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All posts for the month September, 2014

2014-09-26 20.06.44-1

Neighbor cat napping in my Laz-E-Boy. Click pic to flip.

The following is a cautionary tale about how far some home theater enthusiasts may go to get things just right. It’s also to document a solution for myself and anyone else. It won’t be to everyone’s interest.

You don’t need to be into this kind of thing to have a good home theater setup. A Roku box can deliver paid services like Netflix as well as free content like Crackle, YouTube, and your own content on the Plex Channel. Many of the cord-cutting tips here require more awareness and will than technical knowledge to execute.

Some of us can’t leave well enough alone. Others, like Albert (above), are content to simply enjoy home theater with friends and family.


You won’t believe what I had to do to get a Context menu button for my Raspberry Pi media computer onto my Logitech Harmony 890 remote.

To navigate optimally through the media menus in RaspBMC (the Pi operating system I use), a Context button is desirable. This is especially true if you use PleXBMC, a beta software add-on that lets the Pi become a Plex client.

To control the Pi without keyboard and mouse, I originally bought a $5 IR dongle with remote. I plugged the dongle into the Pi, which it recognized. I added a Chinavasion CVSB-983 “device” to the Harmony remote which allowed me to map the basic play/pause/navigate-type functions.  That way, I could use the Harmony instead of the cheapo remote.
The Android XBMC remote app does have a “Context”-type button (like a right-click on Windows). It works fine on RaspBMC and PleXBMC. But I usually use the Harmony remote rather than the smartphone app.
(*Later note: XBMC has been renamed “Kodi”, and OSMC has superseded Raspbmc; in my new comment below, I added a new, much simpler way to add the Context button under OSMC.)
So after considerable googling (especially here and here), I plugged the dongle into my Windows PC (which it recognized), aimed the cheapo at it, and used free software ShowKey to find out what code was being sent when I pressed a useless yellow button.
ShowKey translated it as Ctrl-Alt-4, and gave the XML code, which could be modified for the Pi:
<four mod=”ctrl,alt”>Notification(Key, four, 3)</four>
2014-09-29 22.53.18

And there it is.

This button was simulating a Ctrl-Alt-4 on a keyboard, which my Windows computer was configured to interpret as some kind of notification. I changed the code snippet in my Notepad to this:
<four mod=”ctrl,alt”>ContextMenu</four>
Now FTPing into the Pi with WinSCP/Notepad++, I copied the keyboard.xml file from deep in the OS (/opt/xbmc-bcm/xbmc-bin/share/xbmc/system/keymaps) to a userdata area (/home/pi/.xbmc/userdata/keymaps), so that the new copy would supersede the original. Then in the Global/Keyboard area of the .xml file, I pasted in the above code (make sure the double quotes are non-italicized), so that a push of the yellow button would be interpreted by the Pi as a command to pop up a context menu . After the Pi was rebooted, the cheap remote had a working yellow Context button.
Once I added a soft button to the Harmony to send the yellow key IR codes, I had a context key on the Harmony!
Sometimes the little things are the most satisfying.
2014-09-29 20.28.54

Our Logitech Harmony 650

Got a Logitech Harmony 650 in the mail today via eBay.

As noted previously, I removed the cable box from our bedroom, replacing it with an antenna and digital converter box, analog cable, Roku, and X10 receiver (the latter displays and controls the cable company DVR in the den).

We had a literal bagful of remotes to manage these devices. I was able to consolidate all these functions to the same Logitech Harmony 890 we use in the theater room. But my wife chafed at the need to go hunting for that remote at bedtime (less than optimal WAF=wife acceptance factor).

Enter the 650.

I couldn’t quite tell how well it might work from the online descriptions, but at $34 used from eBay, the experiment wasn’t expensive.

The results are in: it’s much better for the bedroom than the overworked 890.

All 4 “Activities” (antenna TV, analog cable TV, Roku, and X10 DVR) were given their own distinct set of controls.

I created icons for her favorite stations, both broadcast and cable, and added the sleep timer buttons to each activity.

A quirk of our setup had been a burst of TV static before the converter box booted up for broadcast TV. I programmed in a TV mute command upfront to silence it. Another quirk was the need to have the TV already on channel 3 before switching over to broadcast to avoid another static burst. Now it’s an integral part of the transition. (I hadn’t gotten around to addressing those quirks previously.)

Like the 890, the 650’s buttons light up while you are using it, ideal in a darkened room.

It has a light and balanced feel in the hand.

A small downside is that you cannot reorder Activities on the screen to your liking, a much complained-about point on Logitech’s forum. It wouldn’t hurt my feelings if the LCD screen stayed lit a bit longer after you jiggle the remote to wake it up. But neither is a dealbreaker.

(Later note: I found a workaround to reorder Activities. The Activities that appear first on the screen are ones you have NOT assigned to the top Activity buttons. Therefore, assign the ones you don’t want to see first. The top buttons alone are not lit, and thus not so useful in a darkened room, anyway.)

Bonus for my wife: it’s the same remote seen in the “Big Brother” “Head of Household” room.

It’s a success!

MikeGayePlex

Tablet cam pic of me and my “client”, auto-uploaded to our home Plex server, ready for big screen display.

To date, we have:

  • Replaced cable landline phone service with a refurbished Ooma (cost is now only $4/mo in taxes), then bought a $15 used modem to save a rental charge of $7/mo added by the cable company because of the switch.

  • Taken internet service down to “Essential” level (saving $15/mo) without impairing our streaming Netflix.

  • Removed 2 out of 3 cable boxes (saving $17/mo), replacing one with only an indoor antenna, the other with a $35 digital converter box and antenna, and,

  • Hooked up cable directly to the 2 sets to get analog cable channels (a minimum of “Essential” level TV service is required).

  • Eliminated three tiers of TV service over a 2 year period (saving $30/month), bringing us down to Essential level, similar to the old basic and extended cable.  We still have “Advanced TV” for about $3/mo extra, required for DVR service (at an additional $12/mo). The only channels gained from adding Advanced on top of Essential are music channels. You also do not get HD without Advanced TV. Tricky price and service structuring.

  • Added another Roku box (in the bedroom) to stream Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, free Crackle, and our own media on Plex. Tried Hulu Plus, but it wasn’t worth it for us.

  • Added a number of Android remote control apps to my wifi-only smartphone.

  • (Tech talk alert!) Added a used bottom-of-the-line Windows 7 computer (thanks, Mom) with included Windows Media Center (WMC) software. With USB TV tuner plus antenna, acts as a DVR for broadcast TV and uses free ServerWMC software to stream to a $35 Raspberry Pi computer connected to the large TV in the theater room. Win 7 also runs Plex Media Server software to stream our local TV/movie content (mostly ripped from DVDs) to the Pi (running PleXBMC beta software over Raspbmc), and all Roku boxes (via the Plex Channel).

  • Added inexpensive enclosures to 2 unused hard drives to let them serve as external storage for digital content.

  • Previously negotiated a $50/month cable bill reduction for a year, followed by another $10/month reduction after all the above steps were done. You can bargain more effectively if you show the customer service rep that you have done your homework and are ready to act.

The bill is down from $215/month in April (TV/phone/internet) to $133/month (TV/internet) currently. That’s an $82/month, almost $1000 savings over the next year. The low-hanging fruit has been picked.

All these actions were expensive only in the time and effort it took to figure them out and make them happen, not in $$. I learned a lot, too, which was very satisfying.

(If my seeming obsession with $$ has suggested that we are in straitened circumstances, such is not the case. I get a kick out of seeing how much I can do with “found” and inexpensive resources, and cutting costs with minimal or no pain.)

Internet is a must-have. But we could save another $1000+/year by cutting the TV cable entirely.

To do so, a minimum WAF (wife acceptance factor) requirement would be reliable, user-friendly broadcast TV DVR in the den (my wife’s “office”).

Here are some improvements, combinations of which could make that possible. Each one could entail significant expenditure and/or handyman skills and tools:

  • Wire the house for Ethernet.
  • Put up an external antenna.
  • Add an HDHomeRun networked digital TV tuner.
  • Add Tivo-type product as broadcast TV tuner/DVR.
  • Add a Simple.TV box
  • Add a computer with HDMI output.

Which combinations?

One of the simplest ways to go is with an indoor antenna (we might need an external in the den; our reception isn’t perfect there), and a Tivo Roamio for live broadcast TV/DVR. However, there is a Tivo fee of $15/month.

We do have two other rooms where an indoor amplified antenna suffices. An HDHomeRun tuner could be placed in one of those rooms. Then Ethernet wiring could deliver the broadcast signal and DVR recordings to a computer ($35 Raspberry Pi or Windows 7/8 PC, or somewhere in-between) attached to a den TV via HDMI. That is one way for us to avoid both an external antenna and monthly fee.

Simple.TV combines some of the virtues of each setup. You attach an antenna and an external hard drive for DVR recording. It connects to your network via Ethernet. View over the Simple.TV Roku channel. Monthly fee is $5/month. Here is a 9/22/2014  Wired update on Simple.TV in comparison to Tablo DVR and Channel Master DVR+.

(I have considered replacing the TV in our den, a 2002 vintage 36″ flat tube HDTV without digital tuner, since it can only handle component, S-video and composite video inputs, not HDMI. To get around this, I have tried two different HDMI-to-component video converters without success. An HDFury Gamer 2 Component likely would work, but at a cost of $160, I may hold off until I reach a decision. Simple.TV would not require a converter.)

The cord-cutting crux of the matter remains: can we (especially my wife) do without the Essential (aka basic and extended) cable stations. If we can’t, then none of the above would enable us to cut the TV cable.

The most we could cut would be “Advanced” DVR/HD service, keeping only analog, saving about $15. And analog is an unadvertised feature that could go away at any time as the cable service evolves. Not a huge reward vs. the cost of bringing broadcast TV DVR to the den.

Of course, there is the “TV gypsy” path, moving from cable to dish and back every year or so to get special new customer deals. But by going away for at least 30 days, you become eligible for the deals. You could use Roku and broadcast TV to “survive” the 30 days. Maybe you could survive a lot longer.

2014-09-13 05.50.56

Are we there yet?

Ray Kurzweil is the inventor of the flatbed scanner and electronic keyboard instruments, cofounder of Singularity University, director of engineering at Google, and futurist.

Here is Kurzweil’s recent summary of what our future will be like, with my own futuristic thoughts appended:

  • Our brains will extend to the cloud, which will allow us to learn new things at any age.

    -You’ll have to pay to avoid product placement in your new memories.

  • We will be able to selectively erase pieces of our memory.

    “Do these jeans make me look fat?”
    -“Who are you?”

  • We’ll be in augmented reality at all times.

    -What kind of joint is this, man?

    -It’s a heavy-duty joint, man.

    -It looks like a toothpick, man.

    -No, it’s not a toothpick, man.

    -It is a toothpick, man.

    -No, man, it’s just…

    -It is a toothpick.

    (“Up In Smoke”)

  • By 2029, machines will be able to match the intelligence of humans, and they’ll be able to make us laugh and cry.

    -Each will be equipped with laughing gas/tear gas canisters.

  • Around the 2030s, tiny “nanobots” able to repair and preserve our organs will keep us healthier and smarter.

    -People will be standing in line all night to get the latest upgrades. Those who miss out will suffer from organ-tuning ‘bot envy.

  • 3D printing will be even more common than it is today, with public 3D printing stations for people to print out clothes, toys, and anything else.

    -Will add a whole new dimension to butt-scanning.

  • Within 25 years, computers will be the size of a blood cell and we’ll be able to connect it to the brain without the need for surgery.

    -We’ll need tiny tweezers to operate our smartphones.

  • Society will reach a state of “technological singularity” in 2045 where technology enables superhuman machine intelligences to emerge and people and machines become deeply integrated.

    -Become one with your smart TV!
PlexChannels

Some of the available Plex channels

The above selection of Plex channels best approximates cable TV, in my opinion.

Many more are available, but they tend to be more special interest in nature.

These are not live feeds from the cable channels, but collections of their content that you must drill down to and select. Some channels are more up-to-date and complete than others.

All are free. You can sign up at Plex.tv. Once you select your preferred channels, you can watch them on your computer, or add the Plex Channel on Roku, or get the apps for your tablet or phone. The various apps cost about $5, but everything you do on your computer is free.

[As mentioned in previous posts (see 007 Channel on Plex), Plex is also a great way to use your own local content. With MakeMKV software installed, stick a DVD into your computer and rip it into streamable MKV files that Plex Media Server can serve to your various apps in a nice menu. You can also convert shows recorded on Windows Media Center into Plex-streamable files with MCEBuddy (or free Handbrake) software (see U.N.C.L.E. and Superman on PC DVR).]

The Plex channels are a fine idea, but are they adequate substitutes for cable TV? Only you can answer that question for yourself.

Here is my perspective.

When I worked at American Airlines/Sabre in Realtime Coverage, members of our group created PC software to automate the routine monitoring of reservation and flight systems that we had previously done entirely by manual command line entries. The automation allowed us to glance at several passive displays, take in a lot of information, and often spot incipient problems.

At one time, an outside group was charged with developing new automation. What they created did not work for us. The reason: their software presented little passive information. To view any aspect of the systems, we had to actively drill down to it. But typically, you would only do that if you already suspected that particular subsystem to be in trouble, so it was little use as early warning. In the realtime environment, we didn’t always have much time to respond.

Cable (or satellite) channel surfing is a bit like system monitoring, though without the urgency. It’s easy to bring up the program guide and flip channels, not knowing upfront what will capture your attention. That is a mode my wife particularly likes (and I like it too). For her, it pertains mainly to casual background TV viewing on weekends.

With Plex channels, Roku channels, etc, that mode is not available. You must actively drill down to the specific content. It’s harder work and takes more time to be exploratory.

I don’t believe there is an easy alternative to the content provided by cable and satellite, and I haven’t been able to replicate the full channel surfing experience, though there is an XBMC (later: renamed “Kodi”) software project called PseudoTVLive.

Cut the TV cord completely? It comes down to how much you like casual surfing, easy access to broad content, and live TV, beyond what you have with free broadcast TV. Is it worth the cost?

We haven’t cut it yet. But we have whittled it down quite a bit (see previous post, Tears for tiers).