Home Theater PCs: A Cost Effective Way To Save Money

This is a guest post by SavingMentor who has been deeply passionate about saving money for the past 7 years, primarily focusing on spending less money without cutting back. After learning so much about saving money, he decided to launch HowToSaveMoney.ca to help other Canadians save money on everything they buy and do.

The old saying goes “you have to spend money to make money” and, in similar fashion, sometimes you have to spend money to save money too. Buying yourself a good home theater PC (htpc) is one of those surprising ways you can save yourself a lot of money! It seems counterintuitive at first, but having a computer hooked up to your TV can provide you with a surprising number of benefits and with compact nettop computers being sold for as little as $300-$400, getting started is quite inexpensive compared to the money you can save. So how exactly can an htpc save you money?

Replace Your Existing Cable or Satellite Service

Now before you jump to conclusions, I’m not talking about downloading pirated TV shows and movies! These days almost all of the major networks publish their full length content on their own websites and you can view it in full screen mode on your HDTV using your htpc. I’ve been doing this for several years now and I’ve slowly witnessed all of the shows I could possibly want to watch become available online for free.

Advantages Of Internet TV Over Cable Or Satellite

  • It’s 100% FREE, FREE, FREE!
  • Watch shows on your own schedule, not the TVs schedule.
  • Pause, restart, rewind, and fast forward shows as you please.
  • Sometimes watch whole seasons or past seasons of shows in their entirety.
  • Much shorter and less frequent commercial breaks, sometimes only 15 or 30 seconds.
    • Unfortunately, they are increasing in length as internet TV popularity increases.
  • Shows are often available in 720p or 1080p HD, also free.
  • No need to purchase an expensive PVR to take full control over your TV viewing experience.
  • Some networks even have made for TV movies or other movies available.

List Of Canadian Television Networks

The networks are listed in alphabetical order and I’ve only included those that offer full episodes:

* Full episodes are hard to find or site is hard to use.

Watching American Television

Most of the USA television networks also broadcast their shows online but typically Canadians are blocked from watching that content based on the location of the IP address. You can get around this by using a USA proxy which simply assigns you an American IP address and makes it look like you are accessing the internet from the USA. We do this all the time to watch shows on Hulu and occasionally we visit some of the American networks as well for shows that aren’t available on Canadian networks and also aren’t available on Hulu. If you are interested in doing this yourself, check out HotspotShield, a free and easy to use proxy that is funded by advertisements.

Watch Movies On The Cheap

With Netflix Canada recently being released with their $7.99/month subscription service, it is now possible to watch nearly an unlimited number of on demand movies for an extremely reasonable price. You can try the service free for 1 month to see if it is something you would use on a regular basis. If not, you can cancel the subscription without ever being charged.

Get A Free/Cheap Home Phone or Secondary Line

Home theater PCs make great always on computers for hosting a Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service like Skype or magicJack, which you can use to replace your existing home phone and long distance provider for as little as $20/year, unlimited North American long distance included. These services allow you to use a regular telephone to make and receive calls just like you do today. Sometimes you don’t even need a computer to make VoIP services work, but having an always on htpc definitely gives you more and better options. For more information on available VoIP devices and services, including those that are completely free, check out my guide to VoIP devices and services.

Listen To Unlimited Free And Legal Music From Any Artist

Not only can you load your existing music library onto your htpc and listen to it through your TV speakers or through your surround sound system, which is both awesome and convenient, but you can also stream unlimited free and legal music online through sites like Grooveshark. I listen to Grooveshark all day every day and it never costs me a penny and the flash interface is better and easier to use than Windows Media Player and iTunes. You may never have to buy another CD or mp3 again! For more ways to get unlimited music online, take a look at my detailed post on free internet music available to Canadians.

Instant Access To All Your Personal Media

Having a computer attached to the back of your TV has many other advantages like being able to view all your home media on your big screen TV anytime you want. You can essentially turn your TV into a 42”+ digital photo frame by running family slideshows as often as you want. You can also watch those home movies from the comfort of your couch without ever burning them to a disc or bothering to load them on a thumb drive.

An Always On Personal Server

Having an always on computer with all of your personal media, files, and anything else you want running all of the time opens up a lot of options for remote access. You can use services like Orb to view your pictures, watch your videos, and listen to your mp3s from any computer anywhere. Your computer will stream the content real time to whatever computer you happen to be using. Knowing that you can pull up any picture or video you want when someone asks you about your new baby or recent trip is very useful! There are many more fun things you can do with remote access but they are too numerous to list.

Full Fast Internet Browsing

And of course you can do all the normal web surfing you do at your computer using a wireless keyboard and mouse right in your living room. This is much better than using all the various gaming devices, internet connected TVs, and specialized media devices that are coming out on the market because you have the power of a fully dedicated computer behind you instead of add on functionality for a device that was never intended to act a personal computer.

How To Get Started

All you need to get started is the following:

High Speed Internet Connection

This is essential to ensure fluid playback and the possibility of playing HD content. You can probably get by with a 3.0Mbps connection for most things, but I recommend 5-10Mbps for the best results, especially if you will have other computers sharing the internet connection at the same time. You will also need unlimited bandwidth or a high bandwidth cap to make sure you aren’t dinged with a lot of extra fees. If you have a bandwidth cap or a slow connection, you may be interested in my guide to saving money on your internet costs.

Home Theater PC (HTPC)

What you are aiming for here is a small and very power efficient device because you will likely want to leave it on 24/7 for convenience sake and to get the most out of it. At the same time you need something with a good dedicated graphics processor that can handle HD video and multiple cores to allow for multitasking and to avoid system slowdowns. Preferably you should also be able to mount it to the back of your TV for clean and inconspicuous installation. I highly recommend the Acer Aspire Revo or the Acer Veriton nettops for this task because they meet all of these criteria and use less power than most light bulbs. They provide exceptional value for the money.

Good HDMI Cable

You will need a good HDMI cable to hook your htpc up to your HDTV. You can easily spend $20-$100 for an HDMI cable at a local store, which is way too much. I highly recommend ordering an HDMI cable from MonoPrice.com for only a few dollars. I have ordered at least 30 cables of various types from them and they all performed flawlessly and are manufactured to the highest quality. Monoprice is a US-based company, but they ship to Canada for a reasonable price and you won’t need to pay any additional taxes or customs fees for such a small purchase.

So what about you? How much do you pay every month for television, movies, music, and phone service? After reading this post do you think that getting an htpc would be a viable option for you?

About

30 Responses to Home Theater PCs: A Cost Effective Way To Save Money

  1. As always, great content from SavingMentor. I use his site all the time to find the best deals I can for our household. We will need to re-assess our tv/internet/phone in the next month and will be checking the site out once again!

    • young says:

      @Sustainable PF- I do too :) I check out the Canadian Deals weekly to make sure i’m not missing out on anything big deal-wise.

  2. Netflix is great down here in the states and I hear you guys just got it up there as well – I have the streaming only plan and just watch movies and tv shows through my XBox 360 – however you can watch them on your laptop, computer and other consoles as well.

    • young says:

      @Kevin- My BF has Netflix, we don’t have as many good movies here up North though. A lot of them are “B” movies but still alright to watch nonetheless.

  3. SavingMentor says:

    Thanks for the vote of confidence Sustainable PF! I’ve gotten all of my monthly bills pretty well contained as of right now. For high speed internet (7mbps no cap), television, home phone, unlimited long distance in North America, and 2 cell phones it costs us about $61/month including all taxes and fees.

    I’d also like to thank Y&T for the opportunity to guest post on her blog; I really appreciate it!

    • young says:

      @SavingMentor- Holy cow- all that for $61 a month? Excellent! For your cell phones, do you have data? My cell phone alone costs about $50 (though it includes data etc).

  4. Awesome research in the channels for us Canadians.

    Can you invent a web remote application?

    That would rock!

    • young says:

      @Steve Zussino- I agree! Thanks SavingMentor for guest posting- this is an awesome post and I learned so much from it myself (I am not a techie by any stretch). SavingMentor always has such great researched posts.

  5. I have a friend that bought one of those $100 adapters that you plug into your TV with an HDMI cable, plug a USB cable into it, and then you can watch all kinds of shows and movies right from the device. Seems pretty neat, and the newest ones support 1080p!

    • young says:

      @Invest It Wisely- Is that like the Apple Box? Or it looks like a box, right? Yeah, it feels so “into the future” to not need cable anymore :)

  6. Don’t think it’s by Apple. Will have to ask…

    I agree though, technology is amazing! :)

  7. SavingMentor says:

    @Kevin I’ve yet to try Netflix myself but I will be soon and then writing a review. I’ve heard that the selection is very poor compared to what you have in the USA. A lot of this stuff would be old news to Americans … but Canadians are definitely behind the curve when it comes to digital entertainment.

    @Steve I’m a programmer so I probably could if I spent enough time researching it … but I don’t think i have that kind of time:) You may want to look into Boxee though … I think it is finally starting to support Canadian content streaming and is much more remote and user friendly than a web browser when on your couch.

    @Invest It Wisely Do you have any more information on what device this would be? Boxee, Patriot Box Office, Apple TV, something else?

    I still think I prefer a htpc over these little $100 devices because of the flexibility. Installing Boxee or XMBC on it makes an htpc that much more user friendly if you can get the Canadian content linked in correctly.

  8. 101 Centavos says:

    good post, thanks. Seriously thinking about firing the cable company, reading this is one more step towards that goal.

  9. I saw the Roku device and Western Digital Live Plus device that can stream to a TV. The WD can stream from your network and from netflix. Sounds pretty good, I will have to try it out. I had a PC hooked up to our TV for a while, but I gave it to my brother. It’s a big box anyway.

  10. SavingMentor says:

    @101 Centavos I’m glad at least someone is seriously considering firing their cable company here! I think they deserve to be fired :)

  11. SavingMentor says:

    @Y&T Well, to be honest, the transition isn’t 100% complete yet because I still have a short time left on my cell phone contract. I will be moving to Petro Mobile prepaid when the contract is done, which is what I put my wife on last month.

    I do have unlimited data on my HTC Touch for a very reasonable price (about $7/mth). You may have heard of that deal from RFD. I got this phone about 3 months before the first iPhone came out in Canada. When we were both with Bell/BellAliant our internet + 2 cell phones was costing us about $110/mth taxes in. We’ve since adopted magicJack to make most of our personal and long distance calls and will use our cell phone mainly for texting, emergencies, and the odd short or important phone call. There is a crappy unlimited data package we can add for an additional $10/mth on each phone but so far WiFi is working fine for my wife so we probably won’t do that.

    Final monthly cost will be $61/mth once I finish converting my cell phone over.

    • young says:

      @SavingMentor- Ahhh the $7 a month unlimited data. My boyfriend actually had that, for $6 with fido, but then he gave it up (I forgot for what reason). Yeah, heard of the magic jack too- I’m going to look into it when we move into our place to save on home phone bills :)

  12. I love this idea and actually do watch occasional shows from my laptop. And an $8 monthly netflix subscription is a heck of a lot cheaper than cable TV!!!

  13. SavingMentor says:

    @retireby40 Those are the two other devices I was trying to think of but couldn’t remember their names off the top of my head. They are a fair bit cheaper than a full fledged htpc for sure. Just make sure you understand what you are buying first and read reviews to make sure it can play the content you need before you buy.

  14. Yes, that’s how Netfix streaming was in the U.S. at first – mainly B movies once they get the deals worked out with the studio and have movies a few weeks after they come out on DVD it is much better.

  15. I am addicted to Grooveshark. It is fantastic.

    • young says:

      @Financial Uproar- I just went over to check it out- I like the clean interface. So can one upload these free songs onto an ipod? Or do you have to buy them? (I am such a technophobe when it comes to stuff like this!)

  16. Ina Franks says:

    @Financial Uproar- I just went over to check it out- I like the clean interface. So can one upload these free songs onto an ipod? Or do you have to buy them? (I am such a technophobe when it comes to stuff like this!)

  17. SavingMentor says:

    The only way to get Grooveshark on a mobile device is by using a flash based web browser (never tried it) or signing up for their premium service. Used to be only $3/mth, but they recently increased it. I think they have an iPhone app.

  18. Thank you for all this information! I have always been a follower of SavingMentor’s site. It gives great money saving tips and ideas. I personally use Hotspotshield to watch my favorite shows at Hulu. :)

  19. SavingMentor says:

    Thanks for the nice compliment Ann and you’re welcome! Glad to hear about somebody implementing the tips I provide.

    Have you read my Canadian guide to free internet TV yet?

  20. financialwizardess says:

    What about sports broadcasts? I enjoy my Sunday Ticket and I don’t know how else I would have access to all of the Football games on a given Sunday…

    • young says:

      @financialwizardess- That’s a good point. Watching the highlights streaming on some news websites probably just doesn’t feel the same..! My boyfriend and I succumbed to cable ourselves. Cable providers 1; youngandthrifty 0.

  21. And another good thing about this is for some programs [like trying to find good hockey while living in the US] it can be much easier to just sign up for nhl online, than to go ahead and buy a full on satellite tv package. Also, buying the online version of such programs can be much easier to navigate and their archive features can be a real time saver.

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