A Guide For Getting What You Need, and Nothing That You Don’t
Today we want the best TV & video all the time, everywhere! TV, especially cable TV, is the service we love to hate. How can we get the best TV / video / streaming without driving ourselves crazy?
If you read the previous blog on getting the Best Internet you might have gotten that sinking feeling that the Internet is too much trouble to deal with. I’m sorry, but getting the best TV is even more dicey. However if you read on, perhaps there’s something here that will help you!
Four Options for the Best TV
How can you tell get the best TV service, and tell when you have it? I can think of four approaches:
- Do you believe the ads? C’mon now! But if you are susceptible to advertising pitches, perhaps you should sign up for the best-sounding service on a trial basis. Otherwise, you may always wonder, “did I miss something better than I have?”
- Does your neighbor seem to have better service from a different TV supplier than you are using? Well, that might be a reason to consider switching suppliers. Or at least, use the threat of switching to get a better deal from your current supplier.
- What if you’d like to stick with conventional TV but want to take a more systematic approach to maximizing your experience? That’s the subject of the first section below, “Part I: Best TV, Conventional Service”.
- What if you’re willing to consider a newer-tech approach? That is, to “cut the cord” with your TV supplier and subscribe to streaming video service instead. That’s the subject of the last section below, “Part II: Best TV, Streaming Service”.
Part I: Best TV, Conventional Service
Now let’s proceed on a systematic approach to achieving the best TV that you can, using conventional service approaches. By “conventional” I mean that your TV supplier uses coaxial cable, fiber optic cable or satellite transmission to your home. Conventional might also include over-the-air (OTA) transmission to your home antenna.
Let’s start by making sure that the TV equipment you have is working as well as it can. Does your TV picture sometimes pixillate (break into checkerboard squares)? Or quit entirely?
If that only happens on one channel, there may be a problem with that network feed. If it’s wider-spread, that requires a phone call to your TV provider. As long as you have a specific problem to point to, you should be able to persuade them to fix the problem on their end or send a technician to measure your signal levels.
But if you don’t have overt symptoms like these, then you need to grab hold of the problem yourself, as follows.
For the Best TV, Can You Measure?
Last week, we sought the best internet. We started by comparing the service provider’s promises with what they delivered.
This week, we’re looking for the best TV. And we immediately run into a double roadblock. First of all: TV providers typically do not tell you the strength and quality of the signal they provide. And secondly, even if you can get them to commit to some specification, it’s very difficult to find out whether you’re receiving it.
Some TV sets have built-in signal strength meters. Sony is one TV manufacturer that supplies this function. An unacceptable signal level would trigger a phone call to your TV service. You would tell them, I dunno how much signal you’re giving me, but my TV set says that it’s no good. Fix it!
If your TV set won’t measure the signal, can you simply buy a signal strength meter? A search for “cable TV signal meter” on Amazon.com brings up a dozen options ranging from $80 to over $500.
But it’s not that easy. I would refer you to the discussion on AVSforum. My best summary of that discussion is that it’s so difficult to measure TV signal strength, and so dependent on your home wiring, that it’s best to leave that to your TV provider. And your TV provider will never tell you that he’s not providing you the best TV!
Getting the Best TV by Direct Comparison
None of this gives us a quantitative way to know when we’re getting the best TV. So instead, what about a qualitative comparison? If we could get service from several TV providers, we could directly compare them. We would switch back and forth between them and compare picture quality and dropouts across many different channels. That might not get us the very best TV that exists, but it would lead us to the best TV that’s available to us.
Unfortunately, it’s not practical or affordable to turn on TV service from multiple providers at the same time. But we are not helpless!
There is one side-by-side comparison that’s easy to do. You can compare your existing TV service with an over-the-air antenna, as discussed below. What if you get better picture quality on the same channels from an over-the-air antenna than from your TV provider? Well, that gives you a reason to call your TV provider and lean on them to improve their service!
There’s an additional benefit to comparing your TV service with OTA service. If over-the-air gives you good service on at least some of the channels you want, you have the possibility of ditching your current TV provider altogether! You could instead rely on OTA reception and/or use a streaming service. More about that option later on in Part II.
Over-the-Air (OTA) Antennas
If you live near or in a major city, an indoor OTA antenna will get you many, but likely not all, of the channels that you want. If you’re in the far far suburbs, you’ll need a roof antenna and even that may not satisfy you. However, either way, the price is right! Namely, zero or close to zero.
The FCC has a web page that will advise you which channels may be available over the air from your home. If you have a reasonable list of “Strong” signals, try an over-the-air antenna. The one I used cost under $25 from Amazon.com. The FCC told me I would have Strong signal on 9 channels, I actually got 6. However, all of these had additional subchannels, giving a total of 24 channels I could receive.
Conclusions on Best TV, Conventional Service
Here’s a summary of the Part I discussion on how to get the best TV via conventional service options:
- Make sure your existing TV service does not have obvious problems justifying a tech visit from your TV provider.
- Get an inexpensive in-home antenna and directly compare its quality of service to your regular TV supplier.
- Is the in-home antenna service better than the TV service you’re paying for? Ask your provider to make your TV service better right away. If they can’t or won’t, consider signing up with a different TV supplier.
- Is the in-home antenna worse than your paid TV service? Then you may be stuck with the best you can get, unless a different provider has better technology.
- Is the in-home antenna so good that you’d like to dump your TV provider entirely? Then consider streaming, as in the following section.
Part II: Best TV, Streaming Service
Are you disgusted with conventional TV delivery? If so, you have excellent company. Cable TV companies are widely hated, because of their high price, poor service and confusing service plans. Each year, more people take a deep breath and step off the diving board into the streaming services pool in their quest for the best TV. In fact, the cover story of Consumer Reports magazine for August 2018 has the lurid title “Dear Cable TV, YOU’RE FIRED!”
Here’s a good reason to try out streaming services: it’s the best way I know to get a one-to-one comparison between your current TV provider and an alternative way to go. That’s because all you need to set up streaming TV is an inexpensive streaming device, a trial subscription to one or more streaming services and perhaps an extra HDMI cable.
If you’re one of the folks who hates his cable company, the streaming services give you another way to receive TV and other video. Here’s what I learned about streaming video services:
- Different streaming services offer different channels. I looked at CBS All Access, DirecTV Now, Hulu, Philo, PlayStation Vue, Sling and YouTube TV. For the stations our household wanted, DirecTV Now gave the best coverage. After studying all the channel offerings, I took free trials on both DirecTV Now and Sling Blue.
- A variety of streaming devices are available. There are many reviews of streaming devices, for example from Consumer Reports. I chose Roku Express Plus for my own tests. I picked it because it’s very inexpensive (about $30) and has both HDMI and Composite video outputs.
- In every case you will need an internet service to drive the streaming device. You may need to buy that service from a company that you loathe, such as your cable TV provider. However, buying Internet for streaming video will still save you money compared with buying internet plus cable TV.
- You will not get real-time live Public Television on any streaming service. The reason PBS gives is that they license many productions (for example, BBC shows) from companies that don’t grant PBS internet distribution rights for those shows. Therefore, PBS doesn’t feed any of its programming live to streaming services. However, recorded (non-live) Public Television programs are widely available on all services.
- Changing channels is awkward. See the following discussion.
- Because of the FCC’s repeal of Net Neutrality Rules, in the future Internet providers may throttle bandwidth to impair streaming services, in an effort to direct customers to their own TV services instead.
Changing Streaming Channels is Inconvenient
We found it awkward to change channels on a streaming service. Simple channel surfing required many button pushes for each channel change.
This annoyance makes it essential to test drive your streaming service. Before committing, sign up for a free trial and exercise it thoroughly. You need to know whether you can tolerate the different ways you control streaming video versus cable TV.
What Art Learned In His Tests
- Neither DirecTV Now nor Sling allows you to rapidly flip through the channels you have labeled as Favorite.
- Roku devices allow some voice control, either directly or via your cell phone, depending on the model. However, the control is limited to selecting a Streaming Channel. By a Streaming Channel, they mean a signal source such as DirecTV Now, Netflix or an antenna signal. The voice control does not allow you to jump to a desired channel within a Streaming Channel. Daughter Dana tells me that her Apple TV has the same limitations.
- When using Sling, the Roku “redo” button allows you to jump to the last channel watched, which is a plus. DirecTV Now does not provide this functionality.
- Picture quality and drop-outs (signal interruptions) depend on your internet connection: its speed, consistency, reliability and signal strength.
– Example 1: In Michigan we currently use an ATT DSL service that is nominally 18 Mbps. It measures 10 to 15 Mbps speed but on some occasions drops to 5 Mbps. DirecTV Now recommends a minimum of 12 Mbps for High Definition TV service. This may explain why we saw more dropouts with streaming service than with Comcast cable TV.
– Example 2: Dana does not rely on wi-fi to feed her Apple TV streaming device. Instead, she hard-wires her Apple TV to her internet modem to improve picture quality. This suggests that your personal experience with streaming TV may depend a lot on the quality of your Internet connection.
What if you want to go quickly to your favorite channels? At present, I know of no streaming device that makes this easy. It’s only easy if you have very nimble fingers and/or superhuman patience.
Why Art Won’t Be Cutting the Cord Immediately
Many people are finding streaming services perfectly OK for them already. And you can find many Internet articles celebrating the joy of saying good-bye to the cable TV company. For example, CordCutting.
For the Chester household (Art and Nola), we’re not likely to cut the cord until certain things happen:
- We need the ability to rapidly jump between “favorite” TV channels. Some streaming service that contains all the channels that we want might add this feature. Or some streaming device might add this function.
- At that time, we’ll test a fast internet speed and see whether we can get the picture quality and reliability from a streaming service that we have been getting from cable TV. In particular, we don’t want to see signal drop-outs or pixellation.
- Then we’ll determine whether we can easily switch to and from over-the-air PBS when we want to watch live public television.
- At that point, we can drop cable TV and stick with one or more streaming services plus an over-the-air antenna.
Being rather set in our ways, our requirements to cut the cord may be steeper than yours. That’s why it’s important to understand the many and changing TV options available. Only you can determine the best TV service for your needs.
This blog tries to cut through the jargon and give a sensible path getting TV that best suits your life and lifestyle. That is, the best TV for you. If you have suggestions to add, please offer comments below!
– TV heads from Tumisu on pixabay
– Victony TV Antenna image from Amazon.com
– Roku Express Plus image from Walmart.com