Cutting Loose

Let’s go over that cord-cutting thing.

Bottom line: I’m not sorry to have done it. I’m not considering going back to satellite or–looking even further back–cable.

As I said a couple of weeks ago, the big attraction was a lower bill. We’ve definitely got that, but there is some truth in the saying that you get what you pay for.

For one thing, we get fewer channels. Granted, we never watched the overwhelming majority of the ones we’ve lost. But there’s that little voice in the back of my head that says, “Now you’ll never know what you’re missing by not checking out The Polka Channel.”

That said, one of the beauties of the cable-free life is that, as far as I can tell, none of the services require a contract. You can add ’em, drop ’em, and change packages on a whim. So if I ever wake up in the middle of the night craving the “Polka ‘Round the Clock” show, all I have to do is sign up for a service that carries the channel–and then cancel when I discover that 96 straight hours of polka is as much as any person can endure.

Without having to cancel and reinstate the current service. Unlike the traditional model where you can’t easily have more than one TV provider*, in this wonderful new world, you don’t have to choose. Sign up with ’em all. Assuming you can afford it, of course.

* Of course, that statement just shows how ancient I am when it comes to the television marketplace. With modern sets having multiple inputs, you could have Dish, Comcast, and DIRECTV. Nobody does, mind you, but it’s easily possible, unlike back in the days before I started chasing the damn kids off my lawn.

Which brings us to that channel selection thing. Don’t believe the advertising about ala carte programming and freedom from pricy packages. You still can’t choose just the channels you want to watch.

Look, in my ideal TV world, I’d get Food Network, the local regional sports channels, the Seattle regional sports channels, and a handful of nationals like ESPN and MLB.

Not happening. The only difference between the offerings of Sling TV and its parent, Dish, is that Sling’s only got two packages. Dish has–last I checked–half a dozen packages, not counting the “customer retention” package they tried to sell me. Both also have an assortment of specialty add-on packages. The point is, you’re still picking packages.

And forget my dream. None of the streaming services carry all of the regional sports networks. Even if they did, I couldn’t get the Seattle channels in California, because the carriage agreements limit distribution based on the billing address of the credit card.

On the other hand, I’m no worse off than I was with satellite. I ignore the channels I don’t watch–and, since the packages are smaller, there are fewer to scroll past in the channel guide.

Maybe I’d be happier with a streaming service that specialized in sports. There are a couple, of course. I don’t want to pay for two services, but perhaps one of the sports services also has Food Network. If so, I could switch at any time. And switch back just as quickly if I don’t like what I get for the price.

Moving on.

Video quality is good. Better, in some cases than I got with the satellite, not as good in others. As you might expect, it depends on the quality of the Internet service*. That glitches occasionally (thanks, Comcast), but on the whole I’m satisfied.

* So we haven’t really cut the cord. Wireless Internet is a complete dream around here, with no line of sight to any radio towers.

There are quirks, though. On some channels, there’s often a couple of seconds where the audio track drops out right before a commercial break. This seems to be related to the carrier supplying the ads; the selection of ads on Food Network, for example, appear to be different than what we got with Dish, suggesting that Sling TV’s technology for inserting their advertisers’ messages isn’t quite up to snuff.

Some channels seem to be more prone to buffering issues than others. If I had to guess, I’d say that the culprits are running at a higher bitrate, and are more likely to trip over those network glitches. But it’s a guess.

Sling TV’s user interface has a few quirks as well. Most notably, selecting a specific show from the channel guide sometimes drops you back at the guide when the show ends. Sometimes. Other times you get to see the next show. Choosing the channel always keeps the programming running instead of reverting to the guide.

It’s the inconsistency that gets me. Who QAed this shit, anyway?

The other big quirk is that Sling TV restricts the number of simultaneous viewers according to which package you have. “Orange” channels can only be watched on one device at a time. Put ESPN on the bedroom TV, and that’s it. But “Blue” lets you watch on three devices at once. ESPN in the bedroom, Food Network in the tablet in the kitchen, and BBC America in the family room.

Oops. Except that ESPN isn’t in the Blue package. Better get both packages. Of course, now you’re paying twice for Food Network and BBC America.

What was that about freely choosing your viewing and no useless channels? Ahem.

Mind you, the simultaneous viewing limits don’t much affect us. We usually watch together, anyway. But in a larger family it might matter more. (There’s the reason we don’t teach the cats how to use the remote.)

Moving on.

One final note about the whole experience. To get streaming TV services on your actual television, you do need a player of some sort. A computer will work, but the experience of navigating a web browser using a wireless mouse from ten feet away is less than ideal.

Many DVD and Blu-ray players include apps for major streaming services. That might do it. For that matter, new “Smart TVs” have the same apps built in. But do you really want to buy a new TV just to cut the cord? And the apps on the disc players, IMNSHO, are uniformly slow, buggy, and awkward to use.

And speaking of awkward, if you’ve got a Chromecast, you can use that. Maybe it’s just me, but I find the experience of starting a program on my phone, restarting it on the TV, and then using the phone as a remote to be frustrating and counter-intuitive.

So if you’re cutting the cord, budget for a dedicated streaming device. Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, or something of that sort.

We wound up going with the cheapest Roku stick. Getting it connected to our wi-fi was an experience I’d prefer not to repeat–there seems to be an incompatibility with our router–but now that they’re talking, everything’s good.

The Sling TV UI on Roku is more internally consistent and logical than the web interface, the Roku app is faster than the one on our Blu-ray player, and as an added bonus, the Roku app for MLB TV is cleaner and simpler than the iOS and Android apps.

Of course, there are a bunch of Roku channels we never watch…

2 thoughts on “Cutting Loose

  1. We still don’t have any of those services, and we pay for DSL, but I am excited to have had a friend who wanted to get rid of an old monitor with a small yellow line through that is much, much larger than the monitor built into the laptop. It’s so nice! I now have a great desk setup with the external monitor, keyboard, and mouse. The only problem is Patience’s predilection for dancing back and forth between my lap and the keyboard tray. It’s not like she can stay still. She goes lap/keyboard/lap/keyboard, launching apps, opening files, and drafting nonsensical e-mail messages. Once, she even figured out how to make the monitor brighter (something I couldn’t do, because it’s an Apple product and so it has absolutely no hardware controls). Patience has a particular tendency to walk on the spacebar (since it’s the biggest key), advancing the screen. I can’t even do so much as input an entry into our Quicken check register without several interruptions. Last night, we reached a compromise where she had most of her body in my lap and lay her neck across my left wrist, and I petted her with my right hand. That way, I could watch a video, and perhaps even read some text if I stopped petting her just long enough to hit the spacebar myself. When I tried to type, I found it was kind of possible, but not very ergonomic for my already-injured left wrist. I’ve started just leaving her nonsensical text in my e-mail messages for the amusement value.


    • You only think they’re nonsensical because they’ve been encrypted with high-security feline codes.

      That said, yep. As far as cats are concerned, an empty lap is a wasted lap. As I type this, I’m trying to persuade Kokoro to take her pointy toes someplace else…


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