Cable-Free Since 2012
In March of 2012, when our son was one year old, I was laid off from my job. To start saving money immediately, one of the first things my wife and I decided to do was cancel our Comcast cable TV subscription. We’d been thinking of trying to make due without cable, and since I’ve very technical and resourceful, I was up for the challenge of finding the content we wanted without paying for cable.
Many people complain about their cable TV provider, and are interested in what I do. But very few of them actually cut the cord. So here is some information about our current setup and a guide to how we get the TV and other video content we want to watch in the easiest way possible. It’s definitely not for everyone, but if you like to tinker with computer hardware and software and audio and video gear, you might enjoy the challenge.
What Is an HTPC?
An HTPC is simply a computer that serves up video content that is connected to a TV and audio system via a high quality connection like HDMI. Most of our TV and movie watching is done on the couch, through the HTPC connected to our TV and 5.1 audio system.
Since the 1990s, I had been playing with TV tuner and capture cards and had been hooking my PC up to my TV to watch videos and play games on the larger screen, so the idea of a Home Theater PC (HTPC) was nothing new to me. Luckily, my wife never objected to a PC in the livingroom. Our current HTPC is very quiet. In fact, the 50″ Panasonic Plasma TV’s fans are easily more noticeable than the sound of the HTPC. Here are its key specs:
Asus H87-Pro Motherboard
Intel Core i5 CPU
8 gigs of DDR3 RAM
1 Intel SSD
4 big hard drives
Wireless mouse & keyboard
Free Live TV & DVR
I mounted a $40 outdoor antenna to our bird feeder pole near our deck. It points toward the TV towers in Needham, MA.
The antenna is connected to a network TV tuner called the HDHomeRun which connects to our gigabit wired network.
This combination allows us to watch and record live TV on any of our 3 PCs using Windows Media Center software. Windows Media Center provides the best program guide and DVR functionality of any system, cable, satellite, or otherwise. The software is free with Windows 7.
We reliably receive all our local network affiliates and subchannels with the exception of myTV38. The best thing about all this is that receiving HD TV over the air is the absolute best way to watch TV because there’s no compression on the part of a cable or satellite provider. The video feed is crystal clear with 5.1 sound.
My wife is hard of hearing. When she watches TV, she relies on close captioning to supplement what she hears. Luckily, all the closed caption data is broadcast over the air and is available to us with this system.
What About Cable Shows & Movies?
Thanks to Usenet and automation, most of the shows we like just show up, usually hours after new episodes are broadcast.
NOTE: This is a gray area, so I’m not going to get into the specifics of this part of my setup. If you’re interested, you can start by exploring the automation software I link to below. It is not an easy, plug and play solution. It requires quite a bit of setup. There are forums to discuss all this.
The beautiful interface is thanks to Media Browser, a program that works in conjunction with Windows Media Center.
The free software Sonarr organizes TV shows that we want:
CouchPotato is similar to Sonarr, but for movies:
Again, Media Browser organizes movies and makes them look pretty:
Often, these TV shows and movies do not include subtitles, so I have to manually find them and drop them into the same folder with the content.
What About a Set-Top Box?
Sure, you can always get a Roku, Apple TV, Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV, etc. but you will never be able to do everything that an HTPC can do. Each set-top box will have its own limitation. But for the majority of people, I’m sure it’s the easiest way to access content they want. So if that’s easier for you, or more elegant, go for it!
We use Netflix, Hulu, and other web sites within a browser on our HTPC. We just full-screen it and enjoy!
Big Learning Curve
Finding all the content that we want without cable has been a big learning curve, but getting all this stuff to work right is fun for me. My goal is for me to be able to select what I want and then not have to think about it. It shows up neatly and cleanly, in a beautiful interface that my wife can use and enjoy. It’s not for everyone, but it can be done, if you have the time and the interest.
If you have any questions, I’ll be happy to help you.