Living without cable

We bid farewell to Comcast basic cable a few months ago. We don’t really miss it. This is after I put together a complicated setup to record DTV and stream movies. None of the gear is top of the line and not the latest and greatest either. But it serves us well.

Transition to DTV

Starting with the TV, it is a Toshiba 50″ TheaterView Projection TV. This is one of those giant old TV’s that is almost as tall as my shoulder when I stand next to it. We bought it used from hubby’s younger brother. Before having this “luxury”, we had a 19″ CRT TV which I sold at a garage sale. Our family room is in the basement. This TV is so big and heavy that there is no way it will emerge from below ground again!

The TV does not have a digital tuner. When there was still a chance to apply for a coupon from the govt for a converter box, I did it just for the heck of it. Basic cable worked just fine on our TV after the transition to DTV was completed in my area. We heard about people making their own antenna for DTV so we thought we give it a try. And to our surprise, our homemade antenna worked very well (with a converter box) in the basement. The channels that came in with strong signals were crystal clear. I doubt any of the old tech antenna would have performed as well before DTV for us.

While the homemade antenna performed quite well, the signal for a few channels were weak. This is most likely because the antenna is in the basement. The solution is actually right in front of us all along. While cable service is accessed through the basement, there are a few coaxial cables sticking out in a few places on the main floor by the baseboard. We traced one of the cables in the living room back to the basement. We tested the connection by hooking up the homemade antenna in the living room and connected the other end to the TV in the basement. And wa-laa, we are watching DTV with slight improved reception. While the homemade antenna works well, it is not aesthetic to have in the living room. I later bought a omni-directional indoor antenna and placed it on top of an IKEA dresser.

Record DTV

When we still had cable, we got the best use of it by hooking it up to a Panasonic DVR. It’s a DVR without the need for a monthly subscription to TiVo. It takes in programming schedule through TV Guide. It works well with cable and we used it a lot to record our favorite shows. After we decided to ditch cable, the DVR function becomes useless. I tried for several weeks to make it play nice with the DTV converter box. The DVR was designed for analog signal. DTV is totally incompatible. However, the DVR’s built-in DVD recorder and VHS player are still great functions to keep around the house. For example, we recently converted one of the VHS family videos from 20+ years ago to DVD.

Not being able to use the DVR is a big bummer. The solution was not a difficult one. Hubby bought me the EyeTV 250 Plus as a X’mas present several years ago. The reason I wanted it was to transfer videos from a Hitachi DVD camcorder to my Mac. The camcorder’s software works on Windows only. I had no way to transfer the content from the miniDVD to my Mac. The EyeTV has video conversion capabilities. I used it a few times after recording video on the camcorder. And then both equipment got put away. A few months ago, it suddenly came to me that the EyeTV is also a TV tuner. Combining it with a used Mac Mini I bought from work, the combo became the new DVR system.

I paid a little money to upgrade the EyeTV software which came with a free one-year subscription to TV Guide ($19.95 per year to renew). Having the program schedule under your finger tips is very handy, especially for recording TV series. We had a “Smallville” marathon over the Thanksgiving weekend. The EyeTV 250 Plus came with a remote and it was convenient to fast forward commercials.

Stream online videos

The other advantage of having a computer connected to the TV is to surf the web from the comfort of the couch. However, the projection TV limits the usable resolution output from the computer. At 800X600, most of the computer functions are usable until I run into a long pop-up window that would get cut off at the bottom. Going any higher on the resolution makes it very difficult to read the computer output on the TV. Therefore, I still prefer doing busy work like email, blogging, reading webpages from the desktop.

Watching online videos on TV is really the main goal. My preferred tool of choice is Boxee which is a free software that streams online videos, TV shows and even movies (free independent films for now) through a great GUI. The Mac version utilizes the Apple Remote to navigate. I watch a few cable-only TV shows from Comedy Central, Food Network, etc through Boxee. You can even add RSS feeds to bring in video streams not currently offered on Boxee. I am very happy with it so far.

I have tried a similar software, Plex and it is mostly frustration for me. While it has a beautiful GUI (some people compare it to the AppleTV), I had very few successes streaming videos which often show up as a black screen with audio only. If you have a huge collections of movies and music on a Mac, Plex is most likely the winner. Boxee remains my favorite for streaming online videos.

Stream movies with Vudu

To stream movies, we have a Vudu Box. It’s another gadget that doesn’t require a monthly subscription. When we first bought it over 2 years ago, Vudu required users to deposit a set amount of money into their accounts. As we rent movies, rental charges were deducted out of the account. Our initial deposit of $50 lasted until 2 weeks ago around the Thanksgiving holiday. Rentals at standard definition range from $2.99 to $3.99. We definitely don’t watch movies often enough to get our money’s worth for Netflix.

When we bought the Vudu Box, we were subscribed to the cheapest (i.e. slowest) DSL service available. I started using DSL when it became available to my land line many years ago. While other internet service such as cable became popular, I resist the urge to upgrade to save money. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. When we need to kick cable to the curb, we just did it without the headache of looking for another internet service.

Using Vudu at 1 Mbps means we had to wait for the movie to download completely before we could watch it. It wasn’t a long wait because Vudu distributes through a peer-based network. Before we had the Vudu box, we were downloading movie rentals on iTunes and that was painfully slow, 3-4 hours or sometimes longer. When the idea of cutting cable was getting closer to reality, it became apparent that faster internet would be worth it. We upgraded one level up on the DSL service. We can now watch Standard Definition movies on Vudu instantly. No more waiting to download. Sweet!

The final word

Well, the above pretty much sums up how I watch TV nowadays. It’s not the perfect system (I have to perform routine maintenance and troubleshooting on the Mac Mini every now and then) but it works for me. Wired magazine produced a comprehensive guide to ditching cable a few months ago. If you are starting from scratch, you should check it out.

One thought on “Living without cable

  1. This is a great money saver! We did something similar when we dropped our $40/mo satellite tv subscription to save money. We signed up for Netflix streaming, plus one dvd in the mail at a time for $8.99/mo and found this to be a great money saver. We stream movies through our Wii in the living room, and watch unlimited movies on demand through our wireless internet (which we have to have for work). We are big time movie watchers, so this has really saved us a lot of money. Good post!

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