TV update

It’s been about six months with our current home entertainment setup and things are going pretty well. I’ve made a few minor enhancements, but nothing major. The most significant is the addition of an external hard drive to each of the ViP 211k receivers in the bedroom and living room. Plug in the hard drive, quick call to Dish, a one-time $40 charge, and bada-bang, bada-bing, instant DVR. Found a great deal on refurbished WD 1TB drives for $40 each, so for $120 I have a DVR for every TV.

The other addition is in the bedroom. I added an Apple Component AV Cable which allows us to plug in one of the iPhones or the iPod Touch and stream Netflix. That gives us Netflix on every TV.

Unfortunately, it’s not all bunnies and rainbows. From the beginning of this whole exercise I knew that the big sacrifice was going to be live sports, specifically racing. I’m not talking about NASCAR. I’m interested in ALMS, Indycar, and F1. Those viewing options have actually gotten even worse than when I started.

F1 is broadcast in the US on Speed and I’m not willing to pay for the next Dish programming tier to get it. There’s no legal F1 streaming source. No real change since last year for F1.

Indycar used to stream all practices, qualifying, and races live, but the network overlords pulled the plug on that this year. I’d have to bump up two Dish programming tiers to get Versus. Not gonna happen.

The only improvement, and it is a mixed blessing, is that ALMS is streamed live on with no live TV broadcast. I currently have access to, but the video quality varies from okay to poor. Thanks for nothing.

If I am desperate for Indycar or F1, I can connect to a friend’s Slingbox and leech off of his cable subscription. That is assuming he isn’t watching his own TV and that I can tolerate the really poor picture quality. Really poor.

So, if you take live sports out of the equation then we’re really happy with the current setup. It’s significantly cheaper than our old full cable setup and we have more programming options. Except for my racing.

TV pendulum swings back

A lot has happened since my last post on our TV situation. The condensed version:

  • Got an Acer Revo 3610 as the main video source in the living room.
  • Added an ATI Theatre HD 750 USB TV tuner.
  • Added an HP USB TV tuner in an unsuccessful attempt to solve a problem.
  • Lost the Basic cable channels that we had been getting for free.
  • Signed up for Dish Network service.

The Revo has 64-bit Windows 7 Home Premium installed and comes with a wireless keyboard and mouse. The Windows MCE app works well and includes tv listings for free. Netflix and Hulu streaming are nearly perfect. This wasn’t a painless exercise, but I didn’t expect it to be. There was lots of driver updating and an OS reload or two and the usual Windows crap to deal with. The end result was really good, but there were still three issues.

First, the internal WiFi antenna on the Revo is crap. Trying to stream any internet video was hit-or-miss. I had an old Linksys WRT54GS laying around, so I configured it as a wireless bridge using the DD-WRT firmware and cabled it to the Revo. Network bandwidth problem solved.

The other two issues were not show stoppers, just annoying. When turning on the TV and waking the computer, an attempt to watch digital channels (QAM) would result in a MCE video error message which I found out could mean nearly anything. That’s why I bought the HP tuner; a fruitless attempt to solve this problem. After hours of googling I found that the key variable (would never have guessed it) was the HDMI connection to the TV. Simply unplug and replug the cable after every power cycle and all was well. A solution yes, but hardly a good one.

The third issue also involved broadcast cable. Every 15 to 60 seconds there would be a slight hiccup in both picture and sound. Annoying to say the least. This may have coincided with the loss of Basic cable channels, but I can’t say with any certainty. We rarely watched cable channels, so it wasn’t killing us.

In the meantime, while the wife and I were more than satisfied with the overall scheme of the living room system; the kids were becoming more and more upset. They had nearly exhausted anything of interest to their age group from the Netflix streaming pool and their setup didn’t have a good way to view anything from internet sources. They were missing Disney, HGTV, Food Network, and TLC.

Enter Dish Network. For less than $50 per month they get all the channels they care about plus a DVR. The other two TVs also get all the channels, just no DVR features for now. I can cancel Broadcast cable and reduce the Netflix DVD package to one at a time. That should recoup $15-20. The Revo and the DVD recorder are still in use so only the antenna and the two USB tuners are being wasted.

We went from one extreme to the other and I think we may have found a happy medium. I hope.

Life without DVR

After downgrading the cable service and turning in all the DVRs, there is one feature that is sorely missed. The ability to pause live TV. If you are watching a DVD or streaming video from Hulu, then there is a pause button readily available. But when viewing something that’s “on right now” and you get interrupted (kids, phone, whatever) then those missed scenes are gone. No good, not happy.

While I knew that not having the ability to pause would be annoying, I underestimated the magnitude of the impact. Eventually we’ll have the ability to play DVDs, stream internet content, and record live broadcasts on all three TVs. Key word is eventually. Can’t afford to fill all the holes at once. It became apparent that replacing this feature was now the top priority on the entertainment list.

One candidate that I had found for replacing the functionality of a DVR was a DVD recorder. Not just any DVD recorder, but one also equipped with an internal hard drive. As of this writing there is exactly one manufacturer, Funai, of such devices and they offer two models marketed under the Magnavox brand.

Note: I have to express my gratitude for all of the work done by “wajo” to compile and post product information at the AVS forum. Everything you could want to know about these DVD recorders is there.

I bought a refurbished model 2160A for $160. I’ve been using it for a few days and I’m quite pleased. It pauses live TV, plays DVDs and basically works as expected. The only real drawback is the lack of any sort of program guide. You have to setup a recording the old fashioned manual way by picking a channel and time. Other than that it seems to be a fine replacement for the cable company’s DVR.

Dropped cable… sorta.

A couple of weeks ago I finally bit the bullet and cancelled our cable service. Almost. Well, not really the same way as I expected. The original vision was to drop all cable TV service and replace it with a combination of OTA using an antenna and internet streaming of Netflix, Hulu, etc.

I even bought the antenna and did some experiments with it attached to a step ladder on the patio. The results weren’t bad, but it was obvious that the antenna needed to be higher for good, stable picture quality. I’d still have to the get the signal cable routed, and so on, and so forth, and the PITA factor was increasing. This pushed me to make a modification of the plan.

For the short term, and maybe longer, I’d accept paying about $8 a month to get broadcast cable. That would get me all the local channels, including HD, on all the TVs with no work required. That’s a deal I can live with for quite a while. The internet piece would remain as is. All I had to do before turning in the DVRs was wait for American Idol and the Women’s CWS to complete, so as not to be a total ass in the eyes of the kids.

When the day came, I called the cable company and told them I wanted to downgrade to broadcast cable and keep internet access. I expected to get price reduction offers or at least a half-hearted interrogation, but there was nothing of the sort. Just a polite “Your new monthly bill for broadcast cable and internet will be $63. Is there anything else I can do?” and it was done.

That night the DVRs were offline, as expected, internet was still working, as expected, and I had all the local channels, as expected. What wasn’t expected was the continued accessibility of the basic cable channels. Hmm, did they misunderstand my request? I wanted the $8 a month broadcast package, not the $60 basic package. So, the next morning I loaded up the three DVRs, remotes, and power cords and make the trip to the cable office (literally across the street from my neighborhood) to return them. And to make sure I’d gotten the right cable subscription.

I explain that I downgraded my service and I need to turn in the equipment. The very pleasant clerk gets my info, scans in the serial numbers, then asks about the cable modem. I reply that I’m keeping internet access along with broadcast cable. She looks at her system again and gets a puzzled expression on her face. She asks if the cable worked last night and I reply that it did, and it still is this morning. She says that the system shows that I only had internet service, that there had been a work order in the system to come to my house, and that the work order had been closed out. She shrugs her shoulders, types a bit, then says that I’m good to go with broadcast cable and internet.

As another bonus, I switched my ISP (all the same hardware and service, nothing more than a billing change in the cable company’s system) and saved another $15 a month for a year. My lucky day.

So, it’s done, I’ve got more cable channels than I expected, and I paying less than I expected.

Blue Sony

In the previous post, I mentioned that the LCD rear projection TV is broken. Here’s what broken looks like.
Sony in blue

There’s the intense, overpowering blue in the corner with the comet-like tail extending to the right. Don’t overlook the oval haze covering most of the left half of the screen.

It’s a Sony design problem with all of their LCD rear projection TVs. All you really need to know is that the repair is cost prohibitive and my $1800 TV is worthless after five years of service. Sony will never receive another dollar from me.

Project Overview

Turns out that the decision was the simple part of the process of dropping cable. Providing a semi-convenient video substitute to each of the viewing areas is the hard part. Let’s begin with a description of the current setup.

Family room: 42″ LCD rear projection HDTV (broken), DVD player, and TWC HD DVR. Bonus room: 27″ CRT TV, TWC DVR, DVD player, and Wii. Bedroom: 32″ LCD HDTV and TWC HD DVR.

In summary by gadget, three TVs each with a DVR. Two are HD and one of those needs to be replaced. The CRT doesn’t have a digital tuner. Note than none of these currently have a computer attached and only the bedroom TV has a VGA input. Also, all the computers we own are Macs, three of the four are PPC, and the lone Intel is Maria’s laptop (original Core Duo Macbook circa 2006).

Issues per room: Family room has digital tuner and DVD player, but no source for internet streaming. Bedroom has digital tuner and can accept laptop for streaming, but no DVD player. Bonus room has DVD and Netflix streaming via Wii, but no generic streaming and no digital tuner (so no OTA). Don’t forget that none of the rooms has a DVR substitute.

What all this means is that I’m going to have to spend money on gadgetry in order to save money on monthly cable fees. I’m okay with that, but it means there are a lot of options to consider and choices to be made.

Netflix rocks

Started the 30-day free trial with Netflix and yesterday we received the first DVD, “No Country for Old Men”.

Also in the mail was the disc for streaming Netflix to the Wii. Easy peasy. Pop the disc into Wii and load it. You’ll see an activation code. From a computer, log into your Netflix account and input the activation code. Boom, you’re ready to watch instantly. Browsed a few titles and, since Kinnamon was in the room, I picked “The Munsters” for the first test.

To my amazement, K was not impressed by Herman, Lilly, Grandpa, and Eddie. Kids today, sheesh. However the Wii streaming was excellent. I think the Netflix portion of the TV solution is going to work out nicely.

Well, it was worth a try

I had a burst of optimism after my initial trial of the basic RE and loop combo antenna. Further testing proved that the simple and cheap solution wasn’t going to cut it. The TVs could pick up enough signal to identity that the stations existed, but not enough signal to maintain a picture for more than 30 seconds or so.

So, the next chore is to identify an outdoor antenna that is likely to do the job. I don’t want to put it on the roof, so it will have to be small enough to go on a post near the corner of the house. The problem with antennas is that the only way to know if it will work is to get it and try it. Ugh.

Antennas and OTA stations

Before cutting the cable I wanted to setup some of the post-cable infrastructure. The cheapest and easiest are the over-the-air (OTA) local stations. I used the resources at HDTv Antenna Labs and at AntennaWeb to determine what stations are reasonably receivable at my address. I should be able to receive 15-20 stations OTA including all the major networks.

So now I needed an antenna. After a lot of Googling and reading of posts in various forums, it seemed the best advice was to try the cheap indoor antenna first. I selected the Budget TV Antenna from Radio Shack for $11.99 plus tax. I had to get something to handle both UHF and VHF since the local ABC station is on VHF. BTW, I had the same experience at Radio Shack as some forum posters. The sales clerk questioned my selection and pointed out that they had other antennas that were much better.

I’ll give you the results of this antenna test in another post.

Making a change

We’ve decided to quit smoking. Well, not actually smoking since we’ve never been smokers. But, it’s kind of like smoking. It’s bad for you in general and it’s a daily waste of money. We’re going to get rid of cable. I hear your gasps, guffaws, and even your eyes rolling; all in disbelief. That’s okay, I’m not sure that I’ll fully believe it myself until the three DVRs are actually in the hands of Time Warner.

There are two primary goals, 1) save $130/month, and 2) spend less time in front of the TV wasting heartbeats that I’ll never get back. The rough plan is to cancel the TV portion of cable, but keep the internet access. We’ll add antenna(s) for OTA stations, a Netflix subscription for DVDs and streaming, and some sort of other hardware TBD for other internet content like Hulu.

I’ll be sharing the pain and the joy as the adventure continues.