Cord cut: How Apple TV, iOS, and SONOS now run my home theater

A couple of years ago I pulled the plug on cable TV. Even though my local cable company provided for à la carte channel selection - $10 basic local service, then $20 for 20 channels or $30 for 30 channels - there just wasn't enough of what I wanted and too much of what I didn't. Since then I've been using an Apple TV as my primary TV conduit. And it's been working amazingly well. Here's what I'm doing...

I have an Apple 802.11ac Time Capsule connected to my internet modem. Not only does that provide a second level of backup for my Macs, it connects to my Apple TV. There's no 802.11ac Apple TV yet, but even if there was, I prefer hardline for anything video related. The Apple TV plugs directly into my HDTV via HDMI. I use that setup for almost everything. iTunes lets me stream everything I've ever bought, and rent movies that aren't available (yet) on Netflix, and I don't want to buy.

The Apple TV is still my preferred Netflix interface as well, it's just clean and simple. While the Netflix content is nowhere nearly as good in Canada as the U.S., for $8 a month it still has tons of catalog content. There's no HBO or Hulu in Canada yet, but I have apps on iPad for my local TV networks - CTV, CBC, Global, and CityTV - which let me watch current shows and specials in near real time. (Though Bell has done everything they can to ruin the CTV app as of late, including removing functional AirPlay.) There's also podcasts, of course, which is filled with great things to both watch and listen to, and having the sound come from the TV is, somehow, much less distracting than having it come from my MacBook.

There are sports channels, but I don't watch sports. I do watch UFC sometimes (far too many to watch all the time anymore) and that's not (yet) an option, which is irksome. I don't watch news, not even Comedy news anymore, since the 'net is better and far less linear at pushing that data. I do miss the Food Network, and hope they make a non-sucky video app one day. Overall, though, I don't miss much.

What I do miss is lack of universal Spotlight search on the Apple TV. Having to search service-by-service is so 2007.

I used to have an Xbox 360 and PS3 as well, but I gave them away to family members a year ago or so. The Xbox never gelled for me, and the PS3 was my Blu-Ray player but even though the quality was superb, I became increasingly frustrated with Blu-Ray's model of slow content delivery, obnoxious ads and trailers, janky DRM implementations, and the damn thing's desire to update - onerously - every time I turned it on. Several of the discs also failed over time, which meant I'd have to re-buy them, which ain't as cheap as just re-downloading a digital copy. I'll probably get another Blu-Ray player eventually, or just transcode them and use Air Video HD to AirPlay them.

I have a Harmony One remote, which I dislike. I set it up years ago using the horrible Java app for Mac, which was gross, and it never fit how I actually use my system. Mainly, it wouldn't let me line-item edit the setups, so it was forever doing slightly incorrect, completely maddening things. I use it very rarely now, mainly in "device" mode to control just the TV or just the Apple TV if I can't find their stand alone remotes. (I don't know if they've since added an "expert mode" where I can just tell it specifically what I want to do, but if not, it'll remain mostly dead to me.)

I also used to have a 7.1 surround sound system but it was a pain to wire in my open, octagonal living room, few titles supported 7.1, and worst of all, I kept having to change the settings on the PS3 to try to get audio to come out. Automatic never worked, so I would often get sound for the menus but none for the films, and had to dig through their terrible cross bar settings interface to try and find which magic PCM/Bitstream/whatever combination would work, and it was invariably different for each disc. Worst of all, the receiver would keep throwing up false HDCP (high definition copy protection) warnings, which locked me out of viewing anything. The hostility displayed by the media companies towards their own, paying customers is so appalling I can't wait for a digitally native upstart to ELE them into the history books.

Now I have a SONOS home theater system. It plugs right into the TV via optical cable, which is simple, straight forward, and mostly bullet proof. It just takes - and takes over - whatever audio is being pumped into the TV. A Playbar sits in front of the set handling center and left/right duties, a SUB sits on the floor beside it making the room shake, and two Play:3's sit on either side of the couch handling surround. (I went with Play:3 instead of Play:1 because, again, big open octagonal living room.) The sound may not be as good as 7.1, but it's amazing enough. That it's controllable via iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad puts it way over the top. Not only are the speaker wires gone from my home (I have electrical outlets on every wall, so there's no problem with power cords), but at the touch of an app interface I can change sound levels, enhance dialog, go into night-mode to pull out the bass, and much more. Combine that with some Hue lighting for mood, and I may not have the Tony Stark house, but it's getting closer to the Tony stark living room. (I just need some Siri hooks now...)

I often have the TV on the way my parents had the radio on - as interesting but not distracting noise to keep me company as I work. Given how and what I watch, cutting the cord and going all-in on Apple's living room system has been nothing but upside. Of course, for people who live on sports and breaking news, it might be unworkable, at least for now. But the seeds are there.

The last major Apple TV hardware update was in spring of 2012, when it went 1080p. The iOS 7 update for Apple TV was entirely under-the-covers, with none of the new interface design language that was brought to the iPhone or iPad. A few channels get added every few months. Given the amazing engineering talent now on the Apple TV project, I'm holding out a lot of hope for the 2014 iteration.

Let me know how you're watching TV these days, and if you're using Apple TV, iOS, or any other streaming devices, how do you have them set up?

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.