Tag Archives: my setup

Checking Your Internet Connection

Every video provider requests that your internet connection be able to transfer a certain number of bits per second, referred to as the bitrate or bandwidth, to have great movie quality. For standard (near DVD) quality, Amazon recommends 3.5 megabits per second (Mbps), Netflix recommends 2.5 Mbps, and Hulu recommends 1.5 Mbps as examples.

Our internet services providers are not always helpful in figuring out if you’ve got what it takes. In my area in Central Texas, Time Warner Cable, Clear, and AT&T promise up to a certain bandwidth, but always have a little asterisk in the corner saying that actual network conditions may vary. Factors like distance from the main office, neighborhood network use, and phase of the moon may limit performance.

Speedtest.net provides an easy way for people to check their internet speed and confirm what their connection is capable of

Introducing Speedtest.net

Speedtest.net is a free service that tests the health and speed of your internet connection. The service’s website uses Adobe Flash to run a program on your computer to test the internet connection. They check three internet connection properties:

  • Ping time: Ping time is the amount of time necessary for a message to go from your computer to a server on the internet and back. Times under 100 milliseconds (ms) are considered reasonable.
  • Download bandwidth: Download bandwidth is the amount of information (in Mbps) that your computer can download, or receive, from the internet. This is the most critical parameter for streaming video quality.
  • Upload bandwidth: Upload bandwidth is the amount of information (in Mbps) that your computer and upload, or send, to the internet. This is useful for uploading pictures or videos to Facebook or You Tube.

Running A Speed Check

To begin, point your web browser at the Speedtest.net website. The Speedtest webpage does have several buttons on it that are used to sell services for various PC tweak-ups, so go looking for the green “BEGIN TEST” button over the map to begin the speed test.

After clicking begin, Speedtest will identify the best nearby server to use for checking the internet connection. After this, Speedtest will run the ping test and begin uploading and downloading data. They’ll show a speedometer while checking the upload and download speeds.

After the testing is complete, Speedcheck fill present a final summary. In my case, I had a ping time of 88 ms, 2.56 Mbps download, and 0.43 Mbps upload.

Using These Results

The Speedtest numbers will help you diagnose streaming video problems.

I did also wonder why I rarely got the 4-dot quality for Netflix. By running Speedtest, I found out that my internet connection is right at the threshold where Netflix likes to step down the quality one notch to ensure smooth video streaming. I’ve also used it to identify internet problems. Netflix was bouncing back and forth between quality settings on my Roku box. So, I ran Speedtest multiple times. What I found were intermittent ping and download speed numbers. My ping times would be 80ms, 250ms, and 125ms. My download speed would be just as erratic. I ended up getting an AT&T technician to come out and he found a problem with my DSL connection, and it’s been smooth Netflix since.

PlayOn Thoughts Four Weeks Later

It’s been about 4 weeks since I used PlayOn to get my Daily Show fix. Since then, I’ve signed up for a month more of PlayOn service to keep getting this and a few other shows like Burn Notice and White Collar without paying for Amazon Instant Video. My feelings about the service have shifted some in that time.

PlayOn Better With Tweaking

I’m still finding that PlayOn gets the job done. With some tweaks to the various providers, it seems to get the job done quite admirably most of the time. It’s been a delightful bridge to get Hulu on my TV via my Roku box and has brought some unexpected benefits like closed caps on the Roku box. A few tweaks that have proven quite nice:

  • Turn on Hulu closed caps: In Hulu, go to Privacy & Settings and click the “Automatically turn on closed captions if available.” checkbox
  • Use the Hulu queue: To avoid navigating the crazy-large menus, use the Hulu website to queue up shows then go directly to your Hulu queue for quick viewing

Places To Improve

It’s not all roses, however. The interface, in general, is still clunky. For channels that don’t have queues, it’s downright painful to navigate on my Roku. I’ve used the PlayOn iPad app, and that is manageable. I’m holding out hope that the upcoming Roku refresh will give PlayOn both the motivation and the technical ability to make a more robust Roku interface. I’ve also, on occasion, had playback issues. PlayOn will spontaneously reset the video feed to the beginning of the show (yes, before the first advertisement) during some Hulu viewings. I blame my increasingly erratic internet connection (AT&T, your number’s up), but I’ll still be sending in a support request to see how PlayOn responds.

PlayOn Is A Recommend

After a month of use, PlayOn has a place in my setup. I’ll finish out my current month subscription and, if we get this Hulu video reset under control, pick up a year of service for $39.99.

I do have one aside on the PlayOn pricing. I like a good deal, but I think that the annual subscription is the best deal in the package. Because of how MediaMall structured the annual service, with each extra year costing $19.99, I have a hard time recommending the lifetime subscription. Looking at the pricing:

8 Months 1 Year 2 Years 3 Years 5 Years
Monthly Rate
($4.99 / mo)
 $39.92  $59.88  $119.76  $179.64 $299.40
Annual Rate
($39.99 first year)
($19.99 second+)
 $39.99  $39.99  $59.98 $79.97 $119.95
Lifetime Rate
 $79.99  $79.99  $79.99  $79.99  $79.99

If you’re going to use the service beyond dabbling with it, the breakeven point for the annual service is around 8 months. Subscribing to the annual pass and getting 33% off after 1 year seems like a no-brainer to me when I like the service. It takes more than 3 years to break even on the lifetime rate and, in this industry, that is a lifetime. In the end, pick what works for your household budget and run with it.

My Cable Cord Cutting Setup

UPDATE: To see the latest hardware and streaming sources configuration, check out my setup.

Im always looking for ways to lower household bills and to get a better experience for what we spend. One of the most enjoyable has been cutting cable TV out of my house. Here’s how I did it.

Why Cut The Cord?

I’m always watching our household bills for things that cause recurring payments. Time Warner Cable was one of them. Our cable bill had consistently been in the $50 – $70 a month for cable TV depending on which special deals we managed to haggle. But my wife and I didn’t watch much TV, at most a few hour a night, and the cable didn’t seem worth it.

I began looking at how we watched TV and whether there were streaming video alternatives out there. We had a decent internet connection, and I figured that $60 a month would buy a lot of alternatives.

What We Were Watching

To figure out if cable cutting was for us, I tracked what we watched. It broke down into a few categories

  • Crime / Whodunnit shows like NCIS, Law & Order, Bones and so on.
  • Oddball USA shows like Burn Notice, White Collar, Covert Affairs, In Plain Sight
  • Cartoons like Family Guy and Futurama for me
  • PBS cartoons, especially Dinosaur Train, for our daughter
  • The occasional movie (not necessarily recent)

This was a small set of shows and easy to compare with what was available on the internet.

The Streaming Video Alternatives

I was looking at this in November of last year. At the time, there were 4 major players in this space: Netflix, Hulu, Apple iTunes, and Amazon Instant Video. I also had an old-skool CRT TV without an HDMI input, ruling out Apple iTunes for my experiments. After all, I wanted to be low-cost about it and a new flat panel TV doesn’t qualify as low-cost. After ruling out iTunes on our TV, I took to the websites to see what was available

Show Netflix Hulu Amazon Instant Video
Bones X X X
Burn Notice X X
White Collar X X
Futurama X X X
Family Guy X X X
Dinosaur Train
Movies X X X

It looked like a combination of Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Instant Video would cover our TV watching demands at the time. There one problem – Dinosaur Train. This is our daughter’s favorite show and PBS does a great job of making it appropriate for young children so we’re quite happy saying yes to it. Any lasting solution needed to solve this.

Putting Together My Cord Cutting Solution

After Christmas, I got a $99 Roku XDS box and got a Netflix subscription with 1 DVD. If we had some modern equipment like a internet-ready Blue-ray player or an XBox/PS3, we would’ve been going without spending any money. This gave us streaming video access and, with the occasional DVD to fill in some gaps, was a good place to start. My wife and I agreed to experiment with it to see if it would be good enough for us. After several weeks of experimentation, we found that Netflix and the occasional Amazon Instant Video purchase would cover anything Netflix could not. Excellent.

To solve Dinosaur Train, I took advantage of our last major TV viewing improvement, a Tivo. We had been watching all our shows through TV for the last few years, and our Tivo box had a lifetime subscription, so it was free for use and abuse. I picked up a DTV receiver for $50 and, using an IR blaster, got it to work with our Tivo box. The receiver could get our local PBS station. Our Tivo was now able to record Dinosaur Train using rabbit ears, filling the one hole in our TV line-up. This path firmly in place, I made the call to Time Warner one fine February day and cut the cord. The phone call was immensely satisfying.

More recently, we’ve started using PlayOn with our Roku box to get TV shows and avoid Amazon Instant Video purchases.

Savings From Cutting The Cord

It’s been 5 months since we cut the cord, and it has definitely saved us money.

Cable costs

  • $300 – 5 months cable x $60 average

Cable alternatives

  • $100 – Roku box
  • $50 – DTV receiver
  • $66 – 6 months Netflix x $11
  • $45 – Amazon Instant Video Purchases
  • $5 – 1 month PlayOn x $5
  • $260 total

We’ve already saved $40 and the savings will grow more quickly now that we’ve paid for the Roku box. Our setup costs $16 a month for Netflix and PlayOn, and saves us $44 a month over our last cable bill. By all accounts, this experiment has been a success. We’re enjoying the on-demand TV and love the lower monthly bills.