Watching online TV instead of standard cable TV in your living room is a great way to save $50 or more per month.
In this guest post I describe the necessary minimal setup, requirements, and online TV resources so you can get going very cheaply and watch free TV in your living room.
For starters you need an old computer stationed next to your TV. The computer should preferably be a laptop PC, but a regular tower PC or any Mac will do as well.
The dirty little secret computer manufacturers and resellers do not want you to know is that pretty much any old computer that is less than 10 years old will do the streaming of standard online video just great. The reason for this is that these machines were designed to show video since early 90s and the fundamentals have not changed enough to prevent a bit older technology from doing a very decent job for a cost conscious consumer. For example our family uses a 6-year old HP mini tower PC with 2GB of RAM and Win XP.
As long as you can run a modern browser (e.g. Microsoft Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, or Google Chrome) on the PC, you are all set. For example Win XP supports the latest Adobe Flash and Microsoft Silverlight streaming software that will handle the actual video in your web browser.
You should hook up the PC directly to your internet router using an ethernet cable instead of a Wi-fi connection. So the internet router/modem and the PC+TV combination need to be relatively close to each other (or you can always buy a longer internet cable at e.g. Best Buy).
The reality is that Wi-fi just does not have the stability and latency to handle continuous streaming without glitches (when Wi-fi works, it does have the raw bandwidth aka speed though). By using wired ethernet you guarantee that your home network is not the bottleneck for streaming video. You do not need any new faster than 1 Gbit/s network cards for online TV, your PC most likely already has a 100 Mbit/s ethernet card which is perfectly good for our purposes.
Internet provider and plan
This is the most important part of watching online TV, particularly in Canada. If you want to replace your standard cable TV with an internet based solution, my strong recommendation is that you must upgrade to an internet plan with at least 60GB of monthly data usage. If you exceed your quota the penalties are very steep, and can be several dollars per GB. You can e.g. get a Rogers 70GB plan for roughly $55 per month or so (in Ottawa, Ontario at least). The bottom line is that you need to do your research. Doing a little bit of research in the beginning can save you from big headaches after you signed a contract and realize it will not work.
Our family watches online TV for a few hours a day and we have only once exceeded our 60GB monthly quota (by a meager 3GB that cost us $6 extra). The 60GB of data plan will have enough bandwidth aka speed to handle the streaming (assuming your internet provider actually gives you the bandwidth/speed they advertise). In short, the reason to upgrade your internet plan is not the speed but the increased data usage.
Connecting the PC to the TV
Video. The easiest way to connect the PC to your TV is to use the standard PC monitor connectors, called VGA. This old connector type is still present in practically all PCs, and modern TVs have a corresponding VGA connector. In short, you are just using your TV as a one big PC monitor. With direct VGA connection the picture quality is great, not high-definition (HD), but still great for practical purposes. If you have an old TV that does not have VGA connectivity, you can get a cheap VGA to RCA (or S-video) adapters for $30 or so in Amazon (search for e.g. “Generic Lake Pc To Tv Converter”).
Audio. In principle you can just use the loudspeakers in your PC to get sound, but I would not recommend this, the quality and volume is too poor. Instead you should hook up your PC audio output to your TV. You can either use the headphone output socket, or a dedicated loudspeaker output in the PC. Your TV will have a corresponding audio input connector (most likely next to the VGA input connector). You can get the cable from Best Buy or Future Shop for $20 or so. The details can vary, so take e.g. photos with your phone of the connectors at both ends and show the photos at the store, and keep the receipt for easy swap if needed.
This item is not mandatory, but makes your life so much easier. Basically the remote control will be a wireless keyboard and a trackball mouse combination (all in one single unit) that you can use to control the PC with ease. The receiver is a simple USB card that you hook up to the PC. I use “IOGear Multimedia Keyboard with Laser Trackball and Scroll Wheel”, which works great for up to 10ft and is very easy to setup. You can get one in Amazon for circa $50.
Online TV content
Finding free and legal online TV is easy thanks to free online TV directory sites that specialize in listing only legal and properly copyrighted content. Using this kind of sites makes it much safer and easier to watch online TV and avoid copyright infringement. In Canada the most comprehensive site is Streaming Guide, www.streaming-guide.com.
Most current drama/reality/comedy TV shows are available online on the broadcasters’ websites, but if you are a sports fan, you might want to stick with regular cable TV. Formula One Grand Prix for example are not available online at all. The 2012 Summer Olympics is a test case for broadcasters. In the US, NBC is live streaming all events, and in Canada CTV and RDS have dedicated websites for streaming the Olympics. Check out my blog post watching Summer Olympics online in Canada for more details and latest updates.
In addition to all the free content, I recommend subscribing to Netflix. It is not free, but $8 a month is a great value for cost-conscious consumer and is guaranteed to keep your kids happy. If you want more recent movies, you should check-out some of the pay-per-view online movie sites. For more details, please check out my long review article discussing free and subscription based online movie sites available in Canada and the US. In short, there is over 22,000 free and legal online movies currently available for Canadians.
The author is the founder of Streaming Guide, www.streaming-guide.com, and happily “cut-the-cord” and went cable TV free over year-and-a-half ago.