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Revisited: Ditching cable for free Internet TV ... is it time yet?

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Like it or not, cable TV prices are going up. Fortunately, budget-conscious couch potatoes can rely on the Internet for online programming. With sites like Hulu at the front lines, Internet TV is giving cable TV a run for its money. And best of all, it's free so long as you already have broadband. But has online video matured to the point where it can replace cable TV?

Back in June, I tried saving money by ditching my cable service for 30 days. At the end of the month, I realized replacing cable TV with free (and legal) Internet TV was fairly easy. Even so, I remained a cable subscriber because I want full control over the programming I watch. Despite a lot of content, I didn't want to limit myself to what Hulu was offering.

Since then, Comcast has increased my cable bill from $74/mo. to $90/mo. and the Internet has seen a wave of new on-demand video sites. While I'm not ready to go cable-free again, I am interested in seeing what has changed in the past few months. Below are some noteworthy sites and apps that when combined, might make you think twice about paying high cable bills.

Joost
Launched in 2007, the original version of Joost allowed its users to stream select TV programs online via a downloadable client. The new flash-based version ditches the software requirement and lets you stream directly from your browser, putting Joost in a better position to join the likes of Hulu and Fancast. The site's online library has also grown since we last checked and now contains most of CBS' lineup along with full-length episodes of The Daily Show, Friends, and CSI. Although the site relies on advertising, Joost is one of the few sites to offer full-length music videos. There's even a mobile app for the Apple iPhone and iPod touch. However, online competition is high, and although we think Joost is moving in the right direction, its video quality is still mediocre and we'd like to see more programming before we cancel our cable TV subscription.

Sling Beta
The makers of the popular Slingbox are stepping further into the realm of online streaming with the arrival of Sling Beta. The newly-launched video site features an impressive amount of channels and shows (commercials are included) in addition to staff blogs, video recommendations, and user playlists. There's no HD programming at the moment, but Sling has scored some exclusive content, such as 60 Minutes, which should make it a nice compliment to Hulu. Plus, if you own a Slingbox, you'll be able to access your home TV and DVR via the Sling.com website (previously you needed to download the Slingbox client before accessing your videos via the Web.)

Boxee
This Mac-friendly app turns your computer into an entertainment center by letting you browse and access your local media as well as your favorite Internet media, including content from sites like Hulu and Last.fm. The add-free graphical shell isn't as polished as Apple's Front Row and its vast list of features makes it confusing to navigate at times, but for media junkies, it packs features not found in Front Row. For starters, Boxee is open source, meaning plug-ins for the app can be added and modified by any developer. In addition, the app features various social networking components. The home screen, for instance, is like a media version of Facebook, listing a mini feed of shows your friends have recently watched as well as information from your own media library, including recent additions and viewings. (Of note: you can choose to keep your data private.) The app is still in beta, so you must sign up for an invitation (you can do so here). Recent updates to Boxee include support for streaming movies from Netflix's Watch Instantly library, support for MTV Music, and support for streaming content from the WB.

Netflix
With unlimited streaming plans that start at $8.99/mo., Netflix is an excellent alternative to cable TV. We're still disappointed with some of the site's online content (or lack there of), but Netflix has made its way into the Xbox 360, select Blu-ray players, and recently announced full streaming support for all Macs. In addition to all-you-can-eat streaming, the $8.99 plan also lets you rent unlimited DVD movies (1 title at a time) each month. For couch potatoes, this means commercial-free access to previous seasons of Heroes, Battlestar Galactica, Dexter, and more.

Conclusion
Despite all the advancements, there's still no go-to site that can give cable TV the knockout punch. However, if your cable bill is getting out of hand, the Internet delivers many free alternatives with promises of more to come. (Even HD fans can find free content online.) When combined, these sites offer more than enough online programming to keep you entertained. The exchange is a little less control over what you watch.

Louis Ramirez is dealnews' Features editor. See our June feature for more free online video sites.

Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).
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