Unplugging the Cable: TV without cable or satellite.

I remember when my family first got cable. I was 10, I think, and we still had the old-style TV with the turn-knobs to select the channel. Back in those days, I had to help my father hook up any device we bought for the TV, as the only antenna hookup consisted of two screw terminals for the antenna wire; thankfully, ColecoVision, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), and my trusty Tandy TI-80 computer  had taught me all the tricks for making new-fangled devices hook to to televisions that were behind the times. The cable company had sent a heavy, gold box with three plastic buttons, a red LED display, and a massive gold remote so I no longer had to get up from the floor to change the channel for my father, who would bark his requests from the couch.

Back then, cable cost around $30 a month, and analog TV wasn’t always the best reception, depending on the channel. On the show Married With Children, Al Bundy used to make his family assume “Fox Viewing Positions,” arming themselves with an array of antennas throughout the living room in an attempt to improve the weak signal. It’s an exaggeration, but points out the primary motivation to get cable back then: no more reception problems. Living in the mid-west of the United States, where we get to spend perhaps one month outside, more channels and better reception without any muss or fuss was a damn good deal.

Not long after that, VCR Plus came out. When you wanted to record a show, but were too stupid to program a VCR (and you had to be mind-numbingly stupid not to be able to program a VCR by the early 90′s), you put in a little code and it set it up for you. VCR Plus was free, and the code was published in the TV listings underneath the show title. When the last episode of Cheers had a mis-print in the VHS Plus code, so many people ended up with the wrong recording that the network was forced to replay the episode. Clearly, not a perfect system, but free.

So, back then, Cable TV + “DVR” cost $30.

Fast-forward to today: what was once an almost-must-have utility has been transformed and bastardized into an obscene luxury item bloated with time-filler programs, much of which is reality television. After 6 months, Comcast will run you $70 to $150 a month; services like DirecTV, claiming to be cheaper, run the same amount to get all the features cable offers. If you have the audacity to hook a receiver with a hard drive to the television (also known as a DVR), then you have to pay an additional minimum fee of $10 fee for the “service,” and that’s per-TV. I’ve been storing data to a hard drive since 1993; I never had to pay a fee for storing data until the cable company decided there should be a fee for using hardware I own. And if I want to get HD TV, instead of standard definition, that’s another fee. I was paying $80 to DirecTv for standard definition television and an outdated DVR on one television; when I wanted to switch to HD, they wanted another $10 a month and $300 in new hardware fees. At some point, paying for television isn’t worth the generally-poor offering of content available in the United States, and that point was $30.

In my house, we primarily watch Netflix on television, generally by streaming it through the Internet into our PS3. Unfortunately, Sony’s network had a hard-fail recently; at the time of writing, it’s been down three weeks with a further two weeks of downtime expected. For reasons passing understanding, Sony decided to route the Netflix app through the PS3 network instead of streaming directly through the Internet, so we lost our primary source of television. Friday night, gin martinis in hand, The Wife and I sat down to finish off the last episode of Season 4 of Doctor Who and watch the death of the tenth doctor only to be told we couldn’t log in. Obviously, Sony shared our disappointment about the departure of David Tennant.

We switched over to DirecTv. Lo and behold, nothing of interest was on except an ancient Pink Panther sequel. We had to do this thing that couples used to do called “Talking to Each Other,” and I assure you that neither of us were entertained. We ended up on CBS, a local channel anyone can get in HD for free using an antenna, and watched David Letterman in poor quality, $80 a month standard definition. I suggested to The Wife that we cancel DirecTv. She wanted to, but what would we do for television service then?

And that’s the conundrum everyone I know is facing: we all want to cancel our expensive, pointless cable, but there’s no good place to go to get a simple, straightforward method for doing so. There are a lot of great forums to ask various questions, but no one is presenting a complete solution. Having a million other things to do, I decided it was the perfect time to figure it out.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve tried a bunch of good ideas, bad ideas, popular ideas, and my own ideas. I’ve had a media center running in my home since the day after the Sony network went on a bender. Three weeks later, I still don’t have all the issues resolved. None of this has been hard, but I’ve been trying a bunch of things out. Plus, I’ve been a bit frugal in my choices, saving money where I could. That hasn’t always paid off, and has probably caused more trouble than it was worth.

So, without further adieu, I present to the plan for Unplugging the Cable. I’ll be posting updates and corrections, and will ultimately write a how-to guide and hardware list.

This is what I’ve promised my wife:

1. Easy to use. My wife isn’t technical, and has no interest in computers or anything that uses electricity unless Apple made it. If she needs to type to get something done, it won’t work. Frankly, that’s a rather reasonable expectation for a home theater center. Constant switching between programs is unacceptable.
2. Not ugly. Better yet, the solution shouldn’t even be in the living room. My goal is to install everything in the basement.
3. It must have easy access to Netflix. Hulu wouldn’t hurt, either.
4. It will take in live television and be able to DVR it. She also needs to be able to record a show while watching another.
5. HD. I have an HD television, and I’ve been using it on SD for a year because DirecTv had their heads up their asses. I’m not putting together a state-of-the-art media system just to watch it in Standard Definition. Netflix can stream in HD, I want my media center in HD.

This is what most people would want, and the good news is that all of this can be done using a Home Theater PC (HTPC), and not for an unreasonable amount of money. The bad news is that, as of writing, there is no true “all-in-one” solution.

HARDWARE

COMPUTER:  $400 or less.

You’ll need a computer. You might have one you can use, you might not. If you have some old computer sitting in the basement, then you need a new computer because it probably won’t cut it. For my purposes, not expected to be without the Sony network more than a few days, I grabbed an old server I had lying around and put Windows 7 on it. This has turned out to be a mistake. First off, this machine has always been a bit on the flaky side. I figured it wouldn’t be working that hard, seeing as it had a Intel 3.0 Ghz Xeon processor. The 7-core processor in my laptop only runs at 1 Ghz, and handles Netflix like a dream. It turns out the processor in my old server isn’t all that great. Either it’s damaged and is having problems, or the architecture changes to processors in the last five years are more significant than I anticipated. In any case, it’s not enough. You’ll want something with a dual-core processor, minimum. Also, you need a graphics card that is DirectX 10 compatible and has an HDMI output. If you buy a new computer, you’ll only need to make sure it has an HDMI output. If you buy a card separately, don’t go cheap on it (a mistake I made) and make sure it shows up on this list:

Windows 7 Compatibility Center, Sub-Group Windows Media Center Graphic Cards

http://goo.gl/tHrPd

Speaking of buying a new computer, here are some suggestions I haven’t tried yet, but like what I’ve read about them. I’ll probably end up in one of them soon. They’re “Nettop” boxes, which means they’re designed specifically as an HTPC. Note that a Nettop box won’t be much use as a home PC for doing word processing or CAD, but you really shouldn’t be using the heart of your home theater system for anything other than being the heart of your home theater system. By the time we’re done with it, this computer will have plenty of work to do. Most of the Nettop boxes are underpowered for HD, but there are a couple out there worth checking out:

Lenovo IdeaCentre Q-Series, model Q150. Currently $399 direct from Lenovo, it has a 500GB hard drive, 2GB memory, and an NVidia ION graphics processor made for media center use. For slightly more money, you can get it with a snazzy wireless keyboard. I’m currently trying to woo The Wife into this one.

Dell Inspiron Zino HD. Currently $549 from Dell. More money than the Lenovo, but more computer. The savvy Internet shopper will notice there’s a model for $249 available. Unfortunately, that model is a bit weak-sauce for HD, and you’ll soon hate it and want your money back. For the extra $200 over the Lenovo, you get another 1000GB of hard drive, 6GB of RAM, and a DVD player built in. You can even go to the highest model and get a blu-ray player. If you don’t have a blu-ray player and were planning to buy one in the near future, then getting one of these would probably be good bang for the buck.

Both of these are tiny, sleek and quiet, so your spouse won’t mind either one of these ending up in your entertainment center.

You could also spend around the same amount of money on a desktop computer and get more horsepower, but you’ll have to mind the graphics card. Desktop PCs last longer than compact PCs and just tend to run better, and I’ll be teaching you how to put it in a separate room. I’m all for desktop PCs, but only if it’s $600 or less. No computer lasts forever, and this one is going to get used a lot. When you have to replace it, you don’t want to be tossing out a $1,200 piece of iron and spending another $1,200. Check out the Dell Inspiron series, which I’ve used a ton of and never had a problem. BUT MAKE SURE IT HAS AN HDMI PORT because Dell is notoriously behind in supplying modern hookups on their desktops. I just went on Dell and put together an Inspiron 560 with a dual-core 3Ghz processor for $319 before tax. Not too shabby. Skip the monitor; you already have a TV.

ANTENNA: $60 – $200

The first question I got when I told a friend what I was doing was, “What do you do about local channels?  And what about news channels (CNN, MSNBC).” Someday, I suspect, all television will be on the Internet. Sadly, that’s not today. There are still very cool and very legal ways of getting the shows you want into your media center through the Internet, but we still want live TV. You might have heard a lot of people complaining about over the air (hereafter OTA) broadcast being switched to digital. Well, those people are luddites and should have their heads examined; digital broadcast is awesome. To test out how the feasibility of using an antenna in my area, I spent $20 on this tiny indoor antenna, and had a picture rivaling the quality of blu-ray disks. For free. OTA transmissions are higher quality HD than the cable company can squeeze into a cable, and you probably have more channels than you think. Despite hundreds of cable channels, most Americans are still primarily watching CBS, NBC, ABC, and FOX, which have always been available with an antenna (well, except for FOX sometimes having a weak broadcast signal).

Your house may already have an antenna in the attic or outside. Mine didn’t. I ended up buying an Antennas Direct ClearStream4, but that’s a separate post. The ClearStream4 should work for most everyone, but you may be able to get away with less antenna. Oh, and we’ll be DVRing your favorite shows using the computer, so you can toss the TiVo and stop paying that $10 a month.

I won’t pretend the antenna is going to be perfect, but you won’t be using it much when I’m done with your media center. The Wife insisted on having some level of live TV, mainly so she could turn on PBS for the kids, and we live near Chicago, so there are plenty of channels. For some people, the antenna won’t be a reasonable option. In that case, get basic cable for around $23, also known as “antenna clean-up service.” You’ll get the local channels in unscrambled format, so the computer will still be your DVR. That’s another thing I’ll address in a separate post.

As for CNN and MSNBC being news channels… have you seen them lately? No, you won’t be able to get them, but less people watching 24 hour “news” networks is probably a good thing. PBS, NPR, and BBC have excellent news services you can stream over the Internet, and the MSNBC site has a lot of video available. Generally, you can watch the show the next day online. Regarding CNN… don’t watch CNN. That’s just sad.

REMOTE: $5 per iOS or Android device you want to hook up. Around $30 for a media center remote

If you own an iPad or an iPhone, or even an Android device, you’ll be using that as your remote from anywhere in the house over your WiFi network, and it will cost you $5. Spend the extra money (the whole $5) and get HippoRemote PRO from the App Store. You’ll never like a regular remote again. It’s like the Sonic Screwdriver of media remotes; it does everything, and can even be used as a touchpad remote for the computer. There are other options, but this one works and works well.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t hand my cell phone over to anybody. You’ll probably want to have a remote for the kids or guests to use, and you’ll want it to be able to control the TV or other devices as well. A good media center remote will cost you $30 or less. I haven’t delved too far into this; we’ve been using our iPhones to control the media center, and it’s the bee’s knees, but I’ll probably pick up one up soon and post about it.

TUNER CARD: $129

You can get a cheap one for less, and you might be fine with that. I want one that will allow us to watch TV while recording another show, or The Wife will have us back on cable faster than you can say, “Geek Fail.” I’ve done a lot of research, and I’m going to opt for the HDHomeRun from SiliconDust. This item has a lot of potential for other uses with other devices. If they ever get their heads out of their asses and add in PS3 support, you may someday not even need the computer.

http://www.silicondust.com/

ETHERNET SWITCH: $40 or less

Don’t bother trying to do all of this over wireless. You’ll get angry, and you wouldn’t like yourself when you’re angry. We’ll be hooking up your media center using wired Ethernet, which is neither difficult nor costly. I had already run Ethernet through my wall and installed a jack that connected to a switch in my basement because that’s where I keep my wireless unit, but I had done that years ago for the PS3 and various other geek reasons. If you don’t want to have a lot of drama over the Ethernet cable, I suggest putting your modem and wireless router where your TV is located. Connections will be easy.

CABLES: $10 – $50

You may have all the cables you need, you may not. You’ll need to have at least the following:

  • HDMI cable to go from computer to the TV. This will supply your video and sound.
  • RG6 cable to go from your antenna to your tuner card.
  • Ethernet Cables. You’ll need 2 or 3 of them.

INTERNET: $40-$50 a month

Your marriage to the cable company is a lot like every other marriage; it’s not over, it’s just not as hot as it used to be. You need Internet for this to work, and you won’t want DSL. AT&T is capping Internet usage to 1.5GB a month, and you could end up around that limit. If you already have DSL, as I do, I recommend my plan: stick with it until you get the first warning for Internet usage, then switch.

Not all Internet cable services are created equal. Where I live, we have two available services: Comcast and WOW. The WOW Internet service makes dial-up seem speedy, and is constantly dropping out. In Contrast, Comcast continues to have the best Internet service I’ve ever seen. It will run you $52 a month after initial offers expire, but you’d have Internet service anyway. Comcast caps monthly usage at 2.5GB, which is probably plenty, but my plan is to switch to basic business class service, since I won’t be using them for TV. You get high-speed, unlimited usage Internet service for $59 a month. We’ve used Comcast for business at my office for the last 4 years, and I can speak from experience that Comcast isn’t fucking around.

So, now that we have all this hardware, what are we going to do with it? This post is already too long, but here’s a quick overview of the software we’ll be using.
SOFTWARE

Operating System: Windows 7 Home Premium, professional, or ultimate. It’s probably going to come on the computer you’re getting, or might already be there. Don’t fuck around with XP or even Vista, unless you’re already on Vista and won’t be buying a new computer. Home Premium is all you need, so don’t bother paying for professional or ultimate. At some point, someone is going to comment about Linux. I love Linux for a lot of things, but, after 30 years, it has still failed to be a viable consumer-level Operating System, and to get a computer that supports Linux is actually more expensive. And the Media Center software we’ll be using only works on Windows. Oh, and all the Mac weirdos will be commenting, too. There’s nothing on Mac that meets all the needs of this project, so come join us on the dark side. Windows 7 is an OSX clone, anyway.

Media Center Software: I tried and tried and tried and tried to find another viable option, but the fact is that there is only one media center product on the market that meets all of our needs, and that product is Windows Media Center. This is asinine because our needs are completely reasonable. We want to stream anything freely available without opening a bunch of programs, we want a slick interface, we want to watch and record live tv, we want to play that TV back, we want a guide to tell us what is on TV, we want to be able to store our DVDs and pictures, we want to be able to stream content to external devices, and we want good Netflix support in HD. Even Windows Media Center (hereafter WMC) doesn’t do 100% of this, but it comes the closest. Frankly, it’s the only professional-level media center product available. Why? So many people want the things WMC has to offer, and none of it is technically difficult. WMC does most of the things it does very well, and the Netflix app is the best Netflix app available. Even The Wife loves it and figured out how to use it by herself. The import of the ability for non-technical people to be able to use the system easily cannot be understated.

I’ve spent most of the last three weeks trying out the WMC alternatives. I’m going to save you from yourself and tell you why you don’t want any of these. While each have their own problems, the cause is always the same: they did 80% right, then either didn’t do the other 20% or had no idea what the 20% should be.

Boxee: Boxee could be good. I mean, Boxee could be first-season-of-Battlestar-Gallactica good. It may someday be good or even great, but that day is years away. Unfortunately, even the people at Boxee seem to be losing interest in Boxee, and I suspect that Boxee will soon be a fading memory. In terms of capabilities, Boxee does everything Windows Media Center does except handle live TV. Not only that, but Boxee sells a $299 unit from D-Link that looks cool, has some nice hardware, and the most clever remote for a media center I’ve seen outside of using an iOS or Android device. So, what’s the problem? First off, Boxee is beta software that hasn’t even hit 1.0 yet, which is a bit surprising when there are people buying hardware. The Netflix app is a joke; it can’t find all the available media, it can’t play all of the media even when it finds it, and it’s a horribly bad interface to begin with. There are so many good Netflix apps to copy, why is this so hard to figure out? And the Netflix app for the software version hasn’t been updated in years. Boxee is sitting on a product that could be amazing if they spent a solid six months of realizing what they need to fix and doing the programming to make it right, but none of that seems to be happening. I was ready to forgive Boxee for not handling live TV, but it couldn’t even do its job. This one didn’t survive a full day on my machine.

GoogleTV: There really is no excuse for this. At some point, the man at Google in charge of GoogleTV needs to get punched in the face by an angry customer. Then, maybe then, he’ll figure out what every other person on the face of the fucking planet already knows: what people want from their media center. Google is sitting on the hottest operating system, a wealth of top-notch programmers, money to burn, and the leverage to bully vendors into making the product that they want, which should be the product that the consumer wants. People would love GoogleTV, and Google can only blame bad execution for it’s current state of failure. GoogleTV can only be purchased with a device. It’s built on an open-source operating system; there should be a big link on the Google homepage begging you to download it and install it on whatever computer you have lying around. So, no one gets to try it out unless they buy one of the only three devices running GoogleTV, none of which anyone remembers are still on the market. There’s a list of items that GoogleTV doesn’t do or doesn’t do well, but we can stop with the inexcusable item: GOOGLE TV DOESN’T DO TV. Oh, if you want to join up for DishNetwork, you’ll be all set. But there isn’t even an add-on device to put an antenna signal into a GoogleTV device unless you buy the one Sony TV supporting GoogleTV, and, even then, GoogleTV has limited control over the antenna tuner. The only reason people would be interested in GoogleTV would be so they could cancel their cable service, but GoogleTV forces you to have cable service. GoogleTV took the idea of a Nettop PC and decided it should do even less. One would think that a company with access to all the information on the Internet would have read a few chat boards and figured out what would make GoogleTV interesting to people.

PlayOn: Play on isn’t a media center, per se, but it theoretically will turn your PS3 or XBox360 into a media center. If this worked well, it would be awesome and worth every penny of the $80 PlayOn wants for their software. Unfortunately, the connection is slow, even over a wired network. The video quality is horrid, when it works. PlayOn uses the PS3 menu system to give you access to the server, and it’s a painful experience. Why not an app? I only wanted to use PlayOn to augment my media center, but something that could be a really nice product just doesn’t work very well.

PS3MediaServer: Even before Sony’s network choked on a fat one, I tried out PS3MediaCenter as a way to send DVD ISO files to the PS3 so that the kids could watch movies without ruining my DVDs. It works and generally does so well, but it doesn’t do live TV, although it will serve TV you’ve recorded with WMC to the PS3. Technically, Windows Media Center should be able to do everything with the PS3 that PS3 Media Server is doing, but PS3 Media Center does work a bit more seamlessly with the PS3. That being said, I’m not sure what the point is once you have WMC running in your living room. One of the things that WMC does without a hitch is play movies stored on your hard drive. If you have a PS3 elsewhere in the house and want to feed movies and TV to it and you’re having trouble getting WMC to talk to the PS3, then this might be a nice supplement.

XBMC: One of the first media center software packages used to come as a Linux distro. You would install it as the Operating System on your PC, and it would be a media center. There’s nothing wrong with that concept, so long as you do the job cleanly. XBMC does a lot, but the Linux projects and Linux mentality it grew out of remain its problems. It doesn’t feature Netflix, just some silly little hack app. That’s cute if you’re a computer programmer and want to toy around with that shit, but I’m a computer programmer and I know I have other things to do; the average person just doesn’t want to fiddle with their TV. It doesn’t do live TV, but the real non-starter is the fact that it’s so difficult to configure and work with. There are people that love constantly hacking around with programs like XBMC, and that’s great. XBMC is for a certain type of person, but it’s not easy to use, which means it’s not for the average consumer.

AppleTV: If you can find a reason to own an AppleTV, you’re smarter than I am. It does less than a Roku for more than a Roku. If all you want is something like AppleTV, buy a Roku. Or a PS3. Or an XBox360. Or even a Mac Mini.

I think we’ve covered enough in this first post. And I have actual computer programming to do. Okay, I’m lying; the fourth episode of Doctor Who is about to come on, and it’s written by Neil Gaiman. I don’t have any cable service right now, so I don’t have BBC America. Instead, I subscribed to the series on Amazon, and it gets downloaded to my computer in HD after the broadcast airs. It costs me $2 an episode instead of $80 a month, and I don’t have to wait for the DVD to come out to add it to my collection.

Media centers are cool.

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