I don’t hate cable, in fact I enjoy some channels and shows on cable that I have not found a way to get at home without cable. For example, Monday Night Football, House Hunters, and House Hunters International. It’s not that I can’t afford cable TV. We’ve had it and paid for it for years without really feeling it. However, I do hate to be over charged and having new charges added to my bill without my requesting additional service. We watch Netflix streaming and DVDs and Redbox DVDs regularly. In fact we watch content from these serivices more than we watch cable TV. When I compare the “value to me” and the cost difference between these services, Cable TV is easily 10-15 times as costly as these other services. I would gladly pay $15-20 a month for a few channels I like such as ESPN, CNN, SciFi Network, and HGTV. However, I don’t see the value in paying over $120 a month for those channels, plus another 200+ channels that I rarely if ever watch. Cable also makes it easier to watch over the air TV for sports and shows like American Idol, which I have watched regularly for the last 5-6 years. Of course having a guide and a DVR is a must too. So access to live TV broadcasts and a DVR were the key to me being able to cut the cord.
Due to some issues I had with all the TV tuner cards I tried, unfortunately none of them are perfect, I ended up trying out 3 different cards before I settled on one.
|Manufacturer and Model||Number of Tuners||Recorder Encoder||PSIP Guide Data *||Rating||Comment|
|Diamond ATI TV Wonder HD 750||2||Software||Yes||1 Star||Drivers failed repeatedly on Windows 7 and 8.1|
|HAUPPAUGE TV TUNER HVR-1250||1||Hardware MPEG-2||?||2 Stars||Worked with Windows 8.1 but I could not get integrated guide information and did not want to use an external service.|
|HAUPPAUGE TV TUNER HVR-2250||2||Hardware MPEG-2||?||3.0 Stars||After I decided to use Windows 7 with Media Center, I decided to try a Hauppauge card again, and figured 2 tuners would be better than 1. I don’t think I would recommend this card if you don’t plan to use Windows Media Center.|
* PSIP – Program and System Information Protocol Guide data embedded in the broadcast signal. A card that supports this is preferable so you don’t have to rely on a third party service for your guide.
The first thing I had to do was find a way to get live TV broadcasts. I bought a small square indoor HD antenna with a signal amplifier made by RCA to test out what channels I would be able to get. Since I live on a hill in the San Diego area, high definition over the air broadcasts come in great. I get all the major networks in high definition, and around 20 english language channels in total. The reception on some of these channels, especially the ones that are from Los Angeles, can be spotty, but there are at least 12 channels that have very reliable reception.
I ended up with two of the indoor antennas. One upstairs for the TV in my master bedroom and one in the living room. The one upstairs gets slightly better reception. At some point I may try a larger antenna in the attic for the whole house, but for now the small antennas are working very well. My living room TV is a Samsung Smart TV. After I connected the Antenna and set up the channels, I found that the TV has a built in guide for all my local channels. I’m not sure whether it is building the guide from the data coming over the air in the Digital TV signal, or if Samsung is using some other type of service. Either way this was another problem solved. The Samsung Smart TV also has a “DVR” function on the remote, but I was disappointed to find out that this is designed to work with your cable box/DVR using an infrared transmitter to control the Cable DVR. I may try to find a way to use that functionality later with some other hardware, but for now I plan to use the computer in my Master Bedroom as a whole house DVR system.
I had much more difficulty finding a DVR solution. A simple solution would be to buy a Tivo Romio that provides a local TV guide service for over the air TV and is compatible with HD antennas. However, they charge $15 a month for this service, and you have to buy Tivo Minis for every TV you want to share the recorded programs with. I decided to try to get the same kind experience without paying the monthly fee and using the hardware I already have connected to all the TVs in my house. It took me several months and a lot of frustration, but I finally found a solution that seems like it will work. Here’s what I tried.
I bought an ATI TV Wonder HD 750 PCI-E card for the computer I have in my Master Bedroom. I had built the computer from components about 6 years ago and it was getting dated so I combined adding this card to my computer with updating the computer. I knew the operating system had to go as I was still using XP (which I loved by the way), the processor was a dual core AMD, and there was only 4 GB of RAM in the system (all that XP 32 bit needed). My requirements for the update were to have a quad core with at least 8 GB, but preferably 16 GB, and update the operating system to Windows 7 or 8. I also wanted the computer to support USB-3 to maximize the speed to access any accessories and Gigabit LAN. I have my whole house wired so I can push large files and streaming video around the house really quickly. I also wanted to try out setting up a mirrored raid drive so my personal files, including all my digital photos would be safe and sound. After doing some research on my motherboard, I found that it would support a quad core processor (available online for under $60) and it would support 8 GB of RAM. Unfortunately I had 4 1GB cards in my memory slots, so I would have to replace all of them with 2 GB cards. I had two 1 TB hard drives, so I would not need to buy any drives to set up a fairly large mirrored RAID system. This would only be for my personal files and digital pictures, so that should be plenty large enough for now. Although I the motherboard only supports USB-2, I thought at first a software update might be possible. When I could not find a way to do that a fairly inexpensive USB-3 PCI-E card did the trick.
Once I had the hardware it was time to decide what to do with the software. Although the software in the box for the Diamond ATI TV Wonder HD 750 only contained drivers for Windows 7, their support site had drivers for Windows 8.1, so I decided to go for it. That turned out to be a mistake for a few reasons. First I had never used Windows 8.1, so it was new to me. I quickly found that I really hate Windows 8.1. Basically Microsoft broke a perfectly good GUI! Although they had added back in the Start Menu Icon, it did not actually launch a start menu. In fact instead of having all my programs in one handy place, I found that I had to scroll my desktop to the right to even see my programs! My son showed me a short cut. Click the Start Menu Icon and then start typing the program you want. I told him thanks – but did he and Microsoft really want me to go back to the MS-DOS User Interface? Even though I knew I would hate Windows 8.1 I decided to stick it out for now. So I loaded all the drivers and software, updated Windows, and set up my TV card.
The software that came with the Diamond ATI TV Wonder HD 750, ArcSoft TotalMedia 3.5, was OK, and the card pulled the Guide information out of the over the air broadcast signal. However, the TotalMedia would not let me record a series, only a single program time. Since Windows 8.1 does not come with Windows Media Center, I decided to check out some of the opensource media center alternatives. After some research I decided to try out Media Portal. I was able to install the software, but I found that the software would not detect the Diamond TV Card. I uninstalled the drivers and reinstalled them, and it started working. The channels scanned, the guide populated with the PSIP data, and I started playing with the features of the software. Everything was working great! There were still a few tweaks I wanted to try and some addons that promised the ability to record a series. I felt pretty good about the way things were going when I left the room. A few hours later, after I had been away from the computer and it had gone into sleep mode, the TV card stopped working. To make a long story short, after weeks of trying everything including reverting to Windows 7 I found that nothing worked to prevent the TV card drivers from failing. Very disappointing! I updated the bios on my computer. I updated the drivers for my motherboard. Still no joy.
After the initial failures of the Diamond ATI TV card, but before I reverted to Windows 7, I decided to try another TV card. I choose the only other option, the Hauppauge TV Tuner HVR-1250, at my local Fry’s. I liked the WinTV software that came with the card, but there was not Guide at all embedded in the WinTV software. I tried the card with Media Portal, but the guide data did not populate. I’ve seen information online that implies that this card does support PSIP over the air guide data, but I could not get it to work. I decided to take the Hauppauge card back and to try the Diamond ATI TV card with Windows 7. After all the card came with Windows 7 drivers! As I said before this did not work I’m not sure why. There are other people online who complain of similar issues, but I can’t imagine that this never works. Changing to Windows 7 changed one other thing. Windows 7 comes with Media Center.
Since Windows Media Center provides it’s own guide information, I decided to give Hauppauge another try. I choose a two tuner card, the Hauppauge TV Tuner HVR-2250. The card installed easily and so far after a couple weeks it has worked flawlessly. Although I would prefer a TV card that works with the over the air guide data, this was the best card I could find. It works very well with Media Center; however, if Microsoft stops providing a guide service, this combination will no longer be acceptable.
|Tuner Card||Guide Options||DVR Series Option||File output format||Rating||Comment|
|ArcSoft Total Media 3.5||PSIP support and Internet Guide support for some areas||No||Configurable MP4 or MKV, Shared file store only||2.5 Stars||Basic software. What is there works well. Missing key features.|
|WinTV||No embedded guide. External guide support||No||MPEG-2||2 Stars||Worked with Windows 8.1 but I could not get integrated guide information in the San Diego area and did not want to use an external service.|
|Media Portal||Over the air guide (when the hardware supports it) and web guides||No||Multiple||3.0 Stars||Would consider this software if I had a card that provided the guide from over the air signal. Needs improved integration of the web guide services. Needs integrated ability to record a series.|
|Microsoft Media Center||Over the air guide and integrated guide service||Yes||Proprietary .wtv||4.5 Stars||By far the best software I tried. Free with Windows 7, but an extra charge with Windows 8, and completely eliminated by Windows 10 (beware). I also have Microsoft Media Center extenders for 2 of my other TV’s (Xbox 360s).|
We have been without cable for about 5 weeks at the time of this post. So far, so good. I knew I would be OK without the cable. I’m flexible, and not that tied to any one show. My wife and our two sons living with us were the real test. I have not heard a single complaint and my wife has expressed that she really isn’t missing it a couple times. We’re still working out some of the kinks in the over the air DVR capability, and I need to do some more work so that only channels with solid reception are included in the channel list. It is usually channels from Los Angeles that come in but not reliably that cause the issues. Having these channels in the list is a waste anyway because there are local channels with the same content. The first week we were without cable the Chargers played on Monday Night Football. We had other plans anyway, so we didn’t miss out. A few weeks later I was talking about this with friends and found out that the game was also broadcast on a local channel in addition to ESPN, so we could have seen it.
The best part of cutting the cord was cancelling the service! They offered me a 30% discount on my service for 6 months, but that would have still been $80 a month, and the cost would have gone back up. It was rewarding to be able to be honest and say that this was still overpriced, and no thanks. The numbers of people “cutting the cord” is not overwhelming, but if you add that to the number of people who switch to competitive services, I have hope that some day competition will realign the cost of cable to a more reasonable place. Unless that happens I expect I will just change my viewing habits to take advantage of reasonably priced alternatives live Hulu Plus, Netflix, and over the air HD.
Update April 2015: Confession time… I have cable again. I don’t have cable because we could not live without it. In fact, I think we watched more TV in the year we went without cable than before we ditched cable. I went back to cable because my folks were coming out to stay for a month. My step Dad watches a lot of the Golf channel and Animal Planet. There are no alternatives to the Golf channel, and no simple alternatives to Animal Planet. So I called the cable company up. They offered me a bundle including phone service before I even told them what I was looking for. I insisted I only needed TV added and that I would not have it for more than 3 months. The cost at the end reminded my of why I had ditched cable. The person assisting me had also added a bundle based on my expressed interest in the Golf Channel that did not have the Golf Channel (part of the normal package I was getting). Still even with one cable box, no extras (except the DVR – why have cable without one), I knew I would be calling back in a couple of months to turn it back off. Then they pulled out their best offer… the same plan I was getting, with free installation, no commitment, including HBO for a total of $60 a month for a year. I have to admit if that price was permanent I would keep cable TV. That is a fair price. However, since it is for a year with a guaranteed price that will double, I will be putting the date it increases on my calendar and calling to negotiate or cancel yet again.