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Tightening the Financial Belt Around My TV

We have had some form of cable or satellite TV service for the better part of the past three decades. Over the years our home TV entertainment budget slowly grew. Our monthly cable/satellite TV bills went from about $20 a month to almost $100 a month. It didn't seem all that bad at the time because each step was only a few Dollars extra and what is an extra $5 a month anyway?

At the end of 2008 we had one of the higher-level subscription TV programming packages (many hundreds of channels) with some movie channel packs (tens of channels). Several years earlier the satellite provider had introduced us (for only an extra $5/month) to hard drive recording that was originally called Personal Video Recorder - PVR, later Digital Video Recorder - DVR. The hard drive allowed us to pause live TV, record shows by name instead of only by time slot and effectively remove commercials from our viewing experience by allowing us to instantly jump ahead in the recording without any of that annoying squiggly fast forwarding.

Then the Economy Changed: Cord Cutting 101

Our TV viewing life was good, but then the economy changed. Income went down, our personal cost of living went up, something had to go.

All of a sudden those tiny $5 a month fees turned into a bunch of $60 a year charges so we started to think about ways to downsize and put all those monthly TV payments into our grocery basket instead.

The first step was to sit down with the channel guide and seriously consider exactly how much TV we watched on a show-by-show basis. This did not include any shows we just wanted to watch, but only those shows we actually took the time to watch regularly. It turned out most of our viewing time was spent on over the air broadcast channels with only a few shows on cable/satellite networks.

Then we ranked those cable shows by how much we were willing to pay just for that show. Interestingly it gets a whole lot easier to understand when that $100/month charge is not divided by hundreds of channels but by four or five shows. Is each show really worth $20 or $25 a month? Maybe not. For that monthly price we can buy the whole season on DVD later and play it as often as we like.

It's amazing how easy it is to make a choice when the real monthly cost per show is plainly visible. We canceled the TV subscription service and looked for alternate options.

Feelings of Withdrawal

Surprisingly the first feeling of withdrawal was not the missing cable/satellite TV shows, but the inability to control TV playback. Talk to anyone with first hand DVR experience and they will tell you that watching live TV without the ability to pause when the phone rings, rewind to see something interesting again or skip the increasingly annoying commercials borderlines on torture. So I started shopping in an effort to build my own DVR with some spare computer hardware and a TV tuner card.

There are plenty of TV tuners (internal cards, USB plugs and external devices) available for computers to let them view, pause and record live TV. Almost all of them come with some kind of software to make a computer into a simple DVR. Unfortunately a large number of these free DVR programs have a hidden cost - the missing TV guide data.

Exactly where does the DVR get the data to know when and where a show is scheduled? Ask anyone that owned a VCR (video cassette recorder) and it becomes clear that blindly recording a channel at a specific time each day or week is not a reliable way to see your favorite TV show. There are all kinds of special cases like sporting events running into overtime, breaking news, network or local schedule changes, etc., that add up to missing all or part of the show you want to see. One of the big strengths of a full feature DVR is the ability to record shows by name no matter when or where that show appears in the schedule. So getting the TV guide data is vitally important to make it all work the way I want. TiVo users pay a monthly fee for this data, but we are trying to get away from monthly fees so that was not an option.

Fortunately and totally by accident the first cheap TV tuner card I bought included a bundled version of BeyondTV - a fairly complete DVR with free guide data updated automatically once each day through the Internet. I found out later most 3rd party PVR programs like BeyondTV allowed unrestricted recording premium content in HD which is not possible with any of the Microsoft home video offerings like the Media Center included with some versions of Microsoft Windows. Unfortunately Snapstream, the company behind BeyondTV, uses the Microsoft .NET framework to build their product. This means a complete lack of backwards compatibility with older, leaner versions of Windows and a very significant hurdle to running their software on operating systems other than Windows like Mac or Linux. If you are looking for a long term solution with minimum monthly and annual fees, pay close attention to things like this. (Update: The .NET problem may be changing.)

So now I have a DVR that pauses live TV and faithfully records all of our favorite broadcast TV shows and a nice big hard drive to store more than a few episodes of each show in wonderful HD quality. Oh yea, since this is my computer, I get to upgrade or add more hard drives whenever I want without having to pay anyone a monthly fee for the privilege. Some DVR providers charge for each additional hard drive if they allow you to add any at all. Adding another Terabyte or two (hundreds of additional hours of high definition TV) is trivially simple and increasingly affordable.

Video Out

The next step was to get the video signal from the DVR computer to the TV. We had a very nice 35 inch analog TV set that was kindly donated to us (thanks Phil) from friends that had already moved to digital flat screen displays. The problem was getting the VGA output from the computer to the TV. With a little searching I found a very small VGA to S-Video adapter from SewellDirect.com that mirrored the same signal to the TV and VGA monitor. A fairly high quality extra shielded S-video wire and headphone wire with RCA audio connectors at the TV end are all that connect the TV to the computer. The DVR computer could still be used as a computer and instantly became TV whenever needed just by turning on the TV and starting the DVR playback program.

After a little thought, it was trivially easy to use a KVM (keyboard-video-mouse) switch to connect both the DVR computer and a Mac Mini to the same video adapter so video content from either computer could be shown on the TV. Note, if you only have experience with Windows and have not yet seen the amazing things the Mac can do for creating and displaying graphic (video, photo, etc.) media, go to your nearest Apple store and take a first hand look. While the list of features may look on paper like you can make Windows do everything just like the Mac, in reality there is no comparison for ease of content creation. There are a lot of other really cool things in the Mac that make it even better for content creation, but that will have to wait for another time.

The Death of [Our] Analog TV

Everything worked nicely until the analog TV died which put us back in the market for new hardware.

After a lot of feature and cost comparisons we settled on one of the lower priced flat screen TV's from Costco with roughly the same physical screen size as the old analog TV. To save a little more money we went with the 720p version of the TV mostly because it closely matched the existing computer (1024x768) resolution and because we, older eyes and all, didn't care that much about the imperceptibly higher resolutions from way across the room. I doubt anyone can tell the difference from more than 15 feet away.

The S-Video setup still worked with the new digital TV but was very obviously blurry. The extra blurry part is a little strange since the analog TV of the same size showed a picture with so much better quality. Everyone we talked to seemed to think the all digital HDMI connection was the only way to go. Again we did some price comparisons at the local electronics store and found a VGA cable that was less expensive than the same length of HDMI cable. This worked out well with our existing KVM switch and computer displays that did not have HDMI connections. It also opened up an interesting option for a VGA splitter from iogear.com that allows the same signal to show on the TV and the computer monitor without any cable swapping. We opted for the 4 port splitter so the same VGA signal can go to all kinds of different displays including a video projector for those times when a really big screen experience is desired.

Here is a side note for those that question our choice between analog and digital video signals in this setting. So far the highest resolution you can get from any consumer media source (broadcast, cable, satellite, Blu-ray, etc.) is still lower than a good VGA analog display was doing in 2001. Completely digital technologies like HDMI are at their best when communicating things that are very sensitive to noise or signal quality loss like very high resolution static (non-moving) content on a completely digital display with exactly matching native resolution. In this case we are talking about TV with comparatively low and frequently changing resolutions with content always encoded in some kind of lossy MPEG compression. On top of that any noise in a single video frame is totally replaced by the next video frame at least 24 or 30 times a second. This is exactly how extremely low resolution analog television lasted for over 50 years - motion can give the illusion of resolution and hide temporary imperfections.

Supply Chain Quality

Since we are talking about quality, here are some things to consider for anyone that is serious about their TV picture and sound quality. To start we must understand that nearly all compression like MPEG4 works by discarding parts of the original image and sound in favor of a smaller file size or transport size. The stuff that is lost can never be recovered and at best the missing parts can be estimated or extrapolated through software. At some point the decoding software reaches a limit and can no longer fill in the missing parts. This causes artifacts like a blocky, jerky, missing, or corrupted picture and poor sound. To make things worse, any time someone re-compresses the content they must decompress (hopefully also attempting to fill in any missing gaps) and then re-compress the content creating new gaps often in different places. The signal quality is guaranteed to degrade each time anything is re-compressed with a lossy method of compression.

Now follow the content distribution chain. Start with the creation of any content which in this case is the creation of a TV show that you want to watch. If it is a modern show it is shot in high definition (1080 vertical lines of resolution) and released in a lightly compressed MPEG format to the distribution network. That network must aggregate shows from all of their content producers that may have different levels of compression into a feed with a common compression level. This is the first generation of re-compression.

The network feed is most often sent through a dedicated satellite transponder to be picked up by local network affiliates and cable/satellite providers. Did you notice that? Cable TV is satellite TV up to this point. The local network affiliate always needs to re-compress the signal so they can add their logo or station ID on the screen. This is the second generation re-compression. The signal goes from there out to the broadcast airwaves and also to the local cable distribution company or satellite uplink.

If you are receiving over the air broadcast signals, the best you can hope for is content that is re-encoded a minimum of two times. This is the best quality any home TV viewer can get. But the story continues.

Cable/satellite providers have a very large number of channels in addition to the broadcast channels available in your local area. All of this content must be mixed together in a way that fits the available bandwidth which is the cable wire or satellite transponder going out to the consumer. To make this work all of the content must be re-encoded with a level of compression that keeps all that content under the maximum bandwidth available. This is the third generation re-compression.

If you get your media from a cable/satellite provider, the best you can hope for is content that is re-encoded a minimum of three times which is why cable/satellite versions of HD content will always be slightly lower quality than viewing it directly over the air. And yet they change a premium for lower quality high definition? But the story continues.

All DVR software, even if it is built into a hardware device like a TiVo or cable/satellite DVR box, uses compression to store more hours of TV in less hard drive space. Often this is automatic where you can not turn it off. This is yet another generation re-compression that makes your final picture and sound quality even worse. Fortunately some DVR software allows you to record shows exactly as received without any additional compression. This is just like using RAW picture mode in a digital camera. If you have a choice and enough storage space, always go for software that supports this kind of recording even if you do not choose to use it all the time.

Better Quality Through Software

If you are living with a home brew DVR at the end of this chain of re-compressed media, there is some truly amazing software available to turn overly compressed, interlaced, blocky media into something that looks much better. One example of this is the free VLC media player that is able to up-res a standard DVD to 1080p or higher with amazing quality where very expensive Blu-ray players still fail miserably.

The Other Shows

Ok now we have a working DVR recording wonderful High Definition content that shows up nicely on the TV with all of the local broadcast channels, but what about the missing cable/satellite shows and movies?

This part is easy to solve but at the moment it takes some manual work. A web browser on the DVR computer brings in all of the Hulu shows (some of our favorite cable/satellite TV shows are there) and for about the price of a single premium cable movie channel package a month we can also get NetFlix™ with many cable/satellite TV shows from the USA and other countries, streaming movies, and the bonus of a real DVD in the mail whenever we want with all the special features NEVER shown on the movie channels. Our local library also has a nice collection of TV shows on DVD that can be checked out for up to a week for free.

The Savings

With NetFlix (the only monthly entertainment fee we now pay) our monthly home entertainment costs went from almost $100 to well under $20. We instantly saved about $80 - EVERY MONTH! That goes directly towards groceries!

Of course this does require an Internet connection. While the TV program guide data is just text and could be downloaded over a dial-up phone line, it is impossible to get streaming video over anything but a broadband connection such as DSL or cable Internet. In our neighborhood DSL is much cheaper and more reliable than cable Internet, so that was our choice. About $25 a month comfortably brings in speeds over 20 megabits without any performance drop in the evenings. That ensures enough bandwidth to watch high definition streaming video from NetFlix, Hulu and other streaming media sites.

Fixing the Rough Edges

After several months we have ironed out most of the rough edges and learned some lessons too.

The first step was to get a remote control working to remove the need to sit in front of the computer keyboard while watching TV. A coupon for a free remote was included with the original TV tuner card. The remote had a lot of buttons that communicated to a small infrared receiver connected to the DVR computer through a spare USB port. In reality only a small fraction of the buttons are ever used, but it proved useful as a learning experience. This experience means my next remote after this one wears out will likely be very simple with fewer buttons.

My original TV tuner card only had one analog tuner - it could only view/record a single channel. This was a problem if two shows were on at the same time. It also used very odd hardware such that it would only work with a very specific version of Windows. No hope of ever using newer versions of Windows or any of the non-Windows (Mac, Linux, etc.) operating systems. With this in mind I started looking for TV tuner hardware that did not plug inside the computer and was not tied to a specific operating system.

I found the SiliconDust.com HD HomeRun box. It plugs into any co-ax cable or antenna wire and provides video over a standard Ethernet wire to all of the computers on the local network. This works nicely with Windows, Mac and even Linux all at the same time. Although they now have a single tuner version available in computer retail stores, I chose the version with two tuners. Recording two shows at the same time is no longer a problem, but there are still times when I need more than two tuners.

To understand the need for more than two tuners it is important to understand how a DVR records shows. In this area there is one local broadcast TV station that refuses to set their clocks to the same time everyone else uses. I have personally traveled to a lot of different places in this country and can say for sure this problem is not the TV network, it is the local station. Their shows often start anywhere from 2 to 5 minutes or more ahead of their published times. Fortunately the DVR software has a padding feature that allows recording a little extra time before and after each show just in case it starts early or runs long. I set this to 6 minutes padding on both ends to be safe. That creates a 12 minute overlap between shows ending and starting at the same time, even those on the same channel. Recording two shows back-to-back on the same channel now takes two tuners for that 12 minute overlap. While this may not seem like a problem to you, consider if those two shows were on different channels where the end time for the first show matched the start time for the next show. It would still require two tuners for the overlap. There is some special DVR logic to deal with these kinds of situations when the shows are on the same channel but it always ends up with the start of some shows stuck at the end of the previous shows which gets tricky if you want to watch them in a different order than they were broadcast.

So again I was looking for TV tuner hardware. Unlike leased satellite and cable equipment, I own the DVR hardware and can freely upgrade it whenever I want. After a little research I found a nice Hauppauge card with two analog NTSC tuners, two digital ATSC tuners and an FM radio tuner. The analog TV stations in my area are too far away and too weak to receive here and the FM radio is nice but not that useful in this DVR, but there are plenty of digital stations. This was an easy upgrade. Adding the card, loading the drivers and telling the DVR software about the new tuners was simple enough. Now there are four digital tuners available and that makes premier months and sweeps months much less of an exercise in prioritization. We simply record all the pilot episodes that seem interesting and only continue recording a show if they have something we like.

Media Portability and Compatibility

I have been using video cassettes for recording TV shows almost since they were first introduced and still have piles of video cassettes filled with TV shows. A tape with a favorite TV show was portable and compatible so it was easy to take with me wherever I happened to go - no strings attached. Any video tape I made with my VCR played in virtually any other VCR in the whole country. It also provided near infinite storage expandability up to the limit of my budget simply by buying more tape as I ran out of space.

These are still important features to me.

Then came digital video recording with locked hardware, heavy DRM restrictions and proprietary storage formats that not only tied the video to one machine at one location but prevented me from adding more storage. Gone were the days when I could record TV shows at home and watch them someplace else as I traveled for business or pleasure. That is until I found that most 3rd party DVR software writes the TV shows in standard, unrestricted and easily portable MPEG file formats. Now it is easy to record a bunch of my favorite TV shows and load them up on a smart phone, portable media player, laptop or memory stick to watch later or while I travel.

Interesting DVR Lessons

The first lesson is the size of digital TV shows when recorded to a hard drive. They can be surprisingly huge and can vary in size depending on resolution, motion and complexity. For example, a typical high definition (1080i) prime time over the air broadcast TV channel can require 20 gigabytes or more of hard drive space per hour in raw format. This is a shocker if you are low on hard drive space. As a side note if your cable TV provider charges you extra for high definition local TV, consider investing a month or two of that cable bill into a really nice antenna. You could save the HD surcharge and possibly the whole cable bill forever while seeing better HD quality.

The second lesson is that the over the air transport stream file format is a standard but not well supported by the media players included with Windows. Most 3rd party DVR software records in .TS (transport stream) format, but not every media player is able to play it. The problem of size and player compatibility gets worse if the DVR records the whole raw transport stream including all of the primary and sub-channels. If you ever wondered how all those sub-channels work, here is the secret. The primary and all of the sub-channels are sent together as one stream and the TV only shows the specific program ID (PID) you want. Some DVR software simply grabs the whole thing including all of the sub-channels which makes for a painfully large mutli-gigabyte per hour file. If your DVR software does this you must make note of the program ID (PID) in order to extract it from the other content to play elsewhere.

The good news is that the file format is easy to convert and the size is easy to shrink down to comfortably under one gigabyte per hour for standard definition (SD) and about two gigabytes per hour for high definition (HD) using freely available video format conversion software like WinFF and HandBrake that let you choose the exact output quality you want. These programs can be used to convert almost any media format into almost any other media format so portability and compatibility are no longer a problem. They also have the ability to turn interlaced (the i in 1080i) into progressive (the p in 1080p) so your high motion HD broadcast shows look even better without paying any extra.

Looking Forward

I like the fact that I completely own and control the hardware. Adding more storage and tuners was easy and I never had any multi-year commitments to pay someone else for the privilege. At the moment I'm happy with the Hauppauge tuner card, but unfortunately it only comes with drivers for Microsoft Windows. I have hope this card will eventually have Linux drivers like the other Hauppauge tuner cards, but just in case they don't, I have the SiliconDust HD HomeRun as a backup plan. Since the HD HomeRun is tiny, the box does not need to be anywhere near the DVR computer. It can actually be much closer to the antenna so it picks up better signal with less interference from the computer, TV, stereo or other home electronic stuff.

Now a word about software - all of it.

I'm personally unhappy with the direction newer versions of Microsoft Windows are heading regarding video/TV and digital restrictions management (DRM) designed to lock me out of watching broadcast TV on my terms. There are already public accounts of Windows Media Center users unable to record or view so called premium content broadcast over the public airwaves because it contained a special flag telling Windows Media Center the content was restricted. This is unacceptable to me as a TV viewer and part owner of the public air waves. So Microsoft Windows has lost favor and all software/hardware choices that require Windows are much less attractive. Fortunately there are plenty of alternatives like Apple Mac and the many different versions of Linux. Each have a fair collection of media center choices that are growing and getting better all the time.

Unless Microsoft makes a drastic and retroactive 180 degree turn in their DRM direction to become more customer rights friendly I'm convinced my DVR and all of my desktop computers will eventually end up running Linux. So I figure learning a little about Linux now is important which is one reason why I have installed Xubuntu Linux as a dual-boot option on all of my remaining Windows computers. The best way to learn a new operating system is to use it first hand. So I'm learning and I like what I see.

Interestingly I find Xubuntu Linux is more comfortable and easier for me to control than any version of Windows made in the past decade. And one of the more unexpected benefits is that Linux can see all of the files on my Windows hard drive, even the hidden files that Windows can't or won't show. If I run into those annoying Windows messages saying I can't read, erase or rename something, a quick reboot into Linux lets me do what I want to that file and get on with my life.

Then we have the issue of the DVR software itself. Did you ever wonder why so many set top boxes run Linux? Think about it for a minute. The SnapStream BeyondTV DVR program is written under the Microsoft .NET framework. This effectively removes any portability (ability to run on non-Microsoft operating systems) and even blocks backwards compatibility with older and noticeably faster versions of Microsoft Windows. For example by today's standards Windows 2000 is amazingly slim and super fast. With very little tweaking it boots super fast, uses very little disk, memory or CPU power and has very few unwanted default programs or services running in the background. This would make a very nice DVR platform for long time Windows users, but the newer .NET runtime libraries do not work on Windows 2000. So if you want to use the latest BeyondTV program you must run a newer version of Windows.

Hardware Disaster as Educational Opportunity

There are good things to owning my own hardware and bad things. If I was renting or leasing my DVR hardware and it failed, someone else would replace it. When the power supply failed in my DVR machine it took out the motherboard and the Hauppauge tuner card and I was left with little more than an empty box of hard drives and wires. Replacing the power supply and the motherboard was relatively easy and not that expensive, but there was a surprise. The computer world has changed a lot in the time since my old machine went into full time DVR service and for a fraction of the price I was able to get a really nice upgrade in speed and connectivity. But part of that world moving forward put me in a place where my original 2002 retail Windows XP install disk didn't know enough about the new hardware to install. It needed drivers to install the OS to install the drivers: a classic Catch 22. So I tried the spare Windows Vista install disk that came bundled with the old DVR machine even though I specifically requested Windows XP.

Spending a few days with Windows Vista was an education in what I never want my computer to be. It made such an impression I wrote a whole article about it. Long story short, I'm now escaping to get away from the hours and hours lost searching for ways to beat Windows Vista into submission enough to be a DVR machine.

So now is the time to break out of Windows.

There are a number of commercial and open source media center programs available that support Apple Mac and Linux. All of them are aiming to offer all-in-one media experiences, but some are clearly closer to that goal than others especially when it comes to TV.

Here are a few suggestions to start your own search.

  • MythTV - My current favorite and the forerunner of all Linux media center packages. As is true with anything this flexible, it can be a little hard to configure at first but is expandable enough with support for a very wide variety of add-ons to do just about everything from TV recording and streaming content to your phone, to controlling the lights in your house. It can use guide data from almost any legally free source available (including over the air EIT) or through SchedulesDirect for a small annual membership fee.
  • Kodi - Previously known as XMBC or X-Box Media Center, but now runs almost everywhere. This combines local media playback with a growing number of streaming media options. Recording TV is still weak at the time of this writing.
  • NextPVR - Formerly known as GB-PVR this free (but not open source) package for Windows has a very strong presence outside of North America.
  • Linux HTPC Howto - How to build a Home Theater PC (HTPC) using Linux. This is a little old but still worth a read.

Keep in mind that you will need to get the program guide information from someplace. Most often that is a pay service but can cost about the same as one pizza a year.

First published 2010-05-13. The last major review or update of this information was on 2016-06-30. Your feedback using the form below helps us correct errors and omissions on this page.