The Upside of Terrible Technology

twcFollowing up my article below about cutting the cable, I can happily report that saying bye-bye to Time Warner (now Spectrum!) was a good decision. We still have internet with Spectrum, but we decided to stick with the DirectTVNow app and Netflix, which saves me $65 per month overall. We dropped Hulu, since there was nothing on it that I really wanted that I couldn’t get somewhere else. If they had had CBS Netflix logoprograms, it may have been worth it for a while. Once I finish all seven seasons of Gilmore Girls, plus the new episodes, I plan to drop Netflix streaming for a while and pick up Netflix disc when all the regular television seasons end, so that I can catch up with Elementary and Big Bang. Netflix is wonderfully flexible about sudden changes, and for $10 a month, they offer a lot of value. Plus, there are several movies I want to see that never made it to either Netflix streaming or Amazon Prime. Oh, yes, we have Amazon Prime, but that’s mostly for the free, fast shipping, because I want to get books in Verucha Salt fashion: “I want it now!”

directtvnowSo, is DirectTVNow a great app? Not really. It buffers a whole lot sometimes, and it may even shut off at the most irritating moments, but other times it is just like having cable TV. Is it worth $35 a month? Oh, yeah. Just having live news has been essential lately, and except for CBS, it offers us all of the channels that we want to watch, although I do miss my DVR. A lot of the shows that I miss, though, are available by going to the website on my smart phone and “casting” them to the TV a day or so after they air live. That’s how I’ve watched Masterpiece Theater and BookTV this year.

fire-stick-imageThe Amazon Firestick, however, is quite wonderful. If you need a simple, easy way to manage all of your connections to various media, Firestick is great, and the remote is amazing. You can just talk to Alexa. It’s not expensive, and we got one free by signing up for DirectTVNow. Amazon will help you with customer service over the phone, or even take over your screen while you’re talking to them and solve all of your problems. Customer service for DirectTVNow is an online chat with someone who is definitely struggling with the English language. Frustrating.

Even with all of these avenues for entertainment, however, we’ve found ourselves watching much less television that we did with cable and DVR. When I had series stacked up in the DVR, I felt obligated to watch them all. Now, I have to make a deliberate decision to sit down and watch a show, and often, I’d rather stick with whatever else I’m doing. Combined with a real effort to separate from social media a bit, I have much more time for music and especially reading.

Benedict OptionRight now, I’m devouring one book after another, in all kinds of genres. Since I read to live and read for a living, that’s a great thing. I just finished a wonderful children’s book (Ghost), I’m a few chapters into a new adult nonfiction book (The Benedict Option), and just picked up the new Pulitzer Prize-winning adult fiction (Underground Railroad). Of course, I still have stacks of unread volumes on my nighttable and piles in the guest room, too. For the moment, though, I’m really enjoying working through each one. I have a tendency to hit a wall with reading every once in a while, but I hope it doesn’t happen before I get a chance to read Thick As Thieves, by Megan Whalen Turner, or to finish several nonfiction books that I have lined up.

So my advice to you is, go ahead! Cut that cable! Read! Or— as my mother used to say to me when I was a kid— go outside!

I’ll Be on the Porch

unfinished-beams
Naked beams, no siding.

The last time we visited our porch progress was on December 1st! Well, after all of the excitement of the holidays, the guys got back to working on our screened porch, which was just so much more complicated than I expected. By the time they had finished the interior work, the porch had a roof and a floor, but the posts were unfinished, and the walls were still Tyvek plastic wrap!

imag1245
The “T” has our peacock motif, with bits of songs and book quotes worked into the colors.

porch-dishesEveryone who asked me about Christmas discovered that my wish list was all about the porch. Our color scheme will allow me to have lots of fun with our last name, so we’re going with a dark wood ceiling, dark wicker furniture, white posts and railings, white cushions, and lots of pops of teal. I picked out a set of outdoor dishware at Pier One, and between gifts and gift cards, I was able to get 8 place settings of the whole thing! They call it turquoise, but I’m saying teal. I also found a teal lantern on clearance. My friend Andrea Pearlstein of BookPearls created this beautiful collage “T” for our wall, and David gave me a tiny peacock table for between the rockers—just big enough for two coffee cups.

snow-on-porch
We had a few set-backs. Hard to believe that it snowed this year.

The carpenters built up the posts around the porch and gave them the shape I showed them from a picture in Southern Living. I didn’t expect the side trim, but that’s because the Southern Living porch was not screened. Each section of the porch has a separate section of screen, so if there is a tear (oh, no!), we only have to replace that section. side-trim-on-postsThey wrapped the posts in a weather-proof material so that it will look beautiful year after year. After putting new siding on the walls, they started painting. There was so much painting to do!

beginning-stainOne of the most difficult parts of the porch was finding the right stain for the beadboard ceiling. We wanted to match the acacia flooring inside the house, so Greg gave us the Minwax brochure, and then created eight samples from the colors we chose. None of them were right! Most of them looked the same—blackish-brown—with one or two orange boards. Greg agreed that nothing worked, so he took a piece of our floor and an unfinished piece of our ceiling to Sherwin-Williams so that they could create a custom color. Beautiful. However, what a mess to apply! The guys used a sponge to wipe the stain above their heads, and it was watery and ran everywhere. This took several days, and I know they were glad when it was over. Afterward, they coated the ceiling with a semi-gloss, weatherproof sealant. It has swirls of light and dark, just like our floor. Landon then had to paint over the smears on the yellow siding and white trim.

porch-fanWay back when, I had chosen a fan for the porch with tropical leaf blades. However, when the electrician came out to do the first phase of his work, he told me that I would have to have multiple switch boxes on the wall beside the back door if I had all of the floodlights on separate switches and the fan and fan light on separate switches. So, I compromised by putting two of the floodlights on one switch and choosing to get a fan with a remote control, so that there was only one wall switch for it. I had no idea that the original fan was in my garage until the day that the electricians were coming back to install it. It did not have a remote control, just chain pulls hanging down! We had to cancel the electricians for the day and go on a hunt for an appropriate fan. Perhaps it would have been easier in June, but our local home improvement stores did not have outdoor fans with remote controls in stock, even at the warehouse. Amazon came through for me, though. We found one with rattan, leaf-shaped blades that match the wicker rockers. Two-day Prime shipping, and we’re back in business.

outletThe electricians came through and put up the fan, floodlights, and four of the ugliest outlets I have ever seen. This is the building code. They are on these little pipes because they have to be high enough off the floor that if rain hit the floor, it wouldn’t splash onto them, which is actually safe. I’ll have to arrange furniture to hide them. I was hoping to put a glass side table over one of them, but of course, the outlet is higher than the table.

porch-door
You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to find a porch door in January.

We had final inspection last week! We failed. The two stairways, one from the porch and one from the new kitchen door, needed adjustment, because the code had recently changed concerning the height of the top and bottom steps. Furthermore, they needed to dig a drain pipe coming out from the breakfast room crawlspace. All that has been done, and all of the piles of lumber and materials have been removed from the yard. finished-empty-porchMason used a backhoe to take away the big rocks and chunks of cement that were dug up when the foundation went in, and then smoothed the yard and spread grass seed and hay. Unfortunately, we’ve had a lot of crows hanging around lately, and I think the grass seed may have been devoured. The backhoe is still sitting in the yard, waiting on the final inspection tomorrow.

laptop-ready
It’s not work when it’s on the porch.

The weekend weather forecast was so beautiful that I texted Greg on Friday and asked, “Can we put furniture out on the porch, or do we have to wait until after the inspector leaves?” He replied, “Put it out!” So we did, and I have lived out here every minute that I could. Saturday morning, I told David, “I plan to read and write on the porch as much as I can today,” and when I walked outside a couple of hours later, I saw that he had already set up my laptop, ready and waiting for me. Husband of the year.

david-on-porch
Sunday morning coffee

We have a long way to go on furnishing the porch, and we have already discovered that we will definitely need blinds, especially when the weather heats up! But the woods behind my house are so peaceful. The peepers are singing, and the barred owls must think it’s spring, since their calls end in long whirr-rr-rrs. And I’ve got a rocking chair, so if you need me, I’ll be on the porch.

rockers_____________

Update! We passed inspection! It’s all ours now.

The Cord-Cutting Chronicles

Help for those looking to save money on television access.

If you’re like me, you’ve had numerous conversations with all sorts of folks about the ridiculously high price we pay for cable television and the lack of control we have over our choices. Our television viewing is mostly news and sports, along with a few series that we enjoy, but usually watch after they’ve been recorded on DVR. Unfortunately, most of them are CBS shows (Big Bang, Elementary), and CBS is remarkably territorial about their programs. They have a proprietary app, and they tend not to share. These few things have kept us tied to Time Warner Cable for years.

twcLately, while paying bills, I’ve been noticing that our TWC bill has been creeping up. When our “bundle” expired last summer, the Time Warner rep had no qualms about telling me that they had no special deals for returning customers. At that time, the Time Warner/ Spectrum merge was just beginning, as was the football season. Annoyed as I was, I was not emotionally ready to skip the entire season of SEC football, and I’m sure my husband would have cheerfully taken out a home equity loan to watch the Gamecocks. So we cut some services and did the best we could. However, as the inheritance in my savings account has flowed into my contractor’s bank account, we knew that we had to be ruthless immediately following the last Panther’s game on New Year’s Day.

Our January TWC bill had somehow reached $176 per month for internet access and basic cable, with one DVR. I’d wrestled with the customer service people at Direct TV and Dish, and had found them to be rude and pushy. My sister has Dish, and even though the service is great, she reports that they are the most dishonest company she has ever dealt with. (We both agreed that Netflix is the most honest company we’ve ever dealt with.) Furthermore, I was not interested in getting into another contract, with equipment rentals and so on. That would be like jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. All that being said, the best news I’ve heard in years is that there are now at least two new options for people looking for live TV without a contract: Sling TV and DirectTVNow. These are services that stream directly through your internet connection, and can be used on your TV, tablet, phone, or any other device.

sling-logoSling TV is $20 a month for their basic group of channels, which includes CNN, HGTV, Food Network, BBC America, and all the ESPNs, among other channels that don’t matter to me. They also have additional packages that you can add on, including a sports package that has the SEC Network. Since there is no contract, we could pick up the extra sports package for only $5 a month during football season, and then drop it during the off-season. While researching Sling, I read that Hulu has signed a contract with CBS, so I felt comfortable that I could get both for $32 a month total, and have access to all of my shows.

directtvnowDirectTVNow is $35 a month for their basic service, which has all of the above channels, plus a few more, including Fox News. It also has no contracts, and can be dropped at any time. I read a lot of reviews of all of these services, and a couple of in-depth reviews said that Sling had more buffering issues, particularly with sports, than DTN. However, when I put out a Facebook post, asking friends about their experiences, I got a few favorable reviews of Sling, and no reviews of DTN. Since it was cheaper, and the app was already installed on our smart TV downstairs, we decided to go with the Sling/ Hulu combination.

Dropping Time Warner down to internet only was more difficult than I had imagined. The merge with Spectrum has been completed, and apparently customer service was a major casualty. The rep told me that internet-only would cost $80 per month. When I let him know that I was appalled, he said that I was a returning customer, and would therefore get no discounts. Then he told me that I could bundle local channels with internet for $70 a month. When I told him that my son, down the road a few miles, was paying $50 a month for Turbo internet only, he said that he must be on a new-customer plan. He tried to sell me their top speed internet, which we’d been paying for in our bundle, and I reminded him that even TWC admitted that our area did not have the infrastructure to make that speed possible. Furthermore, we had turned in our rented modem a couple of months ago, but I could see that they are still charging us rent, even though we now own our own modem. Eventually, I let him know that we were going to a no-contract, internet-based television provider, that there were plenty of other internet providers available now, and that I was amazed that TWC had any customers left. I said that I would take the internet-only price he had quoted, and would immediately start looking into other providers, so expect me to call and cancel soon. He found a way to get the price to $59 a month, and my son told me later that that was what he was paying, too.

huluWith that done, I went online to SlingTV and Hulu and signed up for the 7-day free trial for both. Very simple, no hassle at all.

Our Blue-Ray player upstairs has Hulu installed, so we went online immediately and searched for our favorite shows. Scorpion is a show that I have wanted to watch for some time. Unfortunately, it is in its second season, and I have never been able to find the first season on Netflix or Amazon Prime. Hulu does not have it, either. Thank you, CBS. The newest Elementary episodes were a year old, so that contract with CBS hasn’t kicked in yet. Otherwise, I could get just about everything else on Netflix or Amazon, so within a couple of days, we canceled Hulu.

sling-guy
SlingTV. You have to admit, it’s a memorable ad campaign.

Our smart TV downstairs has the Sling app pre-installed, and we could Chromecast* it upstairs. CNN came in as clearly as it did with cable, so we spent a couple of mornings with Alisyn Camerota and Chris Cuomo. We are used to the Fox News morning crew, although I spent most of the primary last year watching CNN, because they had much more balanced coverage. (That changed during the general election.) I am familiar with Erin Burnett and Anderson Cooper in the evening, though, not the breakfast show. In my experience, CNN and Fox News each give half of the news, both because of their opposing perspectives on the events, and because of what they choose not to cover at all. It was frustrating not to be able to switch back and forth for the different viewpoints.

It was the sports shows, though, that made the decision. The drag and buffering were insufferable. We watched some basketball games in which the player jumped up, the ball left his hands, and the picture froze, only to start again with everyone running down the court in the other direction. We didn’t know if he had made the shot or not. Also, when they were running, the picture blurred. Sometimes, it stopped altogether. We realized that, even though $20 was a great price, we were not getting anything that we wanted. We decided to cancel Sling, as well.

Canceling Sling and Hulu were both very easy. I went online, logged in, and went through the steps outlined. Both services wanted to know why we were canceling and tried to lure us back, but after a few clicks, it was done. I received emails confirming the cancellations, and since they were both well within their seven-day trials, we paid nothing.

 

fire-stick-image
Amazon’s Fire Stick, $40.

So, we were left with DirectTVNow. I tried calling them for more information, and it took me 24 minutes to reach a live person. That was annoying, but once I did reach her, she was actually helpful, although she lied that they had CBS. They don’t. I went online to sign up for their service, and ended up paying one month in advance in order to receive the Amazon Fire Stick for free. I was going to buy one for the upstairs Samsung TV anyway, since Chromecast streams from your phone, so you can’t use it while you are watching TV. I received a confirmation email saying, basically, “Thanks so much for signing up, and you’ll get your Fire Stick in 2 or 3 weeks.” Two or three weeks!? So I went downstairs to figure out how to get the DTN app onto our Sony smart TV, and after working hard to find it on the Google Play Store on the TV, then discovering that Sony’s customer service people don’t answer the phone on Sundays, I did an online chat with Sony. The answer is: they don’t have the DTN app and have no plans to get it. So, I ordered another Fire Stick from Amazon and found out that the new one won’t be released until January 21st, and they’ve taken the old one off the market. On the upside, we can Chromecast downstairs, too, so we spent a while exploring DTN. We watched Fox News. We watched a basketball game with a much clearer picture and much less drag than Sling. I think we’re home, and I’m hoping that the experience is even better with Fire Stick than with Chromecast.

mohu-leaf
Mohu Leaf antenna: the thickness of a piece of paper.

As for local channels, we have none. All of the online reviewers and one of our friends recommended the Mohu Leaf indoor antenna. Buy it once for about $70, and you’re done. I’ll let you know if this works to fill in the CBS and PBS gap. I must find a solution before the next season of Grantchester. Of course, we can always plug the laptop into the TV for PBS.

On another note, we have a sound bar on our Sony, and when we removed Time Warner’s cable box, it threw the sound bar back to factory settings. The sub-woofer went to zero. David had to dig out the owner’s manual and re-set the sound. All is well now.

Lessons learned?

  • If possible, hate sports and be happy with internet news sites. This will save you a lot of money.
  • Do not rent equipment; buy it. Even though TWC will update your modem for free, they will only do this every few years, and you can pay for an excellent new modem with six or seven months’ rent.
  • Be willing to drop services. You’d be amazed to find that life continues without DVR.
  • Take advantage of free trials. I tend to think that if I research a service enough, I will be sure to love it, but actual experience shows otherwise. Be realistic.
  • Make a decision to watch less casual television. Don’t keep the TV on for no reason. Read a book. Write a book. Go outside and play.
  • Don’t be afraid to try new technology. Do research on Google and irritate customer service reps and teenaged/ grown children. You’ll learn a lot.

I’ll write another update once we receive the Mohu Leaf antenna and watch DirectTVNow through the Amazon Fire Sticks. In the meantime, I’ve saved over $80 a month!

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Disclaimer: These are just our experiences, and yours may vary. We do not receive any benefits from any of these services for this article.

*Chromecast is a little plug-in that we’ve had for years for our upstairs “dumb” TV, and it came pre-loaded in our smart TV. It allows you to “cast” selected videos or images on your phone, laptop, or tablet onto your TV screen.