Sunday, November 17, 2013

Reducing Cable Costs without Cutting the Cord

So after a call with Comcast I have found out that they have started encrypting even basic TV channels that you used to be able to get with just a digital TV.  Until now ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox and a few others that you could get with an antenna you could get on your TV without renting one of their boxes.  Now you must have a box from them or a cable card ready system of some sort.  They are very quick to blame the government mandated transition to digital TV for this inconvenience.

Let me be very clear.  This has nothing to do with the digital transition.  The digital transition only covered antenna transmissions, and those affected could either get a converter box for free or purchase a digital tv.  Cable companies were not actually part of this.  There was only one governmental regulation on cable companies that has a direct affect on us as customers, and it's actually a positive.  It's called cable card.

Now Comcast does not readily tell you about cable card.  In fact they fought the standard for a few years and dragged their feet implementing it.  Consumer groups realized that with all the encryption and standard shifts cable companies were doing that caused standard TVs to stop working without special boxes and associated fees consumers were getting screwed.  So they petitioned the government to put a standard into effect that had a universal gateway.  This way people could buy a cable box of their own and only have to get a free part (called a cable card!) from their cable company that would allow their own equipment to work.

Now a lot of us already own our own cable modem to avoid rental fees.  Imagine how much money you could save if you owned your own cable box!  fees range from $10 - $24 a month per tv.  If you have more than one TV this could get very expensive.  These new multi room box setups start at $30 a month and go up quickly. 

After a bit of experimentation I have come up with a great setup that not only enables you to use every screen in your home including your tablets, tv's, computers, etc to watch TV it will also allow allow you DVR functionality to record shows in one spot in your home and watch it anywhere.  To begin with you will need a network cable card tuner.  Two that I recommend are the Silicon Dust 3 tuner and the Ceton 6 Infinitv ethernet box.  These attach to your home wifi router and to your cable company coax. Once this box is installed you just need a cable card from your provider.  Comcast provides the first for free.  Make sure you get a M-card cable card.  This means the card supports multiple tuners.  

This puts your cable service on your home network.  Any device on that network can access the tuners with the right program.  Add a windows pc into this mix and you get DVR functionality with Windows Media Center.  Most Windows 7 versions included this program.  Windows 8 has it as an option that you have to pay $10 for.  It is a descent DVR if you're not someone who is technically inclined.  You can watch TV on the pc, and any other xbox 360 you have in your home.  It basically acts as a multi room DVR without the monthly cost.  There is one issue with this setup.  Most DVR's today will record an entire show from the beginning even if you hit the record button half way through.  WMC won't do this.  It will record from the point you hit record.  Otherwise all other functions are the same.

Now if you are a bit more technically inclined check out XBMC.  You can install it on any system (Mac, linux, Windows) and use many different end points as clients (Ouya, tablets, ipads, apple tvs, Rokus).  It has all DVR functionality included. 

The one really nice thing about this is other than saving fees is that you can eliminate a lot of splitters from your home.  If you've ever noticed that some TV's in your home have a better picture than others you're seeing the effects of over splitting.  When you shift to this system you can eliminate all splitters except one.  You just need a two way splitter on the incoming feed from the cable company.  One line goes to your cable modem, the other to the network cable tuner.  Every TV in your home will now have the same picture.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Cutting the Cord

Thankfully the current government shutdown has come to an end and people who are reliant on a functioning government for their paycheck are now getting paid once again.  Unfortunately many republican senators have expressed their desire to repeat this idiotic crap again in January.  Many people I know started running around wondering how they would pay their bills and keep the lights on.  Others were scrambling to trim back services to their bare minimum level to keep expenses down.  These same people are shocked at what little I pay monthly yet I keep up with all of my shows and carry around a smart phone.  Despite all of this my monthly expenditure is half if not a quarter than what others spend for the same services.  The trick is to use some pre-planning and a very old fiscally conservative trick.  Spending a little more up front for long term savings.


First off I'm not an accountant.  I'm not going to run through how you can make a household budget.  I'm assuming you know how to take your monthly income and subtract off your bare necessities of food, shelter, clothing, and utilities (Heat, electricity, water, etc) to determine what you have to work with.  If you can't quite frankly stop reading this article and Google how to create a budget.  

Now I'm going to cover four main areas where you can massively cut your monthly "Communications" bills.  These would be Internet, Television, Cellular, and your Plain Old Telephone Service (aka POTS).  I've found over the years people are massively over paying for all of these services because they are not aware of alternatives.  Some of these alternatives are new and different than what we are used to, but once you do get to know them you probably find you enjoy them more than the older alternative.


The backbone of everything we are going to discuss here today is all reliant on you having a solid Internet connection.  For the remainder of this article I will assume you live in a community where you have either Cable, DSL, or are a really lucky person and you have fiber to your door.  If you're someone who has chosen to live out in an extremely rural without these options I wish you luck here.  I intend to do an article in the future on how your community can install and maintain their own infrastructure in the near future. 

The first thing you will need for this process is a high speed Internet connection.  These are not all created equally.  I suggest looking into them in the following order.  Fiber, then Cable, the phone company's DSL, finally a cellular data connection.  Fiber is your best possible connection, but unfortunately it is not everywhere.  Google and Verizon are the only two major carriers for it in the US.  If you live in one of the limited number of areas that have these as options look here first!  Google has Internet only package that has an installation cost and then is free after that.  Cable is your second best choice.  While it is a shared connection, there is plenty of bandwidth on a cable loop to keep everyone in your neighborhood purring along on the Internet quite nicely.  Finally if neither Fiber or Cable is available to you then consider DSL.  DSL is considered a high speed Internet link, but truthfully it does not hold a candle to the other two.  While the phone company has tried to retool their infrastructure to help speed this up, they still do not offer the bandwidth of even cable.  Truthfully only use a phone company's high speed Internet service as a negotiating block to get a better price from your local Cable company.  A cellular data connection is great if you're a road warrior and travel constantly, but the monthly costs are quite high for unlimited data.  That and if you want to stream to more than one device at a time would limit your experience.

Now lets talk price.  Honestly $30 - $50 a month is a good range for a high speed Internet connection.  You want something that has at least 15Mbps.  More is always better, but balance this out with the price.  Also ask if there are any deals in your area for recently moving, or switching from another service.  I've been at $30 a month for a cable internet service who's list price is $60.  I keep it that low because I keep calling up and negotiating a 6 month deal.  I only negotiate a price on my Internet service and I make a point to NEVER BUNDLE!  While bundling sounds like a great deal you usually get stuck with a typical "triple bundle" package of your home phone, Internet, and television.  This price usually comes in around $100 - $250+.  As you add basic features to your home phone and television packages that make them usable (like caller ID, or DVR functionality) you quickly increase the price of your monthly bill.  For now stick to your guns and stay with only an Internet connection.  The rest will come later.

Finally don't let your provider give you a modem or router for your connection.  The rental cost per month is usually $10 and it's completely avoidable.  A modem will usually run you about $80, and a router can run anywhere from $10 - $150.  A good home router is usually about $30 and can be cheaper if you catch a sale.  In about a year the savings on your monthly bill pays for your equipment.  Maintaining this is also quite easy.  Setup is a one time thing, then in the future you may have to do minor things like restart the equipment by turning it off then on again.  Don't let anyone talk you out of this for fear of future compatibility.  The stuff your cable company rents out is anywhere from 1 to 10 years old.  What you buy today will be more future proof than what they hand to you.


Maybe you've heard about this major movement that is freaking out the cable and phone companies called "Cutting the cord".  Basically this means you pay for only an Internet connection and using a variety of devices you get all of your programming over streaming services.  I know this sounds like a huge expense but really it isn't.  In fact you may already have everything you need to cut the cord and may not even realize it.

Now if you have a video game system such as the Wii, WiiU, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Playstation 3 or 4 you already have a device that can handle streaming.  Also included would be any TV with built in Internet apps, blueray players with Internet apps, Roku, an Apple TV, or any number of other devices.  Another option is if you had a spare PC lying around you could re-purpose it as a home theater PC.  

If you don't have any of the above devices first off I'm somewhat shocked.  It's rather difficult to dodge buying equipment without built in streaming apps.  I usually recommend people buy what they are familiar with.  If you have an iphone, ipod, ipad, Macintosh, or another apple device I would suggest Apple TV's at each TV in your home.  If you're a gamer pick up a game console.  If you're not all that technical, you're not a Apple product owner, and you don't like to game I would suggest a Roku.  Finally if you know your way around a PC, and have a few of them in your garage I suggest building a HTPC.  Now if you're someone who is starting off needing a new television I suggest buying one with Internet applications built in.   

Ok, before we go any further I want you do do a little homework.  Grab a pen and pencil and write down every show you're interested in seeing.  Now head to and and start searching.  You may find everything you want to watch is available on these two services.  If not head to amazon and itunes and see if the show is there.  Now lets say the worst case scenario is that you need Hulu, Netflix, and either Amazon or Itunes to watch everything you want to see.  Hulu and Netflix are about $8 a month for the streaming service each.  So that's $16 a month.  Now lets say you're watching a couple of shows that you don't want to wait to hit hulu or netflix such as a Showtime, HBO, or an AMC show.  These are usually around $42 - $60 per season or $3 per episode.  If you wind up buying all of your season passes in one shot this adds up to a high one time bill, but extremely cheap costs the rest of the season.  Where as the cost of cable is constant plus the cost of equipment.  

Ok lets run a comparison.  Lets take a typical home that has 2 televisions and no additional equipment.  In both cases we will need to either purchase or rent equipment.  Also for cable TV we will need a package that includes HBO, Showtime, and DVR's for both rooms.  This is usually $99 a month.  On top of that you need to add equipment and taxes.  For this example I'll ignore tax.  For the other example I'll use a typical price for a streaming box which is about $100, and in month one we'll buy three season passes for $45 each.

Equipment / MonthCut the CordCable / Phone
Equipment Cost$200 One time cost$30 Monthly

Big difference huh? We've only tackled one of the three big bills that haunt most people.  Let me show you what more we can do...

Cellular Phone

There are a lot of options for cell phone service.  Most of these are over priced.  Severely over priced.  This is due to the practice of subsidization the price of the phone usually giving it away for free or a low price and making that cost up over the life of the contract with a healthy margin.  You can cut your bill by combining your plan with family members, but that only goes so far.  If you buy your own phone ahead of time, or hang onto an old phone you can switch to a pay as you go service.  If you're willing to fore-go traditional support you can save even more.

For this  section we will be looking at unlimited talk, text, and data plans.  Also month one will include the initial equipment cost.  I will be comparing three services.  Your typical provider AT&T, MetroPCS, and a relative newbie called Republic Cellular that functions on a combination of the Sprint network and your home wifi.  Republic wireless  cuts costs by offering no phone support line.  Support comes from their website only.  To cut down costs of airtime the company encourages you to use your home wifi for data and it can use any wifi to make calls instead of using the Sprint network.  This savings is passed on to you.  The only thing is you give up MMS messages (aka picture messages).  Instead of sending or receiving picture messages Republic wireless recommends emailing these items.  They may add MMS later.

AT&T (not truly unlimited)MetroPCSRepublic Cellular
Equipment Cost$1.00$399$299

So by giving up a little in terms of services provided you can save half your annual bill, and a hell of a lot monthly.  Also there is no weird addition when you want to add additional lines for a family plan.  It's just $19 a month per line, or if you don't leave home much you can spend $5 a month for a wifi only line.

Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS!)

If you are someone who wants to have a old style phone line for your home because you want to fax, you have poor cell phone reception in the area, or you just like having one this section is for you.  For years a POTS line was our only way of communicating over distance.  You used to pay one provider for local calls and one for long distance.  Local calls were essentially free, but the per minute cost on long distance was expensive.  Now unlimited nation wide calling plans can be hand from AT&T for $44 a month. Now they are overpriced.  Many less expensive options for adding a line to your home exist.  The only advantage a POTS line offers over other methods is that in the case of a power outage your phone line is guaranteed to work.  With these other options if the power goes out, even if you have a battery backup or generator you may not have a home phone, but the cost savings may be worth this.  

For this comparison I'll include four options.  AT&T, Vonage, Ooma, and a more DIY setup with Google Voice and a box called an Obihai 202.  In all cases I will list the equipment costs upfront and include it in the first month cost.  All services include common phone features such as caller id, call waiting, and unlimited local / long distance. Taxes are not included, but in the case of the Ooma the per month cost of service is $0 + local taxes.  As these vary based on your location I will not be including them.  Also Vonage offers a price break for the first three months of your contract if you sign up for 1 year.  I'll use these figures in my pricing. 

AT&TVonageOomaObihai 202 + Google Voice
Total$540$254.40$130 + 12 months tax$70

The pricing of a standard phone line does include the security of tech support and a line that will work in the even of a power outage.  Vonage and Ooma may not work in a power outage (it might if you have a battery backup hooked up to it, your router, and your modem and your provider has power) and still include tech support.  The Obihai with Google Voice does not have tech support.  Again if your ISP has backup power, and you have a battery backup hooked to the Obihai, your router, and your cable modem it may work in the case of a power outage.  The question is would the security of a guaranteed working phone line be worth $540 annually?  Remember that equipment costs are sunk and you will own that equipment for the life of the service.  So 2 years of an AT&T line is $1,080 while the Ooma is still $130 + 24 months of taxes.  The Obihai 202 only costs you the initial $70.  

The Best Case Scenario

Lets say you decide to upend all of your service providers and switch to something far more affordable.  While your first month may be costly as you may need to buy a lot of equipment your monthly costs will be greatly reduced.  Using my numbers above I'll compile a best case scenario.  Remember this isn't a one size fits all as you may have game systems to stream TV with, you may already own an unlocked phone, etc.  I'm including the costs for Internet, Television, Phone, and Cellular service below.

Best Case

With a little creative cord cutting your monthly bill can be less than just the bill for your phone bill.  By investing upfront in your own equipment you reap the savings.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Shaving costs

As with many men I shave on a daily basis.  Over the years I've had a few razors.  My first was a Sensor Excel.  A fairly basic razor by todays standards, but it was very serviceable and I have used it as my travel razor until three years ago.  Since that time I've had multiple other razors.  Some were free samples mailed to me (a Mach 3 razor).  Others were gifts friends or family gave to me over time (a Fusion mPower, a standard Fusion, and a few others I disliked so much I stopped using after two shaves).  Over time I've defaulted to using my two Fusion razors as my primary blades.  One for travel, one for home.  In this way I had hoped to keep my cartridge costs down.

Dull blades can pull, cut, or even cause issues such as ingrown hairs.  It's very important to swap out your cartridge as soon as you start noticing these issues.  Usually for me I was getting a solid 7-14 days before the blades started to dull on my Fusion.  A few weeks ago I realized I was on my last cartridge and would need to pick up some refills.  Considering I've gotten a few good years out of this handle I decided to set it aside for now and see what my options for a change would be.  I was unimpressed with most options out there, but I did see a new store brand razor from Kroger that was essentially a Fusion, but with blade replacement costs one quarter that which Gillette charges.  Unfortunately the refills will not work with the Mach 5 handle.  As I would be buying a new whole new razor I decided to keep looking.

While at the mall I ran across the "Art of Shaving".  I was impressed with the interior and decided to browse a bit.  I found their stock to consist of Straight razors, Double Edge safety razors, and custom Fusion razors.  A number of years ago I had considered a DE safety razor as a replacement for my aging Sensor excel, but I was intimidated at the time.  After trying out straight razor shaves at my barber and noticing how much better my skin was when I did I decided to give it another go.

Now the Art of Shaving store is a wonderful place.  The staff is patient and more than willing to explain the almost lost art of shaving using a Safety razor, brush, and soap instead of a aerosol foam and razor.  The only thing is that the prices they charge are astronomical.  Many of the Safety razors they sell are in the $70 - $200 range.  Considering they sell a custom finish Gillette Fusion razor for $200 - $300 where as the standard Fusion can be had for $11 pointed out to me that a more affordable Safety razor handle could be located.  So off to Amazon I went and quickly found a $17 Lords Safety razor kit with a small random selection of blades so I could try a few options out.  As I was going completely old school I purchased a kit with a soap dish, shaving soap, and a brush for $9.  So for what I would have spent on 4 to 8 Fusion refills I got a shaving kit with 16 razors.  I did buy a Alum (Styptic) pen from the art of shaving store as the girl working there spent so much time with me, but I do have to admit $14 for one was way over priced as you can get Styptic pens for $2.

Here is all you need for a starter pack:

You will also want a shave lotion that does not contain alcohol.  I like this one:

Once you run out of the inital soap (which took me about 6 months...) try these:

Coming from the cartridge razor world I was rather stunned to find out that all Safety razors were essentially compatible.  As such you could buy razors from any manufacturer with any number of different materials and coatings until you found a combination you liked.  Once you lock in that brand you can buy blades in bulk packs of 10 or 100.  10 blades tend to cost $2, while 100 cost $10.  This alone made it worth the attempt to shift to this new (old?) shaving system.  

I've been using the new system for a week now and have noticed the following benefits:
1)  I do get a closer shave than I did with even the 5 blade Fusion.  The "more blades are better" slogan is complete BS.  I will say it has taken a little practice to get that close shave.  The Fusion would give me consistent results without skill or effort.  The Safety razor takes practice and effort to give a great shave.  The first few times I used it I am afraid I had massive patches where it looked like I didn't shave since I held the blade at the wrong angle.
2)  My skin is clear.  I've had issues with ingrown hairs and zits since I started shaving.  Since switching to this old system my skin has been free of this.  I'm not sure it's due to the new razor, or due to switching to a non alcohol based shaving soap from my old shaving cream.
3)  Shaving takes longer, but it is satisfying.  I found this weird.  I genuinely hated shaving.  I would grow my beard just to avoid this chore.  Since switching I find myself happily shaving daily.  It's almost as if by simplifying the process so much we took away the joy. 
4)  I do cut myself.  Usually a small knick or two on my neck.  My Fusion would bite me once in a while.  When it did it hurt like hell.  Probably due to 3 more razors passing over the cut.  When the Safety razor bites I usually don't feel it at all.  I only know I am bleeding because I look in the mirror after I'm done.  This is where the Styptic pen comes in.  Just a touch and the bleeding stops.  Screw using little toilet paper squares!

All in all I have found the move worth while.  If you're tired of burning a ton of money on increasingly overpriced and gimmicky cartridge razors you should give this old style razor a try.  Just be aware you may need to wait a week or two for shipping unless you have a store that sells common Safety razors for a appropriate price.