If you are like a huge portion of the U.S. population, you have a television. Today, more content is available for your viewing enjoyment than ever, and the number of choices grows daily. But are you getting your Cable TV service at the right price and with the right features?
Most people have a choice of how that video content is delivered to their set: antenna, cable, digital satellite service, or even the phone company’s fiber optic service. Odds are good that you’re not entirely happy with your existing service. The advertisements for competing services are ubiquitous. So how can you decide whether or not you should make the switch to a different television service provider (or add another to the one you have)? Here are five good reasons to make a change.
1. Cost of Cable TV Service
Local, over-the-air broadcasting — often called “terrestrial broadcast” to distinguish it from satellite — is free, and can deliver 20 channels or more, depending on your market. All you need is an antenna and a television with a tuner. Many users can get by with a simple set of “rabbit ears.” If you’re thinking about the snowy picture of traditional analog broadcasts, then you need to see how clear the new digital broadcasts can be. All new televisions sold in the United States are now required to include a digital tuner, so if you have a new set (or are about to buy one), your only other expense will be an antenna. Even if you need a rooftop antenna, you’ll find many good choices for $100 or less.
If there are programs you want to watch that aren’t available for free, then you’ll need to go with cable, satellite or other service that has a monthly fee. Contact different providers and see if there is a lower-cost plan that includes your favorite choices. One place that you can economize may be to not pay for any premium movie channels, and instead buy a DVD rental service such as Netflix or Blockbuster Online.
Ironically, sometimes you can save by adding services. For example, if you’re paying separately for local telephone service and Internet access, you may be able to use the same provider for various combinations of services and save money overall. Be sure to factor in any installation costs or activation fees in calculating your savings by switching services.
Examine the terms of any new service carefully. As with any subscription service, all the cost goes into getting new customers, so companies are willing to offer some tempting discounts. Often, the monthly rate will jump sharply after three months or so. Pay more attention to the higher rate, because you’ll be paying that for much longer.
2. High-Definition (HD) Programming
If cost is not the issue, then maybe resolution is. If you have an HDTV, then you’ll want to take advantage of the higher resolution images that it can produce. You’ll only get these images from a high-definition source, however. A standard DVD may look great on an HDTV, but it’s still not HD content. Scientific Atlanta commissioned a survey last year, and discovered that nearly half the people with HDTVs don’t have an HD service.
You can get high-definition from any of the television services, including over the air. You need a digital service, however; analog broadcasts over-the-air or cable cannot deliver HD content. And not all digital content will be in HD. Most prime-time broadcasts from the major networks offer free HD over-the-air, but much of the rest of the programming is in standard definition.
The advantage of cable, satellite, and fiber optic services is that they offer dedicated HD channels. Depending on the service and your market, you can get 15 to 30 high-definition channels (usually at an extra charge).
3. Picture Quality
If you’re still watching a snowy picture, you should consider changing your service because it’s easy to improve the picture quality. Change from analog — either over-the-air or cable — to a digital service. Digital signals are available from all sources: over-the-air local broadcasts, cable, fiber optic, or satellite. (Note that the last two choices — fiber optic and satellite — are only available as digital signals.)
Digital images generally look better than analog because it’s more or less a pass/fail system; either the signal is received correctly, or it’s not. Analog systems can muddle along, making a good guess at what the signal is supposed to be, but it’s the visual equivalent to listening to a distant radio station filled with static. With a digital signal, you generally will see a sharp picture or nothing. (In some cases, a marginal station may produce an image that breaks up, with big rectangular blocks freezing or going blank.)
If you have a digital service and the picture quality is not what you think it should be on your HDTV, there could be a couple of causes. If you’re watching standard definition images and they do not look crisp, it’s possible that your television does not have a good quality scaler. When the television enlarges the image to fill your screen, it takes sophisticated computations to make an image that doesn’t look like a big mosaic. An inexpensive set may not do as good a job as a higher quality unit might. Changing services is not likely to improve the situation; changing TV sets is.
However, if the high-definition (HD) content does not look as good as it should on your HDTV, then you might want to change services. Cable, satellite and phone companies have a limited amount of bandwidth available, which means that they can only send a certain amount of data to your set-top box at once. HD content requires much more data than standard definition, so the services have to compress the data so they can squeeze more channels through at the same time.
Not all compression is the same. Lower bit rates make for smaller files, so you can fit more songs on your MP3 player, for example, but the sound isn’t as good as the original CD tracks. A higher bit rate sounds closer to the original, but takes up more space. Similarly, if a video stream is compressed too much, it won’t look as good as the uncompressed image.
In general, over-the-air broadcasting uses the least compression for HD programming, and so should give you the best image quality. Some satellite services are now using MPEG4 compression, which is more efficient and may produce fewer visible flaws than older compression methods. Cable services are often the ones that compress the signals the most, and image quality can suffer. Depending on what service you’re using now, you may be able to get better HD image quality by switching.
4. Programming Selection
Another good reason to change providers is to get the content you want. If you want to watch the home games of a local sports team, you’ll need to pay for a monthly service and chances are good that only your local cable system will offer coverage. If you want your pick of major league games, you won’t get that for free. The sport you desire may dictate which provider you select: For example, DirecTV covers the National Football League, while the DISH Network has college football and Major League Baseball packages. Various cable services also provide similar packages, so do your homework before signing up. The same goes for special-interest channels: Compare the available services to learn which ones offer the channels you want, and then see which one offers the best package.
5. Video On-Demand and Time Shifting
One of the great developments in television entertainment is the advent of video-on-demand (VOD). “Pay per view” programming is one example, but the definition can be expanded to include services that let you record programming to view at a later time. Digital video recorders such as TiVo have rapidly replaced the venerable VHS video tape recorder, because you can play the show you wish to view at any time, and easily jump forward and backward.
You can get a digital video recorder to use with over-the-air broadcasting and some cable systems, but you can also get equivalent services from cable and satellite companies. In some cases, your shows are stored right in your set-top box, but some cable services store your choices in their facilities, where you can access them for free, on demand.
Note that most digital video recorders can only store programs at standard definition resolution. Satellite and cable services do offer HD recorders but they cost extra, either as a one-time purchase or as a monthly premium.
There is no reason to put up with lousy service or terrible picture quality and minimal features. Check the various Cable TV service options available to you and enjoy watching the programs you want, when you want, at the best quality possible, at a price you can afford.