Nothing’s ever simple.

April 29, 2010 at 8:51 am | Posted in Scott | 1 Comment

So, here’s the update on the no-cable experiment from my point of view.

As you know, we officially canceled the cable. My initial reaction was inexplicable fear. Actual fear. That’s probably a sign that we’re doing the right thing.

Our first big piece of “appointment viewing” after cutting off the cable was The Amazing Race, which looked great, right up until the lightning storm. As soon as the thunder started in, our reception became spotty. Right now many of you are asking, “But how often is there a lightning storm?” Those who have lived in central Florida know the answer is “alarmingly often.” That said, if the show had become unwatchable, we could have waited until the next day and watched it on Hulu.

After my last post about the HTPC, a friend suggested that I try a program called Boxee to manage streaming videos. I had heard of Boxee, but was under the impression that it was a hardware product, not an application. Turns out that Boxee itself is a free, open source application that runs on Windows, Mac and Linux. They also have a set top box, called … wait for it … “the Boxee Box.”

I loaded it up one day while home sick. (Strep throat. I’m fine now, and can tell you if you’ve never had strep throat, you don’t want it, which you most likely already knew.) I expected to launch the program, play around for a few minutes then get on with my busy afternoon of sitting around moaning. Four hours later I turned off the TV convinced that I’d found the perfect solution for my HTPC. The interface is easy to understand and navigate. The selection of streaming TV shows it can access is staggering. The video quality is just as good as I was getting using just the web browser, if not better, and the whole four hours I messed around with it I didn’t have a single technical problem. There are also free Boxee remote apps for iPhone and Android. I can’t vouch for the iPhone app, but the Android App I’m using (Boxee Wifi Remote) is rock solid.

As soon as Missy got home I insisted on demonstrating Boxee to her. The first thing I did was go to the menu of TV shows and select a British sitcom called Peep Show. Hulu asked for my age, because an American clearly can’t handle TV that is freely broadcast in England. Unfortunately Boxee didn’t have a way for me to input my age. The text fields were not selectable, and I was stuck. I spent five minutes trying to get it to work, then Missy lost interest and left.

Turns out this is a known problem. It only affects Hulu programs that are labled for mature audiences and Boxee is working on it. Also, I can still shut down Boxee and watch Peep Show through Hulu’s player, but still, this is why I never got any work demonstrating products at trade shows.

Returning the Equipment

April 28, 2010 at 1:34 pm | Posted in Missy | Leave a comment

I just took almost all of our remaining borrowed gadgetry to the Bright House office. Two CableCARDs from out of the TiVo, and that ghastly tuning adapter so we could (sometimes) get the extended HD channels.

I handed over the equipment, the guy scanned them in, then asked, “So just the internet connection, then?” I said yes. His only response was, “Okay, you’re all set.”

What’s going on, Bright House? Don’t you even care? First the guy on the phone doesn’t fight the cancellation, now the guy in person doesn’t either? I’m perplexed. Seems like every other time I’ve canceled a service, I get all sorts of “are you sure” and “what can we do to keep you” questions. But from these guys, nothing.

I asked the guy about the upcoming Road Runner Lightning service — speeds up to 40mbps, as well as some other extras (Road Runner Radio & Video Channel) that may or may not be worth an extra investment. He said it’s slated to roll out “this summer”, so anywhere from two to five months from now. I’ve signed up to be alerted when it’s available in our area, so we’ll check it out at that time and see if it’s worth upgrading.

Netflix

April 24, 2010 at 10:32 pm | Posted in Missy | Leave a comment

We already belonged to Netflix, but on the lowest possible plan that allowed streaming — $8.99 to have one DVD out at a time, but unlimited streaming through our computers and the TiVo. We could also stream through the Xbox 360, but neither of us has a gold membership.

We’ve just upgraded to the 3-DVD plan, so we can always have a Scott item, a Missy item, and an all-Meyer item out at any given time. It’s $16.99, which takes an $8 nibble out of the over-$70 savings from canceling cable.

If anyone out there wants to be our Netflix friend, I think this invitation should get you there. But I’m not sure; the friends system doesn’t seem particularly user-friendly. And I still can’t upload a user picture without getting an error. But as long as the discs come in a timely fashion, I’m not going to worry too much about our profile.

So in addition to the 2009 Red Dwarf miniseries that showed up in the mailbox yesterday, we’ve bumped a couple of other items to the top of the queue: Scott’s ordered up season 1 of A Bit of Fry and Laurie, and I’ve opted for the horrible-wonderful classic 1980 roller-skating musical Xanadu. I haven’t seen it in probably 20 years, and I expect it to be just awful. But hopefully it’s that grade of awful that goes around the horn to become awesome.

Xanadu: terrible, horrible, magical!

Getting the web into the TV

April 24, 2010 at 8:47 pm | Posted in Scott | 2 Comments

As you already know, my wife and I plan to cancel our cable subscription and compensate with DVDs and streaming video from the web. Streaming video to your computer is fine if you don’t mind watching shows while sitting at your desk, in an office chair (in other words: you’re alone.) If you intend to watch a show with someone else, you’ll either want a huge monitor, or a computer hooked up to your TV.

Now, it’s true that our TiVo can stream YouTube videos and Netflix on demand, but that’s a small percentage of the video material available online. Hulu alone is a compelling argument for having a PC in the living room. Drunk History on FunnyorDie is another. There’s also iTunes. There are dedicated boxes out there that will give you some of these things, but the only solution I’ve ever seen that give you all of them is a full-blown computer.

Much has been written about Home Theater PCs (referred to usually as HTPCs). Indeed, if you read Lifehacker (and you should) you know there are numerous software/hardware combinations available to the user designed to turn an ordinary PC into an appliance that will be at home in your entertainment center.

My goals when setting up our HTPC was for it to be as simple to operate as possible, as flexible as possible and as cheap as possible. I don’t see how I can possibly fail with such realistic goals.

The Hardware

If you want your HTPC to act as the world’s greatest jukebox, holding all of your music collection and (ahem) perfectly legal copies of DVDs that you purchased from a licensed vendor and still own, then you’ll want something with a big hard drive and a decent video card. I just want something that can stream video from the ‘net in full screen. I don’t need much of a hard drive or a great video card. Luckily, I have an old computer sitting here gathering dust. It was the slowest, cheapest computer HP sold, three and a half years ago.

I am also lucky that my TV was made by VIZIO, a company forward-thinking enough to include an RGB input on their TVs, making it really easy and cheap to plug a computer into the TV. (If your TV doesn’t have such an input, there are other options.)

The Software

The computer I’m using runs Windows 7, but you don’t need the latest operating system to make this work. As I said earlier, anything that will smoothly stream video full screen will do. Windows Vista and Windows 7 are a bonus because they both come with Windows Media Center, a pretty graphical façade meant to make it easy to access your videos, music, pictures, and TV shows (if your HTPC has a TV tuner) using a remote control from your couch. It’s a beautiful, slick piece of software, which I’m not going to use.

The whole point of this thing is to make it simple to watch streaming web video. Windows Media Center has video from some of the networks (which we get through broadcast HD anyway) and it’s possible to make Hulu integrate smoothly into WMC, but to watch anything else, WMC would just be the program we have to shut down to get to what we want. Therefore, to start with I simply have bookmarked the sites we expect to visit often, and put shortcuts to those sites on the desktop.

The Remote

I have ordered a remote control online for $15. It has not yet arrived. In the meantime I’m using an Android app called Gmote to control the mouse with my phone’s touchpad … which is awesome, but feels way more sophisticated than we need. When the remote comes I’ll let you know what I think.

The system has been in place for three days now, and is working well. There was one evening when everything we watched had a slight stutter, but it’s only happened once. I think it might have been due to Windows Update downloading in the background.

I’ll keep you posted.

Cable: Canceled

April 24, 2010 at 9:37 am | Posted in Missy | Leave a comment

Yesterday, we unplugged the cable from the TiVo. This morning, I called Bright House to cancel the service.

But before I told them about canceling, I wanted to find out why our bill had gone up recently. Because back in September of 2009, I’d called and we’d been put on a package deal — $79.99 for cable TV and internet. The one catch was that in order to get a package deal, you need to have a cable company DVR (and let me tell you, the Explorer 8300 isn’t fit to clean the TiVo’s shoes). So the cable rep added in a fake DVR and charged us $6 per month for it, in order to get the $40 savings of a package deal.

Clearly, it was too good to last. Despite being promised the package price for 24 months, the cable company went into our account, said, “Oh my stars and garters, they’re paying for a cable box they don’t actually possess,” and proceeded to remove the cable box (which THEY had added to begin with) from our account and charge us the higher, non-package rates.

I actually ended up talking to two reps at Bright House this time; the first one didn’t outright accuse me of trying to game their system, but his tone wasn’t pleasant. He then put me on hold for 20 minutes, so I just called back and got another guy. The second guy told me the deal, and he agreed with me when I said, “So it sounds like we never should have been given the package deal in the first place, and we should be happy that we got it for three months.”

All in all, I love the fact that we have everything except one piece of equipment, but we need to have that one piece of equipment in order to get any kind of discount.

So I told second guy to cancel the TV portion of our service. We’re still going to get internet through the cable, because the Road Runner cable service via Bright House is the best deal of those available to us. Here’s what we can get in our area:

Road Runner / $48 / Up to 10 Mbps
Road Runner / $63 / Up to 20 Mbps
AT&T U-Verse / $48* / Up to 12 Mbps
AT&T U-Verse / $58* / Up to 18 Mbps
* AT&T charges a one-time setup fee of $149.
CenturyLink / $50 / Up to 5 Mbps
CenturyLink / $55 / Up to 10 Mbps

So AT&T is a slightly better deal as far as dollars-to-speed, but the setup fee makes me want to kick them in the junk. At any rate, it’s nice to know they’re there as a fallback, in case Bright House messes with us.

Weirdly, the Bright House rep who canceled our TV service didn’t argue it at all. He didn’t offer any discounts or even ask why we were canceling the bulk of our services with them. I was fully expecting to have them put up a fight, or scramble to keep our TV business. But all I got was an “I’ll take care of that” and a request to set up a technician visit to pick up our equipment. Which I declined, because I can easily take a tuning adapter and two cableCARDs to their office instead of having to wait at my house for the tail end of a 4-hour appointment window. Nice try at one last inconvenience, Bright House, but I don’t think so.

HD Antenna = Crystal Clear!

April 23, 2010 at 10:38 pm | Posted in Missy | Leave a comment

We just watched our first TiVo-recorded show from the antenna, and WOW. The picture looks so much more clear and sharp than what we got through our cable. Because cable TV providers compress the signal in order to squeeze more data through their tubes, while the over-the-air signal is raw and uncompressed.

It was a delight to watch. What show was it? Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, which I recap for the lovely folks at The Disney Blog. Now that we’ve seen how great it all looks, we can’t wait for really pretty and action-heavy shows. Bring on the Lost!

Digital Antenna Is GO!

April 23, 2010 at 8:09 pm | Posted in Missy | Leave a comment

We’ve removed the cable from the back of the TiVo, and plugged in the antenna.

The antenna we chose is this indoor HDTV antenna from Monoprice. We’d been looking at a variety of options on Amazon, but Monoprice came highly recommended by Leo Laporte over at TWIT. And for our first test antenna, a 4-star rated model for $17.39 at Monoprice seemed like a better risk than spending $50 for the similar-looking Terk at Amazon.

It’s surprisingly small — smaller than a DVD/game case. In fact, here’s a game case to compare:

Yes, that’s a bunch of stuffed frogs sitting next to the TV. Long story short, we started with one stuffed frog cat toy, and the collection has grown. And yes, Bioshock 2 was awesome.

We looked up our channel availability over at AntennaWeb and found out that most of the local networks broadcast from about 25 miles away, at compass headings varying from 58° to 63°. Fortunately, I have a compass program on my phone, so we were able to set the antenna with its flat face pointing to 60°. Then we unplugged the cable and set the TiVo to go through its setup cycle. About 30 minutes later, TiVo found about 40 high-def over-the-air channels, got the program listings over the internet, and we were good to go.

I opted to go through the channels and cull out all of the stations en Español, which turned out to be quite a few. I also got rid of the set of what we call K-GOD stations. We’re left with ABC, CBS, FOX, CW, MyTV, ION, about two dozen PBS stations, and some miscellaneous independent stations. Notice one missing from the list? Channel 2, NBC, doesn’t come in. We’re getting a signal strength of 0-40 (out of 100) no matter where we put the antenna, so until we cough up extra money for a stronger antenna, we’ll get NBC content through Hulu or NBC.com. (That Hulu link goes to our profile there; you can see our stuff and add us as a Hulu friend.) Not that big a deal; I think the only NBC show we watch is The Biggest Loser.

The TiVo was smart enough to transfer over our season passes for all shows on channels we’re now getting through the antenna. So instead of American Idol recording on HD cable channel 1135, TiVo automatically set it to record on antenna channel 35-1. You go, TiVo!

The Wisdom of the Hive Mind

April 20, 2010 at 7:00 pm | Posted in Missy | Leave a comment

I’m a member of Ask MetaFilter, a resource where you can ask the hive mind any question and get lots of amazing answers. Looking for a book with the weirdest description ever that you read years ago? Someone will know it. (That post made me get Orson Scott Card’s Treason from the library, and it was surprisingly good. First Card I’d read, and it won’t be the last.)

They’ve actually turned out to be a great resource for this project, because quite a few other people have asked for advice.

Seriously; if anyone out there has a question about anything, these guys are a great resource.

Okay, here’s the deal.

April 18, 2010 at 2:43 pm | Posted in Scott | 1 Comment

This is my first post to my and my wife’s new blog. As such, there are three pieces of serious business that this post must do. It has to explain who we are, what we are doing, and why we are doing it.

Who are we?

TV addicts, that’s who.

By the age of ten I could tell you that the first episode of Gilligan’s Island was in black and white, that MASH was much funnier before Colonel Blake died, and that in the first season of Knight Rider, K.I.T.T.’s voice was accompanied by a boring red light instead of a fancy graphic equalizer. My parents used to impress their friends by having me rattle off the prime time listings for all three broadcast networks for any night of the week from memory. In retrospect, I think they were misinterpreting looks of disgust on their friends’ faces for admiration. My wife is not quite as bad as I am, but we do have over sixty season passes on our TiVo, and we are not ashamed. We watch TV, but only good TV, and we watch the hell out of it.

What are we doing?

Canceling our cable, that’s what.

Our plan is to stop getting cable (here’s the tricky part) without it adversely affecting our TV-watching habits. If you’re like me, you’ve probably thought that the internet seems like it might be about ready to take over for cable, but you’re not sure. We intend to find out.

Why are we doing this?

We love TV, but we hate the cable TV industry. I will elaborate as to why in future posts, but I doubt we really have to. Most of you have dealt with those swine.

We are not the first people to try this. We’re not even the first people to blog about it. What makes our trip different is that we watch a tremendous amount of TV, and intend to keep doing so. This is not an attempt to wean ourselves off of TV, it’s just an attempt to stop paying our local cable company for it. In this blog we will tell you how we compensate for the lack of cable, and how well (or poorly) it works.

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