Cutting the Cable: Network and Hardware
This is the third post in a series about abandoning cable/satellite television in favor of HD broadcast TV combined with a web-connected computer acting as a media server. To start with the introduction, click here; links to the rest of the series are at the bottom of the post.
The minimum requirements to set up your home television to receive OTA broadcasts and combine that with a computer acting as a media server are simple in theory: (1) an antenna connected to your television; (2) a computer connected to your television; and (3) a broadband connection to the computer.
In practice, of course, this may be a little more difficult than it sounds because . . .
- you will need to have convenient (wireless) input devices for the computer;
- you may need to include additional components in your set-up to get the results you want;
- getting a broadband connection beside your television may present problems;
- your television may not have a standard pixel width your computer recognizes;
- your computer’s output to an external display may use a different connector than is available on your television; and
- your television may not have enough inputs to share with your computer and other components.
Purchasing an Antenna
If you want a comprehensive guide to finding the right antenna, you can get it at AntennaWeb. The brief overview is this: if you are living in-town close to major broadcast antennas, you may be able to use what amounts to an old set-top antenna. If you are a little farther out, you may be able to use a bigger antenna mounted in your attic. If you are a little farther away still and live in a valley surrounded by big trees, you may have to do what I did: get a directional antenna and put it on the chimney. I hired a professional to do the installation including running coax to two locations and installing an amplifier. Total cost: $350 and an afternoon away from work.
Getting Bandwidth to the Television
As described in an earlier post, my television is located about 75 feet and several rooms away from my cable modem. I considered three options for getting bandwidth to the computer that would be hooked up to the TV: installing Ethernet cabling, using a wireless-to-Ethernet bridge or using an Ethernet over power lines system to carry the signal over my already-existing internal wiring. In the end--because I already had the equipment on hand--I went with the Ethernet bridge solution.
You can get more details about how to make this work in the link below, but I’ll give you an overview here. I already had an 802.11n WiFi network in the house via an Apple AirPort Extreme base station, and I had a spare AirPort Express device lying around that I sometimes used when we traveled. To set this up as an Ethernet bridge (as opposed to a simple repeater of my WiFi network) I used the Airport Utility included with all Macs and followed the directions I have conveniently laid out for you in another post. I used Apple WiFi gear for this because I had it on hand and because I know how it works; almost all similar gear from other manufacturers can be configured to do the same thing.
Once this is done, the Ethernet port on the AirPort Express is active as if it were an Ethernet port on the base station itself. Viola! Network extended as if I had run Ethernet cable behind my walls. From here, I simply plugged an
Ethernet cable into the AirPort Express, plugged the other end into a 5-port Ethernet switch (for a tutorial on Ethernet switches v. hubs, check here; don’t worry too much about this, though: almost all devices sold as Ethernet “hubs” today are actually switches), and then used additional Ethernet cables to create a wired connection to my Mac Mini, TiVo HD and the Roku box. Now I had a wired connection to all the devices I wanted to use with my television.
Why TiVo, Roku and Mac Mini?
First, the TiVo. We have been using a TiVo since about 2002 with a four-year detour into the Comcast HD DVR while we had Comcast service. I would have stuck with TiVo even when we bought our first HD television except for the fact that: (1) at the time we bought the HDTV TiVo did not make an HD DVR, and (2) you simply cannot (as of mid-2010) access cable On Demand content using a TiVo (even with a CableCard setup) and it made no sense to get the Comcast HD service without being able to use the On Demand service.
Anyway, TiVo service was critical to us because (1) I am seldom able to watch shows at the time they air, and (2) I simply cannot sit through commercials. I won’t even start watching live sports events until 45 minutes after they start so I can avoid the ads.
Since I was going to be connecting the Mac Mini to the TV, I did some pretty extensive research on the possibility of using a software-based DVR function via an Eye TV One device plugged into
the computer, but none of the packages available fit my need for simplicity; I might have given them a shot if I was living alone, but the complexity that they would have introduced into the process of just watching a show would have caused a revolt in the house. The Eye TV software has been significantly updated since I did my research, and you may want to look into it (and its competitors) further if you want to save a few hundred dollars and the monthly cost of the TiVo service.
Next the Roku box. I bought this box the week it was released so we could access NetFlix Instant Play content on the television. Although its fast-forward and rewind functions are primitive, it works great and is simple to use. Since
its release, Roku also cut a deal with Amazon, and the little box can now access all of your Amazon VOD content including movie rentals. If you are gear-savvy, you will recognize that the TiVo also syncs up with NetFlix (and can download Amazon VOD content) and I can access both of these services through the Mac Mini, too. You are right. All I can say is that I find the Roku implementation and simplicity the best of the three; I probably would not have purchased it separately if I hadn’t already had it sitting beside my TV when I started this process, but even with the computer and the TiVo box hooked up now, the Roku is what I turn to for NetFlix and Amazon VOD content.
Finally, the computer. I had to have this to access content that is only available on the web and for access to iTunes television programming (which is broader than is available today on Amazon). And if you are going to set up your system without a Roku box, the computer is far preferable for watching Amazon content. Since we are a Mac household, I didn’t look any farther than the Mac Mini, but I’m sure there are good Windows-based boxes available that would serve the same media server purpose (and you could get one with a Blue-ray player which is not available on any Mac today; Dell makes a neat little machine that would serve this purpose well and not take up too much space).
Because the Mac Mini shares system memory with the video card, I highly recommend making sure you have at least 4 GB of RAM installed. You can do
the RAM upgrade yourself, but don’t buy it from Apple because you can find it for far less money from various web sources. All my Mac memory upgrades come from Crucial, and I have never had a problem with them. But there are other sources available, so look around; all the web sources have a tool that will let you ensure you are buying the right RAM for your machine.
Getting Video (and Sound) Into the Television
As I pointed out in an earlier post, my television is a 2006 42” Panasonic HDTV. Because of its age, it has only one HDMI port, and that’s what I wanted to use to connect the Tivo (carrying my OTA signal) the Roku and the Mac
Mini. The simple solution was an HDMI switch: I ran an HDMI cable from each of the three devices into the switch which has a single output into the television. The model I got has an infrared remote which enables us to switch sources remotely. And the Mac Mini required the
purchase of a Mini DisplayPort-to-HDMI adapter (but the Mac Minis released in June, 2010, have a dedicated HDMI port, so if you are buying a new one, no adapter will be needed).
So what about sound? If you are using HDMI, the newest Mac Mini supports multichannel audio out over that cable. If you need to connect to a different output device (or you have an older Mac Mini like I do), you will need to use the digital/analog line-out minijack with an adapter that will split the left/right channels so you can plug them into your sound system (or your television).
Finally, plugging all this stuff in presented a real challenge. I wound up
mounting a Monster Cable Surge Suppressor against the back wall of the cabinet under my television and using that in conjunction with a Power Sentry Squid which makes it a lot easier to be flexible about where things are plugged in, particularly when you are dealing with a number of transformer bricks. That cabinet remains a mess of wires despite my best efforts to organize it from time to time. But everything works.
That’s it. Next, making it all easy to use.
Other Posts in This Series
Software and Remotes: Making It All Useful
Getting the Media Content You Need
On-Going Frustrations: One Year In