California Streaming

Although I’ve lived a fairly mundane existence, there are several points of mild interest: I was once nearly killed by wasps. I have met Jesse “The Body” Ventura on a number of occasions (I preferred the wasps, for what it’s worth). And I once ate nothing but bacon for 29 straight days. No, I didn’t eat much bacon—didn’t eat much of anything at all—but yes, everything I did eat was bacon. Still, despite these moderately fascinating midlights (highlights is too strong a word), people seem inordinately intrigued by what I consider a biographical detail of little to no importance, something I’ve mentioned in this column before: that is my having had no source of regular TV (i.e., cable, satellite, or over-the-air) for more than a decade. “Why? What happened?!” they say, with the same pitying tone they might ask, “Are you ill? Have you had some sort of brain trauma?” (For the record, I can’t account for every hour I’ve been alive, but no, none that I can remember.)

But now, at last, a bit of vindication. Going off regular TV and relying on streaming media (and optical discs, of course) is becoming something of a mini-trend, at least among the early adopters I hang around with, and the interest is now even more intense. Mostly, people want to know that everything will be all right, that they’re not making a horrible mistake akin to giving their retirement money to a Nigerian prince or, on a whim, visiting White Castle for a late-night meal. 

Everything will be all right. Let me offer a few tips.

Get the fastest Internet connection you possibly can. Here in my San Diego home, that means cable at 12 megabits per second (yes, I know, pathetic, especially to you smug people in Japan, Korea, and Finland), and I use every little bit of it. In fact, if my Internet connection were a toothpaste tube, I’d be cutting the bottom off and getting the last remnants out of it with a rolling pin. Once you have your speediest connection, test it. If it comes up short of the provider’s promised speed (as mine consistently did), you may just have to endure the most feared and loathed event a homeowner can face: a service call. This usually means a large man with vague hygiene problems pawing around an area uncomfortably near to your underwear drawer. Bear with it; see it through. It’s worth it. Chet—the large man who pawed around my underwear drawer—found some corroded connections where the cable entered my house. By pawing around the area near my bikes and lawn mower—not ideal, by any means, but far more preferable—I was soon back where I needed to be. (Keep in mind that any device that’s connected to your router wirelessly won’t get anywhere near the speeds you’d get were it cabled up.)

The streaming services available on Blu-ray players, gaming systems, and even A/V receivers have been well covered in this magazine, but I thought I’d give you the perspective of someone who’s used them extensively. 

Netflix, being several years in the streaming game, is the granddaddy of them all. It’s great. My family and I use it a lot, and we’ll continue to so long as they offer the History Channel’s Swamp People (we’re big fans of people who wear overalls with no shirts, perhaps because that remains our family’s go-to wardrobe). But there’s a caveat: Although Netflix’s library of streaming material is large, it’s a tiny fraction compared with what’s available on disc. There’s a lot to watch, but search a few dozen times, and you’ll come to realize how much there is not to watch. Want to see Grizzly Bear with a Chain Saw, Grizzly Bear with a Chain Saw 2: Grizzlier, and Grizzly Bear with a Chain Saw 3: Grizzly Bear in Space? They’ve got you covered. (OK, not those exact titles, but I exaggerate very little.) Otherwise, the catalog is quite spotty. I’m not complaining, mind you. Netflix is a terrific value, but it’s not a panacea.

And then there’s the picture quality. I think they do a great job given what must be enormous challenges of delivery and compression and all those other things that I only faintly understand. But this I do know: It’s a far cry from Blu-ray quality, undeniably the gold standard. The streaming service VUDU, which I access through my PlayStation 3, gets closer to Blu-ray quality. Is it 60, 70 percent of Blu-ray quality? Something in that neighborhood, and on my overtaxed Internet connection, that’s not bad. 

However, there’s a major stumbling block that everyone who abandons conventional TV must sooner or later come to terms with: the lack of regular viewings of Cougar Town. Aha, but no longer! Hulu has you covered. It’s available on many platforms, of course—I believe you can even access it through your dishwasher. But as only an occasional viewer (who’s too cheap to pay for Hulu Plus, which is available on my PS3), I send it from a laptop via transcoding software. Frankly, it’s just barely acceptable. And if you aren’t a fan of frequent, eye-gougingly annoying ads, it may not be for you.

If you’re a sports nut, it can be a little frustrating; at least it is for this baseball fan. The streaming service MLB.TV works reasonably well. You can watch any game (still subject to local blackouts), pause, and rewind. The picture quality is, eh, just OK. Major caveat: no post-season games. Guess I’ll be living at Best Buy for a few weeks in October. 

In short, the pure streaming life is a good one—although it has its challenges. Not long ago, hackers broke into the PlayStation Network and stole millions of members’ user information. I’m not worried about identity theft, though. I just don’t want it getting out how many Katherine Heigl movies I’ve downloaded.