Tuesday, June 29, 2010

How I ditched DirecTV and their $100/month bill

It's official. I cut the proverbial cord. I canceled my DirecTV service in favor of internet TV.

Before I proceed, I want to make clear that I really have no problems with DirecTV. I was a loyal customer for a decade. I'm not a fan of some of their subcontracted technicians, but overall, I rarely needed to invoke customer service, and when I did, it was generally a good experience. What I did not like about DirecTV (or any paid television option currently available) was that I was paying $100/month but only watching a handful of channels - mostly locals, which I could technically get for free over-the-air.

I would absolutely love if a la carte TV came to be, where I could build my own bundle of channels and just pay for those. I'd gladly pay! But since that's not an option, I'm forced to go the other extreme, and basically pay nothing instead. It seems like the cable and satellite companies are missing out on a niche audience that, according to CNN, is growing - people that are ditching their cable and satellite bills altogether. 1 in 8 people in 2010, they predict.

There was a certain sense of "Yeah! Fight The Man!" rebellion that came to me when I hung up the phone for the last time with DirecTV, as well as a bit of fear. Trepidation, if you will. Like, this afternoon, when I was driving home from the gym and heard a radio commercial for one of my favorite TV shows, Rescue Me. The new season starts tonight. I will not be able to watch it "live." For a moment, I wanted to grab my blankie and run back to mama.

Still, I think I'm going to be OK, and after a week or so of tinkering and trial and error, I've got my home theater PC up and running, and all is well.

There are 2 parts to my setup, one of which requires a preface. I'm not completely relying on the internet for TV. I could if I wanted to - the TV tuner I bought for my PC does support the reception of free over-the-air HD local channels. However, my current situation will make my choice clear.

You see, for a decade or so, I have paid two bills: a DirecTV bill for my satellite TV, and a cable bill for my internet access. I originally had to go with satellite TV because they were the only option to receive the NHL Center Ice package, which allowed me to watch out-of-market hockey games (which was very important to me at the time). I had to go with cable internet because, well, it was the fastest option out there (and still is - I love my Comcast cable internet, in spite of the fact that I fear Comcast is the next coming of Satan).

When I signed up for Comcast, there were two pricing tiers: one for current (TV) customers, and one for non-TV customers. It was $30/month cheaper for internet service if you were a TV customer, but the limited basic cable TV package only cost $20/month. So, if I signed up for limited basic cable, I'd be saving $10/month over not signing up - even if I never used the cable TV. So I went that route. (This was, of course, 10 years ago - I'm sure things have changed since).

So that's the first part of my setup - I'm taking advantage of the limited basic cable that I was already paying for. That gets me my local channels over cable (in HD even!). It's kind of like the olden days when TV channels only went up to 60-something, and skipped a bunch of numbers in between.

The second part of my setup is the internet TV, which I am viewing through Boxee. My first attempt at using Boxee was to install it on my Apple TV. While it worked, I had some major complaints. First, the wifi in the Apple TV is extremely flaky, and it would drop out all the time. To add to that frustration, once you're logged into Boxee, if the internet connection drops, Boxee doesn't throw an error message. It just returns zero results for whatever you were searching for, or dumps back to the home screen when you try to watch a video.

The other problem I had with using the Apple TV for Boxee was that the Apple TV just isn't powerful enough to push video out smoothly at 1080. It was OK at 720, but at 1080 resolution, video got choppy - particularly Flash video. (Maybe the flaky wifi contributed to this, as it does rely on internet streaming - I'm not sure). And speaking of Flash, the current version of Boxee at the time of this writing did not include Flash 10.1, which most of the major streaming video sources were requiring - so I had to go through a process of SSH'ing into my Apple TV over the network and downloading and installing the Flash update via the command line - something my mom would definitely not be comfortable doing.

So, the Apple TV running Boxee was not going to be my path to TV-bill freedom.

Then, I had a thought: what if I took the PC that I built a few months back to play Ultima Online, and ran Boxee on that? I looked up Boxee's recommended system specs for Windows:

  • a dual-core x86 system at 2.66GHz or faster (check!)
  • 2GB of RAM (check!)
  • a video card that supports OpenGL 1.4 or higher (check!)
  • DirectX 9 (check!)
Hmm. Seems like a no-brainer! So I downloaded and installed Boxee on my PC, and moved it into the living room. It had a wifi card in it, so I connected to the internet that way, then hooked it up to my TV via a DVI-to-HDMI cable, and voila. Smooth streaming video over the internet to my TV.

The next step was a bit of an experiment, because I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to just simply split my cable and run it to the PC. I only have one Comcast cable drop coming into my house, and that runs straight into my cable modem (despite the fact that I also pay for limited basic TV cable).

I picked up a 2.4GHz 2-way splitter and a roll of RG6 coax cable and held my breath. I disconnected my cable modem, added the splitter, then reconnected the cable modem to that. And... whoa! My internet was still working! With that hurdle crossed, it was time to try running it to my TV. I wasn't sure if I was going to need some sort of cable box from Comcast in order to access the cable TV service I was paying for.

It turns out, all I needed was a TV tuner for my PC that supported the QAM digital cable standard. So I ran over to CompUSA (aka TigerDirect) and got this USB TV tuner (that also supports over-the-air HD, which was my backup plan if the cable didn't work) - the PCTV HD mini Stick, model 80e.

(I had to go with USB because I had no PCI slots left in my machine - it's just a cheap $400 PC that I put together to play PC games, as of course I'm a Mac user otherwise).

I had some problems getting the TV Tuner working initially. The problems weren't with the cable - it detected my channels the first time through, and that went perfectly well. The problem was that the software it came with kept crashing. After a lot of Googling, I realized that the drivers it shipped with were Vista drivers, and did not specify if they were 32 or 64 bit drivers. I'm running Windows 7 64 bit.

After further digging, I found that the tuner card, formerly made by Pinnacle, was taken over by a company (or sub-company of Pinnacle?) called PCTV. So, the drivers on Pinnacle's web site were not the latest. I had to get updated Windows 7 "beta" drivers from the PCTV web site, and the updated TVCenter software. These together worked perfectly.

The TVCenter software was kind of clunky, though. I kept seeing people mention the Windows Media Center, but I assumed I didn't have it because I just had the "professional" edition of Windows 7, and back in Vista-land, "professional" meant that it did not include any of the fun stuff. I decided to check my Start menu anyway, and lo and behold - there it was!

Long story short - Windows Media Center is much more slick and user-friendly for watching live TV than the software that came bundled with my TV tuner card. I had to re-do the channel scanning, but other than that, it worked right out of the box.

The only thing missing was a remote control! (It got a bit tedious having to get off the couch to go to the computer every time I wanted to change the channel). So I picked up a USB Media Center remote that also works with Boxee - the Pinnacle (also now PCTV) Remote Kit for Media Center. It only mentions Vista compatibility, but it worked fine for me with Windows 7, no drivers necessary. It got good reviews, but I feel like it's kind of a crappy remote - maybe a 3/5 rating. It's not very substantial - feels cheap - and I often have to press and hold buttons repeatedly to get them to pick up, even though I'm less than 10 feet away from the infrared receiver and have a clear view to it. It's annoying, but it doesn't seem like there are many options out there for good home theater PC remotes. I need to do more research on the topic.

So, my current setup involves limited basic cable provided by Comcast, running into a USB TV tuner card, and Boxee, streaming internet video content over my cable internet connection (also provided by Comcast). You could achieve this exact same setup without the basic cable TV package, by attaching an HD antenna to the TV tuner instead and getting your live local channels that way (over-the-air for free).

The only glitchy thing is that I can't seem to get Boxee or Windows Media Center to default to my "second" monitor, which is my HDTV. They both insist on starting up on my computer monitor, which is set as primary. I haven't tried making the HDTV primary, because really, I want the computer monitor to be primary (it's hard to see the TV from where the computer sits). I'm sure there's a solution - I just haven't found it yet. So, when I start up Boxee or Media Center, I quickly press Windows-Shift-left-arrow to swap screens. It's not a big deal. I can live with it.

But can I live with waiting until tonight's Rescue Me season premiere is available for viewing off of the FX web site? It'll be tough over the summer, while I'm off work and free to watch TV whenever I want, but come fall when I'm back at work, I rarely watch TV shows until a week or two after they air anyway.

I've only come across a few regular cable-channel shows that I can't yet view through Boxee. TNT has 2 shows that I watch - The Closer, and Men of a Certain Age. GSN runs High Stakes Poker. Discovery runs Storm Chasers. While these shows can be viewed via their respective web sites, they aren't being picked up yet in Boxee. All of my other shows are on the major local networks, or are available through Boxee - and I wouldn't be surprised if these others end up on Boxee eventually too.

So, I could either watch these straggler shows on the computer, or buy them from the iTunes store or Amazon Video on Demand. Buying a few TV shows is still cheaper than the $1,200 a year I was paying to DirecTV.

I will be fine. And I am saving $100/month.


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FAsh10npr1nc3ss said...

It's good to hear that you did not have any problems with your DIRECTV subscription. I would encourage you to look into DISH Network for the lowest digital pricing, HD for Free for Life, and one more tip? GOOGLE TV. I am a geek girl and I work for DISH. I have the Logitech Revue that integrates my Compter and TV so now I surf as I watch my favorites shows. Find out more at www.dish.com.

FAsh10npr1nc3ss said...

It's good to hear that you did not have any problems with your DIRECTV subscription. I would encourage you to look into DISH Network for the lowest digital pricing, HD for Free for Life, and one more tip? GOOGLE TV. I am a geek girl and I work for DISH. I have the Logitech Revue that integrates my Compter and TV so now I surf as I watch my favorites shows. Find out more at www.dish.com.