Last week, my roommate and I made decision to cut our cable and rely on our newly purchased Roku for streamed content. Unfortunately, a technical difficulty has prevented us from entirely cutting the cable: the digital convertor box we need to receive signals through our antenna is more expensive than we originally budgeted, so we have yet to purchase one. Since we still have cable, though, it’s been valuable to contrast how we watch content on the two systems.

Watching via Cable

Under the old system, we would sit down and turn on the television. I tend to use the guide to flip through what’s currently available. If nothing seems particularly interesting, it’s just a matter of waiting until the next half-hour to check out more programming. Of course, the flip side of this is that we were at the stations’ mercy, and if we missed an episode because we were out, that was it. In other words, watching cable is a fairly mindless but relaxing way to get content.

Mindless TelevisionWatching via Streaming

Streaming requires more “active” watching on the viewer’s part: while you have more choices than before, you have to know what you want to watch and be willing to look for it. Searching is one of the more frustrating parts of streaming. The remote makes entering search words a time-consuming process, and it’s often hard to read the show information because the font is so small. And as we have several channels, it’s often difficult to remember exactly where we found our preferred content. Since we’ve just started using this system, we’re not too concerned, but we can see this becoming more complicated in the future, and it increases our chances of overpaying: for instance, the first season of Downton Abbey is included with Hulu+ and Amazon Prime subscriptions, but the second season is not available on Hulu+ while episodes costs $2 each on Amazon Instant (and, of course, are free via cable).

Roku 2 Interface

Now trying reading this from five feet away.

In addition to the latest episodes of our favorite shows, we did enjoy be able to watch older, free programs, like the Mary Tyler Moore show and Inspector Gadget (as you’ve no doubt noted, we have eclectic tastes). The biggest change in our viewing patterns, though, has been not what we watch, but how: we tend to watch several episodes of the same program in a row, rather than flipping from station to station, or having to wait for the newest episode to premiere in a week. It’s a far more satisfying way to watch television, especially with more recent shows like Lost, but it makes it harder to stop watching. We may end up watching more television then before, which is not necessarily a good thing.

One pleasant surprise, however, has been the system’s image quality and responsiveness. The picture is sharp—maybe even better than what we got through cable—and we’ve only had one instance of a program rebuffering in the middle of playing. So while finding content may be more challenging, the viewing experience itself is excellent.

A New Viewing Option

A new device launching in mid-March has the possibility to disrupt our current set-up. The Aereo is a tiny antenna—about the size of a fingertip—that connects directly to the Internet, meaning people can watch live broadcast television without the typical “rabbit ears.”

Aereo Antenna

Additionally, viewers can record shows to watch later, and watch them on up to five different devices.  While this seems like a much better way to watch network TV, it’s another subscription service, not a one-time fee, which would increase our monthly costs even more. Since we already have an antenna, it doesn’t seem like it’s worth the extra expense , but it could be a very promising option for those who are considering switching to a streaming and antenna set-up in the near future. The service will only be available in New York City to start, but we’ll keep an eye on it to see how it develops.

Next week: adventures in antenna reception!