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Merrill Aldrich

Technical content about Microsoft data technologies. All opinions expressed are purely my own and do not reflect positions of my employer or associates.

OT: How to Get a Free* Apple TV from Comcast

*well, sorta.

I’m trying this simple plan in the coming month to get a paid-for Apple TV set-top box, and I think the same plan also works for Roku or other brands:

  1. Order a new Apple TV. I’ve placed a pre-order with the Apple Store, and hopefully will get one soon after they start shipping.
  2. Gird for telephone-tree battle, because they will make it as unpleasant as possible - then cancel your cable TV, or scale back to the minimum, $12 basic/basic cable plan. Don’t take no for an answer. Do whatever it takes. Talk to a manager, escalate. They are required to provide this by law.
  3. Switch to Netflix on-demand content for your other viewing. (I already have a $13 Netflix subscription anyway.)
  4. Net $60 savings per month, which pays for the set-top box in about eight weeks.

OK, so this is tongue-in-cheek, but I am totally doing it. My order is in already with Apple, and I already spent the first hair-pulling 90 minutes or so online and on the phone with Comcast to browbeat them into allowing me to downgrade my cable plan. It turns out – surprise – that you can upgrade to any more expensive, Cadillac/Platinum/HD cable TV plan at the touch of a button, but to switch to basic cable somehow is so technically difficult that they just cannot help you via the web site, or online support chat, or over the phone, but you must physically drive over to their facility to make the switch. Still, I am going through with it, with a broad smile to boot. This alternative to cable TV will eventually have the cable providers quaking in their customer-abusing boots, if they finally wise up and see the train that’s coming at them.

Some Background

The Plan might not be for everyone, but consider these factors:

  1. I don’t like sports. I rarely say that out loud, and certainly no offense to the sports fans out there, but … well … basketball, football, baseball, golf, all make me go, “meh.” If you like to watch sports, The Plan probably isn’t a good fit. For me, lack of sports interest renders about 100 of my 300 digital cable channels moot.
  2. The broadcast networks are still free over the air, or included in basic cable, last time I checked. I’m paying through the nose for them? Because?
  3. Shopping online and infomercials: frankly those are wasted pixels and bandwidth we’ll never get back. Literally a waste of media and electricity.
  4. Streaming music? Well, OK, but there’s this thing called teh Internetz that pretty much has that covered.
  5. Eliminating those four categories of programming, we’re down to perhaps 50 remaining channels, and, not surprisingly, there is generally nothing worth watching on those. Once in a while I catch something worthwhile, if I am lucky, on these remaining cable channels. I haven’t paid extra for the many add-ons like HD, HBO, other additional channels – I just don’t see the point.
  6. Still, having programs and movies available on demand via digital cable sounded great! But hang on, I am paying $70 a month just for access to that feature, and then I have to pay for each program? Hello Netflix.

Our family did without cable TV for my whole adult life up until January of this year. At that time, we moved into a new house, and the kids had seen some cable content like Nick Jr. and Sprout that was pretty decent, so I thought to myself, “Stop being a cheapskate and just get the cable.” It turns out that was a mistake. Here I sit having spent far too much money and an incredible amount of aggravation (about six hours online and on the phone with useless support, plus two visits from Comcast technicians during the time we were moving, just to get it working) for the privilege of watching a couple of otherwise-free broadcast channels like PBS, expensive pay-per-view, and kids programs I could stream from Netflix or get on DVD’s in the mail. Joke’s on me. I’m done.

If you are also making this switch, or have made it, I’d love to hear from you. I am SO happy to have a real alternative to Cable TV, and look forward to this move.

Update 10/2: It's Working! ( Cable_Bill = Cable_Bill * 0.5 )

I took the plunge. Last weekend I drove the Comcast digital equipment back to their shop and returned it and switched to basic cable. While I wait for the Apple TV to ship, I've pressed my MBP into duty as a "media PC." I was always hesitant to do that in the past, fearing it'd require be a hacky mess of cables and adapters and strange settings on the TV and stereo, but new TV's have made it simple and almost elegant. I am going to keep this MacBook option as a backup, to stream content I imagine the Apple TV won't handle, like Pandora, hulu, etc. [I know, you might be thinking none of this is really a new idea, if you're out there on the leading edge, but I'm pretty conservative about this type of thing. Normally I just like to plug stuff in and have it work, rather than messing with it. So it’s new to me. :-)]

So here's my progress:

  1. Made space atop our TV cabinet for a "docking station" for my MacBook Pro. There’s no real docking station, just space for it, and the necessary cables.
  2. Picked up a mini display port-to-HDMI adapter and a 6' HDMI cable. Grabbed an old audio cable I already had connecting my Airport Express to the stereo, and a network cable.
  3. Connected the MacBook to the TV via HDMI/DVI and Audio RCA. The TV immediately appeared as a second monitor, with a spanning desktop. Surprisingly good resolution/quality on the TV (a Samsung LCD TV.), very unlike any old TV I've tried this with in the past. I also hard-wired the Mac to my router, which luckily is right in the TV cabinet with my cable modem, though wifi also works.
  4. Adjusted the display prefs to make the TV display appear located below the MacBook's own LCD (physically in the room, the MacBook is sitting directly above the TV.) Adjusted the energy saver and screen saver so the Mac won’t unexpectedly go to sleep, for example in mid Pandora song, but will run a screen saver to protect from burning the desktop image into the primary display while we’re just listening to music.
  5. To watch a movie, we just fire up Safari, go to, pick a movie, drag the browser window down onto the TV area of the spanned display, click the Full Screen button. Easy, breezy. The test: my wife, who is quite computer savvy but has little interest in messing with equipment like this, ran the whole thing all on her own the other day, for the first time, with no explanation or instructions at all from me. That was my ultimate criteria: it had to be simple enough not to be a nuisance to run.

Web sites like hulu, Netflix, Pandora, etc. stream quite nicely to the TV, and the selection of content seems to be working for the family. Plenty of kids content is available on Netflix as on-demand DVD compilations, and everyone seems happy. I’m still excited about the Apple TV, which will be more convenient (remote control, for example) but I am very happy with this setup, and it’s proving the whole idea out.

Update 10/9: Apple TV Arrived

All the way from Shenzhen, China via Alaska and California, the little box arrived yesterday. Very elegant, very small, very Apple (in good ways and bad). I’m really happy with it, but some reviews have been mixed and I think I understand why. I might not be the cable-replacement for everyone. Here are some thoughts about whether it might fit for you:

Apple TV Might Rock Your World Um, Maybe Check out Other Options (Xbox, Google’s new TV solution, Roku)
When you watch TV, it’s a few specific shows and movies You watch a lot of ESPN
Video games are … “meh” You have the high score in most of your Xbox 360 games. Then again, if you are an Xbox wizard, you almost certainly stopped reading this post up near the top, because you already stream to your TV using that.
You learn about TV shows from other people, and it’s OK to go back to previous seasons You are into the very latest episode of the new show on HBO or Showtime. It’s embarrassing at work if you didn’t see last night’s newest installment.
Design makes you happy “Design” is annoying
The coolest tech has polished execution – plug it in, and it works well, with no fuss. The coolest tech is the most powerful thing you can buy for your money. Fiddling with it to make it work is fun, or just the price of being cutting edge. Paying extra for a design-y box is a waste of money.
iPhone rocks Android rocks (my phone is an Android, btw, and I love it. I do have an iPod Touch, and I like it, but it didn’t inspire me to get the phone for some reason)
iTunes is fine iTunes  is a conspiracy
The solution has to be simple to use. If your mom/dad can’t use it, that means it’s not well engineered. The solution has to access every type of audio/video content. If your mom/dad can’t use it, that means they’re just too old :-)
BMW 135 Mustang GT

If, like me, you are a computer user, but not crazy-up-to-date on the recent options for internet TV, then I think what I did worked out well: first, plug your laptop into your TV and make sure the types of content you can get from the streaming services make you happy. Then see if the ones supported by whatever device you pick are a good fit before you buy, so as not to be disappointed.


The device itself is really nice. It’s very small, about the size of a hockey puck, and is clearly designed for one thing only: CAT-5 goes in one port, wireless comes in over the air, HDMI video goes out the other port. Nothing more.

Here it is, with a penny for scale:

2010-10-08 20.10.05

Setup was simple, with a great welcome “wizard,” and we were watching Netflix, YouTube, and iTunes content from my MacBook, in about five minutes. The UI is very well designed, the only pain point being the few times where you have to enter text using the remote and an onscreen keyboard. It’s the old left-left-left-left-left “A!” Right-right-right-right-right-oops-left “H!” routine. I’m not sure how they could have avoided that, but maybe the forthcoming iOS-device-as-remote will allow an iPhone or iPad to act as a keyboard.

It works exactly as designed – does what was advertised and doesn’t do what it doesn’t do. You get iTunes and Netflix, as well as some subset of internet services like YouTube. No browser. It has a custom UI to access all the services with a common navigation design, which makes operating the box consistent, simple and intuitive – no small feat for internet media.

Everything is elegantly designed, down to the power cord, which I like. Not everyone is into design, but it’s a weakness I have. And this is certainly a cool little device. In fact, I think it’s possible to sum up Apple’s design fetish emphasis just with a comparison of our two remote controls. One came with our DVD recorder and controls the TV too, the other is the new Apple remote. They are both good and bad; not every Apple design is a home run:

2010-10-08 20.12.13

The Panasonic is a reasonable design, but like all remotes suffers from the necessity of having about 1,000 buttons on it. It’s design is completely unremarkable, but does a decent job as a universal remote for our DVD recorder and the TV. I hate having a pile of different remote controls that no-one can figure out how to use, so I picked the DVD player largely based on the fact that there could be one simple remote that mere mortals could use.  So it’s uninspired, but it gets the job done.

The Apple remote is certainly more elegant, but not necessarily better. It’s like a small, thin wafer of aluminum. It does look amazing, but it feels about the size and weight of a stick of gum in your hand, and to be honest it’s simply too small. You can’t really hold it comfortably because it’s so narrow. It uses a camera battery instead of something common like a AAA battery -- again elegant but not necessarily better or more convenient. Cooler, but, ironically, less usable.

So if you look at the remote on the right and think, “Cool” or “Neat” or even “Interesting,” then Apple TV might be right for you. If you look at it and think “What’s the point?” then perhaps not.

Either way, you too can be cable-free, and save a pile of cash! Go for it!

Published Wednesday, September 22, 2010 11:08 PM by merrillaldrich

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dmmaxwell said:

We dropped cable completely about two years ago, and haven't looked back.  I'm not a big TV watcher, averaging about an hour every couple of months.  My wife watches what she wants to via Hulu & such, and the kids adore PBS Kids, and on the occasional Saturday morning we're actually home, Cookie Jar.  

Seriously, though.  For those who have broadband, TV is kind of a waste, IMO. Not sure what all Apple TV has to offer, but again, I don't watch enough TV to really care, so the answer may be different for you than me. :-)

Your thoughts?

September 23, 2010 6:53 AM

Scott Newman said:

Same here.  Dropped cable about a year or so ago and have not looked back.  We basically use OTA and netflix streaming via our blu-ray player.  We're more than happy with what we have.  We dropped everything from comcast except internet.  

September 23, 2010 7:49 AM

merrillaldrich said:

Updated 10/2 - Success!

October 2, 2010 4:43 PM

merrillaldrich said:

Updated 10/9 The switch is complete!

October 9, 2010 2:39 PM

@Edw3rd said:

What really amazes is how nicely integrated AppleTV works over WiFi and how LOUSY Comcast remove is over IR (no, can't control cable box via HDMI control either).  Netflix integration is also terrific.

We've also adapted well to OTA HD programming.  Big issue for family remains certain stations of live sports and kids programming that isn't available streaming.

Our total switch-over is so close I can taste it.  Maybe by Christmas?

November 11, 2010 5:24 PM

SCott Nelson said:

I did all this two years ago.  I don't use apple tv tho.  I would add using Boxee and tying it to your Netflix account.  That way you can use your computers remote control.  It works beautifully.  

Good luck!

November 12, 2010 12:29 PM

Scott Nelson said:

I should add that my total bill for broadband/netflix and the free Boxee is 65 bucks a month.  Comcast use to charge me 110.00 for basic analog service plus 10 bucks for Netflix.  It helped that my main TV is a 52" LCD that is conected to my windows media center pc. Now the downside; Comcasts' 250 a month download cap.  You can easily get there if you watch a lot of tv.  

Good luck!  

I too will answer questions on how easy it was to save a crap load of money.

November 12, 2010 12:38 PM

merrillaldrich said:


November 15, 2010 1:33 AM

Lucas said:

when is Apple TV stepping up the game?

Is it possible to hack ATV to receive free online content from Comcast?

December 27, 2011 11:44 AM

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