Michael Gartenberg Michael Gartenberg has covered the personal technology beat for more than two decades at places like Gartner, Jupiter Research and Altimeter Group. Most recently, he spent a few years at Apple as Sr. Director of Worldwide Product Marketing.

Is it really cheaper to pay for a lot of channels you don't watch?

I went to a restaurant the other day that was offering an "all you can eat buffet". There were a lots of choices, although not nearly as many choices as on the main menu. I was also, technically, not supposed to share my dishes from the buffet with my dining colleagues.

Despite all the choices, and the opportunity to try new things, there were really only a few things I knew I liked. In the end, I was paying for a lot of food that I didn't want and would never eat. If I'd ordered off the menu instead, I'd have gotten exactly the dish I wanted, prepared the way I wanted it. I could also choose to share that dish — appetizer, entrée, or desert — with everyone else at the table.

Theoretically, I'd be paying more for less. Realistically, did it matter? Was the buffet really saving me money? A first-world conundrum for sure, but one that also applies to today's entertainment options.

The question all cord cutters ask

Do you want a Cable buffet or the Apple TV menu?

In the past, we paid for a buffet of channels, many of which we never watched. In other words, we went from 57 channels with nothing on to 570 channels with nothing on. Like a buffet, there was a lot of minor variations of the same dish — every possible episode of every possible season of every possible version of Law & Order — and some niche dishes as well, like Ukrainian boxing. But it raises the same question: Would you not be better off ordering from the menu? Do I want a buffet of channels at one price, or a là carte programming channel by channel, TV show by TV show?

  • Cable pros: convenience, choice, simplicity

  • Cord-cutter pros: lower signal to noise, better search (Siri), amortized costs to family members,

When I moved back east from California, it was a question I asked myself, and something I looked at closely. Did I really need cable? It's tricky because cable is so often bundled into other services like phone and internet, and you have to break everything out.

I pay $40 for 25 Mbps internet. Speed factors into cost. Verizon will give me 50 Mbps speed, plus TV and phone for $69, but that's for year one. Year two goes up approximately 30%. Some people tried to switch every year to stay on discounted pricing but the companies got wise. Now there are 2 year contracts.

I prefer to pay the $40 for Internet, $12 for Netflix (four screens plus 4K), $10 for Hulu sans commercial, and $34 for PS VUE and some live TV (I like it for news for the most part). I also get MLB for free from T-Mobile (but still no local games because of blackout restrictions), and Amazon content, which is bundled with Prime.

All told, it costs me about the same as cable. Less when you factor in that I'd want Netflix and possibly Hulu anyway, so it actually works out to be less expensive. I can also share all that content with three other households at the moment, making the overall cost for the family significantly less.

Cord cutting is still a hassle, though. For example, a lot of things work directly from Apple TV. VUE needs a PS4, which I don't have, but works with iOS. Not with AirPlay, though, but with Chromecast. And some channels won't play natively on iOS at all, including ABC. VUE also has DVR features but no commercial skip. I can wait a day, though, and watch on Hulu with no commercials.

No easy answers

In short, there is a lot of complexity. It's never just pick up the remote and just go channel flipping. That makes cord cutting hard to recommend to most people. It can work if you know what you like to watch, or have an Apple TV where Siri can tell you what's on, and where. It's even economical if you can amortize the cost with other family members. You just need patience. If you like mobile video, T-Mobile's BingeOn is great. I don't see much, if any, quality difference on my phone. Plus you get MLB for free.

There are other ways of cord cutting, Amazon's Fire, Xbox, or Roku. Each have their strengths and weaknesses. For me, Apple TV on input one and a Chromecast on input two is the way to go. I suspect Apple TV will also become even better over time.

The living room is something Apple won't ignore, and if you're part of the Apple ecosystem, it's a no brainier.