The Ultimate Starter Pack for Cord-Cutters

With terrible business practices and awful customer services, cable providers have never been a favorite of the American public. And now that the vast majority of content is available through streaming services, ditching cable has become a more attractive option for many Americans. This so-called “cord cutting” requires a little bit of preparation, however. Let’s consider what you’ll need for a cable-free and entertainment-rich life.

Unless you want to be completely dependent upon streaming services for your content, you’ll need a computer to host your own media files. These will include DVDs and Blu-Rays you’ve ripped as well as content that might have … “fallen of a truck.” We’re not here to judge.

You can purchase an NAS, or network-attached storage. Something like a Synology Diskstation is guaranteed to work on the network but is a little expensive. To save some dough, you can  re-purpose an older computer to serve as a media server. Even ancient computers will work, provided they have about a 1 GHz processor, gigabit Ethernet and a giant hard drive. Cheap enterprise computers off Craigslist or your outdated tower can work perfectly. You can also buy so-called home theater PCs (HTPCs) for a more custom build.

If you’re building your own media server, you’ll need some software to make it run properly. While you can use any OS you want, FreeNAS is a perfect option for media-only services. This operating system provides the functionalities of an NAS operating system, stripping out the broader functions of standard OSes. It’s more reliable than a standard OS, requiring less frequent rebooting and playing nicely with all your output devices.

Plex is the go-to application for organizing and streaming digital media. You can use it for movies and TV shows as well as music and photos. Plex Media Server will be your primary interface with the server, and you can install that on any operating system, including Synology and FreeNAS.

If you’re going to be flinging simultaneous HD and 4K streams to multiple screens on your home network, you’ll want a capable, modern router. The $20 ultra-basic version won’t cut it here, but that doesn’t mean you need to spend a fortune. Look for a router that has Gigabit Ethernet ports, 802.11ac and UPnP for easy out-of-network connections with Plex. The TP-Link Archer C7 is a great choice for most people.

Your TV’s apps are probably garbage. Even the best of the bunch are subpar. Roku provides more processing power and access to a massive range of content-providing apps, as well as an attractive, fast and – most importantly – highly functional interface. The hardware is worth the investment for a better experience. The Roku Streaming Stick + is a good middle-ground option for most folks balancing speed, cost and capability. Other smart-TV boxes exist, like Apple TV, but Roku is the most recommended of the group.

If you have DVD and Blu-Ray content, you’ll want to rip that to your media server. You can use a number of apps for this, but our favorite is Handbrake. It’s free and open source with the right degree of customization and user options. It’s also reliable, unlike many ripping applications, and free from obnoxious ads and introductory periods. Just remember that ripping HD content is always a time-consuming process.

Alongside obvious choices like Netflix and Hulu, you’ll want to get streaming services that cater to any specific content you like. Services like Crunchyroll are a must-have for anime fans, and HBO Go is awesome for Game of Thrones. Sports fans will need the right subscriptions to access the content they want. Make sure you can get everything you’re hoping for before you cut the cord for sure.

As long as you don’t care about sports, cord cutting is an awesome way to ditch your cable subscription. But, if like most folks, you like to watch some live football, soccer or baseball, you might find the spotty sports coverage to be less than acceptable. While streaming services exist for every major American sport (and most international ones), they only apply to out-of-market games. Local games still require an active cable subscription, even when streaming. Live sports is cable’s last garrison, and they’re holding it as long as they can.

Image credit: TAKA@P.P.R.S via Wikimedia Commons