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November 27, 2011 / paulio10

Cutting the Cord to Cable TV

A lot of people have been asking me all the details of how I set up TV in our house to reduce my cable bill to $0 a month, so I decided to explain it all right here.

I was paying $97 a month for DirecTV, and wasn’t happy with what I was getting. Then they raised the price to $102 a month. Only 1 of our 3 TVs received the HD signals, even though all 3 TVs are high-definition TVs. And only 1 could actually record shows and pause live tv (DVR/PVR). I really wanted that feature on all 3 TVs, but that would have been even more expensive. And, once each TV has a recorder on it, I couldn’t record something upstairs and watch it downstairs – each TV would have its own separate recordings; I’d be forced to watch it wherever I recorded it. That’s not what I wanted. The DVR they provide for recording shows has 2 cable inputs, and can record 2 channels at one time – or, record on one channel while watching TV on another channel. That’s neat, but only works for a single TV. If you wanted all 3 TVs to access 1 DVR, so you can share recorded shows, that won’t work with only 2 inputs.

Motivation

My wife and I only watch TV about 1 hour a day or so, mostly just these things:

  • Dancing With The Stars
  • Daily Show
  • White Collar
  • Simpsons
  • Cash Cab

And, we never watch them live – I can’t stand watching advertisements, I always fast forward through them. I am already aware of the products and services available in our society, and I will search them out when I need them. Product information should be pull, not push; I don’t want it pushed onto me, I will search the Internet for it when I want it.

My children (17 and 19) watch cartoons and some misc shows on TV; they don’t seem to be really picky about the shows they watch. Besides, more than half the time they are watching thingson their Internet connected computers, like Anime and other things.

My Requirements

I want to have 3 TVs receive HD content, have some kind of digital TV Guide directly on the TV, be able to pause live TV shows, and record shows now and in the future for later viewing. I want a show recorded on one TV to be available on all the other TVs. I want every TV to be tunable to different channels from every other, while simultaneously recording 1 or more things at the same time. And, I want to pay $0 per month – that’s NO dollars per month – for such a service.

I’m OK with buying extra equipment up front, because that’s initial cost only; not a monthly fee. As long as I don’t buy it on rotating-credit (because then your credit card is your never-ending monthly fee).

I’m not OK with how slow channel-changing and scrolling is on the stupid cable company’s DVR devices. They all suck, in my opinion, it’s an insult to my psyche to be forced to use them. You press the channel +/- button, and cobwebs form on your remote control before the channel actually changes. There’s no excuse for outdated technology. There’s CERTAINLY no excuse for paying $102 every month for outdated technology.

My Setup

I already have high-speed Internet, 20Mbps DSL thru Qwest (the local telephone provider), which I’m paying about $20/month for, for 24 months, which is quite a deal. I’m bundling a home phone line with that (adds about $35/month which seems excessive). We still need the home phone line as our “default” phone number when signing up for things (I never answer the line). The kids use the home phone sometimes to talk to local friends for hours on end. And, we still need FAX machine ability, believe it or not, in this day and age; you have to have an analog phone line to do that. Maybe some day we can get rid of the analog line, but not yet.

I already have a nice new high-end Windows 7 Pro PC mini-tower with a nice big hard drive. It has dual Intel Xeon 2.4GHz processors (64 bit) and 4GB RAM. Windows 7 Pro comes with Microsoft Media Center software built-in.

I added a dual TV tuner card to the box (PCIX slot), and plan to add 1 more of those cards. You need 1 tuner for every channel you want to simultaneously tune to and/or record. Two dual-tuner cards would let me tune in 4 separate channels at the same time.

I bought an external digital TV antenna and mounted it on the roof, pointing in the direction of South Mountain – that’s where all the TV and radio antennas are in my area. This enabled me to get 25 channels including ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX, both HD and SD, and a whole bunch of lesser channels including a lot of spanish-speaking ones and some praise-the-lord type channels. It took a lot of fiddling to get the right position and angle, luckily I had a friend helping me. Media Center has useful features built-in that scan for channels, so you can see how many you’re getting with different antenna positions/locations.

Now here’s the tricky part. I wanted this antenna to do two things: I want the antenna signal going to every TV in the house, directly. And, I want it going into my PC’s TV tuner cards. How can I do both at the same time? With a signal splitter. But when you split the signal, it weakens the signal; the weakest channels may not come in anymore after doing that. So I also bought a digital-coax-amplifier device.

Another factor to consider is, the longer coax-runs you have, the weaker the signal gets. Especially if it’s going through a lot of connectors (each connector removes a little signal-strength too). I knew I wanted the antenna to go down to my house’s central Cable Box, because that box feeds out to every TV in the house. I won’t have to run new coax to every TV in the house this way.

The coax runs go like this:

  • antenna into my upstairs office (where the media center PC is)
  • that antenna line goes into a 2-way splitter, one output of which goes straight into the PC (for best signal strength).
  • the other output goes into the digital coax signal amplifier.
  • the amplifier output goes back outside, and down to the cable box that’s luckily on the same side of the house (on the first floor).
  • I added a 4-way splitter in the cable box, so every TV could be hooked up that way. Don’t ask how the previous cable provider fed cable to every TV without a splitter; I believe the dish antenna had splitting capability built-in.

This arrangement seemed to work the best. The signal’s a little weaker at each TV than it is at the Media Center, but you get a pure HD signal to every TV on all the best channels. And, if you want to record live TV and play it back, you can use the XBOX media center next to the TV to do that. If you can’t receive a channel on the direct coax line, I tell my family, try it on the media extender; it works then.

My current setup only has the XBOX on 1 TV. Because you have to run ethernet wire to the XBOX, from your home’s central Internet connection. I have an 8-port Gigabit Ethernet switch, perfect for splitting out physical ethernet connections to each Xbox device next to each TV. But for now, that’s just 1 wire going to 1 TV. Once I add the second tuner card (for a total of 4 tuners), I’ll be ready to run cat6 Ethernet wiring to the other two rooms. I have a plan on how to do that – go thru the attic for one of them, and around the side of the house for the other. I might run some 1/2″ wiring pipe with waterproof joints (Home Depot electrical section) around the side of the house to protect the wiring and make it meet code. Or I may just tack up the wire and paint over it with a coat or two of house-paint for sun-protection. The sun gets so hot and dry in Phoenix Arizona in the summer time. If I run pipe, I will paint that with house-paint so my wife won’t complain that it looks bad.

The TV receiver card also came with a media center remote, which looks like a normal TV remote that you point at the XBOX to control all the media center features. That way you don’t have to use a 2-handed XBOX controller to change channels, record/pause, etc. It feels a lot more natural this way.

I also bought a Boxee box and a Roku box, to play with them. I like the Boxee box better than Roku. The boxee has the coolest remote – it’s radio, not infra-red, so you don’t have to “point it” at the device. Just works better. I can play Netflix movies on my HD TV this way – I will probably buy one for every TV in the house, just because of this. Not to mention being able to view all the TED talk videos, and a ton of podcasts that are really awesome to listen to / view. These devices encourage you to play Vudu movies which are some of the latest movies but cost $3-$4 per viewing; no, I don’t want to pay Blockbuster prices per movie inside my home. I prefer Netflix. I pay $17 a month for Netflix, and get access to everything that way – as much streaming movies as I can handle, as well as 1 disc physically mailed to me via USPS, so I can access their entire catalog that way. I’m a bit of a movie buff, and I want to make sure I can always get to old/obscure movies when I want to.

I have been paying for Netflix for many years now, and use it a lot. I would have Netflix whether I have TV or not; that’s why I don’t count the monthly cost of Netflix as part of the cost of this TV system. I don’t think of Netflix as TV but as Movies. Although they are getting more and more past seasons of TV shows all the time.

Of the TV shows I listed at the beginning of this article, I can now watch all of them except one on my new setup.

  • Dancing With The Stars – ABC over-air; auto-record every show with Media Center/Extender.
  • Daily Show – Boxee box has it as a “show”; or a laptop can play the latest episodes on their web site.
  • White Collar – plays on USA channel only; that’s a cable-only channel. Can’t see this with my new setup (darn). I believe when the new episodes start in January 2012 we can watch them on the web site, but possibly not; we’ll see. Some shows play “last week’s episode” only, which would be OK with me – I don’t mind being 1 week behind.
  • Simpsons – reruns playing continuously round the clock on many over-air channels.
  • Cash Cab – reruns playing continuously round the clock on one over-air channels.

Notes

I searched the whole Internet for media extender devices that are Microsoft compatible. A year ago or two there used to be a lot of them. Now, they’ve almost all been removed from the market! I finally discovered that Microsoft’s own XBOX gaming system has Media Extender built in, and it’s cost is only $150-300 at this point, which is why the stand-alone media extenders left the market. They were around that price range too, and had no gaming capabilities like the XBOX has. I settled on the XBOX 4G product because it was $100 cheaper (no hard drive). It works fine for being a Media Extender. I think if I used it for a lot of gaming, I’d probably want the more expensive one with the hard drive.

Why not use Wifi to each Xbox, you ask? Because you need REALLY fast data connection speeds for streaming HD video. Times 3, because there are 3 TV’s I’m trying to operate in this way all at once. Even 802.11N isn’t fast enough to do this. Or, if it is, that would then slow down the 4 laptops we have that connect already to the hub via wifi – a sacrifice I’m not OK with.

Did you just say “802.11N should be fast enough because all that streaming TV is using up Internet bandwidth anyway; your 20Mbps DSL Internet connection is your bottleneck”? That’s not quite right. Most of the TV viewing we do is playing pre-recorded TV – so it’s streaming off the media player, going through an XBOX going to the TV. Times 3. That doesn’t have to access the Internet at all – it’s only using our local house intranet. If one thing is beating up only the local network, and the other thing is using local network PLUS Internet-bottleneck, then separating the two speeds up the whole process. I can ram 100Mbps thru an ethernet wire or 1Gbps if the device can handle it. My PC can certainly handle it, as can my Gbps switch. Without touching the 20Mbps Internet connection. A lot of the “pre-recording” is being done when nobody is home; or everyone’s asleep.

The Experience

I can experience TV the same was as normal – lean back with a remote control, interface with a very glossy, nice-looking screen with pleasant sound-effects to browse recorded shows, TV listings, play/pause, rew/ff, etc. I am controlling a Media Extender (XBOX), which is talking over the ethernet wire to my Media Center PC where all the recording and channel-tuning is really taking place. And, that Media Center PC is still available for use as a PC when I need to get to the Internet.

To access the Boxee box or Roku box, I used to use my TV’s “input” button to switch inputs. But now I did one better – because the XBOX and Boxee and Roku all use HDMI cables to connect to the TV, I bought a cheap 4-port HDMI Switch for $20 which auto-senses when a new signal comes on line, and switches the output (TV) to look at that channel! Now I don’t have to do anything – turn on Boxee, and the TV displays Boxee. Turn that off and turn on XBOX, TV switches over to XBOX. Really nice. Less confusing for my wife and family. The HDMI switch came with a mini remote control (yuk, yet another remote control!) – but because of this auto-switching, I never have to use it.

Is this setup right for you?

You’ll have to ask yourself some questions.

  • Do I really watch all the cable-only channels, HBO, etc.? Can I do without those?
  • Are the shows I watch on cable already available over the air, or from some Internet-based provider, like Netflix or Hulu or in other ways?
  • Would a 1 week delay in viewing be acceptable to me, for shows that are made available on their web site 1 week late?
  • Over 2 year period of time how much money will I save? Because there’s a few hundred dollars of equipment and setup for a system like this; maybe as much as $1200 for 3 TVs with everything. What’s your monthly cost today? Multiply that by 24.
  • Won’t you still be watching TV 3 years from now? 5? 10? Maybe you should multiply by 96 instead (8 years worth X 12 months). Now how much would you save?

My guess is, if you have Internet access in your home today, you’ll probably want Internet access for the rest of your life. And, the “next speed level up” from your current Internet connection is probably no more than $20-$30 a month. Far less than cable TV costs with HD DVR for 3 TVs. Probably worth it.

You can ease into this slowly if you want. Start searching the Internet for how to legally stream TV shows you like watching. Many of them are available for free on that show’s web site. Look into Netflix and Hulu and Vudu – where you will pay a little per month, or a little per movie.

Credits

A big Thank You to my friend Derek who loaned me his coax crimp-tool, connectors, and giant spool of wire so I could build all the wiring I needed at my house for free. Thanks also go to Steve and Brian who talked me through the specifics of how all this could work before I ever attempted it. Thanks, guys!

Links to Products

Here are some of the products I bought on Amazon for my setup. These, or equivalent devices, should work fine for you. These are affiliate links, so I get a small payment if you purchase from these links. Feel free to use them or not, your choice.

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One Comment

Leave a Comment
  1. Rork / Nov 28 2011 12:31 AM

    Paul
    Great write up. I made the switch about a year ago and believe it or not my antenna is a pair of rabbit ears in my closet which is where my main wiring is. I’ll look into getting this signal booster 🙂
    John aka Rork

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