Amanda and I have discussed dropping cable for a while.  Why?  Mainly because it’s expensive and there’s not really all that much that’s offered exclusively through cable that we watch.  In a perfect world, we’d be able to just pick the channels we want to pay for a la carte.  We’d probably have ESPN (along with ESPN2 and ESPNU), the History Channel, SyFy, E!, Discovery and Comedy Central.  Maybe I’m leaving out a couple, but those are really all we watch outside of the network stations, and some of those we hardly even watch at all.

After doing some research, what I’ve found is that we can get most of the shows we want free online.  The problem has been getting something to connect to the TV so we can watch HD programming and the fact that we’d still like to have a DVR.

There are lots of products out there today that will allow you to stream high quality, even HD, shows on your TV.  You can stream Netflix to watch movies and a lot of shows (though that only includes shows that have been released on DVD) through any gaming system (and we’ve got all three: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Wii).  You can buy a Google TV or Apple TV, Boxee or a Roku box to hook directly up to your TV.

There’s also the fact that you can get free HD broadcasts from local networks with an antenna.  From what I’ve read, it’s even higher quality than what you get over cable or satellite because that has to be compressed.

The problem with these solutions is that you don’t get to use a DVR.  The shows that are streamed online are usually only available for a couple weeks, which is all well and good, but sometimes we get really busy and don’t get around to watching a show for a while.

So, given that we want to drop our cable but would still like as many viewing options as possible, along with having access to a DVR, I decided that I’d use an old computer to convert into a sort of media center.

“What about sports?” you ask?  I have an account with access to ESPN3, which shows all the games ESPN shows, and most Duke games (which are pretty much the only sports I watch) are on ESPN or network channels.  Fox Sports has a few games as well, and for that I can use one of the many websites out there that allow you to watch what other people are watching on their TV or computer.  In fact, when I was in Costa Rica a couple years ago, I was able to use one such site to watch the ACC Tournament as well as a few other conference tournament games.

I have an old HP desktop that still runs just fine, so my plan is to hook an antenna up through a TV tuner card, load some DVR software and output the video to our 50″ Panasonic HDTV.

There are small computers they’re making now built specifically for this kind of thing.  They’ve got good graphics cards and have HDMI outputs, come with no monitors and usually have some sort of integrated remote mouse and keyboard.  They also tend to be pretty quiet and energy-efficient.  If I had a bit more budget to spend on this project, I’d probably buy a Lenovo IdeaCentre Q150.  But I don’t, so I’m not.

For my media software, I’ve decided to use Boxee.  You can buy a Boxee box for about $100, but you can also download the software and run it on any computer for free.  Essentially, it compiles all your online shows in one place.  You can specify what shows you want to watch and it will let you know when new episodes are available.

It basically just makes it easier to track and watch all your videos in one place instead of having to go to a bunch of different websites to see when new shows are available.

It also lets you access Netflix, play music from Pandora and view whatever media files you have on your computer, all in a pretty nifty, easy to navigate interface.  There’s even an iPhone app that lets you control it without having to use a mouse or keyboard.

The only snag so far is that I don’t have a high quality video connection between the computer and the TV.  Optimally, I’d like to get an card with an HDMI output.

I also want to get a remote keyboard with a mouse or trackpad on it.  The iPhone app for Boxee will work great for that, but I’ll still need to be able to start up and shut down the computer, not to mention run programs.

So, we’ve got a task ahead of us.  It will cost a little money, but the savings will more than make up for what we spend in just a few months.