Television Sucks

So I canceled my cable television today. Huzzah! I thought I’d tell you of my quest to save $70/mo in cable bills, and about my new television setup in my house. Maybe you’ll be inspired by my story, maybe scared. I admit to being a little scared myself.

We decided to redo the kitchen in our house, and in so doing, I wanted to take our existing 37″ TV and mount it to the wall of the kitchen, get a Mac Mini and hook it up to that TV and use it as a giant kitchen computer. So far so good. I thought I’d also use it to, you know, watch TV from the kitchen from time to time, but that was ancillary at first. Regardless, I would need a cable box for the kitchen.

But the plans we had made involved no room for a pizza-box sized piece of electronics from the cable company. In fact, I would have needed to order (or have my carpenter build) a special piece of cabinetry to hold such a monstrosity. This pissed me off. It makes no sense to me to require viewers to use something the size of a pizza box to watch television when the TV is designed to hang on the wall unobtrusively. This situation exists solely because of the monopoly position that cable companies are in in their respective municipalities. Customers have no choice, so they put up.

Or they come up with cockamamie work-around solutions. One common solution is to put the pizza-box in a closet somewhere, and then route an infrared repeater from the TV to the pizza-box. This enables you to put the gargantuan piece of electronics out of the way. But this is a sub-optimal solution at best. I can’t say this enough: there is literally no reason for the cable box to be the size of a pizza box except for bad engineering, tolerated because the cable company is a monopoly. So if I had to re-engineer the cable box, I may as well think EVERYTHING through from scratch.

Step 1 was to analyze our television viewing habits. We’ve never been TV connoisseurs in our house, and I never subscribed to HBO or any of the pay channels. Basically, we just watch the main broadcast channels, and I watch the occasional documentary on Discovery or History or those kinds of channels. But increasingly, those shows have sucked wind, so I haven’t been watching them out of enthusiasm for them, but for the worst of all possible reasons, what I can the “Sir Edmund Hillary” reason: because they were there.

And don’t even get me started on the Food Network.

I considered going without television at all, downloading all my shows from iTunes or watching on Hulu instead. But live television does serve a purpose. News, sports and weather isn’t much good watched after the fact, and even serial type shows are best watched when they are intended to air, at least if they’re popular, so as to not accidentally encounter spoilers. And finally, HD versions of network shows are insanely expensive on iTunes, so that got ruled out quickly.

The answer, it turns out, lie in my attic. Because in my 80 yr old attic lie an antenna that some previous owner of my house had installed to watch over the air television with. A quick test revealed it captured over the air signals perfectly. And so began the project of re-wiring the house to route the antenna signal to the televisions around the house. The result was antenna coax to the televisions, and cable coax to my Internet router.

So far so good. But I still need time shifting, and I would also like to be able to watch video purchased over the Internet. The options as I saw it were to either get an appleTV with a separate PVR or get a Mac Mini with an eyeTV attachment. I chose the latter, mostly because I couldn’t fathom spending so close to the amount required to get the Mini and not just getting the damned thing. So that’s what I did.

I still had to do one last thing. Because I now had 2 Minis, each being used for video, I had to run gigabit Ethernet from each computer to the router, so as to be able to more effectively more video around the house.

So having had this setup for all of a day now, I want to tell you of the results.

So far, they’re pretty darned good. We managed to grab the signals fine, the eyeTV is pretty intuitive to use, though we’re still getting used to it. Hulu desktop app works pretty well on it, and we even rented and watched a movie on iTunes for about 1/2 the price of Comcast. As I said earlier, HUZZAH!

I also want to take a moment to emphasize just how much better the eyeTV PVR is than what Comcast offers (at least where I live). The Pizza box PVR has jagged graphics in the typeface, is slow to respond to remote control commands, which makes it near impossible to operate the PVR with any effectiveness, and the On-Demand store is slow as molasses to get up and running, not to mention near-impossible to navigate. The eyeTV, on the other hand, has slick graphics, a super-speedy PVR with quick responses, not to mention other features that the cable company will never give you, such as the ability to offload your recordings, edit them down and take out commercials, etc. It’s seriously hard to beat, particularly when combined with Hulu Desktop for additional time-shifted free TV and iTunes for renting/buying movies. Honestly, I’m pretty happy.

The economics of my move are honestly a touch questionable. I’ll save $70/month in cable TV fees (Cable TV is $88, but they raise my Internet price for ditching the bundle by $17 (BASTARDS!)). And trying to tally up all I spent is not easy. I was going to get the kitchen Mini anyway, so the incremental cost there is just the eyeTV. So I had to buy a Mini and eyeTV for the living room, wiring, and a new TV for the bedroom, since the old one didn’t have a digital tuner (yes, I could have gotten a converter box, but TVs are so cheap that it didn’t make sense). Total approximate cost (not including my labor for doing all of this): $1,400. This means I’ll have about a 20 month payback time, probably slightly more if you figure I’ll be buying more TV over iTunes than I would have been buying anyway (actually, maybe slightly less if you count the cost of renting a second pizza box for the kitchen, which I haven’t done).

So is that worth it? I think so. I have eliminated my endless frustration with my monopoly cable provider (at least so far as television is concerned). I have an appreciably nicer system than I previously had, one that enables me to experiment with new IP television technologies as they get developed. And I’ve gained a measure of independence over the media. And that’s a good thing. Besides, 20 months isn’t that long. I’ll surely be living there longer than that, and I probably won’t need a new computer in 20 months either. So I count it as a win.

Finally, I have a followup entry to write on attaching a Mac Mini to a HDTV. It’s not easy, and I still have some configuring to do on one of my TVs.

BTW, I have to offer special thanks to Josh Rowe for taking 2 Saturdays out to help me wire up the house.

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