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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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I’ve not hidden my love affair for Netflix both as a consumer and as a Silverlight developer and how they’ve implemented the technology.  Long before the instant watch came to the desktop and the XBOX, there were a lot of folks wanting the Netflix experience on their Windows Media Center boxes and extenders.  One such person was Anthony Park (who is now with Netflix as of this writing), who picked up a the MyNetflix media center plugin a while back.

Well, today Netflix officially has a Media Center solution for their customers.  I just got done firing my media center machine up and started the process of getting Netflix on the box.  It showed up under the Program Library and I followed the minimal instructions to get it working…restarted Media Center (not the machine) and boom, done.  I love how the branded experience of their application matches their online app as well as their overall brand identity very well:

Netflix Media Center Login

After logging in, I’m able to view my Instant Queue, DVD Queue, genre’s and new releases. 

Netflix Media Center DVD Queue

Once I find a movie from one of the categories not in my queues, I can even add it at that point!  Nice!

Netflix Media Center Add to Queue

Once you choose to watch a movie through the experience, you’ll notice something familiar – yep, that’s Silverlight powering the playback of the Netflix Instant Watch feature in Media Center.  Nice.  This is a great continuum story for the platform and for Netflix to be able to re-use their platform and their custom implementations in various areas: online (browser), XBOX, and Media Center.  Very cool to see this.  I still think the coolest feature of Instant Watch is how all the experiences are synchronized…I can pause anywhere and pick up another medium (XBOX) and start where I left off – awesome.

NOTE: It looks like at this time it is Media Center for Vista only and Windows 7 RC machines are not enabled.  Additionally, I am guessing that the same licensing rules apply for the media content, so probably only US customers. 

Kudos to the Netflix team for enabling this feature and extending their reach to where (and how) people want to view their media.  If you want to figure out how to enable it on your media center machine, you can watch this video (just try to disregard the creepy mitten-wearing hands…odd): Get Netflix on your Media Center.

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Are you a Netflix customer and have a Media Center PC?  Check out what one of our Media Center MVPs re-birthed.  Anthony Park, a Media Center MVP, has regenerated a project from back in 2004 (originally developed by Ryan Hurst) and released MyNetflix v2.1.

I'm not a Media Center nor Netflix user but the user interface is impressive and done very well to look like a part of the overall Media Center experience.  Here's a view of your Netflix queue:

You can see other screenshots of browsing 'top' categories, movie details and he's also now incorporated 'watch now' information as well.

Great work on extending and keeping MyNetflix alive Anthony!