Diary Of My Switch To Internet TV – Part 1

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Tim Higgins

It was last month’s bill from DirecTV that finally did it. Although it was only five dollars more, it was the culmination of too many years of paying too much money for too many junk channels that I didn’t want, just to get the few that I watched. $95 for a one-step-up-from-basic channel package, one each HD and standard def DVRs, HD service, HD "extra pack" and no extra movie or sports packages is about $50 too much for me.

Actually, my dissatisfaction with DirecTV kicked up a notch when I changed to their HD service two years ago. I learned that they had moved to a lease-only policy for their equipment that also came along with a two year service commitement. Say what? I understand the cellular business model of selling phones cheaply, but subsidized by a multi-year service commitment. But at the end of the two years, you own the phone.

Not so with DTV. I not only had to commit to two years of service, with a $400 or so early termination fee, of course. But now that I’m through with my two years, I still don’t own the HD receiver. And not that their HD receiver is any great deal. Its functions pale in comparison to the Tivo-based standard def model I still have running (and own!) in my spouse’s office. And it doesn’t have any multi-room or "to go" features like some of Dish Networks’ DVRs.

So I guess I’m motivated enough. And it looks like I have company. Today’s New York Times piece is a good snapshot of the Yin and Yang of making the switch. It is possible to do. But if you’re expecting Internet TV viewing to be as easy as clicking through the programming offered up by your current set top box, well, it ain’t that easy.

Right now, you need to either be happy with the "walled garden" approach taken by inexpensive dedicated media players like the Western Digital WD TV Live, NETGEAR EVA2000 or even more expensive players like NETGEAR’s EVA9150, or equip yourself with a properly-configured computer to be able to roam wherever the content you want is found.

Some of these dedicated players are able to access a limited amount of Internet content from chosen "partners". In many cases you need to run PlayOn’s $40 media server to access Internet content, since the chipsets used in the players themselves don’t have enough horsepower.

But content available from dedicated media players skews toward too many pay-per-view movie services and craptastic combinations of Internet-only "TV channels" and local weather and public access channels, for my taste. So I’ve come to the conclusion that a computer is the way to go, even though that route brings a whole other set of complications with it.

Fortunately, the kick in the butt that netbooks have given the computing market has produced a side benefit for those of us looking for small, quiet computers powerful enough to handle HD content (720p is just fine for me, by the way, since that’s essentially what I’ve been watching via DTV’s highly-compressed channels).

I started by connecting my Acer Aspire 1810T to my media receiver and 50" flat screen via its built-in HDMI port and have found that it’s more than powerful enough to handle online content, which is rarely HD. But at around $600, it’s too expensive to tie up as a TV machine. And its keyboard and screen are excess baggage, since the end solution will need to be remote-driven, with the box hidden out of sight in our media cabinetry.

And since I’m talking about aesthetics, it’s a good time to mention that the solution that I come up with must be approved by the ruler of our home remote, my wife. The day she held our first Tivo-based DVR’s remote in her hand and saw what she could do with it, Ms. SmallNetBuilder has never let it go. Both the upstairs HD and aging downstairs SD DVRs’ drives are filled mostly by her shows. (I’m fine with that, since there aren’t many Tim-only shows that I watch anyway.)

But the point here is that the usability of whatever I come up with has to be similar to or better than the DVRs she is accustomed to. Not that she doesn’t know her way around a Windows PC. But when it comes time to watch House Hunters International or Brothers and Sisters, she wants to watch, not start a debugging session or pick her way through a file system to find what she wants.

So computer-based our solution will be, and that computer will be the refurbished Acer AspireRevo AR1600 (AR1600-U910H to be specific), that I picked up for around $190 (shipping included) a few weeks ago. It seems to be a popular choice for people trying out Boxee and XBMC, both of which I’ve been exploring and will talk about next time. In the meantime, if you’re already been there and done this, tell me about it in the Forums or directly. I can use all the help I can get on this journey!

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