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It has been six months since installing my initial infrastructure to move away from paid television and toward a goal of free, digital/HDTV broadcast in my home.  On my last post - My move to free HDTV Part 2 -- it was about HD HomeRun to the rescue for a tuner solution to broadcast to my chosen infrastructure.

To recap, my goals:

  • To get free network channels in HDTV quality
  • To broadcast to my two primary rooms
  • To enable DVR capabilities

My setup includes the following:

  • Philips MANT940 – UHF digital antenna.  This is connected to a coaxial cable that was pre-wired in my home going from the attic to my structured wiring panel in my home.
  • HD HomeRun – my antenna feed connects (well, first through a splitter – more on why later) to the HDHR unit here.  I’m only using one tuner although I have the two-tuner model (can’t remember why I bought that model, probably wasn’t paying attention).
  • Windows 7 Ultimate – I have a 64-bit machine with 6GB RAM and 1TB of drive space that acts as my Media Center and receives the HDHR broadcast.  Media Center serves as my DVR.
  • XBOX 360 (2) – These serve as my Media Center extenders as well as additional TV options.  I also receive Netflix streaming through one of them via my XBOX Live account.
  • PlayOn – This software is installed on my same Media Center machine and provide capability to watch Hulu and other online TV broadcasts including Netflix as well.
  • My Movies for Windows Media Center – this is a plugin/software for Media Center (that also works for extenders) that enables a better movie management option for your digital movie collection.  Full Disclosure: As a Microsoft employee I did get a deal on this software.  After seeing the value, I think the $100 is worth it if you have a large movie collection and watch them via Media Center.

The Success

I can say that I’ve reached success.  I am free of cable television bills for now and enjoy watching my desired television stations in crystal clear HDTV.  After my feeling of initial loss of my TiVo units, I haven’t missed them.  The TiVo interface is much more simplistic, but I have not lost functionality in moving to Media Center as my DVR component.

HD HomeRun has been the critical piece in this success.  I have a structured wiring system in my home and the ability to broadcast that signal from there is ideal.  There are some downsides which you can read about below.  The HDHR unit took some getting used to when setting it up, but that was a one-time task once my antenna was properly placed and I did a scan of available channels.  I not only receive local channels, but I’m close enough to some southern cities in Arizona and receive their stations as well (granted a lot of network duplicates).

I have the HDHR with 2 tuners which I initially thought was going to be worthless since I only had one input – my antenna.  Then I realized that I could still re-use my splitter in my structured wiring panel and get the antenna feed and provide two inputs.  This hasn’t really become a necessity yet (only would if two people wanted to watch two different channels), but nice to know it is there.

My XBOX/Media Center Extender in my main room starts up in Media Center mode to help those who just want to watch TV (more on why later in the failures section).  Downstairs where we watch more movies and Netflix streaming, it starts in normal XBOX dashboard mode.

Another key piece of this setup is the remote controls.  I have the Harmony 659 and 680 that I’ve had for a while.  While they work nice, they don’t map very well to the XBOX dashboard/Media Center controls.  They don’t have easy ‘back’ button integration (the 659 is old for sure and lacks a lot more) as well as some other easy function mapping on existing buttons rather than custom menu options.  I remembered recently that I did have the Logitech Harmony for XBOX remote.  This is an older version than their 510 model which is similar and has generic color buttons for other game consoles.  After remembering this I reconfigured my XBOX remote upstairs, removing the 659 from the picture.  This has proven so far to be a better decision as the remote maps a lot better to physical named buttons (Back, Info, Next, etc.) than using custom options that nobody was reading/understanding.  I highly recommend using the 510 or the XBOX remote for this instead of the fancier models they currently sell.  These two are adequate.  I’ll actually be picking up another XBOX remote for downstairs to replace the 680.

Some failures

I don’t think any success comes without failures :-) -- nor did mine.  Here are some of my issues…some of which may be deal-breakers for anyone else.

  • Sports – I’m not a sports fan.  Not enough at least that I must watch Monday Night Football or college games, etc.  I consider myself a ‘championship’ sports fan (Super Bowl, World Series, etc.).  If you are a sports fan, this setup simply won’t work for you.  There are no live options for over-the-air ESPN broadcasts or even any online watching via these options is not great.  Media Center has some options but they are not live nor do they work through extenders.  If you love your sports, for now you’ll still be paying the cable bill.
  • Remote Control – Media Center is not as intuitive as TiVo was for my non-tech savvy family/users.  We have babysitters for our kids occasionally and I felt like I needed to leave a manual for them each time we left to simply watch TV.  The new XBOX remote I remembered about should help this, but prior it was a lot of Okay, click this button and wait for things to turn on, then you’ll see this screen, scroll down to get to the guide, then click this.  Oh yeah and typing direct channel numbers won’t work.  And if you want to watch Movies, go here.  If it is a DVD, then do this.  It gets old.  For me, no problem.  For my wife – she is a little frustrated at times.  This is a learning curve.
  • Home Server – Sometimes my home server got in the way because it also aggregates digital media (music/movies/etc.).  For instance, using the My Movies software, I had duplicate titles.  This is because by default it was looking at my Home Server Videos folder *AND* the Converted Videos folder.  Changing this to only look at the converted folder solved my problem, but it was a bit annoying at first.
  • Changing Channels – you MUST use the guide or navigation pad on the remote (up/down).  Digital broadcast is no longer just “Channel 12” but rather Channel 12.1.  Remotes currently don’t have the decimal point to enter.  So if you typed 1-2-enter thinking you’d get to channel 12, it would tell you that channel doesn’t exist.  This is somewhat annoying, but only for the users of your TV who direct channel input.  Given that our broadcast channels are limited, the guide for now is acceptable.
  • XBOX Live/Netflix – man, I can’t figure out why I can’t just have multiple XBOX consoles use my same XBOX Live account.  This is annoying.  Yes I know you can put it on a memory card, but moving upstairs/downstairs even with that is dumb.  Netflix streaming requires an XBOX Live account (Gold).  So downstairs my XBOX has that configured and we can watch streaming in all glory.  Upstairs however I can’t login to my Live account without transferring it, so that defeats the point.  This is lame in my opinion.  The PlayOn software above enables Netflix viewing, so upstairs we use PlayOn for Netflix.  The downside to the PlayOn/Netflix solution is the quality.  I see a noticeable difference in quality from direct XBOX streaming for Netflix compared to PlayOn.  This is obvious when you consider that XBOX is streaming directly, versus PlayOn is an XBOX plugin that is communicating with my computer and then streaming that.  It just simply doesn’t compare.  But is an option.
  • Non-Netflix/Non-Live Watching – this involves the PlayOn software.  It is a bit hacked together from a UX experience in XBOX.  You have to navigate to your Video Library on your profile, then you navigate “folders” to view the PlayOn content.  This navigation is horrible for large ‘channels’ as they searching options are usually fixed.  It is just pretty kludge if you ask me.  I’m not sure what feeds the PlayOn channels like CBS/NBC etc, but some are recent and some are not – it’s odd, but it works…just takes some getting used to at first.  The navigation via Hulu on this is not ideal for me given the amount of content that is on Hulu.  Needless to say I use PlayOn mostly for Netflix only streaming and the occasional boredom surf for older TV episodes of crime dramas :-).
  • No Gigabit – my XBOXen have no gigabit connections.  My home network is now gigabit enabled, but for the most part it is worthless.  Since I’m streaming from my Media Center PC to my XBOX for television it would be nice to have that gigabit bandwidth capability. 

We’re sticking to this configuration as it is working for us.  We are not huge TV watchers and watch mostly network broadcast only.  Because of this we haven’t lost out on our TV watching habits at all.  I miss being able to fall asleep to some Food TV shows, but I’m not heart broken over it.  I’ve had people come over and state how clear our channels are compared to even their cable HD broadcast.  They are amazed at the picture quality they see on our sets.  I have to admit, it does look better than the HD I was getting via my cable provider as well.

So 6 months into it and no regrets.  My move to “free” my be a little stretch since I had to invest in at least the HD HomeRun to make this all work (PlayOn and My Movies are not free either, but not requirement to get over-the-air HDTV).  So for my one-time investment of $200 for the HDHR and an antenna, I’m happy with my decision.

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In my previous post on moving to free HDTV, I had talked about my desire to change our home television “stuff” in an effort to remove basically a bill that we weren’t taking advantage of at all.  Part of the irony in this whole exploration was that by the time I figured out a solution, the whole digital-TV-signal-broadcast-rule-thing was going to happen.  Luckily, I received some good advice and product suggestions.

If you read the previous post you’ll notice that I acquired a Philips MANT940 antenna from Walmart.  $38 investment not bad.  I crawled up into my attic space and put it in a non-optimized location…and it worked anyway.  I tested it on the only HD tuner I had in the house at the time, my WinTV 950 adapter for my eyeTV software on my Mac.  It worked great.

HD HomeRun Product ImageMy problem was still that my TiVo units were going to be a loss and I didn’t want to fiddle with IR blasting anyway.  Then someone recommend I take a look at the HD HomeRun unit from SiliconDust.  I got a few emails from people who had it.  I had some Amazon credit and they had a good price, so I went for it.  I figured if it sucked, just return it.  The concept of the HD HomeRun is that it is a digital tuner with two inputs and delivers the signal over your LAN.  This was the most intriguing to me.  I had a lot of suggestions of Media Center PC.  I love Media Center PC, but didn’t like the thought of having a ‘computer’ in my living room or basement near a TV.  It doesn’t feel right (and I didn’t have coax wired to where my Media Center box was anyway).  But HomeRun would allow me to deliver it over the LAN, so my existing box could pick it up as a tuner.

The HD HomeRun arrived.  I opened it and plugged it in.  One cable to the network - not gigabit :-( - and the other was the new antenna I acquired.  I went to my Media Center PC and ran the HD HomeRun setup software provided.  It scanned for a tuner and didn’t find one.  Crap!  I thought I was going to be screwed.  I did some searching and noticed that I wasn’t alone with the "Discovery Error 4001” message I was receiving.  It seemed like an incredibly known issue, which is weird why they are shipping units with the issue.  I logged a support ticket with my device ID (required) and they sent me a little executable to run.  I ran it and it suddenly was discovered in the scan.  Weird.  No explanation of what the issue was.  I didn’t necessarily care, and moved on.

The HD HomeRun config is pretty intuitive and you select the tuner input, the type (antenna) and then what type of application will be accessing it (Media Center).  It scans, finds the channels and done.  It comes with guide software as well, but seems a little pointless as Media Center has all that built in as well.

The Media Center found the unit as a tuner and went through the normal process.  Quick and painless.  A walk down to the basement to the XBOX 360 and turned on to watch free HDTV via my new HD HomeRun.  Awesome.  Thanks for the recommendation for that unit!

The second thing I wanted to do was use my Mac and eyeTV on the same unit.  Didn’t work.  I should clarify that I probably had a bad assumption.  It found and configured the HomeRun as the tuner, but I couldn’t watch any stations as long as another machine was using the tuner.  Suck, but I understand I suppose.

I’m very pleased so far with the HD HomeRun solution and get to play around with Media Center now.

Question: Media Center gurus, how can I search for a program to record a series?  I could only find the ability to record a series if I find it in the guide.  I’m looking for the TiVo like functionality of searching for programs by title.

I’m going to hook up another Media Center Extender in my living room to see how that works out.  I see some MCE’s come with DVD players so that would be cool and I might try that. 

The HD HomeRun also has a QAM tuner as well.  The cable companies are required by law to send the digital signals of local broadcast channels over QAM without a customer paying for equipment.  I look forward to trying this feature.  The cable companies aren’t required to send the HD signal though, so you may not get the HD quality.

If you already have a Media Center PC (Vista) and an XBOX, I’d recommend looking at the HD HomeRun if you are looking to rid yourself of cable as I am and only care about over-the-air HD channels.  It’s been fun to investigate and learn. 

Dear Cox, please cancel.  Thanks.

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About twice a year my wife freaks out (well, my terms not hers) about money, material things, life, etc.  It’s a good freak out actually…and it is what has kept me grounded more in life than my past habits (you know, when you felt you *had* to have everything).  I’ve learned to not care about things that aren’t worth the trouble.  Her balance in my life really has made a good impact in things worldly.

Back to the freak out :-) …

We’re constantly looking for ways to save money.  At times it is because we have to (or should) and others it is because we are wanting to put those resources elsewhere.  The latest has been with TV cable.  I like watching TV.  It’s a break from reality and just lets me escape real world for a few hours a week.  But the truth be told, nobody in my house really cares about it.  Each month we pay roughly USD $80 for cable service.  This includes HD service and an HD DVR.  Honestly when I evaluate my watching, I really only watch major network shows (I’m not a sports guy) and re-runs of Law and Order.  I LOVE HD and hate watching anything else.  When I came to this realization though, I finally acquiesced and said we should cancel our cable.  We were paying $80 for basically 9 channels…it was ridiculous how our provider (Cox) prices.  I wish I could cafeteria shop what I wanted, but they aren’t there yet.  I didn’t care about reducing my fee (which they offered) and I wasn’t interested in DirecTV or other satellite offerings.  If I was going to cancel, it was going to be completely.

So there.  I’ve committed.  We’re cancelling.  But I still want TV occaisionally.  We’ll get movies through Netflix and I’ll explore Hulu via PlayON perhaps.  But there may be times where I just want to setup TiVo for The Office and watch it at leisure.  I decided I’ll explore doing the over-the-air HD.  I sent out a Twitter note about it and got some great feedback.  I didn’t find anything online that showed someone in my situation in a step-by-step thought and execution process though.  That leads me here.  This is my adventure…to rid myself of cable and keep standard broadcast and FREE over-the-air HD channels.  Here we go.  Hopefully this helps someone else as well.

The Home Setup

My home has 3 primary TVs:

  • Bedroom – old 27” tube-based TV.
  • Living Room – 42” LCD which currently only displays in yellow tints because one of the blue lamps busted and we decided screw it, we don’t watch enough TV and the kids won’t notice.
  • Basement – 60” LCD – the ‘main’ unit.  My sanctuary.  Where the HD takes place.

We also use TiVo:

  • Bedroom is hooked up to a TiVo Series 2 DVR which has been customized with a 500GB storage drive.
  • Living Room is hooked up to a Toshiba TiVo/DVD player (effectively a Series 2)
  • Basement uses the cable provider’s HD DVR which will be going away.

Basement is also where the XBOX 360 is hooked up and Netflix is watched as well as most DVD viewing.

Our home is fairly modern (5 years old) and so has structured wiring built in.  I have an access panel where all central wiring goes:

Home wiring panel

You can see that the intertubes come in through here as well as my cable is routed to one place and then distributed via the splitter.  I refer to this area of my home as my NOC.

The Goal

The primary goal is to get major network HD broadcast into the home (ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, local).  The secondary goal here is to not disrupt any workflow or viewing behavior (other than some channels we no longer get which we’ll supplement with Netflix Instant Watch for the kids shows).  Now I know Basement will suffer because the HD DVR will be going away…we’ll get to that when we can, but this is the goal.

We also want to use the existing infrastructure of the home with minimal (if any) purchases or re-tooling/wiring of anything.

These, my friends, are the goals…plain and simple.

Initial Research

My quest started on a Thursday.  I obviously knew I was going to need an antenna.  Part one was finding out which one would be best and what I’d need.  The NOC has a cable that is there that is labeled ‘antenna’ so I can only hope when I search for the other end it may be in my attic or perhaps out on my roof…I start thinking good thoughts.

My initial Twitter post yielded some great information (much of which also showed up in search engines, but it is good to validate against trusted resources and ‘real’ people).  The best piece of starting information was one web site that seems to be pointed everywhere as a definitive source of digital signal information.  That site is AntennaWeb.  It was recommended to start here to map out where you live in relation to the current digital signals.  Their database of information would identify which stations would be available and recommend an antenna type for you.  It tells you the areas, the compass headings, their channel number, etc.  It even gives you a map of your address and where the best place to point your antenna to for the channels you want best:

AntennaWeb Map

The rating it also provides is to help you choose which antenna you should look for.  In my case, it was clear that I should shop for a “yellow” rated one:

AntennaWeb Reception Rating

Since most online places I quickly scanned didn’t put this rating on it, I figured this was going to result in a trip to the store.  Several people recommended the Philips MANT940 (Walmart for <$40).  The reviews looked great on this unit so I decided to check it out.  Hal Hostetler (a Microsoft MVP who also happens to work for a local broadcaster) gave me a ring and helped me understand some things as well.  His hopeful thoughts meant I should be well on my way.  The reviews are good on this unit and for the cost, I decide to take a gamble.

The Wiring

Luckily as I mentioned, my home is already wired for an antenna and in fact it did go up to the attic so I was all set.  I put the power booster in the NOC and crawled up the attic and put the antenna in there.  All systems go…so I thought.

Problems Arise

Now remember my goal is not to change a thing in the workflow.  My first pass was to re-setup my TiVo unit attached to Living Room.  I started the process and then TiVo asks me if I have a digital-to-analog converter box ready.  Argh.  I was hoping in my idiocy that my thinking was wrong.  Alas, I wasn’t.  Some quick searches confirm from TiVo that Series 2 and Toshiba/Humax DVD units require a converter box.  Even worse was the PDF describing that the infrared controller from the TiVo would need to be busted out to control the converter box.

NOTE: I generally am the type of guy that researches things step-by-step unfortunately.  My searches for “tivo hdtv antenna” didn’t yield much, but a search for “tivo converter box” brought me the information I should have found earlier.  Suck.  My fault in my eagerness to start connecting things.

Well, now I’m at an impasse.  I consult my TiVo trusted advisors and they inform me that I have 2 choices: use converter box or get a TiVo HD unit.  Okay, here’s where my mind starts thinking and this time at least I stop and do some calculations before buying anything else :-).

Deciding on Options

With my 3 TV’s I was looking at 3 more purchases.  Now considering that let’s say a converter box was about $50 (I know there are the coupons but I wasn’t eligible to get one this late now), let’s start breaking some things down.  I could buy 3 of them ($150) and hook them up, but then i’d be using lame IR connections on my 2 TiVo Series 2 units.  This was not desirable.  I didn’t want to add components to my setup.  I wanted to remain the same.  At this point, I realize this will no longer be possible.

So for my Living Room (the TV that is broken anyway) I try to just connect the antenna feed direct to the TV (after all it was ‘HDTV ready’).  This doesn’t allow me to use TiVo at all anymore on this TV and my ‘lifetime’ service is wasted on this unit until/unless I get cable again. 

Bedroom is an older TV and will require a converter box.  This sucks because it makes the Bedroom TV setup more complex then it needs to be.  I’ve not resolved yet on what I’m going to do for this situation.

Basement is the key here.  I mean, I got a large TV for HD viewing.  Clearly I’m in a dilemma.  I love TiVo and had considered getting the TiVo HD before for this unit and ditching the cable provider’s DVR.  Now the cost of a low-end TiVo HD is about $300 and then you still have to pay for the TiVo guide service for either $13/month or $400 for ‘lifetime’ – and no, they won’t transfer my existing unit service anymore.  My other dilemma for Basement is that it is hooked up to an entertainment system receiver, so ideally I do want something that can have component hookups.  Most of the converter boxes I saw did not, but TiVo HD does.  This is important because if I decide the antenna-only route, this impacts Basement and the entertainment setup.

So if I go that route, I’ve not eliminated a bill from my home (I’m lowering it to $13 from $80 I suppose), and also adding a large chunk down to even get that started (equivalent of 3 months of HD cable).  This is not sounding good to me.

My goal of not changing anything was not looking like it was going to happen.  I really didn’t want to invest more in hardware or substantially in services either…I’m trying to eliminate, not change slightly. 

My solution and learning

I sit back and realize I don’t watch television enough anymore to really go the extra mile here.  I didn’t want to change anything.  Having to invest more to keep that goal isn’t desirable.  Having to change the way I watch TV (i.e., I relied on TiVo because I never watched anything live) was probably not going to work out.

So, no TV for me.  I might try to see how the antenna-only solution goes for a while since it was $40 and I could give it a try for a bit.  But in the end…we wanted to eliminate costs, not swap them out even for a short term.  And at this point in our lives, we can say that TV isn’t important enough to stretch it out.  It looks like I’ll be spending more time on Hulu, etc.

The solution is possible though as I learned.  The challenge for me was that I already had an investment in older DVR technology.  If you are in the same situation, keep that in mind.  If you don’t use DVRs or that is something you can easily give up, then this situation could really work.  I got about 22 channels (some random) of digital antenna broadcast that would probably be fine for most casual network broadcast viewers.  If you’ve been in this situation and have better solutions, let me know!  Oh well, we’ll see what happens at the Heuer household, but at this point, it was a fun little 2 day experiment that made me realize immediately what was going to change.