diego's weblog

there and back again

goodbye, comcast. hello, appletv!

A few weeks ago I went down to my local Comcast office and returned my Motorola DVR/cable box. I had been planning on doing it for some time now and finally I found the brief window I needed to make the trip.🙂 No more cable for me!

Why did I take such a drastic step you ask? The answer is, largely, cost, along with incredibly annoying little things that degraded whatever was left of the “experience” down to continuous suffering. That, and an AppleTV finally providing a good alternative to cable, as I detail below…

Battle of the Media Centers

Let’s start at the beginning. Following the trend of becoming a total mac-head, I got an AppleTV when it came out in February. I had intermittently tried Windows Media Center and the XBox 360 as my “digital hub” to stream music and movies from my digital collection (painstakingly ripped from my CDs and DVDs) and neither worked well enough for me.

Windows Media Center got close, perhaps, but in the end its convoluted support of Live TV (through a TV-In card that is a pain to setup with “premium” channels) and its incredibly bad downloadable content got the better of me. I am not a big fan of most of what’s on TV, as you can tell, or rather, the only thing that I think merits live TV is the news, but there isn’t much on TV that counts as news these days. CNN has become a cesspool of junk, trying to Out-Fox Fox, and Fox is, well, Fox. CNBC, while decent, is boring as hell, and the major networks just talk about random local stuff that I generally find uninteresting.

The Xbox 360, while functional, is truly a disaster in terms of user interface and, more importantly, that horribly loud fan that manages to interfere with whatever it is you’re watching UNLESS IT IS AT FULL VOLUME like, well, Halo or PG3. Try watching a quiet, thoughtful movie on that thing. Good luck. I do have the HD-DVD player for the Xbox but I have seriously considered getting a dedicated HD-DVD player to avoid suffering the noise–although the price has kept my insanity in check.

Back to the AppleTV — Given that I already used iTunes as my PC music player, and owned iPods, the PC side of things was covered. And whatever flaws Apple may have, they know how to make clean UIs. The simplicity of the connectors (Component, HDMI, Toslink), WiFi (so no need for One More Cable), the proper handling of widescreen, 1080i support, and the fact that it’s completely silent made it a no-brainer.

So I got the AppleTV and experimented with it for a while. I slowly started to convert my movies into H.264 MP4. Eventually I tried getting a couple of TV episodes off of iTunes. All was well.

Now was the time to jump off of cable.

Why ditching cable made sense

First up is cost — Let’s consider what I do watch on TV. The Daily Show. House M.D.. The Shield. The Sopranos. And maybe a couple of other series. Let’s say you actually go and purchase season passes for all these things in iTunes. The Daily Show will set you back $16 a month. Series run typically for $40 a season, with one season a year, that’s about $3.50 a month. Let’s say you watch 5 series (you have a lot of free time on your hands at that point :)). Round that up to $20 a month. Plus a couple of other random episodes of things, that’s a total of $40.

The typical Comcast cable subscription, with DVR, and HBO, will run at least to $80 a month. If you add a couple of other channels, it goes higher, fast. Let’s say you like Dexter. That’s Showtime. Another $20 a month. And so on. Before you know it, you’re paying $100 a month for a lot of content that you don’t really watch. The DVR is good, but there are two problems — the limited disk space becomes an issue if you start running behind, or if you want to “save” something for seeing it again. With the AppleTV, you just use whatever PC storage you have, which is both cheap and easy to upgrade.

The one downside of going all-AppleTV is that iTunes content is 480p, and you can definitely see the difference when comparing it to HDTV. But is that worth $60 or more?

The second argument for not using cable anymore was a number of little and big annoyances. For example, Comcast started running ads on their On-Screen TV Guide about two months ago. Ads! Unbelievable. Apparently it’s not enough to be paying through the nose. The ads are not only visually annoying (taking up a one-fifth of the screen) but also get in the way of navigation through the menus.

Then there’s the weird HDMI content protection errors. More than once I had movies stop in the middle of playing because “You do not have the rights to view this content”. Say what? This was a movie streamed direct through cable, into the DVR, direct through HDMI to the TV. Apparently something in there is illegal. Sometimes. (I think the issue is that HDMI is very sensitive to signal strength fluctuations, assuming that you’re trying to “steal the signal”, and killing the stream when that happens).

Finally, there’s the problem that, while HDTV content looks fantastic, Basic cable is a complete and utter disaster in terms of resolution (sometimes I doubt it’s even 480i :)). If you have a big screen, it’s terrible to watch. So at that point the 480p of iTunes content started to look pretty good.

The AppleTV solution

Now, all I’ve got for TV is the aTV, and I’ve been pretty happy with it. iTunes streams subscriptions and syncs them automatically to the aTV (even that isn’t totally necessary, since you can just as well stream anything you want from the PC, something that works perfectly well over WiFi, both 802.11g as well as –not surprisingly– 802.11n).

I’ve got access to all my digital content (music, photos, movies, TV shows) and I can keep as much as my PC-based disk space allows, which is really great. No more deleting stuff I’d like to keep.

A couple of gripes about the AppleTV though.

  • First, having to sync photos to view them is a pain. You can stream movies but not photos? Come on.
  • Second, the thing keeps turning on by itself. Even after I suspend it, I come back home and find it on, happily displaying the screensaver to /dev/null (given that the TV is off). I think this is because it’s trying to sync stuff regularly, but I’d prefer it if it would turn off after trying to sync. Not that it causes any problems, but it seems wasteful.🙂
  • Third, sometimes the “sync connection” to a PC seems wonky, and I’ve had to “reauthorize” the aTV with the PC a couple of times after switching which PC was syncing to it. In some level it makes sense to invalidate the whole connection, but it’s a pain. Then again, I’ve only have to do this a couple of times, so it’s not a big deal really, but still something that could be improved.

Overall, a good experience so far. If you’re looking to ditch cable and go all-digital, and are thinking of media centers, this is something I’d definitely recommend looking at.

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