Internet TV Options Part 5 – Cutting the Cord

March 10, 2016

BirdsAntennaIf you read the previous 4 parts of this series, you will remember my quest to cut the cord (disconnect traditional cable TV). The plan was to imulate as closes as possible a solution that included a 1) broadcast antenna for local service, 2) Streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu (currently the big players in this space) and 3) Simular to #2, in that it includes streaming video, but from sources such as You Tube, and other individual content providers such as CMT, CNBC, MSNBC and 4) some sort of DVR to allow for time shifted viewing (something the cable companies got us to like). So here we are, over 4 years later and I still hadn’t done it cause  I  just wasn’t happy with my solution as well as it didn’t pass the wife test. Until now!!!  I had tried one brand of OTA DVR, but it just didn’t have the response, nor did it have a good 14 day schedule. So after much deliberation, I purchased the TiVo Bolt. For three reasons, 1) it had all the time tested feature sets that TiVo has refined over many years, 2) the Bolt will be their premiere product as they phase out the Roamio, so all their development will go toward their newest product and 3) it had enhanced feature that recognize streaming video sources  more than the Roamio:

So lets look at how TiVo Bolt answered my questions/problems identified in my previous post. 

  1. Broadcast Antenna: vs.  UVerse. Hands down, assuming you have good OTA (over the air) reception, the broadcast antenna provides a superior picture quality. With the Bolt connected to my antenna, I can not see any service degradation between the straight antenna connection vs going through the Bolt box.  After watching this for a couple of days, I keep thinking I bought a new TV. If you have CATV, satellite or a fiber based service provider, it will probably not be that noticeable, but if you have a provider such as AT&T that originally provided their content over copper, the difference is quite noticeable. Note: In the recent months AT&T has announced with the purchase of DirecTV, they will be moving their customer base from UVerse to DirecTV (copper vs. satellite based solution).
  2. Antenna Reception: As noted in my earlier entries, having a good antenna and good broadcast antenna service will be paramount to support your OTA TiVo receiver. This is the core of your off cable, non streaming service. If you have poor reception, pixeling, or blocking you will get quite frustrated with the service. If your antenna service is marginal on a good day, it will be poor on a bad day. Wind, rain, tree’s with large leaves in the summer will all negatively impact the reception. If you are old enough to remember, depending on a TV antenna for all of your broadcast television, you will remember fuzzy, scratchy and intermittent service. Its still the same but different. Even though having an antenna on a 10 ft. mast may work for many urban dwellers, antenna masts of greater proportion may be required. In my case, I have struggled with getting adequate reception of the NBC affiliate (and I live in the city).  I have continued to tweak my arrangement and after several months of refinement, I have it to a manageable level. In bad weather it is usually the first station to start acting up. 
  3. No or limited on-screen TV Guide for Broadcast TV:  So far, the Bolt has got this covered. The user programing for identifying shows, show series, and movies from both traditional OTA providers but also non-traditional services such as Amazon and Hulu, create an almost seamless transition from CATV type solutions. Setting down with my non-tech wife (aka; NTW) to provide some training, showed me how smooth the transition would go, as she picked up on it very quickly. The Bolt remote is very intuitive to most all the activities we all have come accustom to with other remotes.
  4. DVR: To bring OTA  broadcast TV up to speed with CATV, a DVR is nearly a must. The folks at TiVo understand that time-shift viewing is taking over traditional viewing habits and have simplified the process quite well. Whether you want to record a series or just some specific events, the recording process is very simple. The Bolt comes with 500g but you can easily add an outboard larger hard drive storage.
  5. Netflix:  Over the last 4 years Netflix has become the elephant in the room by embracing our new viewing habits. Add in Amazon Prime and Hulu (just to name a few), and you can fill in many of the blanks left by leaving CATV. Call it ala carte or pay per view, TiVo has integrated these services into the box as just another part of the viewing spectrum.
  6. Roku Box: I was probably an early adopter to this service and it kind of reminded me of when we first got FM radio. Needing a special tuner to get there. Whether it be Smart TV’s, DVD players, game boxes, or TiVo receivers. Gaining access to streaming services has come mainstream. The Roku served me well, but I really don’t need it since the streaming services are now nearly everywhere on most all connected devices.
  7. Multiple TV’s: Again, TiVo has this covered as well. With the TiVo Mini, you can watch the same TV programs  that show up on your primary TV.
  8. Sports: There is still a hole here and if they had a good fix for it, we would already have it. Typically Sports are viewed in real time, not recorded (as much). And the most acceptable way to watch live sports is through a CATV provider as they have access to all locally broadcast events. If you just want local sports, you can probably make it work, but if you live in a far away place from your favorite, you still have a problem.. However, there are some establishments that will broadcast far away game for you at their business. Granted, it might cost you the price of a couple of beers, but hey; its an option.  For me, its not a deal breaker as I really don’t watch sports.

Next time we will look at the costs and payback

Image courtesy of [Vlado] at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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HDMI Switchers and Cables – Internet TV Options

April 11, 2014

 After starting the series on disconnecting from cable TV “Cutting the Cord” , I realized it was a never-ending story. There are so many branches to the story, I decided to just consider it another category and write about it anytime I felt like it.. Granted, this is a little outside of the “prime objective” (Protecting Your Home Through Preventative Maintenance), but what the heck… its my site and I get lots of hits on Internet TV Options :).

The HDMI connector on the rear of your TV is currently the best way to get the highest quality reception from the source (DVD, DVR, Cable Box) to the TV screen. The quality of reception is no better than the cable that carries it. Typically TV’s have 2 maybe 3 HDMI connections. Optimally, for peak performance having a cable from each device to the TV will provide the best performance. However, for many people (me) it might not be practical, especially if your equipment is located in another room (like me). For this reason the best solution may be one good cable and a HDMI splitter (aka switch). By adding this device near your equipment you can connect all the source equipment using short cables, then you only require one cable between the TV and the HDMI splitter.

How do I choose a HDMI splitter? You can spend as little as  10 bucks to as much as several hundred. I looked throughout the  available devices and found the Monoprice products to be moderately priced and include the necessary features. Whether you go with Monoprice or not, here are the important features to include within your selection process.

  • Number of ports: Select a device with at least one maybe two or more ports than you need. For only a couple of bucks extra, you can accommodate a future game console or DVR. I would suggest a splitter with at least 4 ports.
  • LED indicators: A power-on lamp as well as a source indicator
  • IR Remote: If you equipment is located in another room, remotely switching from one source to another will be important. Granted, you now have ANOTHER remote to keep up with. Make sure and read my recent article on remotes.
  • HDMI Compliance: Make sure the device you purchase meets the current HDMI standards known as “HDMI 1.3a”. This is an industry standard rating that defines a level of performance. The features associated with HDMI 1.3 or better will provide higher speed and deeper color. It will also support 1080P. If a 3D TV is in your future, change that to HDMI 1.4.
  • Supports 1080P:  This will ensure, the device will not limit the broadcast ability of the source equipment. Devices compliant with HDMI 1.0 or better will cover this item.

What do I pick for an HDMI cable? There are lots of choices. It can be very easy to get caught up in the hype of all the flim flam marketing mumbo jumbo.. Most retailers jack the prices of most interconnect cables to recoup the lousy margin they had to take of the DVR they just sold you. (See PM cable comparison)  So if you can wait a couple of days, just buy it over the internet.. You will save BOO KOOS of money, especially if you have to buy a long one (like me). Many times, too much information just helps in making the decision difficult. (Some times when I try to explain some techy things to my wife, she reminds me that she really just wants to know what  time it is, and not how to know how to build a watch.) The basics are important: Larger wire size for longer distances. The smaller the number = bigger wire size. Here is the simple rules.

  • The lower the number, the larger the wire size (20 gauge (ga.) wire is larger than 26 ga.)
  • Use the shortest cable length between the connection points, don’t buy extra long ones and just coil them up.
  • Cable lengths of 15 feet or less = 24 ga
  • Cable lengths of 20 feet or less = 22 ga
  • Cable lengths of 45 feet or less = 22 ga (cable lengths over 45 feet will require an amplifier to provide you a quality signal).
  • Meets HDMI Standards 1.4
  • If you plan to run the cables through the walls, technically they should meet UL Class 2  to meet the fire rating.

As for a cable source,  I have used both Monoprice and Cablestogo with positive results. If you need a booster for lengths over 45 feet, look at Monoprice as well.

Good luck, BOB


Cutting the Cord Part IV:II Seamless Intergration

August 28, 2011

As a refresher;  this is my trek to recreate a non cable, alternative TV solution to replace the $100 a month cable habit. Admittedly, I take a bit longer than your average media reviewer to make a decision or evaluate something.  As I mentioned back in Part IV.I, one of the hooks with the Cable TV option is the (relatively)  seamless use of cable box provided remote control and access to programing. As mentioned, the solution I have been creating is a bit more complex. To achieve a similar viewing experience, you need an antenna, an internet connection, a separate DVR, and maybe a DVD player.  While building this solution, I have been collecting additional remote controls and as of this moment I am up to 7 for one TV.

Houston We Have a Problem: Even for a techno geek, 7 remotes is over the top. Here are the devices in my solution requiring a remote:

  1. Cable Box, yes its still hooked up
  2. TV remote; used to shift from one source to another
  3. DVD;  to pause and play  those redbox rentals
  4. ROKU Box; Once you are in ROKU mode, you have to surf around through the selection menus
  5. HDMI Switch; Since all my equipment is remote from the TV, I use one HDMI cable from the A/V closet to the TV, so the switcher allows me to redirect the source from the cable box, DVR or ROKU box
  6. A/V receiver; I use this device when I want to use the surround sound speakers to watch movies
  7. CD Player; not really part of the TV solution, but a remote that is used to turn on the CD player

So needless to say, it was time to consider my options. Here are my concerns:

  • My current solution is fairly complex. It may require 2 to 3 different remotes to switch between the various sources.
  • If my solution is too complex or takes to many hands and remotes, its way too inconvenient. Two or three remotes might work, but 7 is way over the limit
  • If my wife wont accept the procedures required to get to the various sources, she will push back.

Universal Remotes: These all in one controllers  have been around nearly as long as multiple remotes. I have to admit, being cheap, I never considered any of them good enough to justify the expense. However, it was worth some research to see where the technology currently is.

The good news is, there have been dramatic strides in this category of electronic devices and by most sources, the Logitech brand is viewed as the bench mark product by many professional equipment reviewers.

Looking at the Logitech family of remotes  (at least 3 to choose from), they all function the same way but the 650 model only supports 5 devices and the 900 supports 15. In the middle is the Harmony One. The major differences with the more expensive 900 is the RF control. The Harmony One is very similar to the Model 600, but will control 15 vs. 5 remotes. Do you need the RF version? What is RF vs IR. IR (InferRed Light) devices require  line-of-sight to see all the devices vs. RF (radio frequency) that can transmit through walls. So, if you have all your equipment in a cabinet or closet, the RF device will project through the wall (granted you will still require a device to convert the RF to IR to talk to all the equipment since IR is the most common communications path for residential grade AV equipment. The Harmony One appeared to be the best choice for me since I already had an IR pipe to my equipment closet and I needed to control more than 5 devices.

Here is what makes the Logitech standout:

  • The tactical buttons to move around the devices (DVR, DVD, Cable Box) are pretty common. Such as; forward, back, up down, fast forward etc. So, no mater what device you are using, those common command buttons remain the same.
  • Device specific command are through a touch screen that allows you to access specific buttons  to further customize your request. (i.e. choose a CD track or access specific segments of a DVD). These commands are not near as regularly used as the ones mentioned above.
  • Activity based commands: This is the icing on the cake. With programing, you set one button to perform multiple functions on multiple devices. For instance; to watch a DVD with my system this is what happens: TV=On, TV=Video 1, DVD=On, DVD=Play, A/V Reciever=On,  A/V receiver= Video 1.  That is 6 commands over 3 different components  with ONE BUTTON. This is AWESOME… MY WIFE CAN DO THIS!!!!!! SHE DID THIS BEFORE I SHOWED HER HOW!!!!!!
  • The downside: I got excited in the last bullet point, so as you can imagine there is a “But”. You must use your PC to program the remote. Actually I see this as a plus. I found the program fairly easy to negotiate.  With installed programing, it walks you through the various components to perform the set ups… Yes, it will take the better part of a day to complete this function, but it is TOTALLY worth it. With Logitech library of  remotes, the program remains updated so, if you buy a new DVD in 2 years, they will probably have the code set , so all you have to do is upload the new instructions.

I have to admit, this part of “Cutting the Cable” caught me off guard. I did not figure this into the equation. However, if you look at my original formulas (Part I)  on cost and budget, we had some room to make some adjustments. The Harmony One has been out a couple of years, so the price has dropped from its original price of approximately $239 to about $165. The model 900 is fairly new, so they are still pricy ($349). Granted if your equipment is concealed you will need either the RF version remote or an IR Repeater (Channel Vision or Smarthome both have decent solution for under $100). If your equipment is in a remote closet, the RF version will keep you from having to run wires from the TV to the remote location and there is no receptor located at the TV. For me, I had already wired for IR, so it worked out better for me to use the IR.

I am approaching to final step, so stay tuned to see if we can make the final cut.


Cutting the Cord Part III – Internet TV Options

January 12, 2011

If you haven’t been following this series, I am attempting to duplicate as much of  my current television viewing habits without the use of traditional CATV services. This would also include  subscription television service from companies such as Comcast, Cox, Time Warner; as well as  the Phone company versions nationally known as Direct TV, DISH, FIOS (Verizon) and U-Verse (AT&T). Watching TV on my PC is not my goal, even though you will recognize some of the services and programing that are geared toward that viewing medium. Dont get me wrong, there is a huge trend in watching video programing over a laptop or stationary PC. However, if you have looked at any new video components lately you have probably recognized a blending of the technology by having TV’s and DVD’s  “Ethernet Ready”.

Netflix  subscriptions have grown rapidly over the past few years, from a mere 4.2 million in 2005 to a robust 19 million (est.) at 2010 year-end.

In this post, we will look at the Internet options. I have to tell you that it can be near overwhelming to review the different choices. In this current evolution,  many new (and old) players are trying to find a gold mine with the killer application by trying to have the hook that catches the largest viewers. Within the discovery phase, it was apparent there two distinct target audiences with a third being a blend of the two;

  1. Viewers wanting to watch video and television programing from a PC or Smartphone device.
  2. Traditional television users wanting to view mostly traditional programing. 
  3. Hybrid providers that are looking to capture some of both user groups.

My concentration will be #2.

This market is very hot and there are new players almost daily. It seems like I turn up another one that I didn’t see the last time I looked.

I admit, I am probably not the target demographic audience (18-35) as I am not real interested in a lot of the home-brew video’s but it seems a lot of the sites are really pulling in a lot of amature and second tier type programs. Based on the selection process (surfing their site) it can take hours of just looking for something worth watching, and you may spend more time looking for it than actually watching it. For what it’s worth, there are hundreds if not thousands of pilot programs that fail before they ever get to the traditional TV or even cable. So, even though you may find lots more choices, there can be a lot of trash to flush through. Most of these options are chasing the target audience mentioned above. This age group is a lot more mobile than I am, and at this point, setting down at the TV to watch a movie or uninterrupted program is more of what I am after. Admittedly, I do watch some videos on my PC, but it is usually more about fact-finding or how-to, with a little bit of mindless dribble:).

The Obvious Contenders: ABC; CBS; NBC; FOX

As figured, most of these sites are everything you don’t want them to be. Lots of commercials,  flash and glitz. It reminded me of the early internet days, when web sites had lots of pop-ups and blinking bill board type ads. However, the exception was FOX. FOX was fairly straight forward. It was easy to find the schedule, most viewed shows and episodes. They too have commercials, but they don’t blast you the second you open the webpage. Kudos FOX. However, for me, the network options don’t add a lot of value as I was already planning to obtain those feeds from my outside antenna. If you have determined an exterior antenna is to expensive for your location, but you can receive digital (DSL) internet service, this would be the method to obtain the major networks, granted you will not receive any local programing. The “local affiliate” is where you get local news, weather and regional based programing only available over the airwaves or through the traditional CATV provider.

I have also found sites for TV Land, Discovery and about every known TV station you have ever viewed. Most all of them provide some form of programing, but I found more reduced or “shorts” (less than 5 minutes) than full length episodes.

The Internet Rivals: There are actually three different types in this category. 1) Services that use some type of box to get you from the Internet to you TV and, 2) subscription based streaming video and 3) PC Host Software.

Let it be known, this list is not complete as it could be a full-time job just to keep it up to date. 

Box Type Solutions: These  solutions provides streaming video to a traditional television.

  1. Roku: Has been around since 2002 and probably has one of the largest following.  They have teamed with certain subscription based providers such as NetFlix, Hulu,  and Amazon. A  simple solution, that works well.
  2. Boxee Box: Fairly new. They have been in the streaming video business for a couple of years but just this month released their own BOX by D-Link. It’s a bit more techy, but is picking up followers.
  3. BlockBuster TV: Instead of selling their own box, they are promoting various devices that the Blockbuster software is installed on. Their site provides a list of recommended equipment. Their model is still about renting individual videos and is priced that way. If they plan to stay in business, they will be changing this model fairly soon to match Netflix as this solution is getting the most traction.
  4. Slingbox: This is a bit different animal worth mentioning. Sling.com has subscription services and access to media like the others but with a twist. With a slingbox you can drive your viewing content to a mobile device, PC or TV. For example; if you want your PC to be the receiver of media content but you want to view it on your TV (or Iphone), the slingbox will redirect the content.
  5. Google TV: About to be released,  but appears to be hitting a few bumps along the way. Logitech will provide the BOX for the solution. Goggle will be a collective medium that will allow the user to combine viewing selections of traditional TV, but also bring in YouTube type services as well as the consumers personal video/picture library. This will be a combined subscription/box service.
  6. Apple TV: Not new, but hitting a few bumps along the way like Goggle TV.

Subscription Based Streaming video:  You will notice there is a bit of cross over between the Box solutions with the streaming services. Basically, if you want to stream video directly to your TV, you need a Box. The Box works as a cheap Internet connection dedicated to your PC, in lieu of tying up a PC (which can do the same thing).  I found about 30 choices but picked the ones I found most promising based their webpage and matched my intended viewing habits. For me, I am not real interested in watching traditional TV on my PC so a lot of the internet TV choices don’t really apply, unless I wanted to go the Slingbox path. You will find a large amount of duplication (content choices) from one service to the next as they are all pretty much dealing with the same deck. To date, NetFlix appears to be the 1000 lb. gorilla and may have a slight advantage over the other services.

  1. Netflix: 7.99 per month. Appears to have the largest selection. You can use a Roku box as mention or a Wii, PS3, Xbox or one of the newer Blu Ray DVD players. If you keep up with the news, Netflix is having problems and have doubled their price for those that want streaming + mail out disks. I have had Netflix for about 4 months and have not been overly impressed with the content selection. I believe other players will come to bat using the Roku avenue  that could either dilute or match the Netflix streaming marketshare.
  2. Hulu: Lots of programing is free, but premium is 7.99 per month.
  3. FindInternet TV: Has a fairly easy menu structure to navigate. Includes most of the common program choices. Also has some sports.
  4. TVneto: Much like the others but also has some live sports.

PC Host Software:

  1. Microsoft Media Center: Available with Windows 7, this software program is designed to allow the user to collectively bring the various websites to the PC. By looking at the software, its obvious it is geared toward large screen viewing. with limited menus and large fonts. It can use both a cable/antenna input as well as the internet. I have barely scratched the surface of this application, but it appears (with limitation) will be similar to #2 below. This is probably the top end techno geek solution, but even with a cheap PC, its still $300-$400 bucks.
  2. Unknown TBD: During my investigation, it became very obvious that with all of these various Internet hosting sites, there needed to be one type of collective or search engine that would allow the user to create their own programing guide without having  to visit all the different sites to find it. So far, I was unable to find such application, but it probably won’t be long. UPDATE!! I found what I belive to be the closest solution to this unanswered question. Clicker allows you to look for programs and tell you the different sources to view it from. Also you can set up favorites. So far, I like it. Not perfect, but the best of what I have seen. If Clicker were to hook up with Roku; this could be the solution. If you are going the Media PC route, Clicker will be tremedous help in navigating the sea of programing.

Before I started this investigation, I really thought  the winners were going to be very apparent. What I have found is that the video streaming business is very hot and becoming quite competitive with lots of big players showing up everyday.  At this stage in the game, the choice made today may be good for 4-5 years as the evolution will continue at a rapid pace for now.

Next time we will see what solution I picked and review the process of installing and using it.


Cutting the Cord – Living without Cable TV

December 7, 2010

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