linux, although there's supposed to be support for Chrome any minute now. I am normally loathe to recommend Windows for anything, but I have heard that Windows 7 is pretty good for HTPCs.

If you are not up for that, and if you're OK with the more limited content, though, the people I know who have Rokus love them, and the people I know who have Boxees love them, too.
posted by ernielundquist at 8:05 AM on July 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Just this week I turned on a Roku box and called DISH to cancel. Their third or fourth offer to keep me on DISH was $14.99 a month for some double secret plan where I get all my local channels plus Comedy Central, History Channel HGTV for the wife, and about 15 others. Given that would cost me about $300 to put up an antenna ( I live 50+ miles from the transmitters) the DISH deal was a no brainer just for the local channels.

I've already got enough stuff queued up on Hulu+ and Netflix to keep my busy for years.

Although I sort of wish Roku did not come with Angry Birds. Talk about a time suck...
posted by COD at 8:56 AM on July 31, 2011

Response by poster: We currently have Netflix and browser based access on our Playstation, and most of the network content I've tried is blocked. You can go to or, if your browser supports HTML5, to find available programming across the different sites. That's a really useful starting off point, BTW. They search all of the major legal sites, including TV network sites, Netflix, Amazon on demand, etc., and give you options

This sounds like a really useful place to go; thanks for the pointer! Does anyone know if this something I would be able to navigate to from a Roku device (or a Wii)? I'm not really clear if it's possible to access various websites from a Roku, or if you would be limited to the "channels" they provide.

Thanks for the advice so far, everyone, I really appreciate the help. It sounds like the Roku is a top contender, but if it does have the ability to go beyond the provided channels I think that would make it even more appealing. With regards to the Wii, if anybody actually is using it for this purpose and can speak to plusses/minuses (other than the lack of HDTV - if/when I can afford an HDTV I'll probably also be able to spring for a new media center device as well), I would really appreciate that. I guess I'm loathe to completely give up on the idea of a Wii as it is something I've been wanting for a while now anyway, but can't justify if it's just going to be used for games. If it is a reasonably good media center it would be a more justifiable purchase, but if it really is significantly inferior to the Roku in that aspect I'll just get the Roku.

Either way, thanks again for all of the helpful answers so far!
posted by DingoMutt at 11:40 AM on July 31, 2011

The Wii does have an internet browser, but it only supports Flash 7 for some stupid reason (thanks, Adobe! sigh). YouTube works, but most other Flash-based video doesn't. Browsing is possible, but kludgy and slow. However, as far as I know, Roku doesn't have any browsing capability at all.

We already had a Wii, so we didn't really consider the Roku, but if you have good wireless bandwidth (>2 mbps - we had trouble with 1.5), PlayOn works with the Wii and lets you play Hulu, Amazon, ESPN 3, etc. It's definitely worth looking into if you decide to go with the Wii, and as far as I know, PlayOn is not supported by the Roku.

For what it's worth, we're very casual gamers - mostly we just play Mario & Zelda franchises, Rock Band, or NBA 2K11 - and we are very happy with our Wii. Our favorite thing about it is the ability to buy cheap old NES/SNES games so that we can relive our video gaming glory days without having to drag out the dusty old game systems.
posted by dialetheia at 3:04 PM on July 31, 2011

Wii user here. The Netflix app works real well and I don't notice the standard def quality as being a problem like I do with broadcast TV. The app has easy navigation of your queue plus search plus a dozen or so genres that you can browse through to find something new.

I'd write off the browser as almost worthless. Using it is essentially self inflected torture.
posted by mmascolino at 8:59 PM on July 31, 2011

I just recently cut the cable because of the recent thread on this site. Here's my experience:

-when I called the cable company, I found out its more expensive to cut out all of the channels and keep the broadband. Its actually cheaper to get the 'basic' cable and the broadband (plus they gave me the updated broadband for the same price). So the channels that I don't get updated content for through the roku are still available (CNN, Tosh.0, etc...)

-I have both a wii and a roku. I didn't really use the wii for the netflix before because I didn't like the interface (even though roku uses the same interface) and it didn't display in HD. The wii is only used for gaming at this point.

-One of my concerns was making the setup easy for my GF to use. She picked up the roku pretty easily.

-Having access to pandora, shoutcast and somafm through the roku is awesome. I really wish they had a youtube solution, but they do not at this time.

-I really don't miss cable all that much and haven't really felt like 'there's nothing to watch'. I probably felt like there was less to watch when I HAD the full cable package.
posted by kookywon at 10:35 AM on August 1, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks so much for the advice, everyone. Based on the input here I think we will go ahead and get a Roku for now, and treat ourselves to a Wii a little later when we have the time and cash to spend on a gaming console. For now I suppose Angry Birds will (more than) suffice!
posted by DingoMutt at 10:15 PM on August 3, 2011

Response by poster: Okay, it's been a week now so in case anybody finds this thread while doing their own search for a cable alternative, I can say that we did end up getting the Roku2 after all, and are loving it. At first I thought I would be a bit off-put at having to always queue up the next program when one is finished (I like having the TV on in the background just for the noise, and so in the past have usually just picked a channel and let it run), but that's really not bad at all - and it's really rather neat to watch shows because they actually look appealing to us, not just because there's nothing else on. We do have a Netflix Watch Instantly account and have been primarily relying on that for stuff to watch, but even if we didn't some of the free channels the Roku offers could have kept us entertained on their own (I especially like the documentaries on SnagFilms).

We do have the occasional "hiccup" where something we're watching will have to stop and continue loading, but this happens far less often than the commercials we were watching anyway with cable - and we've got a fairly low-tier DSL connection so I guess the occasional bandwidth issue is unsurprising. I do still hope to get a Wii at some point for the games, but as far as a cable alternative goes, we're both quite happy with the Roku and only wish we'd cancelled cable sooner. Thanks again for all the help!
posted by DingoMutt at 7:38 AM on August 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

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