Life Without Comcast: An Experiment in Internet TV

Can you dump pricey cable and just stream stuff off the Internet onto your TV? I'm going to try. Part one of a series.

By  |  Friday, January 16, 2009 at 2:07 pm

Life Without ComcastMaybe the title of this new Technologizer series is unfair. I don’t despise Comcast, the company who I’ve been paying for cable TV service for the past six months. (Until then, at my old pad, I was a DirecTV man.) But I don’t love it, either–especially the part about paying it a large amount of money each month when I watch maybe .000001% of what it offers.

And oh, did I mention the remote control that came with my Comcast high-def box? Worst piece of technology I use regularly–every time I pick it up, my blood begins to boil a little.

Anyhow, with the wealth of TV now streaming over the Internet courtesy of services such as Hulu, it doesn’t take that much imagination to see the day coming shortly when the Internet will be an extremely satisfying substitute for cable or satellite, especially once you figure out how to get Internet TV on a TV set, without a PC in the equation. So why not jump the gun a tiny bit and try it right now, I figured?

Enter this series of articles, in which I’ll write about the experience of using Internet TV as a Comcast substitute. Step one was to pick out the hardware I’d need, wire it up, and attempt to make it all work together. I started with…

Toshiba TVA 19-inch 720p Toshiba LCD TV. With a built-in DVD player. (DVDs remain a pretty darn handy way to consume entertainment–if they’d never existed and came along in 2009, I’d be impressed…)

appletvAn Apple TV. There are a bunch of boxes that bring Internet video into the living room in one intriguing way or another. I decided on trying this with an Apple TV in part because I mostly use iTunes to wrangle media, and Apple TV is essentially iTunes-in-a-box-that-connects-to-your TV. Between the iTunes Store’s for-pay movies and TV shows and its bevy of free podcasts, I’d also have access to a wealth of programming. But there was another reason I chose Apple TV. Which is…

BoxeeBoxee. Which is a nifty piece of software, currently in closed alpha test, for OS X and Linux that’s a sort of open media center, letting you watch stuff in all sorts of formats via a remote control. Boxee also lets you stream TV and movies from Hulu, Joost, and other video sites, providing access to a fair amount of the programming I might otherwise be watching on cable. And with a little bit of hacking it works on an Apple TV (which is really a cheap Mac-in-disguise that’s dedicated to TV watching).

I’ve set my hardware up as a second TV (in my bedroom, if you must know). Full disclosure: My 42-inch 1080p HDTV, Comcast box, and various other fancy hardware remains connected and available down in my living room.

So how easy was my gear to set up? The Toshiba set and Apple TV were a cakewalk to connect (via HDMI cable) and get up and running. (Although the Apple TV occasionally can’t find my wireless router for a few seconds–I’m not sure if that’s due to coverage glitches or some other hobgoblin yet.) Putting Boxee on the Apple TV, however, was a tad tricky–which I knew it would be, judging from tutorials on doing the job. It involves booting up your Apple TV using a thumbdrive with a specialized copy of Linux on it; that software thenpatches your Apple TV to install Boxee and to let you launch it from the Apple TV’s main menu.

Putting the software on the thumbdrive went well. The patching seemed to go fine, too–I found Boxee in my Apple TV’s menus. But…Boxee wouldn’t launch. I got a black screen each time I tried to load it.

Turned out there’s a known bug, which I resolved (I think) by reinstalling the Boxee software in a slightly different manner. It’s working now–I just proved it by streaming Muppets in Space via Hulu. And once I’ve done a little more TV watching, I’ll continue this series. In the meantime, if you’ve dumped cable for Internet TV–on a TV, or just on a PC or Mac–I’d love to hear about your experiences…


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36 Comments For This Post

  1. Jared Newman Says:

    Hey, me too!

  2. jen7refla Says:

    A friend of mine who lives close opted to stay with Comcast and he's been blessed with their new residential routing

  3. Pytho Says:

    Just a slight correction to your post. Boxee is available to the public now. I just signed up last weekend. Great software!

  4. Harry McCracken Says:

    Thanks for the update, Pytho…

  5. Matt Says:

    I’ve had the ATV+Boxee (and ATV+AwkwardTV before that) since it was available. Recent updates seem to have fixed the bug you experienced where Finder can’t get control of the screen back when you exit Boxee. I sometimes have issues getting Hulu programs to stream (30 Rock and Fringe are both recent examples), but that seems to be specific episodes, not whole series.

    Boxee is great, but can still use plenty of improvement in terms of stability. One feature I would love to see is ESPN360 integration. I haven’t tried to add it manually yet, but that would be the nail in the coffin for cable. I haven’t ditched RCN just yet, but probably will when I start my next out of town project for work.

    If Apple builds some of these features into the next ATV update, the product will be in great position to take hold of this emerging market.

  6. Daniel Says:

    I have the AppleTV, with ATVFlash and Boxee. I find Boxee to be interesting but the interface is very slow. The range of content is fair, with Hulu, but not great. I couldn’t even find Extreme Makeover:Home Edition. For those I tried streaming, it was a little choppy at times. I have Comcast with 20MB burst service. I don’t know if I get throttled when I stream. In time, I think this type of service could take over from cable, but, for now, it’s not real competition.

  7. Ed Oswald Says:

    Get a TiVo HD XL Harry.. I ditched that stupid box a long time ago! 🙂

  8. ryan Says:

    Yup been doing this for awhile ( Mac Mini connected to LCD TV; wireless handheld mouse as remote.

    I video blogged a how/why to here..

    More should follow in this tough economy. Though in the end as more do this cost of Internet will increase. Enjoy it now while it’s cheap!

  9. Eric Ullman Says:

    This is great, Harry; thanks. I look forward to the next article in the series.

    For me, it’s more about picture quality, and the streaming options provided by the Boxee software just don’t come close enough to high-definition (which, we must agree, is more than the pixel dimensions of the picture) for me to enjoy.

    What I appreciate the most from Boxee/XMBC (and also aTV Flash from Fire Core) is access to network storage and the ability to play additional video formats. Capabilities that the Apple TV lacks.

  10. Stilgar Says:

    I did this for the last three years, but switched to real IPTV a week ago when AT&T turned on Uverse service in my neighborhood. Hulu is indispensable. I also made use of, and the Netflix streaming service. I wanted to try but didn’t get around to Amazon’s U3 service. A guy I work with said this site is new and streams HDTV. They claim it’s legal:

  11. Harry McCracken Says:

    Ed: I actually have an HD TiVo that has been sitting uninstalled for months–I haven’t gotten around to making the appointment for Comcast to come out and help me install it. That’s a different rant…


  12. miguel osorio Says:

    I have tried most everything and apple tv is lightyears ahead, highend audio 7.1 surround decoder,my music,vedios everything sounds better,hd looks super,photos picture show(your friends will be WOW)and then Boxee,great product,userfriendly,Hd on the web never look so good!!!tks.

  13. Marc Says:

    I just tried to install the boxee software and it did not work as do you fix this by reinstalling it a different way..anyone know??

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  15. Pete Says:

    I believe Comcast may be blocking Boxee and would be curious if anyone else is experiencing the same. The symptom is that each time we try to get content using Boxee we lose internet connectivity and the router needs to be reset. No other programs do this, i.e. Hulu. However, as Boxee is a peer based network I believe Comcast may be playing the Bit Torrent card. Any thoughts?

    We have a Mac Mini which also takes HD broadcast feeds using Elgato’s Eye TV software turning the Mini into a DVR as well. We get about 20 channels of HD TV totally free and will never look back!

  16. Suenoir Says:

    I attached an S video cable and an RCA 2 way signal splitter to my tv, the cable hangs down permanently, and when I want to watch hulu or netflix I attached my laptop which is connected to the internet wirelessly. I left click on the desktop and choose the tv as my screen. Works beautifully, the picture come through perfectly. I recently added a wireless keyboard so that I can work the computer from my couch. Most newer laptops do not have S video but match the cable to your computer output for even better results. I haven’t used it yet, but Windows 7 is supposed to make it easier to output to television.

  17. wiki tvs Says:

    nice info bro, thanks for share

  18. super easy Says:

    you're waaaay to complicated. Get your laptop, buy a projector off of craiglist (~300). Finished. We've been doing it like this for about 2 years. you project onto a wall, or white bed sheet. For $300 you have a 8ft screen and access to all of hulu.

    What's with the appleTV, a new LCD and some stupid Boxee? That's way to much work.

  19. dudeman Says:

    wow that sounds super classy

  20. stream direct Says:

    Good info

  21. Buy Kindle 3G WiFi Says:

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  22. mel Says:

    i am on week 1 with no comcast. also watch very little tv.
    new apple tv on order. the only challenge is some
    shows i watch on ed tv that are not streamed.
    for now, hulu, etc through my macbook connect to
    hdtv with hdmi cable. i am saving over $70 per month!!!

  23. That Free TV Site Says:

    I agree. This seems like way too much work

  24. christmas tree Says:

    I hate comcast

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  26. Julie Hubble Hubble Says:

    After my cable bill got up to around 200$ a month, I discovered the the Westinghouse tv in my living room was also a monitor. All I did was plug in the cable and I was set. Now I watch whaterever I want whenever is convent for me ,for free( with the exception of my internet bill that I was paying anyways.) It's awesome. Highly recommended.

  27. Phill Says:

    I have been looking into ditching my cable tv for awhile, the price keeps going up. I have found some other tv on pc programs, but this has given me something else to think about.

  28. Monica Says:

    Julie, did you download software to the PC, then connect the PC to the internet and connect internet cable to the tv/monitor? Please, can someone give detailed step by step instructions? I really want to get out from under the cable customer service nightmare – they seem to think they have the market cornered and there's nothing I like less than to be dependent.

  29. storkcraft glider Says:

    great blog…life without comcast..

  30. Paul Web Says:

    I’ve been without cable television for 2 years now and I can’t imagine ever going back. The web has a greater variety of entertainment than my TV ever did, and the bonus of no commercials! I’ll be interested to hear how your experiment turns out, hope you are as satisfied with your choice as I was.

  31. 32 inch led tv Says:

    This is a good, common sense article. Very helpful to one who is just finding the resources about this part. It will certainly help educate me.

  32. RiggBekham Says:

    I believe Comcast may be blocking Boxee and would be curious if anyone else is experiencing the same. The symptom is that each time we try to get content using Boxee we lose internet connectivity and the router needs to be reset. No other programs do this, i.e. Hulu. However, as Boxee is a peer based network I believe Comcast may be playing the Bit Torrent card. Any thoughts?

    We have a Mac Mini which also takes HD broadcast feeds using Elgato's Eye TV software turning the Mini into a DVR as well. We get about 20 channels of HD TV totally free and will never look back!

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