Cutting the Cord, A Series: Part 2, Getting Live TV

Cutting the Cord, A Series: Part 2, Getting Live TV

In case you missed part 1 of the Cord Cutting series, check here to read about the savings of cutting the cord!

Well we’re back for a little post-Thanksgiving gadget love and the second part of our series, Cutting the Cord.  Hopefully the tryptophan has worn off and you’ve taken full advantage of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, especially after reading our Roku 2 review.  In Part 2, we will begin to cover the required, and not-so-required-but-nice-to-have equipment required to kick your local cable company to the curb.  For Part 2, we are going to cover how to get live TV piped into your home, for free, and all in glorious HD.

Antennas

Interestingly enough, whenever someone asks me about cutting the cord, the part that scares people the most, and solicits the most questions is how to get live TV, but actually, its very straight forward.  First question one must ask himself is: Do I want the ability to record/pause/rew/ff live TV?  If the answer is yes, your setup will be slightly more complicated, but certainly not something the average TotalHTPC reader couldn’t accomplish in a weekend or two. But let’s first tackle of you answered “no”, as setup takes less than a day.

The first item to tackle is an over-the-air (OTA) antenna.  On June 12, 2009, the government mandated that TV stations switch from analog to digital signals, which had zero impact on the antenna (although many claim it has), but did impact the tuners required to convert those signals into a picture.  Fortunately, every single TV sold today, as well as for the past three or so years, is required to come with an digital TV tuner, known as an “ATSC” or Advanced Television Systems Committee tuner.  These signals are also uncompressed, versus the HDTV signals you receive from your cable company, which are compressed.  As such, and depending on your TV, when using an OTA antenna to receive broadcast television you should see a noticeable improvement in picture quality.

Picking an antenna isn’t that difficult, and there’s a couple general rules of thumb to follow:  1) Don’t bother with the table mounted antennas that sit next to your TV, 2) if  you live within 20 miles of the TV broadcast towers you can go with an attic-mounted, multi-directional antenna, and 3) if you live further our, your best bet is a long-range directional roof-mounted antenna.  Antennaweb.org is a website that can help you determine, based on your address, where the closest broadcast antennas are and the best type of antenna.  Almost every antenna will run you well under $200, but installation will likely be the same if its a roof-mounted model.  And a word to the wise, get a professional to install a roof-mounted antenna, unless you work in the roofing business for a living.  The downside with a directional antenna is that, as the name suggests, you only pick up signals in the direction the antenna is pointing.  This can be overcome by mounting multiple, directional antennas, properly spaced apart, and utilizing a combiner. A combiner, which looks like a common splitter, enables you to take two separate signals and ‘combine’ them onto a single coax line.  There are some caveats that need to be considered.  1) the length of coax between each antenna and the combiner must be identical, 2) if they are not, users can experience a phenomenon know as ‘ghosting‘, this happens when each antenna is picking up the same broadcast but from different directions, say you live north of New York City, and have one antenna aimed at NYC towers, and another at Hartford, CT towers, both of which broadcast ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox affiliates.  If you select Fox for a football game, both antennas pick up the same broadcast, and you could get an overlapping picture.   One can utilize a diplexor to alleviate the problem, but what I’ve found is that given that OTA is really only best for local and major affiliates, having two antennas is more trouble than its worth.  If you are further away from broadcast signals, and likely using a roof-mounted directional antenna, it would be wise to invest in a signal booster, which can dramatically improve signal capture and thus your picture.  The signal booster should be placed anywhere in the home either prior to, or after coax splitters in your home.  Once the antenna is installed, and the coax is run from the antenna , simply connect it to where your old cable coax began and then runs out to each room/TV.  If your home doesn’t already have coax splitters, they are relatively inexpensive and easy to install.  What’s nice about this setup is that it utilizes your existing coax runs in your home.  The only new coax run required is from the antenna to your pre-existing cable setup.  At each TV, take the old coax that ran into your cable box and connect it directly to the antenna jack on your TV, run auto-setup and you should be watching crystal clear, free OTA HD.

Live TV DVR

For most of you cord cutters, that should be the end of the live TV setup, but for those of you that simply must have DVR like capabilities, some additional hardware and software are required.  No TV currently offers Tivo-like capabilities with live TV signals, and as such, cord-cutters use a computer as their virtual DVR.  This requires a) converting the OTA signal into a signal your computer can understand and b) software that can read the signal and offer the Tivo-like functionality you desire.  We are going to assume you either own a Mac, or PC running either Linux or Windows on which you’ll install the software.

Hardware

To convert the OTA stream to  something your Mac/PC can understand you’re going to need a TV Tuner for you computer.   There are two ways to go:  The first is to buy an external, self-contained unit while the other is to buy a PCI card with a tuner built on it and install it in your PC.  Personally, we prefer the former, for many reasons, most of which is ease of install.  In some cases, if you own a PC with Windows Media Center pre-installed, you may already have this PCI card with a tv tuner built-in, and as such, simply connect the coax from your antenna to the jack on your PC and away you go.  For the 99% or more of us who don’t have that, we recommend the Silicon Dust HDHomeRun.  Its small, its inexpensive, it has dual tuners (allowing you to record two programs at once, or watch one program while recording another), and is universally supported by just about every Media Center software available today.  Another highly rated manufacturer is Hauppage, which makes both the PCI-card and external type devices.  For Mac users, Elgato Software manufacturers a number of TV Tuners that work with its terrific EyeTV software.  These units tend to work well, and in some cases have chips built in to ease the strain on your Macs GPU caused by recording.  To install the unit, simply connect your coax directly from your antenna into a splitter, and then connect two of those new connections directly into the HDHomeRun.  Then connect the HDHomeRun into either your router (preferred) or PC/Mac by ethernet cable.  Done!

Software

If you are running a Mac, by far the best DVR software to use is  Elgato Software’s EyeTV.  Simple to use, with a terrific interface and supporting iOS apps, EyeTV does a terrific job in enabling Mac users to record live television.  Built into the software is automated exporting to iTunes (or elsewhere so your Plex/XMBC libraries can pick them up), as well as automated conversion to enable seamless viewing on any iOS device.  Another nice built-in feature is the ability to sling both live and recorded TV to any iOS device connected to the internet.  The process of port-forwarding to enable live and recorded viewing is automated with EyeTV’s “My EyeTV” functionality, a very nice feature add.  Another nice feature is that most of the EyeTV functionality can be controlled by a standard Apple remote, or by just about any universal remote, as well as by any iOS device.  EyeTV lets you watch, pause, REW and FF live TV, as well as watch recorded TV as well.  Overall, its the best Mac DVR software available today in our opinion.

EyeTV has a full-featured program guide powered by TV Guide in the U.S. A 1-year subscription costs $20.

EyeTV's free, built-in MyEyeTV functionality makes taking live and recorded TV on the go a snap.

Full on-screen controls of all aspects of EyeTV.

EyeTV has a full on-screen program guide while watching live TV.

If you are running a Windows PC, Windows Media Center, is in our opinion, the best Windows DVR software.  With most versions of Windows 7, the software comes pre-installed and once you’ve properly connected your hardware and PC to each other either directly or indirectly, setup is quite easy.  You can click over to Microsoft to see a demo of Windows Media Center.

If you are running a Linux Box, we recommend using MythTV.  As with most things Linux, setup is a bit more involved, but if you are already running a Linux box, this shouldn’t be anything that can’t be easily installed.  What’s nice about MythTV, beyond its flexibility, is its ability to be skinned, similar to Plex and XBMC.  There is an extensive wiki including documentation and setup sections.  That said, its the rawest, most ‘alpha’ PVR software of the bunch.  An alternative is SageTV, although its been recently acquired by Google, so it may be integrated into Google TV at some point.

MythCenter widescreen

Blue Abstract Theme

Conclusion

Well that’s pretty much the basics on getting your media center setup with live TV as well as PVR functionality.  Again, given the availability of programs like sickbeard and ShowRSS, both of which we’ve discussed here on TotalHTPC, what I’ve found is that most folks who go through the PVR effort rarely if ever use them, but that’s up to you.  Keep an eye out for Part 3 in the next week, in which we’ll cover computer and peripheral hardware to make your media center shine.  Happy cutting….

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