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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Cut your cable!

After canceling my cable TV subscription, I realized that online TV is much better
Mike Elgan

May 16, 2009 (Computerworld) As part of my transition to semi-nomadic living and gadget-consolidation project, I canceled my subscription to cable TV and returned the cable box and remote.

I assumed tradeoffs in this arrangement: I would end up with an inferior TV experience, but save money. What I discovered, however, is that the overall experience is actually better. Much better.

My TV, which I've had for a couple years, is a 42-inch Sony Bravia. My laptop (and now my one and only PC) is also a Sony: A Sony Vaio AW that has an HDMI port. To watch online TV on my big-screen TV, I simply plug the laptop into the TV with HDMI (The Vaio even comes with a remote). Other cabling options are almost as good.

Finding a show is easy: Just Google it. All major shows that I'm aware of have a link to the streaming or downloadable HD version on the first results page. You can also find clips and shows on social bookmarking sites, TV sites like Hulu, and on YouTube.

The picture and sound quality is amazing. It's not quite as good as HD programming via cable, but far better quality than analog TV or even DVDs. That surprised me. But a long list of other benefits surprised me even more.

Cable TV creates a minor anxiety. If you don't record shows, you feel the need to essentially keep an appointment each week to catch updates of whatever shows you're following. If you record them using TiVo or something similar, you feel pressed to hurry up and watch recorded shows before your available storage maxes out.

When relying exclusively on shows online, however, I don't have to think about TV schedules or DVR storage space. I can watch whatever I want whenever I want, or I can just stop watching TV for any amount of time. The missed episodes are always online when I want them.

Location independence: Of course, you can always watch your regular TV shows on a laptop. But by carrying cables while traveling, you can plug in to whatever big-screen TV is available. That laptop becomes a portable cable box. Time savings: Many shows, such as Saturday Night Live, TV news programs, the Colbert Report and others tend to be a mixed bag containing a lot of time-wasting junk, but also nuggets of entertainment gold.

We have been acclimated over the years to suffer through entire shows, essentially fishing for something funny or interesting. But TV is presented online often in the form of individual clips. One of the best sites is Hulu, which offers shows both in full format and in clip form. The clips are sortable by "Popular Clips" and "Featured Videos." The site does a great job of separating the junk from the gold. You can watch only the good bits and save a lot of time.

Watch in "epic-sode" form: In the same way that you can reduce shows into their component parts, you can also combine episodes into "epic-sodes" - multiple episodes viewed as one. By doing this, you can watch shows a season at a time.

Rather than watching one episode each of four shows per week, you can find shows online where the season is completed and watch consecutive episodes of only that one show (15 minutes per night, one hour per night, two hours per night - whatever you like) until the season is done. Then you move to another show. This is a great way to watch shows like "Lost," where every episode references previous ones.

Fewer commercials: Online HDTV shows often have commercials, but about a quarter of the commercials you'll find on regular TV.

Money savings: Obviously, not paying for cable saves money. In my case, the elimination of my landline phone and cable bundle saved me about $110 per month. (If I put all that money in the bank for 10 years, I'll be able to pay cash for a brand-new car.)

Browseability: Amazon Kindle users will tell you that they both read more and read more widely with a Kindle because books are easier to discover and browse. The same goes for online TV. It's much easier to find and browse for shows online and to try them out.

Two weeks ago I thought canceling my cable subscription was a good idea for digital nomads. But now I'm convinced it's a better way to go for everybody. It changes the way you think about and watch TV, and improves the whole experience.

If you don't believe me, then I challenge you to try it out. Before you cancel your cable, go cold turkey for one week without using the cable service, getting all your TV online and watching it on your regular TV. Let me know how it goes!

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. He blogs about the technology needs, desires and successes of mobile warriors in his Computerworld blog, The World Is My Office. Contact Mike at, follow him on Twitter or his blog, The Raw Feed.