WAF

All posts tagged WAF

TiVo Roamio OTA

TiVo Roamio OTA. Click to enlarge.

We cut the TV cable a week ago.

(See Cord-cutting status report #1 for our previous cord-cutting actions.)

I had paid attention to how Gaye watches TV in the den, her usual hangout. The main thing she needed was ease in recording, viewing, and instant-replaying network series such as General Hospital, The Bachelor, Modern Family, etc.

A TiVo Roamio OTA 4-tuner DVR did the trick (OTA = over the air). After experiencing the snappy and intuitive user interface for a few days, she asked when we were cutting the cable. I turned in the cable DVR/tuner box a few days later. The WAF is strong!

Another key to success was the TiVo “Peanut” remote. It’s compact, logically laid out and uncluttered. It uses RF (radio frequency) rather than infrared, so you don’t need to aim. It includes buttons for your TV Power, Volume, and Input. There is a 30-second-ahead button and an 8-second-back button for getting through commercials quickly, or rewatching a particular scene.

Setup was easy, though it took 20 minutes or so.

The Program Guide is visually similar to the one on our old cable DVR. But it can also display the data in other useful styles. For example, your favorite channels alone can be displayed, which is helpful when you are looking for shows to record. Program data is downloaded by the TiVo via either wifi or Ethernet connection.

“Season Pass”“OnePass” is the TiVo term for series recording. It offers more options than the cable box did, and they are better organized.

Recorded TV series episodes are grouped in folders by series name. You can display Movies or Sports or Kids or News and Business. There is also a large selection of other categories such as HD, Comedy, Drama, Documentary, Sci-Fi, etc., which can be selected singly or multiply.

The Roamio OTA has 500 GB storage for recorded shows. You can plug in an eSATA external hard drive for extra storage if you wish.

The free TiVo smartphone app shows you what’s on to watch or record, and gives you a second remote.

The cord-cutter’s rub: the Roamio OTA exacts a $15/mo charge for program data and updates. But I find it easy to rationalize:

The cable company charged $12/mo for DVR service. In order to get DVR service, we also had to add “Advanced TV” for $3/mo extra. There’s the $15. That doesn’t even include $8.50/mo for the cable DVR/tuner.

If you were aiming to replace broadcast TV recording with Hulu Plus, you would pay $8/mo. Hulu Plus forces you to watch repetitive commercials, has a poor user interface, and rewinds awkwardly at best. It’s worth $7/mo more not to endure that.

I am a cost-averse cord-cutter, but there is the ideal (no monthly cost), and there is the practical. Windows Media Center via Raspberry Pi works well for me in our theater room, and costs nothing per month, but complex setups can and do have issues occasionally. Microsoft’s commitment to WMC is tepid. I like to tinker, Gaye doesn’t. TiVo is like a reliable car with good cup holders. WMC/Pi might break down and require a change of spark plugs or tires while on the road.

I have the setup I like, she has the setup she likes. Peaceful coexistence at minimal cost.

More to come.

Back in Cord-cutting status report #1, I ventured this opinion:

“But it seems to me that the single most cost-effective, option-expanding move is to wire for Ethernet. The huge increase in bandwidth should immediately benefit the Roku and Raspberry Pi in faster loading time, responsiveness and higher resolutions.”

XAV101

XAV101 Netgear Powerline adapter

That is not as clearly true for us now as it once might have been, for a couple of reasons.

One, I physically placed a Windows Media Center PC in the theater room so it could be directly connected to the Raspberry Pi computer, rather than have them connected by Ethernet. (The WMC/Pi functions as a DVR with no monthly fees.)

Two, the den (my wife’s domain) is getting a polished, ultra user-friendly DVR, the TiVo Roamio OTA ($15/mo subscription). I am also putting a Mohu Sky 60 antenna on the roof. If the Mohu/TiVo combo is satisfactory for her, we will try cutting cable TV entirely. The TiVo’s internet connection, needed for program listing updates, will also be via Powerline.

With those two moves, Ethernet wiring takes a lower priority, though it would still be nice. Instead, we use Powerline to get internet to all our devices.

Powerline (aka HomePlug) uses your house electrical wiring to connect Ethernet-ready devices.

Plug one adapter into an AC wall socket near your internet modem/router, and connect the two with an Ethernet cable. Plug the other adapter into a socket near where you need internet, then connect it to your device with another Ethernet cable. You then have a “wired” Ethernet connection over your house wiring.

Five years ago, I was in the market for a Blu-ray player with built-in Netflix for our theater room. The choice was either a player with built-in wifi, or a cheaper “networked” model (wired Ethernet only). I chose the latter. But we had no internet connection in our theater room. To make it work, I spent the savings on a pair of Powerline adapters, shown at left above.

Netgear XAV101 utility

Click to enlarge

The bandwidth (“Link Rate” on the screenshot) is not as high as with Ethernet cable, which is typically in the gigabit range (1000 megabits per second, abbreviated Mbps).

At right is a screenshot from the Netgear XAV101 Configuration Utility software.

As you can see, the adapter connected directly to internet (Device 01) has a maximum design capability of 200 Mbps. In theory, this would be more than adequate for any media we currently use.

The adapter in the theater room (Device 02), is able to achieve a bandwidth of only 55 Mbps (the rate does vary from minute to minute and hour to hour). Why so much less than the nominal 200 Mbps? It depends on the adapter’s electrical “nearness” to its mate, and noise levels in the wiring.

Our theater room appears to have been a last-minute add-on in 1978 when our house was built. I assumed from the sometimes flaky behavior of an X10 ceiling fan switch in there that the electrical path to it was a bit circuitous. (X10 is a home automation technology that also uses house wiring.) The ceiling fan problem was largely solved by plugging our refrigerator, the theater room equipment. and the den TV into X10 noise filters. (X10 and Powerline do not interfere with each other.) Still, the theater room has lower put-through with Powerline.

Our theater room Powerline (physical) bandwidth of 55 Mbps is comparable with our wifi’s design limit of 54 Mbps. But both Powerline and wifi send actual data at not even half that rate at best, so their true throughput is around 20 Mbps, tops. (Newer standards of Powerline and wifi improve on that considerably.)

But that is sufficient for most streaming. Netflix recommends a mere “5 Mbps or more for the best audio and video experience”. We have had few problems with streaming Netflix. Heck, we even downshifted last year from 15 Mbps to a 5 Mbps internet plan with the cable company, and still rarely if ever see any buffering or sub-par video.

Broadcast HDTV recordings (e.g., on a Windows Media Center PC) are another matter. They can require as much as 20 Mbps bandwidth, which is at the limits of our Powerline connection. In practice, I found that trying to play these recordings on the Pi from a Powerline-connected PC was frustratingly inconsistent. Turns out that video encoded in the MPEG-2 format, such as broadcast TV, is unforgiving of transmission errors, which makes even faster Powerline and wifi problematic. Ethernet wiring is one solution to this problem.

Another solution is to do as I did, place the PC in the theater room, and connect it to a gigabit switch with the other devices. Bandwidth limitations and transmission errors are non-existent. The Powerline adapter, plugged into the switch, provides internet access to the Blu-ray player, PC, Raspberry Pi, and a Roku 3.

I recently acquired another Powerline adapter (Device 03 above) for the den, a used Netgear XAV2001, compatible with our existing XAV101s. As you can see, it achieves a much higher physical bandwidth (100+ Mbps) than the other adapter, due to the den’s more standard electrical wiring. (Cheaper and higher bandwidth Powerline adapters are available; see the TTM Amazon Store for a couple of choices.)

Another reason I like Powerline is to keep multimedia devices off our wifi router, which operates in the same frequency band as our video sender.

Powerline is very secure. Our older model uses 128-bit AES encryption. According to EE Times, to crack it with a supercomputer brute force attack would take longer than the age of the universe. I don’t worry about the weird kids on the block (at least not over this).

Don’t get me wrong, Ethernet wiring is the ultimate in bandwidth and simplifies everything. Certainly new houses should be wired, and it might well be worth it for you to wire an existing home. But Powerline can be a good alternative to wifi, though not as fast and clean as Ethernet.

I’ll post about the TiVo after I set it up and try it out this weekend.

Neighbor cat Albert on our couch, royally symbolizing the importance of the WAF (wife acceptance factor) in home theater

Neighbor cat Albert on our couch, royal symbol of the importance of the WAF (wife acceptance factor)

This is a more technical post about a problem I had with the Raspberry Pi computer I use as a Plex client, and frontend to a Windows Media Center PC. But I will sweeten it two ways.

One, here’s a cat picture. Two, the takeaway will be presented upfront so you don’t have to read any farther.

To wit: I have truly learned a lot from working with the Pi (originally intended as an educational computer), and had a lot of fun (all posts related to the Pi).

But to maximize WAF, the Pi must remain my own little project in the theater room. There are just too many updates, tweaks, and fixes needed to keep it going. For my wife’s den TV, I must use more stable and user-friendly ways to record TV shows, and play our own TV and movie content.

The Plex channel on the Roku box is working well for the latter purpose. For recording and watching TV shows, a TiVo is likely the simplest and most user-friendly solution, though there is a service fee of $15/month.

Windows Media Center does a high WAF recording job. Connected to the TV via Extender (e.g., an Xbox 360), it incurs a fee of $0/month. I’ll try it when I am able to borrow or buy a used Xbox. Rather than go to the expense of wiring the house for Ethernet now, I just bought a 100′ CAT6 Ethernet cable to test with.

—–

The Pi would not boot today. Could have been several things.

I had the Pi “super” overclocked as a way to speed up the interface, and thus more prone to corrupting the SD card that holds its operating system. However, in July, I altered a file on the SD card to make the Pi bypass it, and instead use a USB drive with the OS (RaspBMC). This sped up the Pi and made it less susceptible to corruption. (Great writeup: Transfer SD Install to USB Install).

But the SD card was an immediate suspect. It was also possible that the overclocking had fried the Pi (har har). Or maybe the USB drive had gotten corrupted.

I had another SD card with the Raspbian operating system on it, so I tried booting up on it. It worked. So apparently the Pi hardware was OK.

Next, I used free software (USB Image Tool) to restore to the SD card an image I had saved when I moved the OS to USB. Tried to boot up on it, but still no good.

I saved the Raspbian image to my PC with USBIT, then restored the RaspBMC image to that SD card. It booted OK. (Was the first SD card bad? I restored the Raspbian image to it, so I can try it later.) Then I set the Pi overclocking down to merely “fast”.

Just another day in the life of Pi.

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.