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Cutting the cord: hardware

Xbox 360, Apple TV offer alternatives to cable

Last week, we measured the benefits and drawbacks of cutting the cable cord to your TV.

This week, let's cover the hardware you need to make that cut last.

Ideally, you want a setup that allows you to receive over the air broadcast TV

signals, access to streaming subscription services like Netflix, and the ability to rent or buy digital copies of TV and movies from an online store like iTunes.

And you want it all piped directly to the largest television in your home for both comfort and maximum viewing pleasure.

Fortunately, most of the devices you need to create a setup don't cost a lot of money. Unfortunately, you will likely need more than one gadget, since nothing on the market offers a universal alternative to cable TV.

Fortunately, you likely have at least one of these devices in your home already.

Here's a rundown of your choices for a cable-free hardware setup.

TV antenna: Friends are astonished when I tell them they can get beautiful and completely free high-definition channels on their TV by using an antenna. It's as if they learned for the first time that the sun comes up in the morning.

Although the majority of viewers in Metro Vancouver receive their TV through cable, local TV stations continue to broadcast their signals over the air as they've been doing for decades.

As of this year, they all have switched over to digital transmissions, which any relatively new TV (within at least the past five years) can pick up with a simple antenna. (I'll be covering this in a future column.)

Computer: Some people hook their computers directly up to their televisions, either temporarily or permanently. Computers are powerful media machines that can access multiple sources of content from rival providers.

A Windows PC will get you Netflix, iTunes, a range of iTunes competitors and any website in the world that streams video.

But computers are temperamental, want to update themselves at inconvenient times, and feature interfaces that suffer on large screens. Hooking up a laptop to your TV for viewing and then detaching it to finish an office report can be tiresome.

You can make PCs friendlier to large screens with media software that offer better interfaces, and some people set up their own sophisticated home theatre PCs.

But you're entering deep geek territory - not for the casual user.

Game console: If have an Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 or Nintendo Wii hooked up to your TV, you are well on your way to a cable-free existence.

All three devices began life as video gaming machines, but the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 have evolved into robust home entertainment centres.

All three consoles offer a variety of video entertainment, ranging from Netflix to content from services like Rogers, Disney, Vimeo, Crackle, TMZ and YouTube and subscription content from the NHL and MLB.

The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 have their own iTunes-like digital stores. Of the three, the Xbox 360 has the broadest range of content.

Dedicated media streamer: The Apple TV is the best known device in this category. Small and sleek, it offers access to Netflix, some sports subscription programming, and the iTunes store, which has the most comprehensive catalogue of TV and movie digital rentals and purchases available to Canadians.

It's also one of the cheapest of the devices listed here. A close competitor is the Roku box, which is roughly the same size and cost as the Apple TV and offers Netflix and free "channels" from web.

Sadly in Canada, it lacks access to a digital video store.

TVs, DVD players: Most new televisions and DVD/Blu-Ray players offer access to online video services through apps integrated into the TV interface.

The range of content providers through TVs and DVD players tends to be limited, but if all you want is Netflix then you don't need to purchase an additional device.

The killer combo: In my home, I alternate between an Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 for digital rentals and Netflix access. I sometimes use a TV antenna. It all works very well. If I were to start from scratch, I would choose the Apple TV for the excellent iTunes catalogue and supplement it with live TV via an antenna. Whatever your setup, keep it as simple as possible.

Next week: From Netflix to Sony, a rundown of legal online sources of televised content.

Barry Link is the editor of the Vancouver Courier.