The title of the post is just a little mis-leading. We’re not going cable free, we’ve been so for more than 3 years. I just felt compelled to write this post now because I finally have a setup that I like and is easy to use.
The first thing to know about going cable free is that it’s probably going to take a while to break even on cost. If you get a bundle, the cable bill is probably a relatively small portion, especially if you pass on premium packages. So if you want to save money, get rid of the sports packages and HBO.
Going solely to the web for entertainment is a tradeoff between cost and usefulness. There are plenty of devices in the $100-$150 range that provide some functionality. However, almost all of them have severe limitations. We watch movies from our hard-drives, dvds, sports from ESPN3, Netflix, Hulu and listen to music streamed through iTunes or Pandora. There’s no set-top box, short of a PC, that can do each of those services.
For simplicity of management, we stuck with Apple hardware, specifically older Mac Mini’s. Dual core Mac Mini’s are perfect for these applications because they have enough horsepower for most local HD content (up-to 720p) and have DVI and optical audio outputs, making connecting them to the home theater a snap. They are quiet as well. You can pick one up for around $300 on craigslist, which is more expensive than the dedicated set-top boxes, but it’s a real computer. We tried using linux machines, and while they were cheaper, it felt like I spent more time getting things to play rather than actually watching something. Since we made the switch to an Apple mono-culture, the setup has been rock solid.
The major downside of using computers is that the interfaces aren’t designed to be accessed effectively from a remote. You need a keyboard and mouse. We tried out a bunch of wireless input devices, both RF and Bluetooth. None of them have really worked well from the distance of our couch to our TV. The best solution we found for controlling the TV is to use our iPhones. We bought Mobile Mouse Pro which is available in the App Store for $1.99. Compared to outfitting each TV with a keyboard and mouse, it’s a bargain. Since it works over WiFi, we also don’t have any range issues beyond being close enough to see the screen.
There are a few free mouse applications available, but many of them didn’t provide full keyboard support. Mobile Mouse gives you access to function and control keys like escape. This makes it easy to fully do away with an attached keyboard. Mobile Mouse also reliably finds the servers on the network and wakes them from LAN, allowing me to set the boxes to go sleep when not used and save power.
Since almost all the video and audio devices are hooked up to some WiFi source, I can stream the same music through the entire house. Our Airport Express supports AirPlay, but I don’t always want to listen to what I have in iTunes. I would also like to stream to the other Macs. To accomplish this, I use Airfoil and have installed the Airfoil Speakers on all the machines. Then with a few clicks, I can send any audio from my desktop to anywhere in the house. Airfoil is a paid app and costs $25.
Finally, for controlling the desktop while I’m in another room, I use Remote HD on my iPad. Remote HD is $3.99 but is better than the free VNC clients. However, if I’m in the room with the machine, Mobile Mouse works better. It’s a bit pricey for the quality, but I’ll pay it since I don’t want to get out of bed in order to shut the music off.
That describes what we do to keep ourselves entertained without cable TV. I think we’re finally at the point where we saved money compared to going with cable, but it’s still really nice to have the power of your computer on your TV.
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