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Ultimate Cord Cutting Guide - Part 1: Devices and Content

Providers and Devices

"Cutting the Cord," the process of ditching traditional cable and satellite content providers for cheaper online-based services, is nothing new. For years, consumers have cancelled their cable subscriptions (or declined to even subscribe in the first place), opting instead to get their entertainment from companies like Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube.

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But the recent introduction of online streaming TV services like Sling TV, new technologies like HDR, and the slow online adoption of live local channels has made the idea of cord cutting more complicated. While cord cutters who are happy with just Netflix and YouTube need not worry, what are the solutions for those who don't like the idea of high cost cable subscriptions but also want to preserve access to things like local channels and the latest 4K HDR content?

This article is the first in a three-part series that will look at this "high-end" cord cutting scenario. We'll be taking a look at the options for online streaming TV, access to local "OTA" (over the air) channels, and the devices that can handle it all, including DVR support, 4K output, and HDR compliance.

There are two approaches that you can take when considering the cord cutting process. The first is to focus on capabilities: Do you want 4K? HDR? Lossless surround sound audio? Voice search? Gaming?

The second approach is to focus on content: Do you want live TV or à la carte downloads? Can you live without ESPN or must it and your other favorite networks still be available? Are you heavily invested in iTunes content? Perhaps most importantly for those concerned with the "Spousal Acceptance Factor" (SAP), do you want the majority of your content contained in a single app, which can prevent you and your family members from having to jump between apps or devices to find what they want?

While most people on the cord cutting path will consider both approaches to a certain degree, it's easier to focus on the one that's most important to you, as that will make other choices involving devices and content easier. Of course, there are those of us out there that are open to purchasing and using multiple devices and content sources at once, giving us everything at the expense of increased complexity. But most cord cutters, especially those with families, will want to pursue a setup based around a single device that accommodates most, if not all, of their needs. And that's exactly what we set out to find.

Read on for our overview and experience with cutting the cord in 2017.

Devices

Whatever you prefer to call them -- set-top boxes, streaming devices, media players -- there are a huge number of devices currently vying to be the center of your home's entertainment. These devices come in multiple form factors, from HDMI "sticks" that plug directly into your TV to powerful "home theater PCs" (HTPC), and at a variety of price points.

We're not going to examine every possible media player in this article, but we will take a look at the most popular options.

NVIDIA SHIELD

The NVIDIA SHIELD (a.k.a. Shield TV) is arguably the most powerful and versatile media player currently available. Powered by a Tegra X1 processor, the SHIELD is capable of supporting full 4K content with HDR and, while running certain media applications, it can handle audio passthrough of uncompressed formats like DTS-HD Master Audio, Dolby TrueHD, and even Dolby Atmos.

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The NVIDIA SHIELD is also attractive to gamers, as it offers gaming features that aren't found in many other media devices. These include GameStream, which lets you stream games from your PC to your living room, and GeForce NOW, a cloud-based service that lets you remotely play the latest PC games with the power of a GTX 1080 graphics card.

As an Android TV device, the SHIELD has a huge library of Android-based apps and games, including must-haves like Plex (both as a client and server), Amazon Video, and Netflix. The SHIELD of course also has access to Google's own à la carte selection of movies, TV shows, and music via the Google Play store. As we'll discuss later, you can even connect a USB or network TV tuner to the SHIELD and enjoy access to live TV without the need for any other device or service.

The NVIDIA SHIELD is available in three models: a $179 base model with 16GB of built-in storage and the voice-enabled SHIELD remote, a $199 version with 16GB, the remote, and the SHIELD gamepad, and a $299 "SHIELD Pro" with 500GB of built-in storage plus the remote and gamepad. If you're just planning to consume streaming content, or if you already have an existing Plex server that you're happy with, the $179 model is a good option. If you want to game, but mostly via streaming services that don't require local storage, grab the $199 model which includes the gamepad. If you'd like to run a Plex server on your SHIELD, or if you want to install lots of apps and games, the $299 model's 500GB of storage will give you a clean and integrated setup without the need to rely on external or network drives.

Apple TV

For Apple fans, the just-announced Apple TV 4K is a compelling option, even if it does have a fair amount of drawbacks. The Apple TV is powered by Apple's custom-designed A10X processor (claimed by Apple to be the same as the one that powers the iPad Pro) and runs "tvOS," an offshoot of iOS. From a technical perspective, the new Apple TV supports up to 2160p60 video with HDR (both Dolby Vision and HDR10) but is limited to Dolby Digital Plus audio.

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Content-wise, there are a number of Apple TV apps and games, but these must all be specifically designed for tvOS, meaning that your favorite iOS apps may not be available. In addition to movies and TV shows from Apple's own iTunes Store, users can find apps for Plex, Netflix, Hulu, DirecTV, and many other popular services.

This new Apple TV is definitely a step forward for Apple (the previous models were limited to 1080p and were based on the older A8 processor), but its lack of expandability and capability with third party apps (such as the ability to run a Plex server or act as an HDTV tuner), limited gaming support, and inability to handle lossless surround audio formats makes it a less than ideal choice for all but the most dedicated Apple fans. Make no mistake, if you have thousands of dollars sunk into iTunes content the Apple TV is your only option, but most everyone else likely won't want it to serve as the sole or central device in a cord cutting setup.

The Apple TV 4K is currently available in two models, a 32GB model for $179.00, and a 64GB model for $199.00.

Amazon Fire TV

Amazon entered the set-top box market in early 2014 with the launch of the Fire TV. It has since diversified its product line, adding a cheaper "stick" model as well as integrating its Fire TV software platform directly into some televisions.

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In addition to providing full access to Amazon's à la carte and Prime media libraries, Fire TV also features a number of third party apps, including the usual options like Plex, Sling, Hulu, Netflix, HBO, and ESPN.

The Fire TV operating system is based upon Android, but it's Amazon's own custom version of the operating system. This means that, at least out of the box, you'll have a very limited selection of third party apps and games to choose from, and there's no advanced features like the ability to run a Plex server or directly connect a TV tuner.

Amazon's new Fire TV dongle can output at 4K and finally adds HDR support, but early reviews show some performance issues. Its form factor also means that you'll need to keep it attached to the back of your TV or receiver (or rely on an HDMI extension cable) and it lacks a wired Ethernet port. Like the Apple TV, it's also limited to Dolby Digital Plus audio. It can be picked up for $69.99. The Amazon Fire TV stick runs only $39.99, but maxes out at 1080p resolution.

Amazon has a great library of third party and original video content, and Fire TV is an excellent way to enjoy that content. But considering that Amazon's apps are available on so many other devices, the Fire TV's relatively low price is probably its only advantage.

Roku

Roku is one of the older companies in the media streaming device industry, having thus far successfully remained independent even as larger companies have jumped into the market. Roku also offers the most complex product lineup, with six Roku models currently for sale ranging from legacy models that can support standard definition output via composite video all the way to models with quad-core processors that can handle full 4K 60fps HDR content and bitstream lossless DTS and Dolby surround audio.

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As an independent company without a video streaming or subscription service of its own, Roku has attracted the support of many third party services, and there currently more than 4,500 options (or "channels" as the company calls them) available, including Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, DirecTV, Spectrum, PlayStation Vue, and the usual lineup of network apps.

Although quite capable from a technical perspective when it comes to watching TV shows and movies, the Roku line of products still lack certain features like robust gaming support, large amounts of storage (users are limited to a microSD card slot on certain models for "built-in" storage options), and direct TV tuner support.

Roku models start at $24.99 for the stick-style "Express" and go as high as $99.99 for the full-featured "Ultra."

The Best Media Device?

As mentioned earlier, there's no absolute "best" choice for all cord cutters, and even after deciding on the desired technical capabilities of a device, users must still weigh their content preferences. That said, our experience puts the NVIDIA SHIELD clearly at the top of the list of devices that should be considered.

The SHIELD's raw power, storage options, and flexibility make it a great option for most users. Its ability to access multiple subscription streaming services, all of the major on-demand services, and a huge selection of other apps and games means that SHIELD owners probably won't be missing out on anything good. Add to that the ability to run a Plex server directly on the device without the need for other hardware, and the option to directly connect a TV tuner, and you end up with one versatile device.

Apple fans who are absolutely dedicated to that company's platform and already have hundreds or thousands of dollars in iTunes content may be better off sticking with Apple TV (the only platform where Apple's content is officially available) but others looking to start the cord cutting adventure will appreciate the power and capabilities of the SHIELD.


October 30, 2017 | 02:43 PM - Posted by H380

Forget all of the "Devices". You want a HTPC. I have 3 all are Win10. That way you can run an ad blocker and play games if you want. YouTube and Twitch are unwatchable on Roku. The Twitch ads on the app locks up the Roku so a power cycle is needed to fix. YouTube has unskipable mid video ads that are unacceptable. Netflix is SO much better in a browser than an app for searching. The HDHomerun is great. Just plug it into your router, screw in an antenna and download the app on your PCs.
You can also run Kodi for a game console type of interface. For interfaces I use a Logitech M570 wireless trackball for a mouse. No pad needed. Win10 has an onscreen keyboard which is good enough for google searches and logins. If you go with Kodi a wireless Xbox controller works well.

October 30, 2017 | 04:08 PM - Posted by sircod (not verified)

Does Netflix in browser support 4k or HDR yet? I know Kodi can do a lot, but every time I have tried it just seems so janky compared to something like Plex. Using a trackball from the couch also sounds cludgy compared to a remote, but maybe better than a keyboard with trackpad.

October 30, 2017 | 04:48 PM - Posted by docace911

So how do you do 4K Netflix HDR+ATMOS, AMazon 4k HDR, YouTube HDR, VUdu HDR, PLex HDR, KODI HDR on your windows 10 box?

My win 10 box can't do any of the above. The shield can do all but the YouTube HDR native, it can do it if you download the clips.

October 30, 2017 | 05:26 PM - Posted by H380

Simple I don't. I have all 1080p TVs and will for years to come. Also my ISP data cap kills any hope of streaming 4K. It is a non issue.

October 31, 2017 | 11:40 AM - Posted by docace911

So your saying you hate advanced positional audio and the largest leap in picture quality (HDR) this decade?

That's fine, but this article is for those who care about quality and media. SDR and stereo sound is fine for a monitor but not a home theater.

October 31, 2017 | 01:01 PM - Posted by H380

Apples vs Apple pie. How in the world do you get "Quality media" from the Cable Co? The article was about cord cutting not bleeding edge tech on a budget. I don't care about 4K or HDR or "Home Theater". My TVs are just monitors now.
All the boxes give you are apps with unskipable and unblockable ads. To me it is worth 2x or 3x times the money just to get an ad blocker. Period. The added benefit is you get PC functionality in the deal.

October 30, 2017 | 05:30 PM - Posted by Banzai51 (not verified)

By the time you drop the money needed for 4k, you could have bought the Shield several times over. Buy the Shield, and plow the rest of that money into a Plex/Embry server, or a file server. All the advantages of Android TV apps, and local content.

October 31, 2017 | 02:31 PM - Posted by SWKerr (not verified)

I have been using HTPCs since before they were practical but recently pretty much retired them. I like the simplicity and lower maintenance of the set top boxes.

HTPCs are expensive and more difficult to maintain than a FireTV, Android TV, X1 solution. I have an unRAID server running Emby and Plex with HDHR OTA tuners on the back end but the front end are no longer HTPCs and I don't miss them. Also getting something like DirecTV Now, Hulu, Netflix or YouTube to work with a Remote on a HTPC is complicated to say the least. HTPCs are just not couch friendly.

Now saying this I have one PC attached to a 43" 4k set in my office that I am writing this on and could never part with since it is also my gaming rig and HTPC but the normal's in the house just prefer the simplicity of an set top box.

October 30, 2017 | 02:55 PM - Posted by Mihle (not verified)

Why not just use Chromecast? Its cheaper than any of these.

October 30, 2017 | 04:55 PM - Posted by docace911

How do you watch liveTV on your chromcast? How do you watch amazon HDR?

November 2, 2017 | 02:48 PM - Posted by sircod (not verified)

Youtube TV supports Chromecast. You will never get Amazon stuff on Chromecast though since Amazon wants you to buy a Fire stick instead.

November 9, 2017 | 02:14 PM - Posted by Mihle (not verified)

As someone else said, YoutubeTV, and also, there are multiple TV channels that have their own app for it, for example NRK(The Norwegian main TV channels), BBC, CBS, Disney Channel, ESPN/TBS/TNT all support it
Also other non english TV channels, like there was at least two German TV channels

List:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_apps_with_Google_Cast_support

October 30, 2017 | 05:33 PM - Posted by Banzai51 (not verified)

Because while many content sources may make an Android or iOS app, few make them castable.

November 9, 2017 | 02:09 PM - Posted by Mihle (not verified)

Youtube(TV) Netflix, HBO, NRK(The Norwegian main TV channels), BBC, CBS. Hulu Plus, Plex, Viaplay, Disney Channel, ESPN/TBS/TNT all support it.

October 30, 2017 | 03:54 PM - Posted by Travisty (not verified)

I agree with H380. Why settle for someone else's box o' junk when you can have a full computer hooked up to your TV with spare parts or for about $250-300? Netflix and Amazon video w/o pita apps. Access ripped movies from a shared home-networked drive. I really don't know why tech sites keep pointing to breakout boxes when they are so inferior to HTPCs.

As for control, Logitech has a few really good multimedia wireless keyboards.

October 30, 2017 | 03:57 PM - Posted by Travisty (not verified)

I'll add too there's TV online now that HTPC users can use. https://layer3tv.com/ for instance - i know this works in the US and i think a few African countries.

October 30, 2017 | 04:54 PM - Posted by docace911

But you NEED Comcast or RCN cable to buy Later3Tv on top of that - its crazy. Would be great if you could just have google fiber or webpass+ Layer3. But who will pay 2x.

October 30, 2017 | 07:40 PM - Posted by Travisty (not verified)

I guess i am spoiled. I have city run fiber 1gig up/down for $50/month & no cap. I do not watch tv either so i do not use layer3 personally. So wonderful not paying comcast anything!

Longmont, co - https://www.longmontcolorado.gov/departments/departments-e-m/longmont-po...

October 31, 2017 | 11:41 AM - Posted by docace911

Ok, but this article is about cable cutting - those who want to legally obtain TV and movies.

October 31, 2017 | 01:44 PM - Posted by Travisty (not verified)

???
There's nothing illegal about what I've posted.

November 6, 2017 | 10:18 AM - Posted by docace911

SO ho will you watch any non OTA station? If you don't care, thats fine, but the article is about cord cutting.

Some of us like AMC or getting all their channels over wifi - which you can only do if you subscribe.

Again, layer3 REQUIRES a concurrent subscription with RCN or XFINITY even if you never plug the cable in.

October 30, 2017 | 07:20 PM - Posted by TheValvesOnThoseInternetPipesCanThrottled (not verified)

Yes but my internet service providor is also one of those cable or satellite/other content providors. So until they force the internet service providors to become entirely different businesses from the content providors by forcing the big cable/content providors to spin off their internet providor business units as different companies then cutting the cord is not really cutting the cord, it's more like just changing the pipe/delivery method.

And the BIG content providors that are also Internet Service Providors will not be net neutral with content and so users will still have to pay, and maybe pay even more for third party content directly delivered over the web based protocols by any Netflix/other streaming services.

Just look at who is in control over at the FCC, and those streaming content providors fees are going up because the big content providor interests that are also big Internet Service Providors do not like open competition that may hurt their content creation delivery business(Old fashon Coaxial-Cable business models). And all the big old Coaxial Cable providors that have their Own Internet Service providor customers are offering up their own fast tracked over the pipes streaming content services that do not even count torwards any data caps as the Internet and the streaming/content, if offered by the same content providor companies, to their Internet customers can have that streamed content data not count towards the monthly data cap.

The only reason that I'm currently paying in the low $60 dollar range for Internet Service(no monthly data cap) is that there is competition in my area/building from other Internet Service Providors/content providors. But for streaming content in other areas without much competition and monthly data caps, that streaming of content that does not count towards the monthly data cap is really going to make fair competition hard for startups in areas without much competition to begin with. So the big Interests will have even more of an advantage for their Internet streaming services.

And 9 times out of 10 that internet cable modem has an Ethernet cable connection on the user side but is still wired up to a Coaxial Cable on the building/services side so that's not much difference if at all with cutting the cable providor off.

October 31, 2017 | 07:51 AM - Posted by RickP (not verified)

The DVR features are crossed up between Sling TV and PS Vue. They should be swapped around.

October 31, 2017 | 11:42 AM - Posted by docace911

Who will buy later 3? They informed me they ONLY partner with Comcast and RCN and you NEED TO PAY for those channels FIRST before you pay for their service.

Its kinda nuts. What is their business model?

October 31, 2017 | 10:31 AM - Posted by RadioActiveLobster

Step 1: Have good internet.

Well, looks like I'm out.

October 31, 2017 | 12:19 PM - Posted by Anonymously Anonymous (not verified)

correction:

Step 1: Have good internet connection provided by an ISP that doesn't throttle video streaming services.

* I know from experience. Recently att rolled out fiber in our area(only ones to offer it so far) and soon as it becames available we switched. QOS for gaming and workign remote has hugely been improved, however the video streaming is throttled whtout a vpn.

October 31, 2017 | 09:04 PM - Posted by DrinkBleachBezos (not verified)

If you buy anything from Amazon, you're a moron who is making the weapons for your own self destruction.

November 1, 2017 | 08:34 AM - Posted by Anonymous744 (not verified)

A good option for AppleTV fans...run your AppleTV 4k's with silicon-dust HDHomerun tv tuner and channels app for local HD ATSC... terrific quality when combined with other streaming services for cord cutters. The infuse 5 app also is a great alternative to Plex for those using AppleTV's... just my opinion.... Android streaming boxes of course also have their benefits as well (more open,and google play store)

This being said,HTPC's are still very relevant In my opinion for gaming on the big screen in you living room... subjective, but i say much more flexible than a console.

November 1, 2017 | 05:14 PM - Posted by docace911

I wish the free HDHomerun app ran on my appleTV> They are working on it - dropping $15 for channels seems excessive.

Plex Live TV works well too - the guide is fun to look at but not as functional as the simple list.

All in all when Apple

1. Fixes resolution switching (11.2 is working btw)
2. Adds Amazon 4k
3. Adds ATMOS/Bitstream
4. Fixes Siri (it is broken, no homekit integration, only some commands work others are "can't do that yet")

It will be my favorite box :) For now the shield does the above but lacks robust airplay :(

November 1, 2017 | 02:39 PM - Posted by rbricker99

I use Youtube TV and Netflix with Chromecast on a Visio 4K HDR tv using Comcast Business internet.

I do get occasional poor video quality and Chromecast isn't always reliable but I'm pretty happy with it.

Missing piece was Amazon because of the lack of Chromecast, but Visio added a native Amazon app so problem solved.

No box needed, but WAF is low.

Business internet is $$$, but easier for taxes.

November 3, 2017 | 12:04 AM - Posted by Way neJetSki (not verified)

Very interested in a OTA DVR you were talking about like Silicon Dust devices.

November 6, 2017 | 10:19 AM - Posted by docace911

Works great with PLEX and HDHomerun app. iOS and Android and WIn10/XBOX apps are free now. Guide is not great but free.

November 9, 2017 | 01:47 AM - Posted by thezfunk

I don't think you explained the differences between the HDHomerun Extend and Connect. They both do OTA channels but the Connect sends the MPEG2 stream out whereas the Extend encodes it to H.264. If your box has enough horsepower it won't matter (and your WIFI is good enough). However, if you have a less powerful box you want the Extend (it is more expensive) because the lighter powered boxes typically handle the H.264 stream but choke on the pure MPEG2.

Case in point, my Amazon TV handles the MPEG2 just fine but my older Nexus TV has glitches and pixelation.

November 9, 2017 | 07:58 PM - Posted by CrankyDave

Yeah, and Roku doesn't understand MPEG2, so if you're streaming OTA TV or using Plex's new DVR function to record that or cable TV and serving it to a Roku device or TV like I am, it's gonna need to be transcoded. Obnoxiously, the dorito that's powering the Qnap NAS that my Plex server is running on isn't powerful to do that, so I'm gonna have to repurpose some old hardware to create a new server that *is*. I use a Homerun Prime cablecard tuner, so I can't just replace it with an Extend.

November 9, 2017 | 01:47 AM - Posted by thezfunk

Double post

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