Cut the cable and enjoy free television
Getting tired of ever growing cable bill? Remember the days we got a full lineup for about 30 bucks? Long gone!
With the move away from analog tv signal to a full digital lineup, it’s now possible to receive clean, over the air HDTV. Playing with the idea to toss out the cable box and cancel the cable subscription seems so tempting. The confusion (and sometimes frustration) comes into play where we wade thru a plethora of devices, such as tv tuners, media player, DVR’s etc, just to find out that they miss one or two critical features to make the solution incomplete.
What’s the perfect cable tv box replacement?
Let’s define our must have features for such a solution:
- Watch live TV
- Record and schedule live TV
- Playback recorded TV shows
- Playback ripped movies
- Play music
- Play pictures
As of this writing, I’ve done lots of research about a device that does all the above. There are plenty that do almost all of them, but haven’t found one that does it all. There are however software solutions around (again, at the time of this writing), and among them are Windows Media Center and MythTV. After struggling with MythTV (tuner card not recognized, tv guide listing not free, etc), I’ve decided to go with WMC. At this point I have to disclose that I have also an Xbox 360 (more on that later).
Another criteria of mine was that this setup be completely free of monthly fees, and the use of older, legacy hardware (in my case, an old HP laptop and a Dell Mini 9). I first started installing Windows 7 on the Dell (using this excellent write-up), but found out quickly that the processor speed on it’s Atom CPU was just not going to cut it. Hence, on to the HP Pavilion dv 8010us. It has a single core at 1.8 Ghz with 1 GB Ram and an ATI Mobility video card. The installation was fairly easy, with a few drivers that had to be found via Google search. I am using a Hauppauge 1191 WinTV-HVR-950Q USB tv tuner. This one seems to work with MythTV and WMC, and USB makes it very flexible.
So far, the setup was straight forward, WMC detected my TV tuner and I could watch live TV with my terrestrial antenna plugged in. Great! I could even record shows, and although I only have one TV tuner and hence could only watch and record one channel, I was still able to also watch TV using the television’s built in tuner. So live was good, until I wanted to watch the recorded episode of “Amazing Race”. The playback was jumping frames once so often, not too bad just enough to be annoying. Another problem came apparent when WMC was in full screen (as if someone wasn’t running it full screen). The responsiveness was a bit laggy and getting worse with increased interactions. After playing around with WMC settings, I found the visualization settings and set everything to basic (no transitions etc). Voila, responsiveness was much better. But I could not get around the video playback that was recorded on a 1080p channel. Lower resolution was ok, and the problem simply ended up being the onboard video card.
Xbox 360 to the rescue
Then I read about extenders and realized that my Xbox was a possible solution to my laptop’s performance problems. So I setup my Xbox 360 as an extender and all my system flaws were resolved. Perfect playback, excellent live tv and included remote control. And all this with utilizing older legacy hardware with a Terk HDTVa Indoor Amplified High-Definition Antenna which provides excellent reception and a 500 GB external portable hard drive.