Over the past several weeks, my television has been receiving high-definition feeds of ABC, Fox, NBC and CBS, even though I haven't paid Comcast or Time Warner Cable a single penny for service. I feel as though I'm committing some sort of crime by getting such a crisp picture on my big-screen Bravia without the cable company's consent -- I imagine the Comcast-stapo will be busting down my door any day now -- but actually, what I'm doing is totally legal, thanks to a new gadget that accesses high-definition TV with no need for a cable subscription.
This magical television-summoning device is called the Live TV Tuner. It's a special little antenna from Boxee that can save you a whole heap of money on your cable bill while still letting you watch your favorite shows live and in HD.
Now, I haven't had cable for about two years, and in that time I've done some desperate things to watch live television. I've downloaded all sorts of sketchy streaming software; clicked on to "TV Links" websites hosted in Israel and Ukraine; and sat in poorly lit sports bars sipping on their cheapest draft beer, resignedly ordering another pint as big games dragged into overtime.
Hopefully, with the Boxee Box and Live TV Tuner, I'll be able to watch more television at home, and the amount of warm Coors Light I drink out of dirty glasses each year will decline dramatically. And isn't that what technology is all about?
Here's how it works: Boxee sells a set-top device called the Boxee Box, which is similar to an Apple TV or a Roku. It hooks up to your television and local Wi-Fi network, and can stream Netflix, Pandora, Spotify and other Internet services. It also has a full web browser for web surfing and a cloud system so that you can play on your television any media you have stored on your computer. The Boxee Box is probably the most well-rounded set-top box, and you pay for all that functionality, too: It's $150, compared with $99 for an Apple TV or as low as $49 for a Roku.
But forget about the web browser and the cloud, because Boxee really separates itself with its Live TV Tuner, which you can get for an additional $50. After a short setup, the Live TV Tuner allows you to access over-the-air HD feeds from several basic channels, all of which broadcast their network's content wirelessly 24/7. You can also simply buy a special antenna to do this: The Wall Street Journal recently reported that sales of these $50 to $150 HD antennas are way up in 2012 as fed-up cable customers "cut the cord." But Boxee's solution is far more elegant and user-friendly, and it's not that much more expensive, either.
The Live TV Tuner comes with three parts: a USB drive, a standard cable and a little six-inch antenna with a flat base. The system is very simple to set up: You just plug the USB drive into the Boxee Box, and then you connect that drive to the antenna using the included cable. After that, your Boxee Box will automatically set up the software on your TV. All you have to figure out is where that little six-inch antenna should sit in order to get the best reception.
That last part can be frustrating, as the antenna can be finicky unless it is placed in the precisely correct spot. Your television will show a "Weak or No Reception" screen until you position the antenna just right. I found myself on my knees for about 10 minutes -- nudging the antenna over a centimeter, and then looking up to the screen, and then nudging the antenna a centimeter, and then looking at the screen, etc. -- until I got a picture. It's not a task for the impatient.
Once you find that perfect position, however, you'll be stunned. The picture quality is, indeed, high-definition -- 1080p uncompressed, according to a Boxee rep. In my use, shows streamed with only the occasional hiccup -- a momentary pixelation of the screen, which always immediately corrected itself -- from ABC, NBC, Fox and CBS. (Before you buy, you can check the AntennaWeb site to see which channels you are likely to receive at your home address. At my apartment in New York's East Village, I get those four major networks, plus about eight Spanish-language channels. Your mileage will obviously vary based on your location and your antenna height.)
There are drawbacks to Boxee's Live TV Tuner, of course. There's no recording or DVR functionality yet. You have to pay $200 upfront to get the system -- not a penny more after that, but that's still a hefty chunk of change for most. Also, if the antenna is knocked over or falls, you have to get back down on your knees and reposition it, a frustrating exercise when you just want to plop down on the couch and watch some television.
Otherwise, Boxee's Live TV Tuner is an easy-to-use, reliable option that offers great picture quality, a legitimate, robust option for those who spend way too much on cable but can't part with live sports, award shows and Thursday night sitcoms. It's a $200 investment that could be worth it for those who want the basic channels on demand any time. Because, honestly, how much more warm Coors Light can you really drink?