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.

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.

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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