Ask Maggie: On dumping cable for online video

CNET's Maggie Reardon answers a reader's question about how to cut cable TV service and watch online video on a TV.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
9 min read

If you're like me, you cringe every month when you pay your cable bill. And you dream of the day you can cut your cable cord and stop paying that monthly bill.

It's not that I don't like to watch TV. I do. But I can't stand that I pay $140 a month to watch a handful of shows on five or six channels. The DVR has completely changed my viewing habits, so that I only watch the shows I want to see when I want to see them.

Ask Maggie

Meanwhile, there is a growing amount of video content online. Some of it's free, from places such as Hulu. And some of it costs money. For example, Netflix has a monthly subscription fee, and Amazon offers an on-demand service that allows you to rent or buy movies and shows.

For some people, mainly those who don't need live news or sports programming, cutting the cord and streaming video from the Web onto a large screen TV is a great, low-cost alternative to paid subscription TV.

Some tech savvy people have already been doing it for years. But for the less technically inclined, the morass of devices and cable and connectors that need to be hooked up has been intimidating. But new software and hardware are coming on the scene to make it easier than ever to make the switch.

So when I got a question from a reader asking me how she could get rid of her cable service by connecting a computer to her TV, I decided to do some digging. And for this week's Ask Maggie installment, I went right to the experts: CNET Reviews editors.

Ask Maggie is a weekly advice column, so if you've got a question, I'd love to hear from you. Send an e-mail to me at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com.

Cutting the cable cord

Dear Maggie,

I'd like to get rid of my cable service and instead buy a small computer to hook up to my television full time. I obviously don't need the computer to come with a monitor, and I don't need it to do everything my laptop does, but I do want it to be good at streaming video and Web surfing (to find the video!). I'd like to figure out what would give me the most value and bang for my buck. Do you have any insight into this?

Thanks in advance!


Dear Lori,

Good for you for cutting the cable cord! If you can wait until later this year, Google promises that it has a solution to grant you your wish. Google has developed a technology it is calling Google TV, which will be built into TVs, set-top boxes, Blu-ray players, and other devices that will allow people to do things like use Google Search to find videos from the Web, watch full-screen YouTube videos, find shows on Hulu, buy TV shows on Amazon on Demand, and more.

The company has partnered with Sony, Dish Network, and Logitech. New devices sporting the Google TV technology are expected to hit stores this fall. Best Buy is going to be the first retailer to sell them. But as of now, we don't know what the products will look like or how they'll perform. And we still don't know pricing.

If you feel like you can't wait any longer, I've put together some options for you. I've divvied these choices into three types of products: Compact desktop computers or Nettops, laptops, and consumer electronics.

I've also provided some helpful hints on how to hook up your computer to an HDTV.


Let's start with the home desktop computers. I contacted CNET Reviews editor Rich Brown, who tests desktop computers for his advice. He said there are several new Nettops on the market, but he suggested the new MacMini and the Dell Inspiron Zino HD.


Here's a synopsis of what Rich thought of the MacMini in his review. To check out his full review go here.

The good: HDMI video output makes it easy to connect an HDTV; SD card slot allows you to share pictures on a big screen; handles Web-based HD video with no trouble.

The bad: Puny storage capacity for its price; no Blu-ray hurts in a pricier living room system like this.

The bottom line: The HDMI output is key. But at $699, it's pretty expensive.

Dell Inspiron Zino HD

Rich's other recommendation is the Dell Inspiron Zino HD. This device is an affordable, flexible, small-scale desktop, that stacks up well to the MacMini if configured appropriately.

The good: Offers a living-room-friendly design; fast performance thanks to AMD processors, 802.11n networking for Wi-Fi connectivity, and easy to hook up to your TV via HDMI port.

The bad: Integrated graphics chip chokes on HD and some standard-def video sources. But this can be upgraded for $75 extra.

The bottom line: In the right configuration, Dell's Inspiron Zino HD will fit seamlessly into your living room as a PC-based video source. Due to its uneven handling of even standard-definition video, Rich was unimpressed with its video capabilities.

"Fortunately, Dell offers the right upgrades to get you to the hallowed ground of PC-based video content--just be prepared to spend a little bit more to get there," he said in his review.

His full review is here.

The base price of the computer is $249. But the configuration reviewed by CNET cost $468. Adding the upgraded graphics chip will cost an additional $75 and the Blu-ray player will cost an extra $100. In total, this exact configuration would cost $643.

I asked Rich if there was any way to get decent video streaming on this device out of the box, but he said that was unlikely.

"The bottleneck is HD video," he said. "The technically inclined might be able to make the $250 Zino work flawlessly with HD with certain software additions (Linux, an alternate media player, a bunch of video codecs.) "

But he said that most consumers the out-of-the-box $250 Zino would still likely disappoint most users.

"HD QuickTime, for example, via Apple trailers and iTunes, particularly sucks on lower-end systems," he said.

That said, adding the $75 graphics chip upgrade, an ATI Radeon HD 4330,would likely make sure it can handle any HD video you throw at it.

Regardless of what kind of nettop computer you get, you'll also still need some sort of keyboard so that you can navigate the Web and actually play some video. Rich recommends Logitech's diNovo Mini, which looks like a BlackBerry keyboard with a control panel and a Bluetooth connection. He claims that this device does for home theater PC keyboards what Apple's iPod did to the MP3 player. In short, it makes taking full control of your PC and its media functions simple without relying on multiple or clunky input devices. But at $150, the "keyboard remote" is not cheap.


Watch this: Connect your laptop to your TV

Another option for you is to buy a new laptop, which you could use as your regular computer, too. I talked to Scott Stein, CNET Reviews editor for laptops, to get his thoughts.

Scott said that any laptop that uses the Intel Core i3 chips should handle streaming video very well on its own screen. But if you are going to output that video onto your big TV screen in your living room, he suggests making sure the laptop has the Intel Core i5 chip just to be safe. He said there are many laptops on the market with these chips. But he suggested two that he likes.

Gateway NV5933u

The good: Great performance for the price; Blu-ray drive; HDMI-out port.

The bad: Awkward touch pad buttons; no Bluetooth; screen resolution isn't full HD; disappointing battery life.

The bottom line: Budget computer shoppers, take note: if you're looking for an affordable way to get Blu-ray on a laptop, the Core i3-powered Gateway NV5933u is one of the best values around.

At $549, this option may offer you the most bang for your buck, since it also doubles as a laptop computer.

Take a look at Scott's full review here.

Toshiba Satellite E205-S1904

If you don't want all those pesky wires connecting to your TV, you could try getting a laptop with Intel Wireless Display. The biggest downside of this configuration is that it doesn't work with DVD/Blu-ray or DRM'ed downloaded content, but it's ideal for basic standard definition Web video from Hulu or YouTube. Scott said that many more and more laptops are coming with Wi-Di already built in, but he suggested the Toshiba E205.

"It's not cheap--it's $999--but it comes bundled with the box needed to connect to your TV, and it's a faster Core i5 laptop," he said.

The good: Slim design; easy-to-use Intel Wireless Display built-in; speedy Core i5 processor.

The bad: Expensive - $999

The bottom line: As one of the first laptops to feature Intel's Wireless Display technology. If you plan to use it as a laptop and a Net video player, then the price tag is affordable. But since you said you already have a laptop, it's pretty pricey.

His full review is here.

Consumer electronics devices

There are several Blu-ray players, HDTVs, and gaming consoles that now connect to the Net and offer streaming video services. Here are some of the choices that are available.

PlayOn: This service is available via all game consoles (i.e. Xbox 360, PS3, and Wii) and the Moxi DVR. It lets you access Hulu and a variety of other online video services on your TV.

The downside: You need to be running the PlayOn server software on a networked PC elsewhere in the house. And it also requires a yearly subscription fee.

Hulu Plus: This service, which was just announced last week, lets viewers subscribe to a service for $9.99 per month to easily get access to TV shows on certain devices, such as the iPad, iPhone, Samsung net-connected TVs and Blu-ray players. The service will be coming to a much wider list of devices in the coming months, including gaming devices like the PS3 and Xbox 360.


The downside: Hulu Plus only includes network TV programming. It does not include any cable TV shows or movies. And it still includes ads, even though you are still paying a subscription fee.

Netflix: For just $9 a month you can get access to a wide selection of movies and TV series via Netflix's library. The service is now available on almost every net-connected home device, including all current game consoles and many new Blu-ray players.

In short, a video-streaming Roku box, which costs only $100, or gaming devices, such as the PS3 and Xbox may offer you a great value. The PS3 costs about $299 and the Xbox 360 is only $199. The benefit of accessing online video through these devices is it's easy to access via the TV with simple remote. The downside is that you can only access the services that come with that device. You will not have access to the full spectrum of online video that you could search for and access from a full-blown computer.

Making it all work

Once you decide on desktop computer or laptop to connect to your TV, you'll probably need some help figuring out how to connect it to your TV. The good news is that if you have bought an HDTV in the past couple of years, hooking your laptop or a new Nettop computer will be easy.

CNET's Scott Stein has put together this helpful video. And here are a few tips based on his advice.

HDMI: Simply plug the HDMI cable into your laptop and your computer, and you should be good to go. Many laptops connect automatically once an HDMI cable is plugged in to a TV, but you may have to adjust your display settings in the Windows control panel or change your TV's picture settings to get the best fit. An important tip: unless you turn off mirroring of your TV and laptop's displays, you won't get full 1080p resolution to take advantage of your big screen (provided your TV is 1080p).

No HDMI? Try VGA: The universal and ever-handy port is featured on a surprising number of HDTVs, and if you have it you can connect VGA-to-VGA with the appropriate cable. VGA only carries the video signal. For audio you'll need to go through the laptop's audio-out jack, which in some cases doubles as an optical audio-out port.

Mac users: New MacBooks and MacBook Pros can use the Mini DisplayPort jack, which also carries full 5.1-surround audio as well as video. But you will need a converter dongle such as the Griffin Video Display Converter to plug an HDMI cable into your TV. The rest of the setup is similar to what goes on with a Windows laptop- you'll need to adjust settings in Apple's control panel for the monitor resolution, Scott said.

If you have an older MacBook Pro or MacBook with Mini DisplayPort, you'll need to output audio via the headphone jack since it only carries a video signal. It's more complicated, but you can still get it to work.

CNET Reviews editors, Rich Brown, Scott Stein, Dan Ackerman, and John Falcone contributed to this report.