Sunday, November 17, 2013

Reducing Cable Costs without Cutting the Cord

So after a call with Comcast I have found out that they have started encrypting even basic TV channels that you used to be able to get with just a digital TV.  Until now ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox and a few others that you could get with an antenna you could get on your TV without renting one of their boxes.  Now you must have a box from them or a cable card ready system of some sort.  They are very quick to blame the government mandated transition to digital TV for this inconvenience.

Let me be very clear.  This has nothing to do with the digital transition.  The digital transition only covered antenna transmissions, and those affected could either get a converter box for free or purchase a digital tv.  Cable companies were not actually part of this.  There was only one governmental regulation on cable companies that has a direct affect on us as customers, and it's actually a positive.  It's called cable card.

Now Comcast does not readily tell you about cable card.  In fact they fought the standard for a few years and dragged their feet implementing it.  Consumer groups realized that with all the encryption and standard shifts cable companies were doing that caused standard TVs to stop working without special boxes and associated fees consumers were getting screwed.  So they petitioned the government to put a standard into effect that had a universal gateway.  This way people could buy a cable box of their own and only have to get a free part (called a cable card!) from their cable company that would allow their own equipment to work.

Now a lot of us already own our own cable modem to avoid rental fees.  Imagine how much money you could save if you owned your own cable box!  fees range from $10 - $24 a month per tv.  If you have more than one TV this could get very expensive.  These new multi room box setups start at $30 a month and go up quickly. 

After a bit of experimentation I have come up with a great setup that not only enables you to use every screen in your home including your tablets, tv's, computers, etc to watch TV it will also allow allow you DVR functionality to record shows in one spot in your home and watch it anywhere.  To begin with you will need a network cable card tuner.  Two that I recommend are the Silicon Dust 3 tuner and the Ceton 6 Infinitv ethernet box.  These attach to your home wifi router and to your cable company coax. Once this box is installed you just need a cable card from your provider.  Comcast provides the first for free.  Make sure you get a M-card cable card.  This means the card supports multiple tuners.  

This puts your cable service on your home network.  Any device on that network can access the tuners with the right program.  Add a windows pc into this mix and you get DVR functionality with Windows Media Center.  Most Windows 7 versions included this program.  Windows 8 has it as an option that you have to pay $10 for.  It is a descent DVR if you're not someone who is technically inclined.  You can watch TV on the pc, and any other xbox 360 you have in your home.  It basically acts as a multi room DVR without the monthly cost.  There is one issue with this setup.  Most DVR's today will record an entire show from the beginning even if you hit the record button half way through.  WMC won't do this.  It will record from the point you hit record.  Otherwise all other functions are the same.

Now if you are a bit more technically inclined check out XBMC.  You can install it on any system (Mac, linux, Windows) and use many different end points as clients (Ouya, tablets, ipads, apple tvs, Rokus).  It has all DVR functionality included. 

The one really nice thing about this is other than saving fees is that you can eliminate a lot of splitters from your home.  If you've ever noticed that some TV's in your home have a better picture than others you're seeing the effects of over splitting.  When you shift to this system you can eliminate all splitters except one.  You just need a two way splitter on the incoming feed from the cable company.  One line goes to your cable modem, the other to the network cable tuner.  Every TV in your home will now have the same picture.