It’s no secret that American consumers have been dropping their cable subscriptions—pay TV providers suffered their worst decline ever in Q2 2011—in favor of streaming content. This month, my roommate and I decided to try it out ourselves. As possibly one of the last houses in America to lack an HDTV, we weren’t interested in paying for HD channels that we weren’t using, not to mention the fact that we were tired of dealing with Time Warner Cable. We’ve discovered that making the switch is both a lot easier, and a lot harder, than expected.

Cable CuttingThe Search Begins

The first question that came to mind was if we’d be able to continue watching the shows we really like. We came up with a short list of shows we’d miss, like Downton Abbey and Law and Order: SVU. We then came up with a list of shows that we’d like to be able to watch, but due to our current cable package, can’t, like Good Eats (only on the Cooking Channel) and Top Chef (which, strangely, we can watch On Demand, but don’t have Bravo). We also wanted to keep our expenses to a minimum: as we currently pay around $50/month for cable, we wanted to have our “investment” in a device pay us back in two to three months and reducing our monthly rate. After comparing services like Amazon Instant, Netflix, and Hulu, we realized we’d be able to see most, if not all of our favorites via streaming for less. But what really got us excited was that with Hulu+, we’d be able to watch all 13 seasons of SVU. (Sad, perhaps, but at least we’re in good company.)

Shopping for the Device

Initially, we planned on purchasing a Blu-Ray player with streaming capabilities for around $100, and headed down to the local Target (how old-fashioned!) to examine our options. We focused on three models in particular: a Sony on sale for $80, a Vizio for $100, and a Panasonic on sale for $120. One of our biggest concern was which apps each device had—Hulu+ and Netflix were essential, and Amazon Instant and Pandora were preferred—and were surprised by how difficult it was to determine which models had which apps. If the packaging didn’t feature a Hulu+ logo, for example, we weren’t sure if we could add it later or not, which made us hesitate.

Our next step was to look up reviews online while in the store (yes, exactly what big box retailers try to avoid). Unfortunately, user reviews indicated that while Blu-Ray playback on these machines was generally excellent, their streaming capabilities were spotty, and in some cases, Netflix was unusable. As our main goal was to stream content, this gave us pause. We also considered the lifespan of Blu-Ray technology. We expect that Blu-Ray technology will largely be passed over as more and more people skip directly to streaming. Sure, we’d be able to play our current DVD collection, but we have no intention of buying Blu-Ray discs. Would it really be worth paying an additional $30 to $50 for a technology we weren’t going to use?

Roku 2 XDWhile we hadn’t ruled out Blu-Ray players, our next step was to head over to Best Buy to look at streaming devices: specifically, the Roku, the Boxee, and Apple TV. Although Boxee has more options for Internet surfing, at $180, it was out of our price range. (We avoided Google TV for the same reason—the only Google TV-enabled Blu-Ray player costs well over $200.) We were highly tempted by Apple TV, but my roommate’s prior experience with the system was less than positive,  and for an unexpected reason: the remote was too easy to lose. Of course, its limited app selection also reduced its appeal. In the end, we decided to get the Roku 2 XD. It had the widest selection of apps, was reasonably priced at $80, and its streaming quality had received positive reviews. In addition, we purchased an antenna to receive local stations.

Setting It Up

Once home, we were eager to try our new toy. The Roku was surprisingly easy to set up—we plugged it in, connected it over WiFi, and were adding channels within 10 minutes. The antenna was also easy to set up, but unfortunately a problem cropped up: our television had an analog tuner! We’d have to purchase a digital converter to get it to work, adding another $20 or so to our total cost.

Roku AppsFinding Content

Of course, the Roku is only a device; we still had to consider our options for content. We already have a Netflix DVD by mail subscription, and Netflix’s streaming options are still fairly limited, so we decided to hold off on upgrading our subscription for now. We did, however, add a Hulu+ subscription and purchased a year-long Amazon Prime account for added streaming. We added, but did not have to pay for, a basic Pandora subscription, and Crackle, a service which somehow manages to offer a random assortment of videos without charging for them while only running minimal ads.

Findings So Far

In our first week, we spent $120 on devices and an average of $20/month for our subscription. However, we still have to purchase a digital converter. At a savings rate of $30/month, it’ll take us at least four months to recuperate our initial investment—and that’s assuming we don’t add more subscriptions or start renting or buying additional subscriptions or shows. Next week, we’ll cover technical difficulties and report back on how our viewing habits have changed.