How I cut out cable (or satellite) TV from my life

Two years ago I cut the cord that tethered me to cable tv (well, in the UK this is actually satellite and Sky is the dominant player). Even though I’ve done this (and am saving over £300 a year, I’m still able to continue to watch all the tv shows and movies that I want to.

Shortly after we moved into the apartment in Hackney (London), BT began offering their Infinity broadband service in this area. Infinity broadband is fibre-to-the-cabinet but the “last mile” (~100 meters in my case) is VDSL2. I pay for the “up to 76Mbits/second service”. I don’t see speeds anywhere near that, but it is fast enough to allow me to cut the cord by using legal streaming services and Freeview.

I get a decent selection of traditional TV channels to Freeview, the UK’s digital terrestrial television service. For the pleasure of this service and to fund the BBC, I have to pay the annual TV license fee which is currently £145.5/year (or just over £12/month). I get all the BBC channels in HD, BBC News, ITV, Channel 4, Sky News, and a bunch of other channels that I never watch.

All my other entertainment is consumed via three different devices – Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV Stick, and Chromecast. I use these in conjunction with Unblock-US, a “VPN service”. I put that in quotes because its not really a VPN service, but some sort of DNS redirect. I have it configured on my home router, so any device connected to the wifi gets the benefit. This service costs me CAD$ 50/year or ~£25/year

In addition to this, I pay for Netflix and Hulu in US (which I can access thanks to Unblock-Us) and Amazon Prime in the UK. Together, these three services offer a nearly unending stream of entertainment. Netflix and Hulu each cost US$ 7.99/month or a total of ~£125 a year. Amazon Prime, which costs £79/year gives me access to Prime Instant Video.

Finally, thanks to a friend who is wedded to Comcast, I’m able to access a number of other services including HBO Go, WatchESPN, and Showtime. I do use these occasionally, but certainly not enough to justify paying for their services that do not require a cable tv subscription (HBO Now, Showtime Anytime, etc).

Two years ago, the cheapest Sky TV package that was worth getting was costing me in excess of £60 a month (after promotional periods). This meant I was forking over more than £720 a year to Sky. Having cut the cord, I now pay roughly half (~£375 a year) and I get to choose the entertainment I want. I can use just a fraction of the savings to actually buy movies on iTunes, music on streaming services, and the sports I actually care about.

Apple & Beats

Apple’s potential acquisition of Beats is all everyone can seem to be discussing – on blogs, twitter, and the podcasts I listen to. It is a strange acquisition, and since we know nothing, I like what @siracusa said on a recent episode of ATP about “building your own acquisition”. And just like everyone else, I feel compelled to add my thoughts:

  • Beats is a fashion brand as much as a headphone manufacturer.
  • Apple just a hired Angela Arhendt, the (now) ex-CEO of Burberry. Apparently they’ve also hired the former CEO of Yves St. Laurent, Paul Deneve.
  • One of my first memories of the iPod are the silhouetted, colourful ads. This always Struck me as very fashionable
  • Yes, maybe Steve Jobs would never had executed an acquisition such as this…an established brand with a big consumer mindshare; but this is no longer Steve Jobs’ Apple. And I dare say, he would want Tim Cook to make Apple his own.
  • There is nothing wrong with “Beats by Apple”
  • I’ve generally stayed away from earphones / headphones that cost more than $/£ 40. This is because I’ve been burned by a more expensive pair of in-ear monitors stopping to work after not very long. I generally treat mine pretty badly, because I travel a lot, throw them in pockets, and crumple them up.
  • I would likely buy a pair of Beats by Apple. Especially if it integrated some kind of “quantified-self” sensor.
  • Most of my friend or family circle would not buy a pair of Beats by Apple.
  • I’ve never used the Beats music streaming service. It’s not available in the UK. I do use, am a generally a fan of, Spotify.
  • I don’t know or understand whether Apple would need to renegotiate streaming contracts. But I do understand the benefit of having people who have strong relationships within the music industry. Iovine and Dre will be critical in any future music deals. All business is done based in relationships.
  •  iTunes has been around since 2001. What if, just what if, Apple retired the iTunes brand in favour of Beats? It would be the ultimate canabalisation, quite likely something that only Apple is capable of. iTunes on the Mac needs a huge refresh, it’s become a beast of an application.
  • I do wonder how this acquisition will go down within Apple, culturally. This is probably the biggest risk.

Pub #11: Real Ale Train, Mid Hants Railway

While not technically a pub, the Real Ale Train certainly qualifies for a blog post within the 100 pubs mission. I went on this wonderful train ride last September, so the blog post is long overdue, but I just found the pictures on an old cellphone.

The Real Ale Train is a service offered by the Mid Hants Railways several times a year for £14 pounds and £2 a pint of ale once onboard. The train is about 4-5 carriages long pulled by an old steam locomotive. The carriages themselves are old / restored, with gas lamps.

The experience of sticking my head out a restored steam train on a cool September evening, while sipping local real ales is pretty special. I tried 4 or 5 different ales. Some were better than others, but at £2 a pint, who cares? There was some greasy food on board as well to ensure one can stand an entire night of drinking while being thrown around on a train. I can’t say much else about the beers themselves as it was so long ago, but here are a few of the beers they had on board.

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A Tale of 3 Returns

I purchased 3 items from Amazon UK, all requiring exchanges or returns during their warranty period. This is not a reflection on Amazon, but rather of the manufacturers of the products. Two of the items were earphones, and the third was a Brita water filter that needed it’s meter replaced.

The first earphone, purchased for Reva was made by a Chinese company called SoundMagic. About 7 months in, one channel stopped working. We didn’t think of doing anything with it, until my Phillips buds stopped working about 2 months later. At this point, I checked the warranty information on the SoundMagic website which said to contact the seller directly with proof of purchase. Very convenient, I thought, because who keeps receipts for a £24.99 pair of earphones. But thanks to Amazon and GMail, I had the receipt. I checked the Phillips website, which said to contact their own support, which was of course a 0845 number.

First stop: The Amazon website to try and get replacement SoundMagic buds. On the customer service page was an option to have Amazon call you. I put in my number and a few second later my phone rang. The representative, who sounded like she may have been in Asia, listened patiently to my complaint and offered to send a replacement earphone using one-day shipping for no charge. The only caveat? I had the send back the earphones that ware no longer working. They would even send me a pre-paid label for this. No problem, process the exchange I told the representative. 24 hours later, I had a brand new pair of earphones, but Reva had to go a little out of her way to find a place to drop of the return.

I called Phillips customer service next, and the representative sincerely apologised for the trouble I was facing. After taking the model number for my earphones (for which I originally paid £17.99) and putting me on hold for a few minutes, he came back and offered to replace my broken buds with a plastic model that cost £8.99. Now way, I said, I want something of at least equal value and had in-ear buds. A few more minutes later, he came back and offered a pair that was very similar to mine, but also had iPhone controls. Great, an upgrade…I’ll take it. All I had to do was upload a copy of my receipt. No problem, Amazon had a copy. A few days later, the replacement had been mailed to me. And no need to send back the original, now broken pair.

2 for 2, pretty successful, no? I figured I must try and get the Brita water filter’s meter replaced as well. I checked the Brita website, and was very surprised to find that simply signing up for an account and by putting in the serial number of my existing meter, I could request a replacement. I did so, and got an email saying I’d have a replacement within 10 working days. Nearly 3 weeks later, I still hadn’t received it. I replied to the Brita email asking where my meter was. About 48 hours later, customer service responded saying they’d sent me another one, and that it could take up to 10 working days to arrive. *sigh*. But a few days later the meter had arrived. 3 for 3! Fresh, pure water to go with my upgraded earbuds. And lo, 3 days later the original meter arrived as well. It had taken almost a month, but now I had 2 meters.

My conclusion: it is totally worth the effort to save receipts and be aware of warranties/guarantees offered even for less expensive products. It may take some effort and there may be a few days (or even weeks) where you don’t have use of your product, but eventually you’ll get a replacement for free. I saved over £65 by knowing where I purchased my products, what the warranties were, and doing a little research on how to take advantage of it.

Pub #10: Craft Beer Co, Farringdon, 31 Mar, 2012

Pub 10 is the very fine Craft Beer Co. in Farringdon. This is not a beautiful pub, not a historic pub, but it is a very fine pub. Just look at the row of beer available on tap. And there’s even more variety in the refrigerators lining the walls. This is truly a place for lovers of beer. Their home page says that they were rated the 4th best bar in the world, and for the sheer selection of ales, I must say that it’s a place worth visiting again and again.

This was my 4th visit to Craft Beer Co. and I’ve taken to only trying their beers in 1/2 pint glasses, to allow me to try more. This bar doesn’t have a full menu, unfortunately. The place is usually packed inside and patrons spill out on to the street, which is actually quite enjoyable in the late evenings, in mild weather. I’ve taken a few friends to this bar, and it will continue to be a stop on my London tour, especially if one is a fan of great craft beer.

Pub #9: BrewDog, Camden, 25 Mar, 2012

After a 14 month hiatus, I’m back to on track with blogging about a 100 pubs. It’s not that I’ve not been visiting pubs all this time. I’ve just not been blogging about it. So I have a bit of a backlog of pubs, and the first one of the bat is BrewDog. Scotland’s largest independent brewery is out to break all the rules and judging by their beers, their bars, the media coverage and their Twitter account, they are succeeding.

This was my second visit to BrewDog Camden, and it was a bright, sunny Sunday afternoon. Camden was busy as usual, with people enjoying the fine weather and the eclectic Camden markets and food stalls. But nearly forgotten was the brilliant BrewDog, situated a few minutes from CamdenTown tube, in the opposite direction of the market. 5 of us headed over there, mostly with the intention of trying out various brews. I had 2 beers – the Hardcore IPA, a 9.2% ABV ale in a 2/3rd glass, followed by a 1/2 pint of the Punk IPA.  (Yeah, I’m a bit of an IPA nerd)

This is a somewhat local bar to Islington, and only about 25 minutes away by public transport. I need to make fore frequent visits to BrewDog over this summer and try more of their great ales.

The new iPad

Yesterday, on the way to visit family out in Essex, Reva and I stopped by the Apple store at the Westfield mall in Stratford. But I think a more accurate description of events would be that I dragged Reva to the Apple store at the Westfield mall in Stratford. It was the day after the release of the new iPad aka the third generation iPad and I wanted to get a glimpse of the screen that had been described as “resolutionary” by Apple’s marketing but had also been talked up greatly by all the blogs and podcasts I’m subscribed to.

Overall, yes the screen is a lot brighter and sharper, but to see the difference I really had to compare it to the iPad 2. I do see the difference between the iPhone 3G and iPhone 4S, but only on close inspection. I don’t know if the difference would be noticeable to me in daily use. In fact, I’d say it isn’t because I regularly use both an iPhone 4S and a Nexus One. And it’s not the screen on the Nexus One that annoys me (but that’s a story for another day).

The 3rd generation iPad is similar – only when compared to an iPad 2 up close can I really notice the difference, but ohh boy – what a difference it is. The size, shape and weight is almost identical to the iPad 2. The rear camera is apparently better, but personally that’s not a big selling point. Faster processor (quad core graphics?) and increased RAM are two big factors for me because original iPad I have is almost unusably slow with iOS 5 on it. LTE? Well, not until there’s some serious LTE push outside North America will I take notice of it.

Bottom line? If it’s the first tablet one is buying, then this is the best tablet on the market. If one already has an iPad 2, then don’t buy it unless one has $800 burning a hole in one’s pocket. What about me? I have an iPad 1. I’m sorely tempted, but I think I could last another year. Hopefully by then there’ll be a reason to get it for LTE in Europe.

Why I wish India hadn’t won the 2011 Cricket World Cup

Edit: This is a long post, it rambles, but eventually gets to my point. It started out as a post about why the World Cup victory is bitter-sweet to me, so it has a lot of my personal history with cricket. To get to my reasons, skip to the last 2 paragraphs.

In the 2 weeks since the madness of April 2nd there have been countless articles & blog posts written, thousands of tribute vides created, many gifts distributed and god-only-knows-how-many emails circulated about India winning the 2011 Cricket World Cup. Dhoni has been hailed a Midas, Yuvraj as the comeback-kid, and Sachin the saviour of a nation and the person who carried the burden of a billion people until the Cup could be won back after a 28 year gap. Journalists have used the opportunity to write about how the win, the first by a country hosting the World Cup, represents India breaking the shackles of foreign dominance. It is a symbol of the confidence of a country bursting through and taking the bull by the horns.

The night of the victory was special for me (as it was for every Indian). I hugged numerous strangers and a smile was plastered on my face. I’ve been a cricket fan (and sometime cricketer) since I was 10. A vague memory lingers in my head of watching the imposing Imran Khan lift the cup in 1992. 1996 is much clearer to me. My friends and I took to filling out the win/loss brackets in between classes playing hand cricket when teachers weren’t looking. I’m certain I wasn’t the only one embarrassed by Vinod Kambli’s tears after the semi-final in Kolkata. Sri Lanka deserved to win, however. The 1999 edition was perfectly timed – during the summer vacation between my 10th and 11th grades. Sachin’s 140 against Zimbabwe after his father passing away, Rahul Dravid scoring the most runs despite India not reaching the semi-finals and Lance Klusner’s appetite for big sixes are the highs in a tournament that was otherwise largely forgettable for Indian. 2003 was exciting though; I was away from home for the first time and watching and playing cricket with new friends. Trudging through over a foot of snowdrift at 2 am to get to where I’d paid $100, along with 6 others to install a dish so we could receive the broadcast marks the pinnacle in my desperation to see India win. And they almost went all the way. The thrashing they gave England in the group stages, having Zimbabwe and Kenya qualify through to the Super Sixes and finally having to beat Kenya in the semi-final, made me feel like this could be the year. But then Ricky Ponting happened. I wont even go into the 2007 edition, it was that miserable.

In the 19 years since I’ve been watching cricket, I’ve also been one of very few people I know that truly enjoy Test cricket. I watch any game India plays in, all 5 days if possible. And if England, Australia, or South Africa are involved against anyone else I’ll usually watch that game too. I also fancy myself a cricketer of sorts. My first coach believed I’d be a decent seam bowler given my lanky build (at the age of 13). But I quickly found myself more interested in the art of wicket keeping. But given the opportunity I loved having a bat up the order as well. Yes, for a bits and pieces player I didn’t do too badly. I ended the president of the Drexel Cricket Club and even captained the University club team to a memorable tournament victory when the regular captain was unavailable. Tennis ball cricket was a frequent pastime in the American summer as well.

So what is this story about? Yes, I’ve waited a long time for India to win the 50-over Cricket World Cup. Yes, Yuvraj Singh has proved he’s capable of a renaissance, MS Dhoni has appeared out of nowhere to first, be the #1 batsman in ODI cricket, then lead the Indian team to the #1 test rank in the world, and then win both the 20-20 and ODI cricket world cup. But for a fan like me, is it really what should’ve happened for the good of cricket?

I’ve been vocal (when asked, of course) that ODI cricket needs to be put to rest. Despite all its quirks as a sport, I don’t believe that cricket can sustain 3 formats at the international level, especially with only 7 or 8 teams capable of competing at the highest caliber. T20 cricket has been great for the sport. It has lead to innovative stroke play, attacking bowling and cunning captaincy. It has enabled the discovery of players who may never have been given opportunities otherwise (courtesy the IPL). And finally, it has elevated cricket to a truly professional sport. Players who would only ever have played domestic cricket and not earned a sustainable income, now have the opportunity to make a true living just off the T20 format.

Many believe that the success of the 50-over World Cup in India shows that the format is healthy and can survive many more years. The ICC has, in fact, already begun preparations for the 2015 and 2019 editions (to be held in Australia and England, respectively). Sachin will certainly no longer be playing. MS Dhoni & Yuvraj Singh, both 29 years of age, may no longer be playing. That’s not my concern though. My concern is for the longest format of the sport. Will Test cricket still be a viable option in 2019? With our short attention spans, will anyone really care of a game that lasts 5 days? And if fans don’t demand it, broadcasters will now show it. And without broadcasters, there will be no advertisers. And there will be no Test cricket. (When was the last time you saw Table Tennis on TV outside of the Olympics?)

Yes, as much as I enjoyed the 2011 victory (strangers in Trafalgar Square will testify to that), and enjoyed watching every other edition of the cup despite India’s (often lackluster) performances, I believe that it doesn’t bode well for the future of Test cricket. Outside of India, England, Australia and maybe South Africa the sport has become vulnerable. Even in India it is impossible to fill a stadium for a 5 day game unless it is a weekend and there is the possibility of seeing Sachin score a century. And unless Test cricket survives, we will begin to lose what made cricket special in the first place. Maybe the future greats will emerge in the T20 format, but count me amongst the skeptical. The best ODI players have also been the best players in the longer version of the game. No one really remembers Michael Bevan or Ajay Jadeja. They remember Gary Sobers, Brian Lara, Steve Waugh, and Inzamam-ul-Haq. Wasim Akram, Glenn McGrath, Muralitharan, and Anil Kumble are the names that come to mind when one thinks of modern bowling legends. Images of Yusuf Pathan, Mike Hussey, or Paul Valathy will never adorn the dressing room at Lords.

Yes, at the risk of angering 1.2 billion Indians, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that it may have been better for the future of cricket as a sport if India has crashed out of the 2011 World Cup early on. We may now never see the next Sachin Tendulkar take guard against the next Shane Warne and that is a loss of immeasurable proportions.

False Advertising in the UK Mobile & Broadband Market

It has always irked me that the carriers in UK Mobile market claimed “unlimited” data when their products are far from unlimited (usually a 500 Mb monthly cap). Something ought to be done about the unfair advertising, or more and more people are going to be facing slowed data throughputs at the end of their 30 day cycle. Now that I’ve been shopping around for broadband, I’ve noticed this false advertising also affects broadband in the UK. While it is true that the increased competition offers lower prices and more features in terms of broadband availability, they all tend to generally advertise “unlimited” plans, while the small print talks about a data cap (generally 5 – 10 GB), after which the provider can slow your available bandwidth.

Lately though, I’ve noticed that some carriers are trying to move away from this (O2 doesn’t seem to have the word “unlimited data” on their home page and it took me a while to find the words “unlimited data an downloads on the Orange website, but find it I did). I attribute this to Three UK promoting it’s One plan, which apparently has “true” all-you-can-eat data. T-Mobile, however takes a different approach on their iPhone page. The wording on this page, under the title “No scary data charges” says, “But we won’t charge you any extra if you go over your limit. And, we’ll always let you browse and email, even if you’ve reached your data limit for streaming videos and downloading files”. Vodafone’s advertising on their website is perhaps the clearest of all – they offer different “web packs” that subscribers can buy, but even the best of those has a paltry 500 MB limit.

Also, why do these companies complicate things with Boosters (T-Mobile), Bolt-Ons (O2), Animal Plans (Orange) and Freebees (Vodafone)? And while I loved the Orange Wednesdays when I used them (2-for-1 cinema tickets), isn’t it just an extra cost that they can pass on to the consumer in terms of lower prices? I wouldn’t stick with Orange for these deals, I moved my number the moment I realised their 3G service was awful.

What prompted this rant? My search for a good broadband provider, now that we’re moving flat’s and need to get our own service. We’ve been using our landlord’s Sky broadband service so far, and while it’s been decent, there are definitely times when I know they’re throttling me down.  And what does Sky’s broadband page say? There are 2 plans, the first with a ridiculously low 2GB monthly data allowance. The second one, while claiming to be “unlimited” has a soft cap of 40GB and is subject to network management policies. And oh, I need to sign a 12 month contract. BT is even worse, with an 18 month contract required and the “unlimited” broadband that is capped, but their T&C don’t mention what the cap is. Forum poster seem to claim it is 100 GB, which is decent, I suppose. I can’t seem to find any information on whether BT Vision usage (IPTV) contributes towards this cap, but it shouldn’t.

Anyway, rant time over and some good news: I was very pleasantly surprised at the very decent BT customer service when I ordered a new phone line at the flat we’re moving to. It was set up fairly quick and when I had to make a change to the activation date, it was done without any fuss at all. I was quite impressed. And with regards to the broadband I finally ended up singing with? BE Broadband – apparently the only UK ISP with no caps or any traffic shaping policy.

Note: Tesco mobile (I’m currently employed by Tesco) adverstises “unlimited” web and data on their pay monthly sim only plans, while the paragraph below that says “fair use policy applies” and states the montly data allowance is 500 Mb (yes, with a lower case “b”, meaning megabits.) *sigh*