Jan. 30, 2009 -- Debra and Mervin James are pioneers. They are braving the Wild West of home entertainment by canceling their paid TV service and getting all their shows, movies, news and sports through their computer.
In the 16 months they've gone without paid TV, they've saved $1,488.
The savings are there for anyone with a broadband Internet connection, but it takes a bit of do-it-yourself spirit and some patience -- because the Internet TV revolution is a work in progress.
Think of these tips as a starting point for your experiment -- like a recipe that gives you a rough idea of all the ingredients, but acknowledges that you need to figure out the exact measurements for yourself. Every home Internet TV setup will differ, so I'll try to technically explain how the Jameses did their Internet TV system, and you can use it as a guide.
The Jameses are sports fanatics with a 52-inch HDTV to prove it. In the past, they paid $115 a month for satellite TV service. To cut costs, they ditched the satellite dish and bought a $600 HP Media Center computer. This is a small computer with a big hard drive, special hardware that connects the computer to an antenna -- rabbit ears for receiving over-the-air TV broadcasts. For playback, the computer utilizes Windows Media Center which comes standard with Windows Vista Home Premium and Windows Vista Ultimate.
HP Media Center PC
Let's start with their HP Media Center PC. With a wireless keyboard and mouse, this is a "regular" computer that browses the Web and lets you write documents and send and receive e-mail.
The Media Center program, which is available on any computer that's running Windows Vista Home Premium or Windows Vista Ultimate, allows the computer to organize and control all the different audio, video and pictures that come into your computer.
There also are add-on programs and hardware you can use to transform an existing computer into one capable of receiving TV signals and recording shows like a DVR. But upgrading your computer to become a media hub is a very involved process, and even for an experienced computer user it has some pitfalls.
Using their Media Center PC, the Jameses have three ways of getting video on their computer:
The over-the-air antenna picks up free high-definition TV broadcasts and plugs into the back of the computer.
The broadband Internet connection also plugs into the back of the computer.
The Blu-Ray DVD player built into the machine lets them play high-definition DVD discs.
Remember the days before cable when you had rabbit ears that sat on top of the TV? That antenna picked up the free live broadcasts from television stations in your area. Those broadcasts still are happening, and as of Feb. 18, they will be exclusively digital with some channels even transmitting in high definition.
When you think of antennas, you think of channels that fade in and out with a snowy picture. That's not how over-the-air digital TV broadcasts work. It's an all-or-nothing proposition: You either get a crystal-clear signal or you get nothing at all.
The Windows Media Center program allows the Jameses' to plug the antenna into the back of their Media Center PC and watch TV (some in high def) from ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX and PBS. There are about 50 channels they can receive in the San Francisco Bay Area, including some independent channels and alternate language broadcasts.
With access to those live channels, the Windows Media Center can act as a Digital Video Recorder (DVR). It has the Tivo-like properties to record all your favorite shows and let you pause and rewind live TV. Once you buy the antenna (less than $50) and connect it to a PC that has Windows Media Center, you pay nothing for this over-the-air TV.
The Jameses get most of their TV shows and sports via the Internet connection they have hooked into their computer. Debra James pays for a higher-speed connection to get really fast access.
Tom Merritt, an editor at CNet, said, "If you want to stream movies and TV shows you should have at least a 3 MB second connection. For that, you may need to pay $5 to $10 a month extra for a 'boosted' connection."
What to Watch: Network and Cable TV
Once you have fast access to the Internet, finding your favorite shows is a bit of a patchwork quilt. You have to search for your favorite shows at different locations.
The major networks all have their own sites for streaming premium programs. ABC.com offers high-definition versions of shows like "Lost" or "Desperate Housewives," but the episodes may become available online slightly later than they air on regular TV.
What to Watch: Sports
For sports, the Jameses use ESPN360.com. The choices for watching premium sporting events from all over the world are amazing: cricket, lacrosse, rugby, soccer and, of course, college and pro basketball, football, baseball -- the list goes on.
Big events like the Super Bowl and the Olympics have their own streaming sites and deals, so this is where you have to be an active researcher to find what you want.
What to Watch: Movies
To watch movies from the Internet, the Jameses subscribe to Netflix. They pay $14 a month and they can watch as many movies as they like on demand from the thousands of movies Netflix has available online.
You can subscribe to this service for as little as $9 a month, but the Jameses added a few extra benefits. See the Netflix site for current pricing deals. You also can stream movies a la carte from sites like Amazon.com.
The Jameses also can resort to a physical movie disc, if they like. Their Media Center PC has a high-definition DVD player built in for any discs they want to watch.
Internet video quality has improved greatly in the last six months. It's not all perfect, but it's a lot better than what many people imagine.
"I've had people come and we're watching ESPN 360 or Netflix and they think we are watching TV and it's not. It's the computer and they are really amazed," Debra James said.
Tom Merritt from CNet agreed.
"There's a perception that Internet video is cat-on-a-skateboard looking, kinda blurry," he said. "But the fact of the matter is that you can actually get high-definition video if you have a fast enough Internet connection, full screen to fill a 60-inch screen."
The quality of the sports and movies the Jameses showed me was very good. It filled their TV full screen and looked great. There were a few moments during a basketball game where the video hiccupped and paused, but they said that was very unusual.
The speed of your Internet connection and the speed of your computer greatly affect how video looks, so it may not be a good idea to use an old computer as your new media center. Not all Internet video can be stretched to look good on a big screen TV, but that's the general industry trend and the quality is getting better all the time.
A Computer on the Big Screen
One of the added benefits to the setup the Jameses have is that they can do all the things they normally do on their computers on their big-screen TV. They can show off digital photos, answer e-mails and browse the Web. They even can do all those things in one corner of the screen while a basketball game fills the rest of the screen. It's a whole new take on the picture-in-picture concept.
Using a computer to watch TV and movies is not quite ready for prime time, but it's a great solution for a segment of the population willing to take the plunge.
"It's a little different, but I think once people realize you can watch these shows inexpensively and view them on demand, they'll realize how much more control they can have over their viewing habits," Debra James said.
My prediction: In a year or two, Internet-based TV will be much easier to navigate and a great way to save your hard-earned dollars.