Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Lets revisit cost cutting!

So we're at the cusp of another possible government shutdown and many of you may need to look into tightening your belts. As a number of things have come out or changed in the last year I thought I would revisit my previous article and show some new options. With little fanfare here we go! 


For TV service if you're in range of the broadcast towers you can instantly cut your bill by switching to an antenna. The number of stations you will receive will drop but for the most part everything will be in HD. You don't even need a new antenna. Any TV antenna will pick up the over the air signals (even ancient antenna towers, roof antennas, and rabbit ears). You just need a TV with a digital tuner or a digital adapter. The kind of antenna you will need is easy to determine. Visit AntennaWeb and plug in your address. It will give you a list of channels you should be able to receive as well as the antenna color code you will need. These color codes are on the boxes of new units in stores. Also the color codes describe the type of antenna if you just want to see if what you have will work. Please note that this isn't a complete list of channels you may receive. With new HD channels you can get multiple channels of programming in each number. Where in the 80s you may have had one PBS with rabbit ears, now you'll have three PBS channels each showing something different. I have about 20 stations. Your mileage may vary.

Personally I live near the broadcast center of my town. I have had great luck with the following products. One is an indoor antenna you can hang on the wall behind your tv, the other is a exterior mount antenna. Both never need to be adjusted. If they can't pick up a signal that's because you need a more powerful directional antenna. Directional antennas are able to pick up signals from further away, but the issue is they only pick up things in a shotgun like path in front of the antenna. This means if you're in the middle of your broadcast towers you'll only pick up a few at a time and you'll need use a motorized antenna rotator to turn the antenna (remember those!?)
 The Indoor Antenna
The Outdoor Antenna
 More Powerful DIRECTIONAL Antenna
 Now a word to the wise. The indoor model I listed comes in multiple configurations. If you're near your broadcast center you don't need an amplifier. As such you can get the cheaper models. If you're further away I would recommend the outdoor antenna for your whole home before getting antenna's for each tv. It might be a little more work, but you'll save money. Also walking around your home won't interrupt the TV signal which is possible with indoor models.

This gives you signal. You can just wire the antenna to your TV and have service, but as many of us have become accustomed to having DVR service with the ability to pause, rewind, and record live TV with a guide lets look at your options. Antenna TV is actually easier to do than Cable as you're not being screwed with by the cable industry. Any Windows Media Center or Tivo solution that works for cable TV will work for an antenna setup. The nice thing about this is that if you already have one of these setups you don't have to give it up and you can easily move back if you so choose. Now there are new products that are antenna specific.

The first is the SimpleTV. This device is a network DVR. This is a little different than what you're used to. It does not hook up to your TV. It hooks up to your antenna, your wireless router, and finally you need to hook up an external hard drive to store to. This unit is controlled by your phone, tablet, apple TV, roku, chromecast, or Plex receiver. Now like a Tivo you either buy the device cheaply and pay $14 a month for service, or you pay a bit more and you'll never have a monthly bill. This device is from Silicondust the makers of the HDHomeRun. Now this can be used on "ClearQAM" cable as well (unencrypted basic cable) so if you find your antenna doesn't work you can still use this box.

Another similar option is the Tablo. Same idea as the SimpleTV. Same need for a Apple TV, Roku, or Chromecast on Televisions. And the same need for a monthly subscription to the Tablo data service. The main difference is that you can get a four tuner version which is handy for larger households.

Finally there is the ChannelMaster DVR+. This unit is rather impressive to me. For those of you who want a direct cable company DVR box experience and don't really care about watching TV on your tablet this unit is for you. You set it under your TV like a cable company DVR. Unlike any cable company box this thing is about half an inch thick. It will need an external hard drive to store to. If you don't have internet you get guide data for a few hours via the antenna. If you do have the internet it can download up to 14 days of guide data. This box does not have a monthly service cost or need extra equipment, but you need one per TV. As such if you're a one TV household this is a great option. If you have more than one TV in your home you'll be better served by a Tablo or a SimpleTV. If you want to stream to your tablet or phone you'll need a slingbox 500 add on.

ChannelMaster DVR+
Slingbox 500

For the above options (Either Simple TV or Tablo) you need a Roku, Apple TV, or a Chromecast on every TV you want to stream to.  Here are these products if you don't already have them.  I should warn you that the Chromecast doesn't have a UI of it's own.  As such you must have a phone or tablet to control it.  The Roku and Apple TV can be used normally.

The Roku

 The Apple TV

 The Chromecast

 I'm a huge fan of cutting the cord down to internet access only. If you're in an area where you can't do this try hooking the cable up to your TV directly and run a channel scan. If you're lucky enough to not have Comcast there is a good chance you get at least antenna channels unencrypted. If you pay for more you may find you get more channels. This means you can use the above options as though you are using an antenna and cancel all service from your cable company but internet. You will possibly loose the extra channels but you will keep the basic stations.

As for those of you who are stuck with Comcast. They decided last year to start encrypting all video including that which you can get with an antenna. This means if you use them for internet you will not be able to just split the signal and send it to your tv. You will need to either get an antenna or keep comcast service.

Cable TV

Now as for Cable TV options. If this isn't an option at all because you want all of the stations possible you can still save money by getting rid of the leased equipment and buying your own. The average monthly cost for a simple stupid two tuner DVR from a cable company is about $18 after taxes. The actual cost of the box is difficult to nail down, but I could build a replacement with all new equipment for $150. So in the course of a year you could have just bought your own and saved cash. The more advanced "Whole Home DVR" systems are about $50 a month for two TVs, and another $18 for each additional TV. I can build a similar system for $450 for the first TV, and $90 per each additional unit.

What you can do is fairly limited thanks to lobbying by the cable industry. You need a DVR that supports cable card devices. There are three good options you can use. Two of which are Whole home DVR equivalents, one is more of a standard TV tuner with no DVR.

1) Windows Media Center: Have a Windows 7 or 8 computer sitting around doing nothing since your shift to tablets? Stick a TV tuner in it and turn it into a great whole home DVR. There are many ways to do this. Desktops have a few more options with internal upgrade cards from Ceton, but you can use even laptops and a network TV tuner like the Ceton Infinitv6 eth or the HDHomerun Prime. Then at each TV you just need either a Xbox 360 with a remote or a Ceton Echo. The PC will need to be on constantly so a laptop may be better for power usage and the fact that a power brownout or outage won't bother it. The nice thing about this setup is you can modify everything about it. Adding more storage is easy. You can even get some cool software from The Green Button to add new features such as automatic commercial skipping. The issue here is you will want to avoid using the PC for anything else. While you can continue to use the PC, I've found some software combinations do cause WMC to become unstable. A dedicated PC is better. Also while Windows 7 includes WMC for free, windows 8 you need to pay for it in the windows store. You do not ever need to pay for guide data.

Now this seems like a lot of equipment, but if you look it over you might find you have a lot of this already. If you have a Windows 7 or 8 pc lying around you've got a big part of the expense. Many people already have at least one Xbox 360. At that point you just need a Xbox 360 remote and the tuner. After that it's all setup, and the setup is fairly easy. All you will need after that is a cable card from your tv provider. This should be free for the first card, but some companies charge up to $4 with tax for the card.

A special note on Ceton Products:  I'm leaving these here as they do function and can produce a very nice all in one HTPC product.  Unfortunately Ceton was hit hard by the discontinuation of Windows Media Center and seems to be just selling off existing stock and not innovating.  If you're not an experienced user I would strongly suggest skipping Ceton's products and looking into the SiliconDust HDHomeRun tuners.

Ceton 6 tuner Desktop card.

Ceton 6 tuner Network Card

Ceton Echo

Xbox 360 Remote

HDHomeRun Prime

As for the Xbox, I do recommend picking one up used. I've seen the 4gb new xbox 360 for around $90 used or remanufactured. If you insist buying new...

2) Tivo: Tivo's have been around for a long while. Most people know about them already and the website does a great job of describing everything. Basically they work like the cable company's Whole Home DVR where you get one main box and then smaller "Tivo Mini" units for any other TV in the home. Just like Windows Media Center all TV's have access to the same pool of tuners and recorded shows. The main difference is you need to pay for the Tivo service which is either $15 a month, or you shell out $500 for lifetime free access. The Tivo mini also has fees per tv. $6 a month per Tivo mini, or $150 for permenant access. Tivo is a great product with great support. You will need a cable card from your provider. In the long run even with the expense of the lifetime service you will save money in two years vs a whole home DVR setup, but you do need to shell out a hefty amount up front for the devices and service contract. While if you're made of money you can have multiple full Tivo units in your home, for the most part you only need either a Four or Six tuner main unit, then Tivo mini's everywhere else. This is a great option for people who don't have spare PC hardware, or don't want to bother with that and you want something that "Just Works".

A Four tuner Tivo

A Six tuner Tivo

Tivo Mini


Now I always recommend people get Cable internet over AT&T. Mostly because Uverse's top speed is no where near Cable, and you cannot own your equipment on Uverse. Cable modems are easy to get and rather cheap. Most cable providers charge $10 with tax per month for cable modems. These can be purchased for $50 on up to what ever you want to pay. Most good units are $75 and I recommend the universally supported Motorola surfboard products.

Now there are cable modems that integrate cable modem and your Wifi network router. I do not recommend these. They are quite expensive and you are tying yourself down to a wifi router you'll have no ability to upgrade or replace later. The cable modem won't need to change for years, your router you may find you want to swap out in two years if a new technology comes out. It's always best to buy this seperately. Many routers support faster network access as well as printer sharing and file sharing. Here's a good example.


In the past I've used an Ooma for a land line phone. I still have one for family members. It's a great device. Sort of a set it and forget it. You only need to pay local taxes per month for the line and 911 access. This comes to about $4 a month. The Ooma box has buttons to act as a voicemail access, or you can hit their website or an app to get voice mail that way. All in all it's great if you want your old land line stuff to work (Including fax machines!). They have some premium features such as bluetooth handling to sync with your cell phones. If your phones work only in one room of your home just sync them to the Ooma and your Cell phone calls will be forwarded to your land line network.

If you want to spend less than $4 a month, how about $0? Another contender is the Obihai series of devices. They use your google voice and hangouts account to provide phone access. Just like the Ooma you hook it up to your landline and you get dial tone. The only issue here is that you cannot use 911 with Google. You will need to subscribe to a third party 911 provider (I hear these are $1 a month). This is a bit more technical. If you're a "Set it and forget it" type of person you are better off with the Ooma.

Cell Phone

Thanks to 4G LTE technology most cell phones can be unlocked and taken to other carriers. In most situations I recommend people switch to T-mobile. If you can unlock your phone and bring it with you great. If not (or your phone is too old) you can get a new affordable phone and not be locked into a contract.

Another option is Republic wireless. They have phones that use the Sprint network ranging from $99 - $399 for the phone, then the monthly expense is anywhere from $5 (wifi calling, wifi text, and wifi data only) to $40 a month (unlimited sprint talk, text, and web). The great thing is you can change your plan twice a month. If you have a family member who doesn't need a phone outside of the house get the $5 plan. If you're all going on vacation for a week bump it up to the $40 plan for that week then change it back later. The only issue here is there is no phone support. Everything is web based. Also tethering is not supported.

1 comment:

  1. Wow,You provide a wealth of information! I'm seriously going to re-evaluate why I'm paying Brighthouse my hard earned money when there are many cheaper options! Great post!