What happened was, we got into the habit of watching episodic TV; Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, and so on. Both Lauren and I tend to work in the evenings, but a 40-minute video segment makes a pleasant break. The problem was, we got going on Lost without realizing it wasn’t done yet. Thus, we are faced with the dismal prospect, starting next month, of watching TV on TV; that is, whenever some network scheduler thinks we should, and with ads. Which is clearly unreasonable in 2010. Solving this problem is pretty easy for Americans but harder for the rest of the world.
Our situation is fairly typical: the house is well-wired and we have no objection to paying for the shows; so far we’ve been renting the discs for $4.50 a pop from the excellent local Black Dog video; seems fair to me for a couple of hours of entertainment, plus you get the bonus features and so on. We’re considerably more technical than your average couch potatoes, but I have a lot more interesting places to invest geek energy than TV.
There are two complicating factors, which I suspect we share with lots of other people. First, we’re not in the USA (Canada in our case). Second, we want to watch the shows, not on a computer, but sitting on our comfy sofa looking at our good but vintage-2004 widescreen TV, which is not driven well as an outboard screen by any of the Macs in the house.
Waiting · One option, obviously, is just to wait until the series is finished and they decide to release the DVDs, and then use Black Dog. In fact, we watched all of BSG while we were waiting for Season 5 of Lost. But Lost kinda gets under your skin, and I just know that if they really manage to ace the finale, there will be spoilers in the zeitgeist. So we’d sort of like to follow along with it.
Amazon · For Americans, Amazon Video looks like a good option; the prices are fair. You can watch on your computer, or if you’re like us, wanting to use an only-OK TV, you can get a Roku ($129) or something like that; it can talk straight to Amazon and just show you the show. But it doesn’t work up here in Canada.
Netflix doesn’t seem to do current TV shows (at least in Canada).
DVR · If you want to watch TV-on-TV without putting up with scheduling and ads, the conventional answer is a DVR. The only actual TV shows we watch are live sports and political debates and, while we have friends with DVRs and understand the appeal of starting-late-and-skipping-ads, or being your own video-replay judge, we’ve just never felt the need.
We get our TV via the Shaw Direct satellite service, which seems typical in its prices and choices. They sell a Motorola HD PVR, which gets very mixed reviews, has a 160G disc, and lists at $499 ($380 at Boxing-Day sales). The term “highway robbery” occurs to me.
Of course, we could get a TiVo, which seems like a whole lot more DVR for less money. We know someone who has an old-school TiVo working with a Shaw receiver, but I can’t find any evidence online that the latest HD version will Just Work.
And even if it does, the $200+ for the TiVo (and then I guess there are ongoing charges) seems kind of expensive to keep up with Lost.
Apple TV · What a weird product; Apple hardly markets it, the features are only moderately competitive, and when you ask about it in an Apple store you’re apt to get a blank stare and stammers. Probably due for a refresh soon, too.
If I’m reading things correctly, though, it’d work for us and Lost. Maybe I’m missing something, but $259 seems like a lot to pay for the privilege of shopping at the iTunes store.
Piracy · It goes like this. You look around and find a torrent farm that does TV shows (I asked at a geek friend’s Christmas social). Depending on what jurisdiction you’re in, you or your friends may have just broken the law by having this conversation. I am not a lawyer and don’t play one on downloaded pirated TV shows, but I’m pretty sure that there’s a good chance of breaking the local laws of wherever you are if you try this option. I have the impression that based on recent case-law, this approach may be (for the moment) at least partly legal in Canada; but don’t take my word for it.
The best places to get these torrents seem to be invitation-only, and invites aren’t all that easy to come by. However, there are other spots that are open to the public and seem to work.
The steps go like this. I’m not going to fill in the names of software components and data formats, because that stuff changes, and if you’re geeky enough to do this, it’s online and not that hard to find.
Get a BitTorrent client working, which may require twiddling with your router/firewall settings.
Pick which file to download; if you’ve got a big-screen TV you probably want to see “720p” in the filename.
Fire up BitTorrent and get the data. Download speed is wildly variable, depending on Internet weather, how many other people are interested in what you’re after, and how hard the Swedish police are leaning on the Pirate Bay this week. So this could be an overnighter or worse.
Once you’ve got your data, bear in mind that the VLC media player can handle any format in the known universe. If you’ve got a TV that does 720p, and a port on it that an appropriate computer can drive, and a way to route the audio out of the computer into the home theater, you’re about done at this point.
Otherwise, you need to get your show onto a DVD, using iDVD or Toast or some such. Quite likely that software won’t import the file format you downloaded, so you’ll need a QuickTime plug-in or some other software widget for conversion. The cost of these things ranges from free to cheap.
Doing the format conversion and burning is another major time sink; hours and hours, potentially, even on a big beefy computer. iDVD is irritating because it’s resolutely single-threaded, just dumb on a dual-quad-core like the Pro. And the DVDs it burns look a little washed-out and wavery to my eye.
Speaking of Quality · Maybe I’m being unfair to iDVD; I’d been looking at one particular 720p video artifact in MKV (Matroska) format with VLC, and on the big NEC 2690 monitor attached to the Mac Pro, the video quality is... words fail me. Mind-boggling. Ranging from silky/creamy to razor-sharp, as appropriate, colors blazing off the screen, no hint of a perceptible pixel no matter how close I looked. So much better than our 2004-vintage allegedly-HD TV. I suppose that this is what things will look like when I upgrade the TV to 1080p and the source to Blu-Ray. I hadn’t thought I cared enough about TV to go there yet, but maybe I’ve been wrong.
Conclusions · There’s no doubt that the piracy route is the cheapest. But I can’t see recommending it. To start with, it may well be illegal where you’re sitting, and there are costs to breaking laws. Not to mention the costs in time: waiting for the pirates to create the torrents, for the torrents to download, and the DVD to burn.
Also, it’s fragile. The torrents I looked at used trackers from The Pirate Bay; there are a whole lot of well-funded entertainment-biz and law-enforcement types who’d really like to knock those dudes off the air. So far they’ve failed, but in general, functioning legal markets are a more reliable way of doing business than piracy is.
Speaking of functioning markets, watching episodes of a TV series (in the case of Lost, the most expensive ever produced), with no ads, for a low single-digit number of dollars seems like a good deal to me, even though I have in principle bought the right to watch these shows via my monthly TV bill. So that’s my choice, given the choice.
But if there’s nobody who wants to take my money...