Nearly Subscription Free TV

I've been asked several times lately about my home entertainment setup.  About six months ago we ditched Dish Network and went to a mostly subscription-free solution.

I'd been toying with the idea of cutting the cord for a while, but it seemed like there wasn't a fully-baked solution out there that would satisfy my needs.  I tried MythTV and was somewhat impressed, but it was difficult to install and required a lot of manual configuration.  I realize strides have been made since my early attempts.  There are now Live distros that are pretty much ready to go to get you up and runing quickly.  Still I'd say it's best left to Linux tinkerers.

Prologue

Skip this part if you're only interested in the details of the "new" setup.

I saw an ad for Direct TV telling me they could save me a ton of money on my television subscription.  I ran the numbers and, sure enough, it looked like I would save significant money during the first year.  But, after the introductory period it was going to cost me about $5/month more than what I was paying for Dish.  Was the up-front savings worth the hassle of changing providers, getting new equipment installed and setup and teaching the wife how to use it?  I thought not.

Instead, I called Dish Network and told them about the offer and asked if they were willing to offer me anything similar.  I was told that they were willing to reduce my $88/mo bill to $83/mo… not exactly what I was hoping for.  I thanked the rep for her time and told her I'd be better of switching to Direct TV.  She transferred me to a "customer retention specialist".  The "specialist" said she could reduce the price of my HDTV add-on package from $20/mo to $10/mo if I signed a new 2 year contract.  Again, this wasn't much of a deal so I told her I wasn't going to sign a new contract and I'd weigh my options and call back.

I took to Twitter and expressed my surprise at the lack of competitiveness from Dish Network.  Within a few minutes I received a direct message from a Dish Network rep telling me they'd love to keep my business and to send her my account info to see what they could do.  I sent her the account info, the details of the Direct TV offer and the history of what I had been offered from Dish.  She replied that I had already received the best offer they could provide and that I'd spend more money in the long run with Direct TV.  "Maybe" I said, "But I'll save $600 in the first year so it's going to take a while".

Disgusted, I called Dish Network's Customer Service and asked to cancel my service.  They asked what they could do to keep me as a customer.  I told them they'd already failed at that and I was tired of discussing it.

Now what?  It seemed it was time to see if we could make this "Internet TV" thing work.  I made a list of all the content that we had saved on our Dish DVR as well as the scheduled programs that we had so that we could see what we would be missing and how we could go about getting it again.

What We Had

We already had two AppleTVs, both the current model and the previous generation.  The newer AppleTV is great because it gives us access to all our iTunes media as well as the iTunes Store for renting TV shows and movies, and NetFlix.

The old AppleTV was running XBMC and Boxee to get access to various content plug-ins, but honestly we rarely used it once we got the newer version.  Beyond that we had a DVD player and an XBOX360.  The XBOX also gave us access to NetFlix.

What We (Thought We) Needed

Television Shows

Returning to the list of content that we had given up, it was obvious that we needed an antenna since the vast majority of the programs that we watched and recorded were on broadcast television.  This was a good thing and an easy win.

I used these plans to build an HDTV antenna.  It's not the prettiest in the world, but we hid it out of site and it worked like a dream.  We used it until I discovered that we already had a rather large OTA (Over-The-Air) antenna mounted in the rafters of our garage (who knew?).  I rerouted some cabling to distribute the signal to our 2 televisions and we were back in the TV game… except.

Except that we were now slaves to the program schedule.  If we wanted to watch something we had to actually be home in front of the television when it aired.  By giving up our DVR we could no longer time-shift recordings and it had been many years since we had a VCR hooked up.  And after growing accustomed to HD, there was no way I was digging that VCR out of the closet.

My search brought me to Elgato's EyeTV One.  It's a USB dongle that accepts an OTA HDTV signal and lets you watch television on your computer.  The included software was quite good and includes an on-screen guide with search capabilities and, most importantly, the ability to act as a DVR with smart schedules to record the shows we wanted to watch.

This lead us to the next hurdle.  Watching TV on my 15" MacBook Pro was not quite the same experience as watching it on the 50" Plasma.  We needed a way to get that content back on the big television.  I purchased a cable kit from MicroCenter to take the Mini Display Port and the mini TosLink outputs on the MacBook Pro and combine them into an HDMI connection that could be hooked to the television (or AV receiver).  Now we were really back in the TV game… except.

Except now I had to leave my laptop hooked up to the television with cables hanging everywhere like it was on life support.  And, whenever we went out I couldn't take my laptop with me because that meant disconnecting the antenna and possibly missing some scheduled recording.

What We Really Needed

Obviously we needed a computer dedicated to the task of being the home media center.  I knew it wasn't going to be a beige (or black) box with noisy fans sitting in the living room.  The logical answer was the Mac Mini.  There's a wealth of information online from folks who have successfully used the Mini as the heart of their home entertainment center.  This is where I should have started all along.

I decided to look for an Intel 2.53GHz Mini, found a suitable one on Craigslist and purchased it for a great price.  I wiped the drive, installed Snow Leopard, installed the EyeTV software and hooked up my display converter.  And finally, we really were back in the TV game.  The EyeTV interface is fairly intuitive and is built for the 15-foot viewing experience providing on-screen guide information and DVR controls.

That solved our OTA television needs, but there was still some other content we wanted that wasn't available on our AppleTV using NetFlix.  To get more content we turned to Plex.  Plex is a fork of the XBMC project that was originally built for Mac OS X, but has since been ported to other operating systems.

Plex is simply brilliant.  It has a built in media manager for organizing the movie and TV shows that you may already have in a variety of file formats.  But it also supports hundreds of plug-ins that allow you to get content from a variety of sources like ABC, Hulu, YouTube, FoxNews, CNN, ESPN, etc.  It's amazing how much quality content is available for free.  I regularly use the plug-ins for watching Revision3ESPN3, and PokerStars.TV.

Sports

Which brings us to sports.  Major sports fans will likely have a more difficult time with dropping subscription televesion service.  Obvsiously you can still get broadcast games with your OTA antenna, but you won't get the events from ESPN, ESPN2, FoxSports Net, Speed and the like.  As I mentioned previously, the AppleTV has MLB.TV which allows you to watch all MLB games for $99/year.  The caveat here (and it's a big one) is that if you live in a major market, you won't be able to watch any games from your home team.  No home games.  No away games.  I'm sure there's away around this restriction if you're dedicated, but it simply wasn't worth investigating for me.

Movies

The movies category is pretty well covered with iTunes (AppleTV) and NetFlix (AppleTV or Plex).  You can rent the latest releases on iTunes for about $3 - $5 each.  Once you rent a movie, you'll have to wait for it to buffer for a few minutes before you can begin watching.  The amount of time it takes to buffer depends on your Internet connection speed.  For older movies, NetFlix can't be beat.  There's a mammoth library of content that can be streamed that's included in the $9/month subscription price.

And, of course, you can still watch your own DVDs.  While we could use the DVD player on the Mini to play DVDs, I chose instead to rip our entire DVD library to have each movie available digitally (and indexed with cover art by Plex).  For ripping I used Mac The Ripper.  I didn't need to convert or shrink anything, so it was pretty straightforward to just rip each DVD into it's own folder with Audio_TS and Video_TS subfolders that Plex can scrape and index.

This excerise presented the next challenge.  The 320GB hard drive in the Mini wasn't going to be able to hold copies of all our DVDs.  Oh, hey, what about that Drobo that I won in a Twitter contest and never got around to using before now?  Yeah, this would be a good time to unbox that.  I hooked the Drobo to the Mini using FireWire 800 and slapped a few 1TB drives in it and now along with plenty of storage space we also have data security in the event of a hard drive failure.

Bringing It All Together (aka "Wife-Proofing")

The piece of the puzzle that was missing was some way to bring all the components together into a relatively user-friendly setup that the wife would operate while I was out of town without calling me for tech support or to complain that it was simply too complicated.

Cue Remote Buddy.  At first glance $30 (19.99) for remote control software seemed a bit excessive.  However, I can say that after downloading and installing the free 30 day trial it was clear that there was no way in hell I was ever going to not use it.  The ease-of-use and customizability provided more than justify the price tag.  If you venture down the Mac-Mini-as-media-center road, I can't recommend Remote Buddy enough.  You will not regret buying it.  Besides being preconfigured to control all the applications you'd want to use, it allows you write (or download) your own scripts that you can trigger using your remote control.  I now control the entire system with the old, white, 6-button Apple remote and it works beautifully.


Hardware:


Software:


Subscriptions:


Pros:

  • Saving almost $90/month on subscription television services.
  • No rain-fade.
  • Having our iTunes library easily available from our home media center.
  • Integrated internet channels (YouTube, Revision3, etc.)

Cons:

  • Limited sports programming.
  • Streaming depends on the quality of your Internet connection.
  • Some premium channels have no Internet availability.*

* I'm sure if you're enterprising enough you could find an _alternative_ method of obtaining this content.

Extreme!

Installing the Apple Airport Extreme Base Station


Airport Extreme Base StationI replaced my trusty D-Link 802.11g wi-fi router with a new Apple Airport Extreme Base Station (AEBS).  Part of the reason for the upgrade was to take advantage of the increased performance from moving to 802.11n.  But, the most compelling reason I went with the AEBS was for its ability to make attached USB disks and printers available to clients on the network.

Presently I'm running a Ubuntu server as something of a NAS.  This headless setup is running netatalk to make the hard disks in the Ubuntu box available as Apple shares.  The same machine also runs TwonkyMedia Server to allow streaming video to the XBox360 in the basement family room.  Since adding an AppleTV to the mix and running XBMC, I haven't used the media streaming capabilities of the XBox360 for anything other than NetFlix.  So, I figured now would be a good time to replace this full-blown computer with an Airport Extreme.

Setup

Setup with the Extreme is pretty straightforward.  There's a WAN port, 3 LAN ports, a USB port and a power connector.  Following the instructions from Apple, I first connected all the cables.  WAN port to DSL modem, LAN ports to local computers, USB to a powered USB hub which is, in turn, connected to 2 external Hard Drives and an Epson RX680 all-in-one (this will the subject of a future post).

The next order of business was to use Apple's Airport Utility to configure the new wireless router.  The utility automatically detects the base station and walks you through the configuration process.  First you assign a password to the device that will be used for configuration and disk sharing by default.  Next, I created a new network (SSID) to completely replace my existing network.  This meant reconfiguring all the wireless clients, but that's not a big deal.  Next, select the wireless security type.  WPA2 Personal, thank you.  Set the password and continue.

Guest Network


Another feature that sold me on the Airport Extreme was the ability to create a 2nd "guest" network.  This network has a different SSID and password for wireless security.  This means you can share this network's configuration information with your friends when they're visiting.  They'll be able to have Internet access, but the guest network is completely shielded from the primary network meaning they can't access any devices on your network.  This is a great idea.

After enabling guest networking and making the appropriate configuration changes, it's time to select your internet connection type.  The choices are LAN or PPPoE.  Since I'm using DSL, I chose PPPoE (Point-to-Point Protocol over Ethernet).  This is where I encountered my first challenge.  The settings for PPPoE seem simple enough.  Username... check.  Password... check.  Service Name... I assumed this meant the provider, kind of like how you name a connection in Windows.  This was a very bad assumption.

The configuration changes are applied to the AEBS and it reboots.  It rebooted to a blinking amber light.  Airport Utility showed the device had been reconfigured, but there was an error "No PPPoE server could be found".  Not good.

I rebooted the AEBS.  I rebooted the DSL modem.  I rebooted the computer.  Each time I came back to the same PPPoE error.  I did a hardware reset on the AEBS and went through the entire setup process again thinking maybe I missed something obvious.  The result was exactly the same.

This is about when I started laughing to myself about how I tell my friends how much easier Apple equipment is to setup and configure.  The D-Link I was replacing may have been an ugly black brick with not so much as 2% of the style points of the Airport Extreme, but it installed flawlessly on the first try.  This time, however, I was 90 minutes into a 5 minute job.

I tried rebooting everything again.  I left everything powered off for 5 minutes and tried again.  Still the same.  I decided to give AT&T a call to see if they could offer any advice.  It took only a few minutes to get connected to a person, Daniel.  Daniel seemed very nice and like he genuinely wanted to help me.  He also seemed like he had heard of computers before, but wasn't quite sure how or why they were used.  He told me AT&T didn't support wireless routers (as I had assumed), but that he could walk me through the basic troubleshooting steps for the DSL to see if we could find the problem.

About 10 minutes into the troubleshooting, he had me connect the computer directly to the DSL modem (a Speedstream 5360).  I have never connected directly, so I had to setup a new connection on the MacBook Pro.  This was the Eureka moment.  In the PPPoE configuration settings for a new network connection, the settings read like this:

Username:
Password:
Service Name: (Provided by ISP if needed)

...if needed.  If needed!  Damn it!  Could it really be that simple?  I interrupted Daniel's script reading to tell him I had something I wanted to try before we rebooted the DSL modem for the 5th time.

I reconnected the AEBS and went back to the Airport Utility.  I cleared the Service Name that I had entered previously and rebooted the DSL modem.  Once the DSL modem had rebooted, I rebooted the AEBS.  And?  Voila!  A beautiful solid green light.  Wow... all of that because I put an unneeded value in the "service name" field?  It would have been nice if there had been a note (like on the local connection) that said something to the effect of "If you don't know what this is, don't make shit up".  I still have no idea why this caused the problem, or if it truly did.  Maybe it was just a giant coincidence.

Regardless, I was finally back online... or almost.  I had now lost connection to my wireless bridge in the basement that hosts the XBox360 and the Dish Network DVR.  That would be a task for another day.