PlayOn and a Blue Label PC make cutting cable easier

HDTV cut cableWith more access to movies and TV shows from the Internet to their TVs, consumers are continuing to look for ways to cut the cord with their cable company. The Yankee Group predicts that in the next 12 months, one in eight consumers will drop cable in favor of an alternative source for getting the same entertainment on their TV. With this in mind we set out to test two ways you can cut the cord without giving up your favorite shows:

First, we looked at PlayOn, a software service which works with the Xbox 360, PS3, Wii and other supported devices to stream content from many providers including Hulu, Comedy Central and several Sports right to your HDTV. PlayOn reports that 38% of their users have cut their cable service and are saving up to $1,400 a year.

Second, we looked at a new laptop from Best Buy, the Toshiba Satellite e205 ($899), which is part of the Blue Label line of notebooks and includes Intel Wireless Display technology for streaming whatever iss on your laptop to your HDTV in 720P.

While the approach differs, and not everyone is ready to cut the cord, these two tools make it easier and cheaper to catch a missed show or decrease your cable service. Follow along and find out how these two tools stack up against cable.

The thing I like most about PlayOn is that you don't need to purchase a new device. A full 60% of households already have a game console that can work with PlayOn and many more have similar compatible devices. To use PlayOn, you need to install a small program on a computer in your house and follow the straightforward instructions for your video game console and you'll be watching Hulu, Netflix, Comedy Central, or (with a separate subscription) and with PlayOn plugins you have access to a whole world of content. According to CEO Jeff Lawrence, the use of plugins will soon be much easier and users will be able to use them to find niche content, like a favorite foreign language show, with ease.

Testing on the Xbox 360, I found PlayOn to be a great way to get the shows you want on your big screen without messing around. Watching Glee on Hulu or The Daily Show on Comedy Central is as easy as can be, and anyone in the house should be able to use the system. Another plus is that you can view Netflix Watch Instantly titles on your Xbox 360 without an Xbox Live Gold subscription, a savings of $50 a year if you don't game online.

Occasionally, there was a buffering issue and fast forwarding is hit or miss, but these issues don't detract greatly from the overall PlayOn service; especially since you don't need to buy new devices.

PlayOn offers a free 14-day trial so that you can test it out yourself. After the trial PlayOn is $39.99 for the first year and $19.99 for each subsequent year. According to Lawrence, there will likely be a lifetime subscription to PlayOn available for 3-4 times the annual cost in the near future.

The Toshiba Satellite e205 from Best Buy is another cool way to cut the cord and stream TV shows to your HDTV. In addition to streaming HD video to your TV, the e205 is a really powerful Intel Core i5 laptop that offers value of its own (2 year warranty, 30-days Geeksquad, free 1 year anti-virus) and has everything you need to get running in the package for $899, including an adapter for your HDTV. If you prefer a 13" or a 15" notebook, you can also get a small Sony VAIO or a larger Dell Studio as part of the Blue Label family that can do streaming, though these are more expensive.

I really like that the Toshiba e205 and the NetGear Push2TV allows me to play any web-accessible content on my HDTV with the push of one button. It's almost magical how good this works. As my wife and I settled down to watch the season premiere of Burn Notice, it came to our attention that the Time Warner DVR recorded a pixelated and unwatchable copy; two seconds later we were watching a stream from via the e205 and Intel Wireless Display. We could have also watched it on Hulu Desktop if we wanted to.

I also tested streaming Up!, on Netflix Watch Instantly in HD, and it worked flawlessly, even during fast forward, and when I watched a locally stored copy of Big Buck Bunny in HD the experience was great.

Before you start your quest to cut cable and save money, you need to do a bit of prep work to make sure a cable-less solution will work for you. You'll also need to be prepared to change your TV viewing habits slightly since many shows are not available online until a day after they air on TV. Also, if you are addicted to HD, be prepared to scale down your expectations as most shows are only available in up to 480P, lower than the 720P most cable companies provide. For most users this will be fine. I could tell I wasn't watching HD, but was OK with the picture and many other viewers will be too. The easiest way to find out for yourself is to test it out.

Bryan J. Busch at Consumerism Commentary has detailed his switch from cable to a computer powered TV, including a spreadsheet you can download to find out what shows you can get for free, which you will have to pay for and if you will save money in the long run. Bryan also details his setup which uses a Mac Mini and some great software that will help you cut the cord with either of the two methods we looked at here.

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