Photo: Steve Kovach, Business Insider
Every year it feels like we hear the same story: This is when we’ll finally be able to break away from cable or satellite companies and stream all the shows we want to watch when we want to watch them over the web instead.Every year that doesn’t happen.
Click here to see what happens when you cut the cord for a week >
Are we getting closer? Definitely. The most recent step forward is the new live TV integration from Boxee, the guys who put together the Boxee Box for streaming web content from services like Netflix to your TV.
Thanks to a software update and a $50 dongle that lets you attach an HD antenna to your Boxee Box, you can now pull in live network TV over the air for free. The advantage here is that you get to use Boxee’s fancy interface and guide on top live TV. You won’t have to fumble around with your TV’s confusing settings.
Boxee is also using the dongle as a way to convince people to “cut the cord,” or cancel their cable or satellite TV in favour of streaming stuff over the web. Cord cutters have the advantage of saving hundreds of dollars in cable bills a year while still getting most of the same programming online.
So I took Boxee up on their challenge and cut the cord for a week. Keep reading to see what happened and whether or not it was worth it.
Last month, Boxee released a new dongle that hooks up to an HD antenna and lets you pipe in live network TV from over the air. It may seem odd in this era of cable and satellite service, but network TV like NBC, ABC, CBS, and FOX all broadcast their shows over the airwaves for free.
The dongle plugs into the USB port on the back of your Boxee Box. Then, you screw in the HD antenna with a coaxial cable. (That's the same kind of rounded cord you plug your cable box in with.) A new free software update from Boxee automatically detects the antenna. Just enter your zip code and you'll get a listing of channels and the shows currently playing on them.
While Boxee's software update for live TV may be free, the dongle that lets you hook your box up to an HD antenna will cost you $50. That feels like a lot to ask on top of the $167 you already spent on the Boxee Box. As a comparison, you can get an Apple TV ($99) and an HD antenna ($20 or less) at a cheaper price than just the Boxee Box alone.
It's nice to be able to watch live TV via Boxee's interface, but it's not that difficult to switch your TV over to your HD antenna if you already have one. 50 bucks sounds like a lot to save you the five seconds it takes to grab your remote and switch modes on your TV.
Once you input your zip code, Boxee takes a few minutes to gather all the channel data in your area. Once the download is complete, you can access a nice menu that lays over the show on your screen. It's easy to quickly scan through what's playing and switch channels. There's no need to enter a channel number like you do on a traditional remote.
If you have a Facebook friend on Boxee, you can see what they're watching too. If your friend tunes to the same channel you're on, his or her photo will pop up in the bottom right corner of your screen to let you know. Not many of my friends own Boxee Boxes, so this feature wasn't very useful for me. But I did get a nice surprise when Boxee let me know an old friend from high school was watching the same rerun of 'How I Met Your Mother.'
You can also choose to share everything you watch with your Facebook followers, similar to the way Spotify works with songs. Your Facebook friends will get a nice stream of everything you're watching. You can also tweet or post to Tumblr.
These social features are cool, but not entirely useful if you don't have many friends using Boxee too.
You'd be surprised how much network TV you watch. I was. Between the NFL, sitcoms, and news, I found that a large chunk of my TV watching is done on channels that I can get for free over the air using an HD antenna.
With a few exceptions, I didn't feel like I was missing out on anything.
If you watch HD channels through your cable or satellite service, you're actually not getting the best picture possible. That's because cable and satellite boxes have to compress the picture in order to work. With over the air HD TV, you get an uncompressed picture. I definitely noticed an improvement, even though my TV can't display full 1080p HD.
Even the folks at Boxee admit that it's nearly impossible for sports fans to cut the cord from cable or satellite. If you only care to watch the Final Four, World Series, Super Bowl, and other major sporting events, then you can easily get those for free over the air.
But fans who want the option to watch all the games their teams play can't do that. You either have to subscribe to one of those expensive services like MLB.tv and stream the games online or watch them on cable. (Boxee does have MLB.tv if you're willing to pay for it though.)
During my experiment, I was lucky enough to see Syracuse crush St. Johns live at the Garden. But if I didn't have a ticket and wanted to watch at home, I wouldn't have been able to catch the game on Boxee.
The Boxee Box is just a conduit for piping in content. There's no way to record stuff and watch it later like you can on your TiVo or cable company's DVR. Everything you watch through the live TV feature on Boxee is just that: Live. If you miss it, you miss it.
This wouldn't be quite so annoying if Boxee had the Hulu Plus app, which allows you to stream popular network shows the day after they air. But so far Hulu has shunned Boxee, so you're kind of limited if you want to catch up on shows you missed.
There's still Vudu on Boxee (more on that later), but it doesn't have as many shows available the next day as Hulu or iTunes.
By the way, the guys at Boxee told me video recording is the number one requested feature, so there's a decent chance it'll make it into the next version of the Box.
The Boxee dongle comes with a small HD antenna. For the most part, I had no problem getting channels to play in beautiful HD. However, I did have problems with NBC. Depending on the time of day, location of the antenna, and a million other factors, you can lose reception when getting TV over the air.
I used the antenna that came out of the box with Boxee's dongle. It worked pretty well in my apartment as long as I kept it near the window. Unfortunately, it decided to crap out just as the Super Bowl started, so I had to cheat and watch the big game on cable.
If you want, you can buy a bigger HD antenna at stores like Best Buy or Radio Shack for less than $20. It'll give you better reception. Still, it can take a lot of trial and error to find a spot in your living room where your antenna can pick up all channels.
Tip: The closer to a window, the better.
Watching TV over the air for free is great, but that doesn't solve the problem of getting premium content like movies, music, and TV shows on demand.
Right now, Netflix is Boxee's killer app. It's a great way to binge watch old TV shows. (A streaming plan from Netflix costs $7.99 per month.) And the occasional good movie sneaks in there too. I'm a heavy Netflix user, so I loved that I could quickly switch to it from live TV on Boxee.
Boxee also gives you access to Vudu, a service that lets you buy, stream, and rent movies a la carte, just like you can on iTunes. You can also purchase and stream entire seasons of TV shows if you want. The selection is excellent. Vudu makes a decent iTunes replacement on Boxee.
If you're a MOG, Spotify, or Pandora user, you're going to love those apps on Boxee. It's much better than those lame 'Music Choice' channels that your cable provider has.
But there are still a lot of junk apps on Boxee, including porn. You probably won't use most of them.
Aside from the excellent apps like Netflix, Spotify, and Vudu, many apps on Boxee just offer short video clips catering to very specific interests. (Think tech podcasts, financial shows, indie cartoons, etc.) Most people won't want to use these.
And yes, there's even adult entertainment from such illustrious networks as Hustler and YouPorn.
I don't watch a lot of TV, so there wasn't a moment when I felt like I was missing out on a must-see show because I was stuck on Boxee. With the exception of sports, Boxee's content ecosystem is deep enough that you'll be able to keep up with just about everything you want to watch. (As long as you don't mind streaming it the day after.)
Boxee did let me try the live TV dongle for free (I'm going to return it), but I can't imagine spending $50 on the device when I can just buy an HD antenna for $20 or less. Boxee's interface is nice, but not $50 nice.
Until the price comes down, or Boxee decides to include the dongle with the Boxee Box, I think the best option for cord cutters is to use an Apple TV or Boxee Box in conjunction with an HD antenna.
And sports fans: Don't even think about cutting the cord any time soon.