I had been reluctant for years, but my wife and I finally “had it” with paying Comcast for our cable TV bill. It was a huge hassle calling them up every 6 months and playing the “I don’t want to pay full price for your service so I’m going to threaten to disconnect so they give us another 6 months on a promo rate” game. Face it folks, cable is expensive. We can get in an extra XC flight in the DA40XL by ditching the cable service for one year!
My wife and I don’t really watch too much TV anyway but if I was going to ditch my cable, it was going to not be without a few caveats.
Read all about our new TV setup after the jump…
Since “a la carte cable” is not going to happen anytime soon, I was going to have consider other options. However, if I was going to ditch the cable TV, there were a few requirements. My wife was amazingly patient as I threw our whole A/V setup into a tizzy and came up with the new design.
First of all my requirements:
HDTV — The new solution had to support HDTV. We had the HDTV add-on package with our Comcast cable, but this was pretty much the primary (XX.1) local HD “Over the Air” (OTA) channels and a few other HD cable networks. We pretty much always watched the 10 or so HD channels with the cable box since HD televisions make standard definition TV look really bad.
DVR — I was late to jump on this bandwagon, but as my friends and co-workers warned me, once you got it, you cannot live without it. If I was going to ditch the cable box, I had to have a solution that supported recording. I also want need to record one channel while watching another. Our DVR recording lineup pretty much consists of shows that air on the broadcast networks — making OTA a viable option.
Remote Control Support — I’m not joking. Whatever solution I chose, I did not want to have to “rig” something just to change the channel. The small “junky” remote controls do not count — I wanted a “real” remote control with a skip button, and more than four keys. (Yes, Apple, your junky remote controls do not meet this requirement)
Monthly Recurring Expense — My goal of the new solution was to totally eliminate, if possible, the monthly recurring charges we were seeing with the cable; or at least reduce them. I knew I was going to have to spend a little bit of money up front, but my payback goal was 4-6 months.
Microsoft Media Center — We got a new computer back in February 2007 with Microsoft Vista Home Premium. This version of Vista includes Windows Media Center. Up until now, I had never used it, but I had launched it a few times and the interface looked pretty well done. If I went this route, I would need a tuner card of some sort and a remote control. The DVR function is built in to Media Center.
Computer with a Media Extender — Since I liked the Media Center interface I considered an Extender. It would keep the TV area clean and neat, but there was one small problem. That is until the past couple of weeks, the only Media Extender that supported Vista Media Center was the Xbox 360. I don’t want a game console and it seems like a waste to spend that money only to obtain the extender functionality. My timing for this project was impeccable as the Linksys DMA 2100 and 2200 had been announced and were due out in late November, but there were some last minute delays that made this box at least a month out. The D-Link DSM-750 had already been released, but it too was $300 and I still needed a tuner for my PC if I went that route.
TiVo — The ‘TiVo Series3 HD’ and new ‘TiVo HD DVR’ (marketing departments never cease to amaze me in the technology industry) had pretty good reviews, however, my goal was to eliminate the recurring monthly cost; TiVo charges for monthly guide data and their online services.
My New Design:
Vista Media Center — This provided the HD Support, DVR and eliminated the monthly recurring cost. I did purchase the Media Center keyboard and remote control which worked great! The Microsoft Media Center remote control and Keyboard is pretty nice and they worked natively (no need for drivers) with Vista. The video card (Radeon X1300) already had a DVI output so this was a good fit. The skip feature is about ten times more responsive vs. my Comcast DVR.
TV Tuner — Our DVR line-up pretty much includes shows from the broadcast networks, so an OTA ATSC tuner would be perfect. A quick check of AntennaWeb reviled that all but one independent network was broadcasting a digital signal here in Kansas City. I opted for an ATSC tuner since I really don’t care to watch the analog channels; they will be turned off in 2009 anyway. The first tuner I used to test the Vista Media Center TV functionality was an ATI TV Wonder 650 PCI (about $130). It worked well, but I quickly realized that not having two tuners was an issue. We’d be watching one show when the DVR needed to take control and would flip the channel. The additional cables going into the back of the PC also was cluttering up the living room. After checking many sites, I settled on a network attached dual ATSC tuner (SiliconDust HDHomeRun). It was a little bit more expensive than a single tuner (but less than two PCI tuners), but I loved the fact that I could tuck it away in another room with an antenna hooked up and it would stream the signal down to the Vista Media Center over the home network. Dual tuner functionality without adding wire clutter — perfect!
Antenna — I originally started with an old set of rabbit ears, however, the dual tuner introduced the need for a splitter for the second tuner which took the signal level too low for an unamplified antenna. After doing some research, I settled on a Terk TV5 Amplified TV Antenna and it worked great. I set it upstairs in the office on top of a bookshelf next to the HDHomeRun box.
After running with this setup for about 6 weeks now, I’ve made a few observations. First, having the computer next to the TV is not ideal, but the functionality does work pretty well. We did run into times where we wanted to just use the computer for a quick minute, but had to turn on the TV to see the screen — not cool. We quickly moved the LCD monitor down with the computer and setup “Hotkey” activated monitor profiles (Alt-1: LCD, Alt-2: TV, Alt-3 LCD+TV) using the ATI Catalyst Control Center application. Second, a Media Center Extender would probably be the cleanest setup if you only have one home PC; however, it can be done with just the PC just fine. Having a network attached tuner simplified the cabling into the PC and is a much cleaner looking install. Third, spend some time getting your LCD resolution setup correctly on your HDTV and play with your graphics card advanced controls to fine tune the picture. I had a horrible interlacing issue on the stations broadcasting in 1080i. This issue was resolved by activating, what ATI calls, the “Automatic Deinterlacing” feature — ah, much better. Third, the Media Center DVR functionality is great. Add a Media Center remote control/keyboard and you have a great DVR alternative to the, in my opinion, crappy, Comcast DVR service. Forth, there is a lot of legal online content (eg: iTunes), however, if you are a big sports fan, you will probably be disappointed with just OTA. Sports are probably the farthest behind getting themselves positioned into new waves of distribution. Vista Media Center has some pretty nice Internet TV shows which use your Broadband connection to stream content; however, much of it is still in SD.
SiliconDust HDHomeRun: $160
Media Center USB Remote Control and Keyboard: $90
Amplified TV Antenna: $50
Total: $300 (Payback at $90/Month with Comcast: ~3.5 Months)