How the Services Stack Up
By far, Hulu Plus offers the widest selection of television shows I have seen from the major services. While CBS shows are absent from the content thus far, most of the other major networks are available, offering shows one day after they air.
This might have been a problem before the era of the DVR, when you would have to plug your ears around the water cooler to avoid spoilers, but now watching day-later episodes is not such a hassle.
There are some things to watch out for with Hulu Plus. When you research the shows you like, make sure they are not "Web Only." Some shows prevent Hulu from offering their content on set-top boxes, which means you will have to use a computer with a browser (and no, tablets and phones don't count). If that's no big deal, fine, but if you really want to watch shows on the big screen, make a note of this before you subscribe.
You should also be aware that Hulu episodes do carry advertising. Not a lot, typically 4 to 5 minutes scattered across the whole show, but it's not commercial free. (And the commercials tend to repeat a lot, which can drive you crazy.)
Finally, be sure you don't just sign up for the free Hulu service. It's okay for very casual TV watching, but for the $7.99/month, Plus is a very good value for the upgrade.
There is, for TV shows at least, a catch. While there's a huge library of shows to watch, many are only going to be available at the time of DVD release. This sets up a small conundrum: wait and get it for free, or pay extra to watch it now?
For example, I can watch How I Met Your Mother on Netflix but it will only be the seasons up to the season that just aired. If I want the current season now, I have to purchase a season pass on Amazon or iTunes. Or wait, and it will eventually show up on Netflix as part of the subscription cost.
This decision is really up to you, but you will need to factor in the cost of your decision when you put your spreadsheet together.
Price: Per Item; Prime $79 per year
Amazon actually offers two key Internet TV services. Anyone with a normal Amazon account can use the service to rent or buy movies and TV shows in an a la carte fashion.
But, if you opt in for the Amazon Prime service, you will have access to a fairly decent library of television shows and movies to stream free of charge. The television content works with the same kind of timing as Netflix, but if the all the shows you want to watch are on Amazon Prime's service, the $79 annual fee will save you a little money over Netflix ($16.88).
Amazon Prime's free content is still rather limited compared to Netflix, so it may not be worth the savings. If you are a big Amazon buyer, though, Prime gets you all sorts of other benefits, such as the free two-day shipping, so it could still be worth your while.
And I will confess that sometimes I will just outright rent a movie from Amazon's wide rental selection if I want to watch something newer that hasn't rolled to Netflix yet. Not great for the budget, but sometimes you gotta splurge.
Price: Per Item
Thanks to the perseverance and legacy of the iTunes service, there is a lot of TV and movie content on the iTunes platform -- easily on a par with Amazon's digital content (and way more than what's available on Amazon Prime).
But there are two big catches here: all the content is only available on a per-item basis, so if you want it, you're buying or renting it. That can add up in a hurry.
Another big issue is the fact that you can only watch this content on iTunes-capable devices. That means Apple and Windows computers, iPhones, iPads, iPod Touches, and Apple TV. That's it. If you are a Mac household, or plan to watch the content on the go more than on TV, that may fit nicely within your lifestyle, but it is pretty limiting if you want services like Hulu Plus, which isn't available on Apple TV.
First, there's the cost of the device itself, which usually ranges from $49 to $199, depending on the unit. Internet TV devices can range from dedicated set-top boxes such as the Apple TV, Boxee, or Roku; gaming consoles like the PlayStation 3 or Wii; or many "smart" TV and Blu-Ray DVD machines.
Choosing a device is going to depend on one big criterion: does it have the services you need to get the content you want? If so, then you can start comparing and price shopping. Other features to use when looking at streaming devices:
· Connectivity to the Internet. Is it WiFi-only or Ethernet? WiFi works pretty well, but there's nothing better than streaming multimedia content over a dedicated Cat5 cable.
· Capability to play other content. Some devices have a USB port and software that will let you play additional content, such as home movies, on your TV.
· High definition/Sound. This is almost a given these days, but not always. Make sure the audio and visual quality is a good as your system can handle.
One thing you may also want to purchase, if you don't have one already: a good digital antenna. If you need to watch local channels (for news, weather, or sports), it's a must. These run around $100 to $150 for a good indoor antenna.
And then there's the almost invisible cost: the subscription for the broadband Internet service itself. You're going to need at least a mid-range broadband option to bring decent streaming into your home. If the cost of better Internet service will be more than the cable company charges, then all of this is for naught. Pay very close attention to the terms of service, too. If your Internet provider has any sort of a data cap on the monthly service, you could very well find yourself TV-less around the end of the billing period.
Once you have all the costs in hand, use the spreadsheet to add them all up. Don't worry that you will have an initial outlay for the new equipment you will be buying: focus on the cost per month.
If it's under the monthly cost of your cable bill, and you can watch most if not all of your existing shows, then cutting the cable may work for you. Go out and buy the devices you selected and get started. If there are monthly savings, then you can use those to figure out how fast your equipment expenses will be offset.
If the cable bill is still more of a bargain, or if you find there are too many shows you will lose, then don't worry, because this exercise hasn't wasted your time; it's proven that cable TV will work for you and you aren't losing any savings.
Either way, it's a win.
(Author's Note: Due to several inquiries in the comments, I have added an addendum detailing my own decisions and savings in my "Open for Discussion" blog.)
This story, "How to Make the Switch to Internet TV" was originally published by ITworld.