Setting Up My Post-Comcast TV Nirvana

On January 20, 2010, in Kill Your Cable TV, by mmaletic

I grew up in the country. We had a TV, but the only channels we could get were the few that came in over the air. There was this enormous TV antenna bolted to a tower next to our house. Sometimes, when the big antenna wouldn’t work, we’d pull out the “rabbit ears” and wrap them in tin foil – real tin foil – to improve the reception.

But we weren’t complete hicks: we at least knew there was something better. Our friends lived in real suburban neighborhoods with “cable.” They had this flat black cable box with a giant dial on top connected to their TVs. And, with that dial, they could pick from dozens of different, perfectly clear television stations. It was a dream of mine to have cable television. So much choice, perfect reception…

Today, I see cable TV differently. I see it as a ridiculously high, annoying bill I have to pay every month to a company that doesn’t really care about me – my cable and internet via Comcast runs me around $140/month. My bill also has a nasty habit of going up a couple of dollars every so often, for no discernible reason. And, you know, I just don’t want or need 700 channels of programming

For much of my life, though, I just accepted the cable bill as one of life’s burdens… until I found inspiration on the New York Times, in an article called “Cable Freedom is a Click Away” by Nick Bilton. There, Bilton describes his own break with cable TV using a combination of over-the-air HD broadcasts and internet video.

I decided to try it for myself.

First, a caveat: I watch television often. I really enjoy television. I can take some inconvenience, but I’m not going to abandon TV. Any solution is going to have to basically let me watch the things I want to watch.

And the good news is that I do think that it’s possible to watch the shows I want to watch without Cable. Here’s a summary of what I’ve done so far:

The Stuff
To get started, let me introduce my stuff, i.e., the equipment I use to watch TV:

  • A 50 inch Panasonic Viera plasma TV
  • A Mac Mini (Core duo, 1.8 Ghz)
  • An EyeTV Hybrid tuner (this allows me to plug an HDTV antennae into my Mac via USB and to use my Mac like a DVR)
  • A Winegard Metrostar MS-2000 antenna
  • A Hillcrest Labs Loop Pointer (a funky mouse-alternative that works like a Wii-mote and looks like an 80s plastic bracelet)
  • A 500 Gig external drive

And here’s the rest of my home theater system, FYI:

  • A Denon Receiver/Amp
  • Axiom speakers (Right, Left, Center, Subwoofer, 2 Surrounds)
  • A Wii, Xbox 360, & PS3
  • Blue Jeans cable to connect everything
  • A Logitech Harmony One Remote

Setup
As I mentioned above, my non-cable TV-watching system relies on two sources of programming: first, over-the-air digital broadcasting and, second, a wireless internet connection.

I used to have an Apple TV connected to my setup, but, when I decided to get rid of cable, the first thing I did was to swap out the Apple TV for my Mac Mini. The Mac Mini is ideal for this kind of thing: it’s small, relatively inexpensive, and relatively powerful. I also happened to have one on hand that I was using as a household media/print server.

(The Apple TV also lacks any ability to connect to a TV tuner, and it doesn’t, without some hackery, allow you to use online video services like Boxee or Hulu. I also found that the Apple TV was somewhat finicky about video formats and wouldn’t always stream media that otherwise would play on my Mac. For this setup, a fully featured computer, then, is the only option that had any hope of satisfying my television needs.)

Setup – Video

To get the video signal from my Mac Mini to my TV, I initially used the computer’s VGA port, while I waited for a DVI-to-HDMI adapter to come in the mail. The VGA port – what most lay people would recognize as a standard computer monitor connection – worked fine, although the resolution wasn’t exceptionally high and the picture wasn’t perfectly sharp, but it was good enough. The thing that wasn’t good is that my Logitech Harmony One remote doesn’t have a standard option to switch to my TV’s “PC input” – so there’s still more tinkering to be done to get that configured correctly.

(Since hooking up my system, I’ve purchased a DVI-to-HDMI adapter. That hasn’t worked out so well, which is an issue I’ll probably cover in a later post – suffice to say, I switched back to the VGA connector for the time being.)

Setup – Audio

For audio, I initially used a mini-jack to RCA-jack wire to connect TV audio to my receiver. But the headphone jack in my Mac Mini (and in all modern Mac Minis, and MacBooks, for that matter) have a combined analog / digital optical out, so I’ve recently switched to an optical audio cable. The audio quality improved quite a bit with the changeover – but I’m only getting stereo output. My quest to get 5.1 sound will likely be the subject of a later post.

The internet part was easy: I simply configured my Mac to connect via my in home wireless network. (I’ve identified one problem with my current setup, though. My Mac has an 802.11(b) or (g) connection, but no (n) support. That means, sadly, no HD streaming to other Macs in my house for the time being. But I couldn’t do that with my Comcast box either!)

Setup – Ant

The antenna part required a bit more thought. A few years back, I purchased a small “HD” antenna for a TV in my kitchen, where there isn’t any cable hookup. (The term “HD antenna,” I gather, is nothing but marketing BS – a TV antenna is a TV antenna.) I thought that the antenna would be good enough to pick up a couple of channels so I could have something to watch while cooking. Unfortunately, I was never able to get anything except a Korean language channel and a Christian kids’ network… This time, I started by hooking that old antenna up to my Mac through the EyeTV interface. Unfortunately, I had the same (lack of) results. So I went looking for another option.

After some investigation via Google, I noticed that Winegard seemed to be a popular brand. I figured that for an antenna – basically a long piece of wire – popularity would be a fair enough proxy for quality. And the Winegard website was very helpful in determining which antenna would be appropriate for my circumstances. I also found a web site called AntennaWeb.org that allowed me to select my home’s location on a map and see what channels I should be able to receive, and their transmission distance and azimuth (or direction) from my home.

I live in Menlo Park California – basically a densely populated suburban area roughly mid-way between San Francisco and San Jose. So I wanted an antenna that would be good for pulling in relatively nearby signals from various directions, without having to adjust the antenna (some antennas are directional and, in sophisticated installations, include a remotely controlled motor to adjust its direction). I settled on the Winegard MS-2000, which I purchased for just under $100 from Amazon.

When the MS-2000 arrived in its (very large) box, I hooked it up in my TV room. I told the EyeTV software to scan through the available channels, but was disappointed to find that the results weren’t much improved over my other antenna. So up into the dingy attic I went…

I’d read that antenna installations in the attic could work, but weren’t as good as an exterior, rooftop installation. As loathe as I was to crawl up into my attic, I was even more hesitant to start stringing wires down from the roof. And, fortunately, my existing cable wiring goes through the attic, so it was easy to swap out the cable feed for the antennae feed without re-wiring the house. I was also fortunate to find a couple of roof braces that were perfectly aligned for me to wedge the antenna – a large-pizza-sized, UFO-looking plastic disk – between.

The results were nothing short of astounding: 36 English-language channels, with all the majors (ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, PBS) in perfect HD.

Truly, the HD is perfect, even over the VGA port: at least as clear as Comcast, with noticeably better color.

PostScript

And that’s about it for the basic setup. It’s not exactly easy to do, and it helps to have a lot of derelict computer and audio equipment lying around your house. But, you know, as I look at the back of my amp, it was a heck of a lot easier than simply setting my home theater rig up in the first place.

There will be a lot more to talk about in this experiment. I’m curious about the reliability of the EyeTV as DVR setup. Also, I’ve played around with some of the internet sources of video – the iTunes Store, Hulu, Boxee, the Netflix website, ESPN 360, etc. Some are better than others, which is something I’ll write about in a later post.

Finally, I have to come clean: I’m still paying for Comcast cable. My wife has not yet completely bought into this whole “life without cable” thing. But I haven’t re-connected the cable box (and no one’s said anything to me yet about it). And I also called up Comcast and got a $30 or so discount on my current bill. It’s amazing how effectively you can negotiate – even with a cable company – when you’re willing to walk away from the deal!

 

4 Responses to “Setting Up My Post-Comcast TV Nirvana”

  1. Jim says:

    Look forward to reading the rest. How do you like the Loop pointer?

  2. mmaletic says:

    Jim – I kind of like it. It’s nicely designed and works better than anything else I’ve seen out there on the market. It seems well calibrated so that the pointer moves to where you want it to go quickly, and is relatively easy to train on your target.

    (Also, their customer service seems excellent – my first pointer was defective and they were extremely responsive in sending me a replacement.)

    Mine runs through batteries a bit more quickly than I’d like it to – there’s an on/off button on it and the instructions, if I’m remembering this right, suggest that you should turn it on and off when using it to preserve power. I use the Mac’s on-screen keyboard (available through the keyboard System Pref panel) instead of a wireless keyboard, and it works tolerably well.

    The whole pointer with computer interface is a bit kluge-y, unfortunately. The Loop makes it a bit more tolerable!

    – Mike

  3. Just wasting some in between class time on Stumbleupon and I found your post . Not normally what I like to learn about, but it was definitely worth my time. Thanks.

  4. mmaletic says:

    Glad it was interesting for you, and thanks for reading.

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