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All posts for the month September, 2015

32" LG LED TV, Winegard FlatWave indoor amplified antenna, Roku XDS

32″ LG LED TV, Winegard FlatWave indoor amplified antenna, Roku XDS.

Our cord-cutting arsenal:

Ooma Telo internet phone device

5 TVs: LED (2), plasma, flat-tube, ’83 CRT
TiVo Roamio OTA 4-tuner DVR
TiVo Mini extender (2)
Mohu Sky 60 powered outdoor antenna
Winegard FlatWave indoor antenna (2)

Roku streaming media player (3)
Chromecast streaming media player
Blu-ray player

TiVo “Peanut” remote (3)
Logitech Harmony 890 remote
X10 universal 5-in-1 learning remote.
Smartphone

Netflix & Amazon Prime subscriptions

Windows 7 PCs / free Plex &
Emby software to serve
music/TV/movie libraries.
Windows 7 PC / free Windows
Media Center DVR with
recordings on external drive.

Raspberry Pi computer w/ free OSMC, PleXBMC, & ServerWMC software
to access content on Win 7 PCs

X10 analog video sender / receiver
Powerline network adapter (4)
Gigabit Ethernet switch (2)
Kinovo HDMI switch
Powered USB hub (2)

(The list entitled “Our cord-cutting arsenal” appearing at the bottom-right of this blog shows the hardware and software we use for all five of our TVs. Since you can’t tell which items are in each room, I am breaking it down by room, highlighting the hardware used in light yellow, content in white.)

The bedroom is another simple room, hardware-wise (See previous post The workout room TV setup for my wife). The presence of the Roku box gives her access to other content via software.

After a freakish lightning strike, our 1989 20″ tube TV, no great shakes to start with, looked like it was on a bad trip, emitting weird green and purple colors. (See Lightning-pocalypse Saturday.)

Perhaps it could have been degaussed, but it was finally time to upgrade and simplify the setup. (See the old setup in Eliminate a cable box.)

The tube TV went to Best Buy along with the other stricken electronics. (See Best Buy accepts 3 dead electronics items per day)

It was replaced with a new 32″ LED TV.

Now that there was no need for a digital converter box, we could also dispense with the Logitech Harmony 650 remote and use only the new TV’s dedicated remote. A minor problem had been that the Harmony “thought” the old TV was still on after the sleep timer turned it off. Correcting it the next evening was a hassle for my sleepy wife, and therefore not a feather in my cap. (See previous post Logitech Harmony 650.)

We are using only an indoor antenna in the bedroom, rather than another TiVo Mini. A Mini would be great, but that would require us to get an Ethernet cable to the TiVo Roamio in the den. The only way to do that would be to wrap it around the house and add outlets in both rooms. Too much trouble for now.

However, the indoor antenna does well for all channels except RSUTV, which is not a sleeptime favorite, anyway.

The Roku box is now plugged into the new TV with one HDMI cable. When we want to use it, I pull its dedicated remote out of my bedside drawer.

We could watch anything on Netflix or Amazon using the Roku, though we don’t often do it.

But on Sunday nights, my wife sometimes likes to watch old English favorites such as “Keeping Up Appearances” or “Fawlty Towers”. This can be done by selecting the Plex or Emby channels on Roku. Either can stream the programs from one of our own Windows 7 PCs.

I had previously ripped the shows from DVDs and placed them on the PC in the proper file structure and naming convention. Plex and Emby servers running on that PC then were able to retrieve artwork for the Roku onscreen menu. (See Saving YouTubes, viewing with Plex & Emby.)

Why is Emby preferable to Plex for video content in the bedroom? Because we have a first generation Roku in there. The Plex channel app for that older device appears not to have been updated for their latest transcoder server software. Thus it delivers less than optimal video for files in the .mkv format (an .mkv file is the immediate product of MakeMKV, the DVD-ripping software I use).

Plex on the Roku XDS still works well with .mp4 video and .mp3 audio. If I weren’t so lazy, I would convert all those .mkv files to .mp4. But since the Emby app on Roku is doing a fine job handling .mkv transcoded by the Emby server software, why bother? A selling point of both Plex and Emby (though both are free) is supposed to be that they can handle a range of file types. (See 007 24/7 on Plex Media ServerMedia Browser: an alternative to Plex)

Someday we will probably upgrade the Roku box, but it’s not worth doing until another natural disaster strikes, or a newer device offers some extra functionality we want.

The Roku has had no problems with wifi, but I had an extra Powerline adapter on hand, so I am using it instead. Powerline uses your house’s AC wiring as a conduit for Ethernet data. It’s not as high bandwidth as Ethernet cable, but better than wifi for streaming data. See previous post Powerline vs. Ethernet wiring.)

Everybody’s happy now!

Atari 800 XL simulation on hacked Wii. Controller eembedded in flight yoke, wireless keyboard as control console.

Atari 800 emulator on my hacked Wii. The new BIC America F-12 subwoofer is on the floor. Final subspace radio message: “Star Fleet to Star Cruiser 7: Mission Complete. New rank is: Pilot Class 1. Congratulations”.

In a previous post, Sci-fi Saturday fun in the theater room, I showed our home theater setting for viewing MeTV’s “Sci-fi Saturday”.

But who doesn’t want to get in on the sci-fi action him/herself?

Star Raiders is a 1979 game cartridge for the Atari 400/800 home computer. Gameplay combines elements of Star Trek, Star Wars, and even Battlestar Galactica.

Very well-done simulation, even more impressive when you consider that the machine code took up less than 8K bytes. Subsequent higher-tech updates to the game were not as playable.

I discussed some of the details of how to get access to The Homebrew Channel on the Wii in last year’s post, Raspberry Pi computer leads to Atari on Wii, but I thought I would show it in this post, having just acquired a much better keyboard for the purpose, the Logitech Wireless Combo MK270.

This keyboard comes with a tiny USB dongle, described as “advanced 2.4 GHz wireless connection with 10-meter range”, more than adequate for my purpose. The dongle inserts into the powered USB hub I attached to the Wii. It was recognized immediately on bootup.

I found a free digital copy of the Star Raiders cartridge online, and FTP’d the file over to a folder on the Wii, with the help of a Homebrew channel, WiiXplorer. Then I plugged the cartridge in (virtually), within the WiiXL emulator, another Homebrew channel.

Of course, if you still have an Atari 400 or 800 and the Star Raiders cartridge, just plug into VIDEO1 and go!

WiiXL simulator, from the Homebrew Channel

WiiXL emulator channel from The Homebrew Channel. Other HB channels: WiiXplorer (file handling, FTP server), USB Loader GX (run games ripped from discs to external hard drive), Wii Earth, Wii Media Center

WiiXL simulator splash screen

WiiXL emulator splash screen

The familiar Atari initial screen

The familiar Atari initialization screen. Select, Start and Reset are F3, F4, and F5 on the new keyboard.

Set course to starbase or enemy-occupied sectors

Set course for a starbase to effect post-battle repairs, or for an enemy-occupied sector

Steering In hyperdrive

Steering In hyperdrive, shields up.

Direct hit, but a Zylon basestar lurks to the lower left of the crosshairs. Sounds good on the subwoofer.

Direct hit, but a Zylon basestar lurks to the lower left. The explosion sounds good on the subwoofer.

A 1979 game in a 2015 home theater. Still fun!

StarRaiders_i

Or even the 70s

“8’s The Place” promo by Carl “Uncle Zeb” Bartholomew from the late 70s/early 80s.

Our cord-cutting arsenal:

Ooma Telo internet phone device

5 TVs: LED (2), plasma, flat-tube, ’83 CRT
TiVo Roamio OTA 4-tuner DVR
TiVo Mini extender (2)
Mohu Sky 60 powered outdoor antenna
Winegard FlatWave indoor antenna (2)

Roku streaming media player (3)
Chromecast streaming media player
Blu-ray player

TiVo “Peanut” remote (3)
Logitech Harmony 890 remote
X10 universal 5-in-1 learning remote.
Smartphone

Netflix & Amazon Prime subscriptions

Windows 7 PCs / free Plex &
Emby software to serve
music/TV/movie libraries.
Windows 7 PC / free Windows
Media Center DVR with
recordings on external drive.

Raspberry Pi computer w/ free OSMC, PleXBMC, & ServerWMC software
to access content on Win 7 PCs

X10 analog video sender / receiver
Powerline network adapter (4)
Gigabit Ethernet switch (2)
Kinovo HDMI switch
Powered USB hub (2)

You may have seen the list entitled “Our cord-cutting arsenal” appearing at the bottom-right of this blog. It shows the hardware and software we use for all five of our TVs. But since you can’t tell which items are in each room, I am breaking it down by room, highlighting the hardware used in light yellow, the content in white.

I’ll start with the workout room (a guest bedroom with a Bowflex in it).

It also has a 13″ 1983 analog tube TV with an X10 video receiver attached to it. That’s it, no antenna, no digital tuner.

It gets all its programming from the den TiVo Roamio via X10 video sender.

When my wife works out, she likes to catch up on recorded “General Hospital” episodes.

Here’s her simple setup:

  • Turn on the den X10 video sender.
  • Turn on the workout room TV.

She then controls the den TiVo Roamio with the free TiVo app on her phone, enabling her to watch her recorded shows or live TV, content from Netflix and Amazon via their TiVo apps, or our own TV/movie library via the Plex app!

The quality is as good as an old analog TV can deliver (surprisingly good).

I try to keep the sender off when not in use because it jams the crowded 2.4 GHz band used by older wifi routers; see previous post Conflict between Wifi, X10 video sender. The X10 receiver is always on. The TV is always on channel 3.

The TiVo’s composite output is hooked directly to the X10 sender.

(TiVo’s HDMI output is still hooked to COMPONENT1 on the den TV, via the HDFury Gamer 2 HDMI-to-component video converter. Read more about this in a previous post, Replace the old TV?)

This higher band, greater range 5.8GHZ Wireless AV Transmitter & Receiver is currently cheaper than our X10 sender/receiver pair. Neither requires wiring, both work best with an old tube TV.

If we had the house wired for internet, we could just stick another TiVo Mini in the workout room.

But this poor man’s Mini is perfectly adequate for our low time and attention usage in that room. (I usually listen to music or the radio while I work out.)

Later note: the above arrangement may seem a bit odd, but I got an email from a reader with a similar setup, so I’m not the only one!

The other four TV rooms to follow in future posts.

(PS, This is post #100!)

3 weeks ago in Cozumel, Mexico. Today in Tulsa, it is 9º F.

How we use our cord-cutting savings.

I could make this the briefest post ever if I just said “TiVo”.

It was certainly the key cord-cutting move for us. (See previous posts Cord-cutting status report #1 and Cutting the TV cable with TiVo Roamio OTA.)

TiVo Roamio OTA

TiVo Roamio

The TiVo Roamio, aside from being an extremely user-friendly DVR and TV tuner, has built-in access to video providers YouTube, Netflix, Amazon Instant Video (including Prime), Hulu Plus, MLB.TV, and VUDU (video on demand service).

Your favorite shows and series from all these can be easily integrated into the “My Shows” list of recordings. (See Streaming video as cable substitute.)

For example, my wife likes to watch the cable show “Hoarders” in the den (her HQ) on Saturday, so we added it to “My Shows”. It appears as any other recorded show, but when you click, all episodes from all seasons are listed. Some episodes are currently available on Netflix and newer ones are available on VUDU. So you pick one, select a provider, and watch. (See TiVo’s new OnePass feature: boon to cord-cutters.)

Of course, the Netflix or other options work only if you have a subscription, the VUDU option only if you have set up an account with them. (Episodes are $1.99-2.99/episode on VUDU, depending on whether you want SD or HD).

These “cloud” shows take up no space on your TiVo’s hard drive.

If you are saving as much as we are, you feel freer to pay for programming you really want. We recently bought the first season of “Better Call Saul” on Amazon Instant Video (it is not available on Amazon Prime currently).

Recently added apps include Plex, iHeart Radio, Pandora, and Spotify (subscription only). These are not integrated in the same way as the video providers, but it is great to have them (especially Plex!)

All these TiVo features combined render other devices such as Roku, Chromecast, Apple TV, or “smart TV” optional for many people.

TiVo’s program guide and interface are superior to the cable box/DVR we had.  More recent iterations such as the Hopper by DISH, Genie by DirecTV, and Contour by Cox created competitive pressure that resulted in the much-improved Roamio series.

Our kitchen TiVo Mini

Our kitchen TiVo Mini

The TiVo service costs $15/month, but a great way to get more for your money is to add a TiVo Mini (no extra charge beyond the cost of the device).

This is a little box that attaches to the mothership by Ethernet cable (or MoCA, Multimedia over Coax). We added two Minis, one for the kitchen, one for the theater room. (See The fruits of cord-cutting: new TVs, TiVo Mini.)

Our TiVo Roamio OTA has 4 tuners, and dynamically allocates them to each Mini as needed. If too many tuners are in use by viewers when a recording starts, viewers will be asked to click Select if they want to continue watching. If not, or if there is no response, the Roamio will take back the tuner and reassign it.

Other models have 6 tuners if 4 is not enough.

Having one recording repository serve every TiVo box makes it convenient to switch rooms in mid-program.

With a TiVo and a good antenna, you might well be able to cut the cable cord while keeping things as simple as they can be! (See previous posts Placing an indoor TV antennaHigh winds can affect TV reception and Mohu Sky 60 antenna review.)


This one got toasted by a lightning srike.

One minor complication you might enjoy is a Roku.

Like the TiVo Roamio, it has YouTube, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu Plus, MLB.TV, VUDU, Plex, Pandora, Spotify and iHeart Radio.

But in addition, it has a multitude of other free channels, some of the best of which are: Crackle, Comedy Central, Sky News International (HD), Shout Factory, Nowhere TV, and Tunein with thousands of free radio stations. (See Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee on Crackle.)

Other subscription channels include Sling TV, HBO GO, ESPN, and Showtime. (See Cord-cutters’ supplement? Introducing Sling TV.)

The remote is simple to operate.

If any of the additional channels grab you, a Roku is a good one-time investment to expand your choices.


Google Chromecast with HDMI extender cable, microUSB cable, USB power supply.

Google Chromecast

Google’s Chromecast device is an alternative to Roku, but smartphone-centric; you “cast” apps up to the big screen.

Castable apps include most of the usual suspects mentioned above (Netflix, Crackle, Plex, Pandora, etc.), with the notable exception of Google competitor, Amazon.

YouTube is an especially natural fit to this mode of viewing.

I previously described my devious method of using a Chrome browser tab and Chromecast to get 24/7 web versions of CNN, msnbc, and CNBC up onto the big screen. (See Use Chromecast to watch online cable news.)

If you are one of those guys who insists on entertaining with his smartphone, Chromecast will give you a much bigger stage to work your magic.


Linksys WRT54G router and Ooma Telo

Our Ooma on the right

An Ooma Telo VoIP (voice over internet) device replaced our landline phone service.

My wife does all her business calling and texting on her iPhone.

But I still like having cordless phones around the house, even though I text with Google Voice on my wifi-only smartphone. I was able to keep our old phone number with a one-time $40 charge.

The voice quality is very good. The only downside I’ve found is a slight delay, similar to cell phones I’ve talked on.

At a monthly cost of less than $4 in taxes, it’s a small indulgence. (See Cord-cutting: Hold the phone!)

Ooma was the first cord-cutting move documented in this blog.


There is more to learn and remember as you expand.

There are optional but more complicated things you can do.

Run free Plex or Emby software on your PCs, and serve video and music to your laptops, phones, and tablets, and to your TVs via Roku or Chromecast. (See 007 24/7 on Plex Media ServerPoolside fun with Plex remote access, and Media Browser: an alternative to Plex.)

Replace TiVo at a lower or no monthly fee with Tablo DVR or Channel Master DVR+, or Windows Media Center, or freeware like NextPVR. Warning: they all could work for you, depending on your needs, but none are as user-friendly as TiVo. (See RIP Windows Media Center (in 5-8 yrs).)

Save a TiVo-recorded show as an .mpg file, maybe later convert it to .mp4 for Plex use. Thanks to reader JJ’s comment on the previous post, I learned how to do it. I just followed all the steps at the Windows Install link on this page: pyTivo (free server software).

Run free media center software such as OSMC (formerly XBMC) on a Linux-based machine such as the Raspberry Pi. I use my Pi as a front-end presentation for Windows Media Center DVR software running on a network-attached Windows 7 PC. With the free PleXBMC add-on, the Pi also front-ends Plex servers running on other household PCs. In addition, it offers unique free content, such as ESPN3 in HD. The interface is slick and stylish, with many free skins available to radically change the look.

The Pi is flexible and fun, but setting-rich and sometimes frustrating; recommended more for the tinkerer than the casual user. (See previous posts Raspberry Pi computer leads to Atari on Wii“Let’s kill Uncle first!”Windows Media Center & Raspberry Pi, and The missing context button.)


The tool that enabled evolution.

Logitech Harmony 890

Here are a couple of ways I tamed some of the complexity created by adding new boxes and new modes of delivering media to our theater room:

A Logitech Harmony remote eliminated a bucketful of remotes for the all the above devices, plus Blu-ray, receiver, HD radio, VCR, etc. The Harmony online database knows about all your devices by model number, and gives you workable default button settings for all your activities. You can customize to a high degree, and I’ve had a lot of obsessive fun getting it just right for me.

Ultimately, the Harmony unifies and simplifies your TV experience. Best money I ever spent. (See 2014: A Cord-Cutting OdysseyLogitech Harmony 650Cloning the TiVo “Peanut” remote.)

When I can’t remember off-hand which show is where, I look at Our post-cord-cutting TV menu on my smartphone.


The most important lesson I have learned:

Keep the basic TV/DVR system user-friendly and reliable. This maximizes the wife acceptance factor needed to successfully cut the cord.

I enjoy dealing with the complexity entailed by extra functionality, but my wife and many other sane and smart people do not. You can have simple, or complex, or both co-existing as we now do.

As The Keeper of Talos iV (above) thought, “May you find your way as pleasant.”

In the year+ I’ve been writing this blog, we’ve tried a lot of cord-cutting measures. It might be useful to review the ones that were less than totally successful.

Most of the following items could work for others; here’s why they didn’t for us (links to relevant past posts are in parentheses).


1. Mediasonic HomeWorx Digital TV Converter Box with PVR (see Eliminate a cable box)

We bought our 36″ tube HDTV new in 2002 to use with cable. It does not have a built-in TV tuner, so in order to cut the cord, we needed a converter box to get digital TV with an antenna. This particular box cost only $35, and also had the capability of recording shows on a USB drive. I delusionally dreamed this could replace the cable DVR service.

But it was simply too clunky and kludgy as a PVR (DVR) to inflict on my wife. Doing so would probably have dealt a fatal blow to my cord-cutting ambitions. So it moved to the bedroom to serve as a digital tuner only. The price was still good for that use only. I finally traded it to a friend when we replaced the bedroom TV.

2. Cheap Component-to-HDMI converter (see Replace the old TV?)

We had already cut the cord with a TiVo Roamio OTA, but were watching the 36″ tube TV using the lower quality composite input (yellow, red, & white plugs) with TiVo. That was because the TV has only composite, component and S-video inputs, rather than the HDMI needed for the best quality TiVo connection.

I ordered two different HDMI-to-component video converters in succession from Amazon, but neither worked worth a hoot. I learned that the cheapest one on the market that would totally work was the HDFury Gamer 2, and it wasn’t that cheap.

Most people would probably be better served by getting a new TV, but I wasn’t ready to tote that still-working 217 lb. TV to Best Buy for recycling (see Best Buy accepts 3 dead electronics items per day).

3. Raspberry Pi/Windows Media Center PC as DVR (see The Life of (Raspberry) Pi)

I hardly attempted to get my wife to use this; the Pi/Windows combo is not casual user friendly, and is prone to periodic hiccups of various sorts. But I’ve learned a lot from it, and WMC captures TV shows reliably in a format that can be converted to .mp4 (unlike TiVo See JJ’s comments and links below; you CAN pull videos from TiVo with the free pyTiVo program!)

If you have a PC with an HDMI output, you could plug it directly into the TV and use WMC without the Pi. But Windows 8 is the last version to support WMC, so you would be out of luck by 2023, 2020 for Windows 7 (see RIP Windows Media Center (in 5-8 yrs)).

4. Roku Highlights online document (see Our post-cord-cutting TV menu)

This is a list of all the Roku channels with the content of current interest to us. It is in the form of a Google Doc, so I can look at it and update it from tablet, smartphone or browser. The idea was to remind us of all the shows we might watch, and which device or channel they’re on.

It’s fine as MY doc, not so much OURS. Gaye just doesn’t approach TV that way. I do, so I serve as the TV butler, verbally reading from the list when needed.

Since my original post, I have periodically updated the doc and added the content available via Chromecast and Raspberry Pi as well. All to aid my own memory.

5. Antenna placement (see Mohu Sky 60 antenna review & The Riddle of COZI)

(Click to enlarge)

I had the Video Revolution installer place the outdoor antenna on the highest, easternmost point of our house, in hopes of getting the best all-around signals. (He found the height daunting, but if it hadn’t been, I would have tried it myself.)

As it turned out, reception was generally very good. But a few of the higher frequency stations suffered when spring brought foliage and wind. Our street is downhill from the affected stations, so there was no way to put the antenna high enough to avoid the trees.

One other corner of our house might have had a better shot at less obstruction to the east (where a majority of network stations are for us). We don’t know. But it may well have had problems with other stations, even if it slightly improved the Coweta stations.

Ideally, I would have experimented a bit more. But due to the sheer height/steepness of our roof and the lack of attic access, that would have been difficult. With the installer’s meter running, and seeing good reception on all stations that day in March, I locked it in.

This summer, all channels have been consistently good.

6. A|B switch with set-top antenna (see Mohu Curve 50 antenna & COZI in the den)

(Also tried in the spring) The switch selected between the roof-mounted Mohu Sky 60 antenna, and the Curve 50 sitting on the TV. The idea was that when one station’s reception suffered due to the usual factors (wind, trees blocking the signal), another antenna sometimes did a better job.

In practice, it just didn’t work well enough or often enough to mess with it. Not the Curve’s fault; there was just no consistent good placement for it within the space restrictions imposed by the den TV’s location.

7. Hulu Plus (see Streaming video as cable substitute)

In short, we love Netflix, and Amazon Prime to a lesser degree, but Hulu Plus not at all. We dropped it.

After going with a TiVo Roamio OTA as our DVR, Hulu Plus would have been almost superfluous anyway.

A major key to cord-cutting success was reliably delivering daily episodes of “General Hospital” that could easily be rewound, jumped-back, and reviewed, and Hulu wasn’t it.

I found Hulu’s interface poor and the commercials annoying.

8. Powerline to connect a TiVo Mini to the TiVo host box (see The fruits of cord-cutting: new TVs, TiVo Mini, comments)

I successfully used a long Ethernet cable to connect the TiVo Mini in the kitchen to the TiVo Roamio OTA in the den, as recommended. (The other recommended way is MoCA, multimedia over coax.)

I then replaced the cable with a Powerline adapter, a way to send data packets over your house wiring (see Powerline vs. Ethernet wiring). This was an attempt to eliminate the wire.

It worked for a time, but started taking too many errors to be acceptable. I returned to the long Ethernet cable, and did the same when we added another Mini in the theater room.

A Powerline adapter effectively delivers internet access to the Roamio, and thus to the Minis too, but it isn’t quite up the job of moving the video data.

9. Finding ways to provide the cable shows my wife can’t live without (or just wants)

I was really worried about this, so I tried a number of things:

— Plex channels (see Free Plex channels = cable substitutes? and NBC/msnbc discontinuing video podcasts)

— VCRing  a lot of “Survivorman” before cutting the cable.

— Plex personal media content (see  007 24/7 on Plex Media Server) such as my wife’s favorite Sunday night shows, “Keeping Up Appearances” and “Fawlty Towers”, and Saturday fave, “The Outer Limits”. I also ripped our favorite movies from DVD for Plex.

Of those three items, only the latter proved to be of use to her.


The things that DID work will be in a future post. A high wife acceptance factor (WAF), as always, is primary.