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It has been six months since installing my initial infrastructure to move away from paid television and toward a goal of free, digital/HDTV broadcast in my home.  On my last post - My move to free HDTV Part 2 -- it was about HD HomeRun to the rescue for a tuner solution to broadcast to my chosen infrastructure.

To recap, my goals:

  • To get free network channels in HDTV quality
  • To broadcast to my two primary rooms
  • To enable DVR capabilities

My setup includes the following:

  • Philips MANT940 – UHF digital antenna.  This is connected to a coaxial cable that was pre-wired in my home going from the attic to my structured wiring panel in my home.
  • HD HomeRun – my antenna feed connects (well, first through a splitter – more on why later) to the HDHR unit here.  I’m only using one tuner although I have the two-tuner model (can’t remember why I bought that model, probably wasn’t paying attention).
  • Windows 7 Ultimate – I have a 64-bit machine with 6GB RAM and 1TB of drive space that acts as my Media Center and receives the HDHR broadcast.  Media Center serves as my DVR.
  • XBOX 360 (2) – These serve as my Media Center extenders as well as additional TV options.  I also receive Netflix streaming through one of them via my XBOX Live account.
  • PlayOn – This software is installed on my same Media Center machine and provide capability to watch Hulu and other online TV broadcasts including Netflix as well.
  • My Movies for Windows Media Center – this is a plugin/software for Media Center (that also works for extenders) that enables a better movie management option for your digital movie collection.  Full Disclosure: As a Microsoft employee I did get a deal on this software.  After seeing the value, I think the $100 is worth it if you have a large movie collection and watch them via Media Center.

The Success

I can say that I’ve reached success.  I am free of cable television bills for now and enjoy watching my desired television stations in crystal clear HDTV.  After my feeling of initial loss of my TiVo units, I haven’t missed them.  The TiVo interface is much more simplistic, but I have not lost functionality in moving to Media Center as my DVR component.

HD HomeRun has been the critical piece in this success.  I have a structured wiring system in my home and the ability to broadcast that signal from there is ideal.  There are some downsides which you can read about below.  The HDHR unit took some getting used to when setting it up, but that was a one-time task once my antenna was properly placed and I did a scan of available channels.  I not only receive local channels, but I’m close enough to some southern cities in Arizona and receive their stations as well (granted a lot of network duplicates).

I have the HDHR with 2 tuners which I initially thought was going to be worthless since I only had one input – my antenna.  Then I realized that I could still re-use my splitter in my structured wiring panel and get the antenna feed and provide two inputs.  This hasn’t really become a necessity yet (only would if two people wanted to watch two different channels), but nice to know it is there.

My XBOX/Media Center Extender in my main room starts up in Media Center mode to help those who just want to watch TV (more on why later in the failures section).  Downstairs where we watch more movies and Netflix streaming, it starts in normal XBOX dashboard mode.

Another key piece of this setup is the remote controls.  I have the Harmony 659 and 680 that I’ve had for a while.  While they work nice, they don’t map very well to the XBOX dashboard/Media Center controls.  They don’t have easy ‘back’ button integration (the 659 is old for sure and lacks a lot more) as well as some other easy function mapping on existing buttons rather than custom menu options.  I remembered recently that I did have the Logitech Harmony for XBOX remote.  This is an older version than their 510 model which is similar and has generic color buttons for other game consoles.  After remembering this I reconfigured my XBOX remote upstairs, removing the 659 from the picture.  This has proven so far to be a better decision as the remote maps a lot better to physical named buttons (Back, Info, Next, etc.) than using custom options that nobody was reading/understanding.  I highly recommend using the 510 or the XBOX remote for this instead of the fancier models they currently sell.  These two are adequate.  I’ll actually be picking up another XBOX remote for downstairs to replace the 680.

Some failures

I don’t think any success comes without failures :-) -- nor did mine.  Here are some of my issues…some of which may be deal-breakers for anyone else.

  • Sports – I’m not a sports fan.  Not enough at least that I must watch Monday Night Football or college games, etc.  I consider myself a ‘championship’ sports fan (Super Bowl, World Series, etc.).  If you are a sports fan, this setup simply won’t work for you.  There are no live options for over-the-air ESPN broadcasts or even any online watching via these options is not great.  Media Center has some options but they are not live nor do they work through extenders.  If you love your sports, for now you’ll still be paying the cable bill.
  • Remote Control – Media Center is not as intuitive as TiVo was for my non-tech savvy family/users.  We have babysitters for our kids occasionally and I felt like I needed to leave a manual for them each time we left to simply watch TV.  The new XBOX remote I remembered about should help this, but prior it was a lot of Okay, click this button and wait for things to turn on, then you’ll see this screen, scroll down to get to the guide, then click this.  Oh yeah and typing direct channel numbers won’t work.  And if you want to watch Movies, go here.  If it is a DVD, then do this.  It gets old.  For me, no problem.  For my wife – she is a little frustrated at times.  This is a learning curve.
  • Home Server – Sometimes my home server got in the way because it also aggregates digital media (music/movies/etc.).  For instance, using the My Movies software, I had duplicate titles.  This is because by default it was looking at my Home Server Videos folder *AND* the Converted Videos folder.  Changing this to only look at the converted folder solved my problem, but it was a bit annoying at first.
  • Changing Channels – you MUST use the guide or navigation pad on the remote (up/down).  Digital broadcast is no longer just “Channel 12” but rather Channel 12.1.  Remotes currently don’t have the decimal point to enter.  So if you typed 1-2-enter thinking you’d get to channel 12, it would tell you that channel doesn’t exist.  This is somewhat annoying, but only for the users of your TV who direct channel input.  Given that our broadcast channels are limited, the guide for now is acceptable.
  • XBOX Live/Netflix – man, I can’t figure out why I can’t just have multiple XBOX consoles use my same XBOX Live account.  This is annoying.  Yes I know you can put it on a memory card, but moving upstairs/downstairs even with that is dumb.  Netflix streaming requires an XBOX Live account (Gold).  So downstairs my XBOX has that configured and we can watch streaming in all glory.  Upstairs however I can’t login to my Live account without transferring it, so that defeats the point.  This is lame in my opinion.  The PlayOn software above enables Netflix viewing, so upstairs we use PlayOn for Netflix.  The downside to the PlayOn/Netflix solution is the quality.  I see a noticeable difference in quality from direct XBOX streaming for Netflix compared to PlayOn.  This is obvious when you consider that XBOX is streaming directly, versus PlayOn is an XBOX plugin that is communicating with my computer and then streaming that.  It just simply doesn’t compare.  But is an option.
  • Non-Netflix/Non-Live Watching – this involves the PlayOn software.  It is a bit hacked together from a UX experience in XBOX.  You have to navigate to your Video Library on your profile, then you navigate “folders” to view the PlayOn content.  This navigation is horrible for large ‘channels’ as they searching options are usually fixed.  It is just pretty kludge if you ask me.  I’m not sure what feeds the PlayOn channels like CBS/NBC etc, but some are recent and some are not – it’s odd, but it works…just takes some getting used to at first.  The navigation via Hulu on this is not ideal for me given the amount of content that is on Hulu.  Needless to say I use PlayOn mostly for Netflix only streaming and the occasional boredom surf for older TV episodes of crime dramas :-).
  • No Gigabit – my XBOXen have no gigabit connections.  My home network is now gigabit enabled, but for the most part it is worthless.  Since I’m streaming from my Media Center PC to my XBOX for television it would be nice to have that gigabit bandwidth capability. 

We’re sticking to this configuration as it is working for us.  We are not huge TV watchers and watch mostly network broadcast only.  Because of this we haven’t lost out on our TV watching habits at all.  I miss being able to fall asleep to some Food TV shows, but I’m not heart broken over it.  I’ve had people come over and state how clear our channels are compared to even their cable HD broadcast.  They are amazed at the picture quality they see on our sets.  I have to admit, it does look better than the HD I was getting via my cable provider as well.

So 6 months into it and no regrets.  My move to “free” my be a little stretch since I had to invest in at least the HD HomeRun to make this all work (PlayOn and My Movies are not free either, but not requirement to get over-the-air HDTV).  So for my one-time investment of $200 for the HDHR and an antenna, I’m happy with my decision.

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