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Since having kids, we now watch the least amount of TV we ever have. So, we've been searching for a better way to watch TV when we do actually have the time. The idea of video-on-demand is highly appealing, since we don't really have the flexibility to conform to our television's schedule. We do have a Netflix subscription. It's okay, if you're not picky about what you want to watch. Like many Canadians, we're happy to pay for the content we consume. At the same time, we'd love to watch the latest Game of Thrones episode, on our own schedule, without paying for a huge cable package, then HBO and a PVR. It's just been hard finding someone who will take our money.

The clincher for us was when our cable company switched from analog to digital TV. They sent us a digital box that would allow us to hook up one TV (instead of several) and watch reduced number of channels. Of course, the propaganda--sorry, public relations material--they sent praised the cool new digital connection. I don't know if the quality of the image was better, because we never got around to hooking it up. After a year of it sitting in the basement, in its original plastic wrapping, we called and cancelled.

It still took that physical evidence, a cable box sitting in wrapping and gathering dust, to make us realize that we were wasting money on a service that we didn't even use. It wasn't the extensive literature on how junk food commercials target kids, or the old news that Canada should really ban that practice. As much as I would love to say that we had high and noble intentions by cutting the cable, we ended up cutting the cable because there are so many better options on the market. Options that are not only commercial-free, but are available on-demand, less than an hour after the show plays on television.

Downloading

Back when torrenting was still in a legal grey area in Canada, I had developed a moderate library of movies and TV shows. I thought it would be cool to be able to stream from a server in our house to the rest of our screens. If you go this route, I would highly recommend SABnzbd for downloading from Usenet, SickBeard for TV shows, CouchPotato for movies, and Plex to manage the metadata and streaming. It's a great setup if you want to (ahem!) "own" your content, or if you have kids who watch the same movie over and over and over and over. Download the content once, and you're done.

I seriously geek out over those three programs, so I will refrain for saying how cool they are. SABnzbd, CouchPotato and Plex all have installers (Windows, Linux, Mac), so installation is straightforward. SickBeard is straightforward if you are on Windows, but slightly more technical (you have to install Python and get Git) on Mac/Linux. But if you have the time and interest, you can do it.

The downside to this method is that when you want to watch a movie that's not in your collection, you need to find it, wait for it to download, then refresh the Plex library. If you'd really prefer to just find something to watch and click play, XBMC might be a better alternative for you.

Streaming

For a lot of people, streaming is synonymous with Netflix. The problem for Canadians is that Netflix Canada has far less content than its US counterpart. If you're going the Netflix route, consider getting a VPN (Unblock-Us is user-friendly, but there are cheaper options out there) to have access to US content. The extra cost is worth it. There are other companies that rent movies and TV shows, notably Amazon and Apple. They're probably worth researching if you're looking to cut the cable, but I don't use their services enough to review them properly.

The solution I settled on, back when streaming was in a legal grey area, was XBMC. It's pretty simple, though it isn't the kind of thing you'd give to non-tech-savvy parents. When you launch XBMC, you're about 7 clicks away from whatever your favourite movie is. If you have small children in your house, this is a definite plus. Be aware that you're going to need to refer to copyright law to see which content is legal to watch.

XBMC is easy to install if you use the XBMCHUB Installation Wizard, though you can customize it. There are several Android-based media boxes that come with it preinstalled. Note that the program is more stable on a computer than on a media box.

Conclusion

It's possible that neither of these solutions is really what you're looking for. Maybe they're too complicated, or maybe you don't like the idea of creators not getting paid for their work. In that case, there might still be a streaming box for you, that works without any additional setup. There's hope for the near future as well, as Amazon, Google, Apple and Microsoft compete to offer a less user-hostile TV experience.

In the meantime, I'm going to read a book I purchased 1-Click off the Kindle store.