Thursday, April 05, 2012

Cutting the (Cable) Cord, Part Two

Breathe. Breathe in the air. Don't be afraid to care... about saving money! This week in part two  of my Cutting the Cable Cord series, we're talking about over the air HD broadcasts, typically referred to as ATSC. For this I needed a few items, two of which I owned already:
  • An antenna
  • A tuner
  • A means to record/view the signal
Luckily, I already have in my possession Elgato's EyeTV 250 Plus, which I have been using as a second TV in my office for a couple of years. I also have been using it to record SD (standard definition 4:3) broadcasts through the use of a box rented from my provider. As mentioned in the previous article, I am looking to reduce my payments to said provider. Elgato has several products that may interest you. After reading this is you wish to know more you may check out their website.

First off, the antenna. You actually should be able to use almost any indoor/outdoor antenna you wish, either directional or omnidirectional. Signals are transmitted mainly via UHF though there are also some VHF channels too. You can opt for a powered or passive antenna, it really depends on how far away the signals are and how strong. So how do you find that out?

Start by going to DTV.gov and entering your address (more accurate) or zip code into the search box. You'll see a list of local stations, their proximity and their potential signal strength. Be aware that they assume that you are using an outdoor antenna at least 30-feet off the ground. If your signal strength is real good, you might be able to just use a passive antenna. Otherwise you might need an amplified outdoor antenna to pull enough signal in. Click this image to the left to see how the reception is in my area.

So knowing that I can receive most of the available channels in my area pretty well, I opted for the passive, omnidirectional antenna. I found a Terk antenna on Newegg.com that I almost bought, but then my friend told me about the Mohu Leaf, and when I checked it out, the specs looked good, the cost was reasonable and it was on sale for 20% off with free shipping. Yahoo! I like a good deal, don't you?

So yeah, I bought it. Next. As they say in real estate, "Location, location, location." Placement for the antenna is critical for good reception. So the first place I tried was my office, where my current tuner setup is. We live in a split and my office is in the basement, wanna guess how good the reception was? Zilch. I panicked for a minute there, wondering if I had just dropped $40 for nothing. Then I went to stage two — investigation. I connected the antenna and tuner to my laptop and took it signal hunting. The minute I went upstairs, I began receiving a signal. The best option turned out to be the kids' study where there happened to be, ta-da! an Core 2 Duo iMac just waiting for me. Plugged the EyeTV 250 Plus into the USB port, connected the antenna, installed the EyeTV software and voila! instant HDTV.

Well, not that easily of course. First, I had to use the signal strength indicator in the software to determine the best placement of the antenna. Then I had run through the setup wizard to find the channels and then lastly download the channel guide for my area from TVGuide (luckily, all doable through EyeTV software).

Can I say "wow"? WOW! What a great picture. I had gotten used to the SD recordings but when I saw this displayed on my computer screen, it was amazing. The clarity, even when enlarged to the whole 21" screen was fabulous. Can't wait to see it on the television. So last night I taped two of the shows I like to watch, Castle and Alcatraz. The results have been very positive so far. I hope to watch them on the television tonight.

After editing out the commercials, two-hour season finale of Alcatraz came to a whopping 10.1GB in size and Castle came in at 4.5GB. So right away I saw the first down side of HDTV — data size. In standard definition a 1-hour show (edited down to 43 min.) comes to about 1.4GB in size. The HD version is about 4x larger. Yikes! Which means I can store about a quarter of the shows I can in the same amount of space. But with the cost savings of not having to pay for cable, I can get a new large hard drive easy. The second downside is again — data size. But this time from a transport perspective. Before, I could slap a couple of shows onto a thumb drive and plug it into my laptop which I then connect to the TV to watch. Easy. But I can't copy 4GB+ files onto the thumb drive in its standard format (FAT32). The solution to that? Maybe get a new external USB powered drive that I can attach to the desktop for recording and the laptop to playback through the computer (or the Roku, possibly my next article). Lastly the third consideration — again, data size. While it took only a couple of minutes for the ETVComskip to search and mark the commercials, it took 10-20 min. to do it to the HD ones. Luckily that process can be done unattended (but may need to be initiated manually at times).

Here is the projected cost of my setup, if you already own or do not need any of the items, all the more moola for you!
  1. Mohu Leaf Antenna - $36
  2. Crucial.com Desktop Memory  - $60 (maxed it at 4GB, it needed it anyway)
  3. Elgato EyeTV 250 Tuner - $90+ (own one already)
  4. TVGuide subscription - $20/yr. (have it already)
  5. Roku XS - $89 (haven't bought it yet...)
  6. External 1TB USB powered drive - ~$99.00 (haven't bought it yet...)
Total could be as high as $360.00 and I would still save $340+ the first year! The next and final installment of this series — Bringing it All Together...