Archive for November, 2011


Cutting the Cord Part 2: HTPC

As I talked about in Cutting the (space) cord, I’m currently pretty motivated to get rid of our satellite TV subscription and replace it with an over-the-air solution with little or no ongoing cost.

I’ve sorted out picking up the signals, but to be a true replacement for what we currently have I need to be able to record programs when they’re on and play them back at a more convenient time. We watch nearly all of our TV this way and going back to caring about the actual schedule just won’t work.

I searched around for stand-alone PVR appliances designed for OTA reception, and while a few exist (like the Tivo Premier or ChannelMaster 7000PAL but their support for Canadian stations’ guide information is limited or non-existent and, in the case of the ChannelMaster, their software seems pretty poorly maintained and buggy with complaints galore to be found online.

This left me with a couple of options. I could abandon the whole endeavour, or build my own PVR/Home Theatre PC to do my bidding. I priced out components, and it seemed pretty clear I could comfortably build a pretty good one for around $500, even with skyrocketing hard drive prices caused by floods in Thailand. This meant a 5-6 month payback period after I cancel the Bell subscription, which is totally fine. If we decide a few months down the road that this was a bad idea, I’ll have a decent PC I can use for something else for basically free. And honestly, it’s been several years since I put together a PC and I kind of missed it.

I was pleased to see that the scrappy Mini-ITX form factor is still alive and well. Not only that, you can build a pretty capable Intel Sandy Bridge based system on it as a lot of vendors offer Mini-ITX sized motherboards with one of the Socket 1155 chipsets. I planned to stuff the finished product into the living room entertainment center, so the smaller I could make it, the better

If you’re thinking really fancy, you can even get a chassis that makes the thing look like a typical home theatre component. Silverstone make, IMHO, the most convincingly home theatre-esque cases in this category, but they can be a bit spendy. I went with a cheaper InWin case for mine, because it seemed like it would blend in fine and didn’t look obviously like a computer shoved under the TV.

For the internals, I went with an Intel Pentium G840 CPU, which is basically a Core i3 without hyperthreading and with the AES and virtualization extensions disabled. I figured I’d start there and in the unlikely event that it turned out to be too much of a weakling, I’d could pop in an i5 or something more beefy later. It also has the benefit of an on-die GPU, meaning I can use the single PCI-Express slot on the Gigabyte motherboard for the Dual Tuner TV capture card that will make all the magic happen. Add in a couple of hard drives, 8 GB of RAM, a cheap wireless keyboard and a Couch Mouse (who knew that was a thing?) and you’ve got yourself a PC. (I didn’t bother with an optical drive. We already have a Blu-Ray player we rarely use). Hook it to your TV and stereo system using the motherboard’s HDMI and optical SPDIF connectors, and you can (almost) call it a Home Theatre PC.

Of course, it still needs an operating system and some software to make it do stuff, so I’ll write about that next.

Posted by Jason under General  •  2 Comments

Cutting the (space) cord.

I subscribed to Netflix streaming service basically the day it launched in Canada. Sure, the selection isn’t great, but the $8/month price-tag makes places it firmly in the “good value for money” category in my mind.

One thing that Netflix brought into sharp contrast was the amount we spend on satellite TV. We’re a pretty busy family, so we don’t watch a lot of TV. What we do watch is almost exclusively recorded by our PVR when it airs and watched later when we have time in our schedule. Channel-surfing and the watching of random crap almost never happens, and when it does, it usually ends up being searching what’s available on Netflix rather than channel-flipping. As a result, paying over $100/month to Bell for satellite TV at some point tipped into the “insufficient value for money” category.

After a shenanigan with Bell where cancelling my Internet service with them in July resulted in further bills and hassle lasting through October (long story), I became determined to stop giving them money as quickly as possible. I could have signed up for cable TV instead, which would have stopped the money hose I was pointing at Bell, but wouldn’t have improved the value-for-money situation.

Enter OTA

Ever since there has been TV, it has been broadcast over-the-air. But over the past few years it has all shifted to digital, (mostly) high-def broadcasts and the old VHF analog taps have been turned off, making millions of sets of rabbit-ears obsolete and ending the snowy, static-plagued VHF broadcasts most people associate with them.

The promise of modern OTA TV is pretty compelling:

  • Free (as in beer) network tv.
  • Digital HD signals, not further compressed by cable or satellite providers.
  • No sim-subbing on US networks (if you live close enough to the border to get them).

When I started researching it, I was a bit daunted. People were talking about different types of antennas, as well as rotors, pre-amplifiers, and distribution amplifiers. It all seemed a bit much, but after reading a bit more, it became clear that for a lot of people who are motivated to talk about this sort of thing on the Internet at length, this is a game. The game is “pull in as many channels as possible” and they are willing to go to extreme lengths to do so. I don’t care quite as much about getting every theoretically possible channel, so I figured a less-extreme approach would serve my needs.

Based on an analysis by the amazing website, it seemed pretty clear that just putting up a decent antenna would get me a lot of the way there. There are some other channels out there I could try to get later with a bit more effort, but I’ll make that future-Jason’s problem.

One thing that was clear from all my reading is that not all antennas are created equal, especially cheap antennas that look just like more expensive antennas.

So, last weekend I put up a ChannelMaster 4221HD UHF antenna on the antenna mast that conveniently already existed next to my house (it came with it!), aimed it roughly at 121 degrees with the help of the compass app on my iPhone and plugged it in to see what the TV could pull in.

The results were even better than I expected. I’m getting all of the Canadian networks that broadcast out of Toronto and Hamilton, and most of what comes out of Buffalo (no NBC at all, and ABC is dodgy at best). Even without NBC and ABC, it covers all of the shows we normally watch, plus should get us special-events like the Oscars (via the Canadian networks if necessary).

The next phase of being able to really cut the cord (which actually comes from space) is the ability to record the stuff when it’s on and play it back later. For me that means a home-theatre PC project, which is in progress. Update: More on that here.

Posted by Jason under General  •  2 Comments