Did you know that you can watch movies and TV online for free (almost) using your computer?
The following is a guest post from Johnathan, a Wealth Pilgrim reader who wants you to watch movies and TV online for (almost) free. I got rid of cable completely and I’m not looking to replace it – even if the new solution is free. Still, I love the idea of learning how to stop spending money I don’t need to spend and I’m sure you do too.
We never had satellite or cable service until after our first child was born. During those wee hours of the morning spent feeding, diaper changing, comforting, etc., there was next to nothing on broadcast TV. One night, we saw an ad for free satellite installation with Tivo (DVR) for under $40/month. What the heck, we gave it a try!
Five years later, we started getting crazy bills of $70+/month for a service level only one up from basic – no movies, no sports, nada! That’s a bit much, and we weren’t getting anywhere near that kind of value out of it, IMHO. Rather than start disputing credit card charges, we started looking for alternatives.
We decided to try to watch movies and TV online.
We canceled the satellite, got a new TV and hooked it up to a spare computer. Using www.ZeeVee.com/ZINC as a “Guide Channel,” we get more shows than before, can access Netflix and don’t have to wait on network schedules. It’s all online, waiting for us – the web is our DVR. Plus, we completely eliminated a monthly bill!
This bigger boatload of TV has both new (Sons of Anarchy, Burn Notice, Eureka) and old (Have Gun – Will Travel, Bat Masterson, Lost in Space, FarScape). There are other shows I’ve never seen, much less heard of! We get nearly everything we were used to, except for BBC stuff like Dr. Who – which will come out on DVD.
How We Got to Watching Movies and TV Online
Two years ago, I got a new computer and noticed the improvement in video quality. The screen was 24″ and HD, using DVI. I tried a DVD movie, and it was clearer and crisper than our 36″ tube TV! At the store, I began to look closely at the new flat screen TVs and saw that a few had PC/VGA video plugs. Hmmm…interesting.
Over time, I would scan the web for video and find an interesting assortment, like the old Star Trek series at http://www.cbs.com/classics/star_trek, “The Ascent of Money” at http://www.pbs.org/wnet/ascentofmoney and a slew of stuff at http://www.snagfilms.com/. Took Hulu, Veoh and Joost out for a test drive. Signed on for a Netflix trial (one DVD/month) to try their “Instant Play.” It was a lot to take in, much less manage and organize somehow.
Then I found the ultimate “glue” to use as a “Channel Guide,” bringing Hulu, network websites and NetFlix together: www.ZeeVee.com/ZINC.
Picking the right tuner is harder than deciding which job is right for me, but I had to make an effort. When the switchover to all-digital broadcast started, I noticed that we got not only clearer pictures, but more channels for each station. Since the kids are younger, they’re pretty happy with PBS, and we get two PBS stations, one with four channels, the other with three. Hey, how much Barney or Caillou can they watch?
The way to go seemed to be the HD HomeRun, made by SilconDust, which puts two tuner signals into the home network, complete with software for all our computers. A little pricey but it works well, turning any PC into a TV receiver and DVR. It plugs into any router/switch on the network, and for reception we already had a coax cable running to the outdoor antenna.
Now we record Cook’s Country, Defying Gravity, Red/Green Show, Survivor and Woodwright’s Shop. Fast-forwarding through commercials works better than the old TIVO did. Not that we have time to watch every episode…
THE FLAT SCREEN
Next, we had to put everything together with the right flat screen. The choices were Plasma and LCD. Plasma has problems when physically tilted, like when you move it (ask any Wal-Mart employee in the electronics department). The wife approved the LCD picture quality – decision done! Way less painful than my visit to the dentist.
In LCDs, the 55″ VIZIO was the biggest and had a slew of connections – including VGA for PCs, which many of the others did NOT have (at the time). The picture looked good, and according to the store’s employees there were few returns. We got one, paying by American Express, as that extends a manufacturer’s warranty by a year.
I hooked up my usually unemployed backup computer (bought to closely match the desktop in speed and graphics), a dual-core laptop with an NVidia graphics card. After installing ZINC and configuring Netflix, we were up and running.
Audio – some laptops have a problem with sound; mine was one of them. Fixed this with a USB gadget, Audio Advantage, for $30.
VIZIO speaker sound is not great, but it’s OK. Depending on what’s playing – DVD, Netflix or ZINC – and sometimes, whether it’s newer or older material, the sound may have to be adjusted. We often use the rock or jazz setting; it seems to make voices clearer. Sound volume varies a lot too, depending on the signal source – these online services really need to set a standard, as do some of the DVD producers.
We’re going to try hooking up the old BOSE surround system with digital output. There is also a “Speaker Bar” available for the Vizio that is supposed to be close to surround-sound quality. Since the new TV centralizes sound, we can just leave whichever one on all the time and won’t need yet another remote.
I could NOT find a remote with trackball AND scroll wheel. The closest was an RF (not infrared) keyboard from DSI, Model RK-768 http://www.dsi-keyboards.com/keyboard/item.php?id=49 (refurbished from Amazon). It has general volume control, media controls (for Media Center), a thumb trackball, clickable scroll wheel and mouse buttons. A bit bulky, but works great. Now I read the RSS news page from my lounge chair – though I do have to adjust the general Windows screen fonts much larger. Sometimes, I need to adjust browser fonts with CTRL + and CTRL -.
BLU-RAY, DVD “UP-CONVERT” AND MUSIC
To go with the new TV, we browsed the store for an inexpensive DVD UpConvert unit. I saw a Samsung BluRay player that had Netflix, Pandora (web radio), and UpConvert. A no-brainer!
I also ended up buying a $25 network “switch” since the laptop, tuner and BluRay all use the net. Had to run a cable under the floor, to the router.
The Pandora works so well that we “retired” the music CD jukebox, transferring all the music to MP3 on the computer. By sharing the directory, all the PCs in the house can use it, and the wife can finally use the little MP3 player she got as a gift. From me. Last year. It’s possible I procrastinated a little on the whole digitizing thing.
The bedroom has a 32” tube set, so we added Roku to get Netflix. This neat little gizmo has both Wired and WiFi networking, plus every possible TV connection, from COAX to HDMI, so it works on a new or old TV. Resolution is 720, not 1080. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B001PIBE8I/
The ROKU lineup recently expanded – exploded, actually! Originally, there were all of three items: Netflix, Amazon VOD and MLB. All of a sudden, there are dozens of “channels,” mainly web-based “shows” with some news and weather. A nice plus!
The old set, a 10-year-old 36″ tube, is now in the basement. The kids like to go down and watch it. No idea why. More of that (expletive-deleted) Barney and Caillou. Hmmm…Maybe, if I cut the head off a stuffed Barney, mount it and tell ’em he’s dead, they’ll watch something else! Probably shouldn’t try that with Caillou, though – might scar them, psychologically. Well, maybe not the youngest (a potential lion-tamer), but I really shouldn’t take chances with the older one, being the first-born and all.
Media Center for both Windows XP and VISTA does NOT work well for broadcast only – the Guide Listing does NOT get sub-channels! The official word is (via folks at www.TheGreenButton.com) that Microsoft will not fix this in XP or VISTA. It’s supposed to be fixed in Windows 7, but the SiliconDust unit comes with TotalMedia, so it doesn’t really matter. It’s too bad there isn’t a company that does this for you. So in putting this together, it’s like you’re in business for yourself.
SIDE EFFECTS: Fewer Remotes and a Videophone
As a result of all this, we now have only three remotes, down from six. If we get a new PC with a BluRay drive and Windows 7, the Samsung can go downstairs. That would leave two remotes – but the TV acts like a monitor, turning itself off or on when the PC says so, which brings us down to just one, the keyboard. Well, there’s the old VCR remote, but that won’t get much use.
Only ONE remote? Now THAT is progress! (Though it IS keyboard-sized…)
Moved the webcam to the Den, so the kids can now see and talk to both sets of grandparents (who remember Buck Rogers from the movie theater serials http://www.amazon.com/Buck-Rogers-Buster-Crabbe/dp/6305989397/), using Skype as a Videophone. Very cool! I had to set things up for them, but one physical trip and the rest via www.LogMeIn.com isn’t too bad. Microsoft webcams work best, IMHO.
On commercials: There are NONE with Netflix. Recorded broadcasts are easily fast-forwarded. In ZINC/Hulu/web shows they can’t be avoided, but they ARE brief (15-30 seconds). In all cases, you can hit PAUSE, to answer the phone or go get a snack.
FIGURING THE FINAL TALLY
$180 BluRay/DVD UpConvert/Netflix/Pandora
$100 Misc (cable, keyboard, switch)
Assuming we get ten years out of the equipment, the cost oughta be about $193/year. Add $108/year for Netflix, and that’s $300/year, versus $800/year for satellite service. This won’t solve your debt problems, but it will certainly help.
Easy math! We’re really happy that we are now able to spend less money.