Planning your escape from cable? Here's what you'll need to know
Need more proof that the world is changing? Last week, the president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, Michael Powell, told the Senate that “the largest subscription video provider in the country today is Netflix.”
If you haven't paid attention to the entertainment landscape for the past few years, Netflix is an online streaming video service. You pay $8 a month and can watch all the TV shows and movies you want on your computer, mobile gadgets or TV.
It was the first, and not the last, serious challenge to the cable companies' dominance. Even if cable companies won't admit it, they're working hard to stay relevant against growing competition from Netflix, Amazon, Google Play, Hulu, iTunes, YouTube and many other online video services.
Millions of consumers have been lured away from cable with promises of lower prices and the freedom to watch what they want, when they want. I know, because I'm one of them.
Of course, like any big change to new technology, there are challenges to overcome. Here are five things I've discovered that will help make your transition easier — or might convince you to wait a bit longer to make the jump.
• Know what's available
Watching what you want, when you want, is like a dream come true. Once you try it, you'll never want to go back to scheduled programming.
Unfortunately, finding ways to watch all your favorite shows and movies is a bit of a stumbling block. You might find some are available on Hulu, YouTube or other free TV and free movies sites.
Many will be available only on a paid subscription service, such as Netflix, Amazon or Hulu Plus, which generally costs you $7 to $8 a month. Not every service carries every show, so you could be forced to sign up for multiple services.
Because of licensing restrictions, some shows are available only as paid digital downloads on iTunes, Google Play and Amazon. These can cost $1 to $2 per episode, and they might not be available the same time the episodes air. Buying a full season of a show can set you back from $20 to $50, just like a regular DVD box set.
You can see how this could start to add up quickly. If you don't plan ahead, you might find yourself paying as much as cable to keep up with everything.
You could visit the major streaming sites and look through their catalogs to find out what shows and movies they have. Or you can visit a site like Can I Stream It? It will tell you which online providers have the shows you want to watch.
• Don't miss out on live TV
While on-demand viewing is nice, some people still want the option to watch live TV. It's great for news and sports, two things streaming video services still don't have available.
Luckily, you don't need a cable subscription to watch either one. You can pick up broadcast TV in full HD with an antenna.
No, I'm not talking about the metal eyesores that used to perch on your roof. Modern HD antennas can be sleek, stylish and mounted indoors.
Major networks also are starting to stream live TV online. ABC is doing a test in New York and Philadelphia. ESPN and Disney offer WatchESPN and Watch Disney.
For now, these services require you log in with proof of a cable or satellite account, but that could change in the future.
• Watch in comfort
When streaming online video first appeared, your only real option was watching it on a computer. That was fine for early adopters, but regular consumers wanted the full living-room experience.
Thanks to smart TVs and streaming video boxes, that's no longer a problem. Inexpensive gadgets like Roku, Boxee and Apple TV, or any modern video game system, will stream video from all the popular services right to your TV. If you're buying a new TV, you can find smart TVs with online streaming built right in.
A less expensive option, if you already have the hardware, is to connect your computer right to your TV. Many newer computers have HDMI or DVI outputs that will connect to most new TVs.
Not only can it stream video, you can turn the computer into a digital video recorder for recording live broadcasts. Or use it to browse the Web, display your pictures or anything else you can use a computer to do.
The computer doesn't have to be a high-end monstrosity either. Personally, I use a Mac mini.
• Watch on the go
Streaming video isn't just for TVs and computers, however. Maybe you want to watch video on the go with a tablet or smartphone. Because online services are Web-based, it's no problem, as long as you have a decent Internet connection.
Certain services work best with certain types of mobile gadgets. For example, Amazon will stream video to almost any tablet, but it works best with Amazon's Kindle Fire. However, it doesn't have a smartphone app, while Netflix does.
If you already have a mobile gadget, or are planning to purchase new ones, make sure they play nice with the services you use.
• Mix and match
There's no rule that says you have to choose just one of the options above. You can stick with cable for now and gradually explore free streaming video services.
Ease your way into it and find out what works and doesn't work for you. Take advantage of the free trials that the major streaming services offer.
Don't forget that cable companies want to keep you as a customer. They're upgrading their services and trying new promotions to make their offerings more attractive.
You can leverage this into discounts and savings. For example, you can often get customer service to drop the monthly rental fee for your cable modem.
Email Kim Komando at email@example.com.