A little over a year ago, I went cold turkey with Cable. I had literally everything that one of the big providers could offer (as my sister-in-law worked there, and we owned a two-flat with her). In this article, I’ll share my experiences and the current state of play with TV in my house. Mark Anderson is a long-time home theater enthusiast and lives on the bleeding edge of Home Automation. He will be covering everything related to Home Automation and AV. He is also a regular contributor to avystemsmag.com, where he covers commercial AV and automation.Please welcome Mark to the HomeToys team.

A Year Without Cable TV

Mark Anderson - hometoys.com

Filed Under - General Industry - Technology Discussions

How it all Started

A little over a year ago, my wife and I owned a two-flat with her sister. She works for one of the big cable companies so we had free access to every channel cable had to offer. (We’ll use the term “Cable” here to include satellite and the like). At the end of 2010, we finally sold the property and both moved into single-family houses. At this point, we had a tough choice to make: would we give in and surrender to the clutches of cable, or take leave of our senses and “go off the grid”? We chose the latter. A year has passed and we haven’t succumbed.

Disclosures

It’s worth disclosing a few facts about our TV watching habits.

  • First off, I’m not a sports fan in any way shape or form. I mention this because I know a lot of people choose their cable provider because of the sports packages. I’ll watch the Super Bowl and that’s about it.
  • I don’t watch any live TV. Even if I want to watch something the evening it airs, I’ll wait until 15 minutes after it’s started and watch the DVR’d version. I hate ads.
  • I watch about 2 hours per day on average.
  • I’m about 20 mins from downtown Chicago, so have good terrestrial coverage.
  • In general, I only watch HD
  • We have 2 TV’s
  • I use wired Ethernet for everything except phones, tablets and occasional PC use on the sofa, etc.
  • I did extensive renovations on the house, so running wires wasn’t an issue

Why Cut the Cord?

There were several reasons why I decided to cut the cord.

  • It’s expensive. Sure, you can get a triple play deal for 6 months or a year, but then you’re on the hook for even more for a few years. Add a few premium channelsand it gets expensive quickly.
  • HD Quality is poor. With so many channels being stuffed down a single cable, compression is way higher than it should be. Clearly, fiber-to-the-house solutions (such as Verizon FIOS) fair better. Switched Digital Video (SDV) is a new technology that allows cable providers to send certain channels to customer homes only when they are requested, so this should also improve thing. When we lived in the city, every time it rained, the picture was dreadful (not that it was ever stellar).
  • Service. I was never happy with the service from our provider. There were way too many outages and far too frequently we’d turn on the TV and have to wait 15 minutes for the guide to reload. When you finally convinced the provider to make a service call, you had to take half a day off work.
  • DVR Performance. The DVR’s we had were awful. Sure they worked, but the software was dreadful and the disk was noisy when it was hot. With the advent of iPad apps, the software has got better and it’s great to view the guide on a tablet while keeping a full screen picture. There are also plenty of multi-room DVR’s on the market, so we can probably nix this one (except for the $15 per DVR per month fee)
  • Lack of storage expansion. The DVR we had didn’t support external disk, so we were limited to 20 hours HD recording, which was a problem during vacations and week-long business trips.

Hardware and Software Requirements

Basically, you need a tuner, a PC of some description and DVR software. Shortly before we moved, I had started playing with Windows Media Center, as I was looking for a way to RIP my extensive collection library of DVD’s and Blu-rays and store them on a server. On the recommendation of a friend (who’d traveled this road already), I bought a Mac Mini to run my Windows Media Center, which happens to have a built in TV guide and DVR, so this seemed would now do double duty streaming movies and images and being a DVR and program guide.

Now some of you may be thinking that a Mac Mini and Windows Media Center are strange bedfellows, but with Apple’s boot camp, you can run Windows just fine natively on the Mac Mini. The mini is small, almost completely silent (I certainly never heard it), and has the perfect hardware components for a Home Theater PC (HTPC). I bought mine back in 2010 and the only slight aggravation was that audio wasn’t passed over HDMI. This wasn’t a problem for me, as I just configured my receiver to use audio from an optical input when the mini’s HDMI was used. (There are several adapters today that can combine optical audio with HDMI video onto a single HDMI cable.)

I run Windows 7 Ultimate x64 on mine, but Home Premium would work just fine. I must admit that messing around with codecs, etc. was an absolute nightmare. A friend recommended Shark007’s Free Codec solutions (http://shark007.net/). This was a godsend: it setup pretty much everything correctly with a few clicks. Now I can stream anything I want (including Dolby TrueHD and DTS-MaterAudio) to my media center and pass through the audio over HDMI to my AV Receiver.

HD Over the Air and Tuners

The first thing I had to figure out figure was if I could get over-the-air (OTA) digital signals. A quick visit to http://antennaweb.org showed me which stations were available and what type of antenna is required. The map below shows the distribution of broadcasts around an address and which channels are available.

 

 

A further chart gives the channel names, their frequency, distance and compass heading. For me, the choice was a small multi-directional antenna.

 

The next task was to find an installer. I’m pretty handy, but didn’t relish the idea of climbing on the roof and couldn’t be bothered researching antenna models. A quick surf of the web, and a few e-mails later and I had an installer. He came out the following week and charged me $300 for the antenna, all new RG60 cabling and the installation. A bargain in my mind, as it meant I didn’t have to get on the roof.

I bought a 4-way splitter and split the antenna into 3 feeds: one for the HTPC and one for each TV. This would allow us to record one program and watch two TV’s simultaneously.

The next hurdle was hooking up the antenna to the Mac mini. I thought this was going to be my biggest challenge, given that the Mac mini has no expansion slots. I’d seen a few USB tuners, but all the ones I looked at had issues. I considered going out and buying a TiVo Premier, but that was expensive and needed a subscription to boot. After a few more hours of hunting, I came across SiliconDust’s HD HomeRun (http://www.silicondust.com/products/models/hdhr3-us/ ). This was another godsend.

The HomeRun is a dual network tuner that acts as a pool of tuners. The antenna is plugged into a coax input and the device is connected to the network. It’s then just a simple case of installing the client on each PC where you want to TV and scanning for channels. Any PC (or Mac) TV application that works with SiliconDust products simply requests a tuner from the HomeRun pool and the picture is sent over the network to the device. SiliconDust supply a Windows application called QuickTV for PC’s without Media Center. For Media Center PC’s, you just scan for a TV signal during setup like you normally would and it will find the network tuners. With the dual tuner model, we can watch/record two programs at once on the HTPC and then one on each TV (with the direct antenna feed), so four channels at a time. I’ve since bought a second HomeRun ($75 on Black Friday) as there were occasions when we wanted to record three things at the same time. Now we can record up to four shows and watch two.) The SiliconDust boxes work flawlessly.

Other popular options for hardware and software include SageTV, Elgato (Mac), TiVo and Boxee’s new BoxeeLive with a Boxee product (e.g. Boxee Box).

The diagram below shows my current setup (receiver omitted for simplicity).

Content

This is obviously the biggest challenge. Over the air, we get the major networks and a handful of other channels. I was surprised how much quality content was available for free. (According to Boxee “89 of the top 100 shows are available on broadcast TV”.) The HD picture quality is superb and far surpasses anything I’ve seen on cable anywhere.

So which shows was I missing? There are a few shows that we watch on TNT, Bravo and FX (that I want to watch in HD), so I needed to find a solution for that. I’d had an AppleTV for a long time (for music and music videos). Luckily, the programs that I want to watch on TNT, Bravo and FX can be bought on iTunes for $2.99/episode in high definition. A side benefit of this is that I can watch them on my laptop, iPad and iPhone when travelling. (Apple did go through a phase where they rented HD shows for 99c, but stopped that after a year, reputedly because of lack of interest. This tripled my content spend.) There are several other sources for TV shows (ad-free for purchase, or ads-included for free). Some examples are Amazon Unbox, Vudu, Netflix, Hulu, etc.

What am I Still Missing?

The only things I miss are a few shows I used to watch on BBC America, but I can live without them. I’m sure something will come out on HBO that I want to watch one day. I guess I’ll just have to wait for those to come out on DVD (or watch at a friend’s).

What does it Cost?

This is a hard one, as there are so many choices, so I’ll list what I spent.

Antenna including install

*$300

Mac Mini

**$600

Windows Home Premium (OEM)

$75

2xHomeRun

$200

Total

$1175

* Could have saved $200 by getting on the roof myself
** With new products like Boxee Live, the hardware could be had for under $300. I bought expensive hardware as I knew it was tried and tested and I wanted to stream ripped Blu-rays.

In addition to the fixed costs, we probably buy two HD episodes a week, which totals about $24/month.

Conclusion

A little research is needed to determine availability of OTA broadcasts and antenna requirements. With today’s hardware prices, the hardware and software component could be had for around $500. I estimated that our cable bill would have been about $50/month plus 2 DVR’s at $15/month each. Given this, I estimate that we’re saving about $60-70/month. So the payback for the investment is less than a year and my Media Center can do way more than my old cable DVR. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.

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