With times getting tighter many of us have looked for ways to cut corners in monthly costs. We've ditched our Netflix account, cut our landline phone service and have looked for alternative low cost sources for our TV and movie fixes. For the first time we've started actually watching movies/shows on our laptop, once a big taboo for our cinephile senses (but we realized not so bad when watching TV show series or older standard resolution movies that didn't get the Criterion treatment). Below, we've collected nine different ways to get around a tighter wallet, giving you more options to take advantage of the biggest cineplex there is: online.
We'll start with the most expensive option: the Apple TV. We have one parked in our living room and it's proven to be a useful entertainment appliance with some notable limitations. Watching $1.99 episodes of Battlestar Galactica at the press of a couple of buttons makes the Apple TV a couch tater's dream, but the high buy-in cost, the even higher always-on operating temperature of the unit, and the necessity to hack the machine with Boxee (for Hulu and Pandora) makes this machine far from perfect out the box and a solution whose budget-friendly capabilities are determined by your own viewing habits (those episodes and HD movies can add up!). We're hoping to see an update with better HD performance and an even wider expanse of movies and shows to choose from in the near future, but that's been the hopes since launch. Check out Apple's refurb department if you're interested in a nicer priced entry model.
Want to catch up on episodes of shows like LOST, The Twilight Zone or The Hills on your computer in standard or HD? We would too, but the Mac version of Veoh's streaming media site was giving us fits as we tried to catch up with what was up with our favourite island castaways. HD requirements include dual core processor, 1GB RAM, and at least 1300x770 screen real estate.
The Western Digital TV HD Media Player is for those of us who've converted our DVD collection to digital files, a small sized companion piece to other media players like the Roku or Apple TV. The $99 WD TV HD Media Player plays back a myriad of file formats at up to 1080p on an HDTV set via the HDMI / composite outputs directly from your USB drives, making it undoubtedly an interesting proposition for those addicted to Rapidshare/torrent...ahem..."sources".
For those of you who are looking for a more culturally rich selection of cinema, we wholeheartedly recommend The Auteurs, a cinephile's site which offers movies from the likes of the collections of Celluloid Dreams and The Criterion Collection. We're beta members who have been enjoying content, both free and pay download (about $5), working perfectly on our Mac. Streaming quality is excellent with only a slight hiccup here or there during in-browser playback and the selection of hard to find films makes this a virtual art house theater missing from our Apple TV experience.
Plex Media Server is something we just started playing with on our MacBook pro, a software solution for playing back an assortment of media files, all with an attractive skinable interface optimized for HD televisions, media management and integrated access to online sources like Hulu and Current TV. XBMC users will recognize this as a solution like the Apple TV/Boxee experience on your laptop/desktop, and there's a wide variety of plug-ins and customizable options via their own App store, whether from local sources or from online.
Amazon has been quietly converting a wide selection of their movie selection as streaming content available as either a rental or purchase via their Amazon Video on Demand site. Commercial free and with a solid selection of current release films, this works best with a Roku or streaming media enabled Tivo device as a cable-replacement candidate.
Which brings us to the $99 Roku, which might currently be the best budget home entertainment set top box choice, as it combines the offerings of Amazon Video on Demand and Netflix's streaming VOD offerings. HDMI, wi-fi, 720p capabilities...if we weren't HD sports addicts, we would have ditched our Dish Network and saved a decent amount of monthly fees with one of these Roku boxes. This is practically a no-brainer for folks already subscribing to Netflix as you'll be able to instantly access the entirety of Netflix's online HD library which should steadily increase to keep pace with Apple's iTunes offerings.
Our ninth low cost option is admittedly the most budget in quality and limited in certain respects: The Internet Archives. Yes, the selection of films is "niche" to say the least, but with over 2,000 films from the Prelinger Archives, a large library of public domain films, and even a section for home movies from the Center for Home Movies, this online resource is a well of unique content to occasionally dip into. We've always found something strangely beguiling to watch when we drop into the Archives.
The final source is the one we believe is the best of all: your friends' DVD collection. We've begun to start trading our boxed sets of series and movies amongst our friends, and depending on your friends' taste, this could be the best selection to choose from when cost is factored in. We're even considering expanding to hosting trading/movie screening parties, where friends will bring 5 movies from the collection to offer to others, while also hosting a movie of our choice to all enjoy together (we once hosted a Conan the Barbarian movie and potluck night which was barbaric fun). You never know, you might have that boxed set of Firefly that your friend covets, while she's got the Criterion version of Battlefield Earth (okay, make that Armageddon). Why not share and both save some money while you're at it?