The HTPC project (a.k.a. get rid of cable) has been going on for almost a year now, so I thought I’d post an update. The original intent was to see if cable TV service could be replaced with internet and broadcast TV. My requirements for a solution were:
- Usable by the whole family
- Content obtained legally
- No loss of content
- Run on Linux machines (or at least not Windows)
So can it be done? Not exactly. At least I couldn’t make it work. Here’s what I found out:
- Audio/Video retailers won’t touch this space. They don’t know it, they don’t want to know it. All they do know is that this stuff isn’t turnkey and they don’t want to support a computer. And they’re right. This means setting this up without computer skills is probably not a good idea.
- The cable TV experience has been refined over the years. As petty as it sounds, you need a traditional remote control. No one wants to have to sit with a keyboard and type in a URL, log in and push a “full screen” button to switch channels.
- Some networks are only available only on cable. Sports, for instance, are not always available. If they’re not broadcast (i.e. carried by a major network), you can’t get them without buying a subscription. This was a problem for Phillies and Eagles games.
- Streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon video don’t run natively on Linux. To use them requires inconvenient steps. See this discussion of Netflix on Linux.
Could I have done more to make this work? Yeah. I didn’t install a TV tuner in the HTPC. This would have let us fast-forward and rewind through live TV. Once you’ve gotten used to this, it’s jarring to watch TV without it. (Heck, sometimes I try to rewind the radio in my car.) I didn’t try any subscriptions to replace cable content. But those subscriptions still require use of a web site, which, as I mentioned, scores low on ease of use. I could have canceled cable to force myself to dig deeper for a replacement. And, lastly, I did this project in the basement, which isn’t as comfortable as the family room. If the kids were watching their shows in the family room (even ones I would never watch myself), I found I’d rather watch that in the family room than go down to the basement to watch something I enjoyed. Insane, yes. Lazy, yes. But that’s what happened.
The experiment wasn’t a total loss. The HTPC gets content automatically loaded on the NAS by Sickbeard. I watch those shows while on the treadmill or bike trainer, which means I exercise more. The kids use the HTPC to watch YouTube on the big screen. I use the big screen to preview video I take with my DSLR. The NAS has made back-ups a breeze. There’s an extra computer in the house as a back-up. And I was inspired to get a TiVo!
Although we’re not giving up cable, one thing that was a constant irritation about cable was the usability of the FiOS DVR. In addition to being buggy (switching tuners unpauses a show, fast forwarding to the end of a show is tricky, recordings sometimes don’t work right), the user interface is unresponsive. Frequently the DVR doesn’t respond to a button press. What’s worse is there’s no user feedback when the DVR is busy. So you can’t tell if it got your command or not. Do I push the button again? Wait a while? Ugh. After living with this for three years, I replaced it with a TiVo. I had considered getting the TiVo Premiere because it records broadcast TV. What the HTPC experiment taught me is that I can’t replace cable just yet. So if I’m going to use cable, I don’t need broadcast. The Premiere Elite has four cable tuners, but no broadcast tuner. It’s only been in the house for a day–I’ll post more on that later.