We all know the dance – having to deal with our cable company every 1-2 years as they modify their rates. They try to keep your business giving you things that you don’t necessarily need to sweeten the deal. And with little competition in the market, who else can you switch to? Subscription services made life easy in the beginning: have your cable package + Netflix or Hulu. Now, with so many subscription services out there, we’ve essentially come full circle back to cable packages. They are as much of a mental headache as they are a financial strain.
While I have been a fan of Plex since its early days in 2009, it took me a while to completely abandon cable TV. This post highlights how I’ve used Plex before, my decision to cut-the-cord with Comcast, hardware purchased, cost savings, a review of experience, and future outlook.
What is Plex
Plex is a self-hosted client-server media platform.
Let’s break down this jargon for those who are not familiar with it.
- Media: TV, movies, music, photos, etc
- Server: a computer system that provides you with files (e.g. media files)
- Client: an app for playing files from the server
- Self-hosted: you run the server software on your own computer, most commonly inside your own home
In the metaphor, Netflix has servers (hosted at Amazon Web Services) which serve you with TV and Movies media files. You watch these on client apps, which include your web browser, smart TV, iOS / Android phones, etc. But, the most important distinction is that Netflix is not self-hosted. What does this mean for you:
- You do not own the media
- Netflix can, whenever it wants, remove content from its library (Friends moved off Netflix to HBOMax with a 5-year $425 million contract)
- With more streaming services, you’ll end up needing multiple subscriptions for all of the content you want (sounds eerily similar to cable bundles)
- Traveling for work or vacation? You may not be able to access the same media in different countries
And for those who love having the top-of-the-line media, you can use:
- DVR Uncompressed TV shows, for free “over-the-air”
- Stream high fidelity audio (e.g. FLAC)
The decision to cut the cord with Comcast
Whenever you want to shift from one technology to another, the transition should be as seamless as possible for everyone. Not everyone in your household may have the personality of an “early adopter”, someone who’s eager to get the latest tech, even while the bugs need to be ironed out. For our family, it was important that my parents feel as comfortable using Plex as they are using Comcast cable TV. That means it should be easy to use, have good uptime, and not lose any features which make you miss the old tech.
Like many people who cut the cord, the primary motivation to do so was financial. Each month, we paid Comcast approx $207, with $88 going to TV. That is an outrageous amount for a family that pretty much watches only programming on NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX. We have streaming services to cover the rest (Netflix and Amazon Prime). Comcast giving us a few months of Showtime to keep us as customers really doesn’t sweeten the deal, as it doesn’t make financial sense.
Our Comcast Bill
|Initial Comcast Contract
|Broadcast TV Fee
|Regional Sports Fee
Looking at a breakdown of our bill, you’ll see that almost half of the TV expenses are taxes and fees. Even though the DVR is cloud based now, you still pay an equipment fee for streaming DVR. With increasing ubiquity of TV, tablets, and smartphones, charging consumers for each additional device is outrageous. Finally, you spend $18.25 in taxes/fees to deliver the same content you get for free on the antenna (over-the-air, terrestrial television). Each of these charges are recurring, meaning you may end up paying Comcast more to rent a device than the cost of the device itself.
Most importantly, for our family, paying for cable TV when we only watch a few channels, that historically were watched for free by Americans, was financially unsound. Essentially, we were paying about $90/month for “convenience”. That’s over $1000/year! With “convenience” expenses as excessive as these, cable companies should have excellent customer service and relations. However, Comcast was rated dead last of 277 companies in the Temkin Customer Service ratings. Charter wasn’t far behind.
Considering the above, we decided to cut the cord and set up a Plex Media Server for everyday usage.
(In actuality, our journey to a Synology based, cord-cutting Plex Media Server started by looking for a way to maintain an archive of our family photos and videos, in safer manner than external hard drives. The Plex server was an added bonus, which saved us a lot of money!)
When cutting-the-cord completely, you need to find a suitable replacement for each of the things cable TV provided you.
|WD Red 2TB x 4
|HDHomeRun Connect Duo
|Mohu Leaf Amplified Antenna
|Plex Pass Lifetime
What is the role of each component?
Mohu Leaf Amplified Antenna: broadcast TV signal coming into the house
HDHomeRun Connect Duo: converts the antenna’s coaxial cable to an Ethernet connection. Acts like a “tuner” which allows you to select channels
Synology DS918+ : a Network Attached Storage (NAS) which also acts as our Plex server. A NAS is a computer designed to share hard drives across your local network. In our case, we are also running Plex software on it to serve our media to Plex clients (TVs, phones, tablets, computers). The DS918+ has a processor capable of hardware transcoding, meaning that Plex can convert between different media file-types, on the fly, using minimal CPU resources!
WD Red 2TB: NAS’s typically have many hard drives running continuously next to each other. NAS-rated hard drives are better suited for extended loads with vibration from other drives.
Plex Pass Lifetime: While Plex has a feature packed free version, the Live TV/DVR feature requires a premium membership. The Lifetime membership is the most cost-effective. Monthly and annual memberships are available.
(The products above are hyperlinked to Amazon for your convenience. At the time of our purchase, the antenna and HDHomeRun were purchased from BestBuy.)
Additional components we already had
Amazon Firestick 4K: A cost-effective media streaming stick which has native support for H265 (HEVC) and Dolby Atmos in the Plex app
Google Chromecast (1st and 2nd gen): Easy to use with Plex. However, it works best with H264 encoded files. Plex will automatically convert the DVR’s MPEG2 stream and HEVC files to a format compatible with the chromecast.
Apple iPhone (X and Xs): An excellent mobile platform for Plex. Basically every file-type I have tried to stream from Plex streams using direct play. Plex does not have perform any transcoding (file conversions) because the iPhone essentially can play everything.
Prior to cutting the cord, our Comcast TV + Internet came to $187.39/month. The total cost of our Plex server’s hardware was $953. Because we still needed Comcast Internet at home, we add a recurring cost of $80/month.
|Time to break even
|What if we stayed with our Comcast Internet + TV?
|How much did we spend: Plex server hardware + Comcast Internet?
Review of Plex as a Cord Cutting Service
Even though we’ve established Plex as a clear money saver, it’s important to consider how good the experience is. As I mentioned earlier, if the user experience is terrible, it won’t take long for your family to complain enough to make “everything like it was before”
We had access to our TV, movies, music, family photos/videos everywhere we wanted. With Plex Pass, your family gets the iOS app for free. All Firesticks and Chromecasts are “included” (as is every other device). Every device in the house was now a media device.
As someone who worked in India, sometimes in remote villages with limited 3G/4G cellular connection, the Plex Pass “Sync” or “Download” feature comes in handy. I can have Plex create a special low-bandwidth file for the news and deliver it every day to my phone. This file is synced for offline playback, meaning that my phone can take its time downloading the file, and I will be able to play it back without buffering. I believe it is important to let you know that while the Sync/Download feature works flawlessly for me, some Plex users have issues with it. It is a point of contention by some users against Plex developers for a buggy premium feature.
The Watch Together feature is brilliant. Our family could watch shows together even while separated by thousands of miles. Another way where technology makes the world a little smaller each day.
One of my “pandemic projects” involved ripping our entire CD collection to FLAC, a lossless format which gives you the best quality (vs. MP3). It was a great experience rediscovering music that we enjoyed playing around the house growing up. Now we had the convenience of streaming services and the CD quality everyone deserves to hear. Apple Music is a wonderful service. However, it does not have many of the CDs my parents have featuring Indian classical artists. Recently, Apple did launch high fidelity streaming as part of its existing Apple Music subscription. This may reduce the need for Plex (and it’s amazing Plex Amp app, also included with Plex Pass). Still, I am sure purists will enjoy ripping their own CD collection using Exact Audio Copy.
The number one downside to using Plex as a cord-cutting solution is frequent bugs you may encounter watching Live TV in the Plex app on Firestick. We have 3 Amazon Firestick 4Ks around the house. A high number of Plex users report issues watching Live TV within the Firestick’s Plex app. Almost always, the “stream” will stop a few minutes after turning into the channel. At this point, our family does not even bother opening Plex if we want to watch something live. We use the HDHomeRun app directly, which works without issue. Other Plex users recommend Channels; however, this is not a free app and will cost you $8/month.
Plex’s channel electronic program guide (EPG) will occasionally have errors in its listing. This means that certain programs may not be captured by your DVR settings. Our family DVRs and watches NBC Nightly News and the 6PM local Chicago news, each day. There are some days where one of these programs are not recorded, despite actually airing. NBC does offer free streaming of their news using their app, fortunately. I wish there was a feature to force Plex DVR to record by time slot, similar to an old VCR (e.g. “record Channel 5, every day, from 5:30PM-6:00PM). That way, even if the program guide has an error, something will be recorded.
With everything considered, it is hard to imagine going back to cable TV. Plex continues to many features to its platform, some which people love (like Skip TV Show Intros) and others which some longtime users don’t (on-demand streaming from Plex’s servers, not your own). Looking at Plex’s overall ease of use, cost savings, and personal control of media, it looks like our family will continue to use Plex in the foreseeable future.