We’ve been without cable or satellite TV in our home for about 18 months now and we’re so glad we got rid of our TV provider. It was a hassle, but worth it. Not only are we saving money, but we are paying less money each month to a company that drives me crazy. If you’re interested in cutting the cord in your home, here are the steps to take. Technical explanations are courtesy of my husband.
Check which channels you can get OTA (over the air)
Punch your address in at TV Fool:
This web site will list the channels you should be able to get. There are obviously no guarantees and some channels will be harder to tune in clearly than others.
Once you have your list of possible channels, decide whether you can live with just those channels instead of the plethora of options from your current cable or satellite provider.
If you watch a lot of US or specialty channels (TSN, HBO, etc.), then you are out of luck. But if you can survive without these, you are probably fine. Anything within 50km on your TV Fool report you can probably get OTA. When we started looking at what we are actually watching, we figured out almost all our regular shows are actually on only two channels – CTV and CityTV (Canadian channels based out of Toronto). We watch the odd show on Global (Toronto) and CHCH (Hamilton) as well, but we really only needed CTV and CityTV. Anything else we could watch online.
Buy an antenna and hook it up
We got lucky because we had an old antenna in our attic from the previous owner of our house. My husband was able to hook this up and point it to the towers to confirm our reception was fine.
The antenna you will need depends on how far away your signals are, what range the channels are (VHF or UHF) and how many directions your signals are coming in from. In Ottawa, there are two major towers – one on Camp Fortune, and one in Manotick. Unfortunately for us, CTV is on one tower and CityTV is on the other. This meant needing to point the antenna in two different directions at the same time. I spent several hours in front of the TV switching back and forth between the two channels to check reception while my husband crawled around the attic trying to find the sweet spot direction for the antenna. Fun times!
In the end, we couldn’t get both channels without moving the antenna, so we had to buy a second antenna. We ended up with a combo VHF/UHF antenna to point to Manotick, and we recommend a UHF antenna to point to Camp Fortune. We then ran each cable through a signal amplifier and down to the TV inputs (separately).
As a side note, antennas don’t have to go in the attic. You may be able to put it right next to your TV and have it work just fine. It all depends on your location. We needed an amplifier to get a strong enough signal.
The Home Theatre Personal Computer (HTPC)
Now you should be getting your signals from your antenna on your TV. Free HDTV! If that’s all you care about, you can stop here.
In our house, we rarely watch live TV. We record everything and watch it on our own timetable. So, the next step for us was a PVR. There are all kinds of boxes and consoles out there that could accomplish this task in a basic sense. However, we wanted to be able to record shows over the air AND be able to watch shows online on different websites.
We had an old PC kicking around that my husband managed to resurrect. He reformatted it and then proceeded to setup the HTPC.
Steps to setup HTPC
Choose an operating system and PVR software: Windows 7 with Windows Media Center (WMC) OR Linux with MythTV.
My husband and I are more comfortable with Windows, so we went with the first option. WMC has a beautiful interface as well, and comes free with Windows 7. If you buy a different version of Windows, you have to pay extra for WMC. There are a couple quirks with WMC, but they are minor:
i) Channels that don’t meet standards compliance won’t tune in.
ii) Guide requires manual setup (I had to point my digital channels to the analog guide, but it works fine now).
Hook your PC video card HDMI out to your TV HDMI in
Hopefully your PC video card supports HDMI. Most do these days. I had to fiddle with the display resolution to get things visible on the TV.
Hook your PC audio out to your TV or audio receiver
I used SPDIF out.
Use a wireless keyboard and mouse
So you can control things from your couch!
Buy/install a TV Tuner card
I went with two WinTV-HVR-2250 cards from Hauppauge, one for each antenna feed. I got the package that comes with a remote as well, so I can control WMC with it instead of the mouse.
Scan for channels in WMC and add extra channels as necessary
Anything not found in the scan, but looks to be on your TVFool report, try adding manually.
Here is the list of channels we get without issues:
* CBC (English and French), Global, CTV, CHCH, TVO, CTV2, CityTV
If you only have one TV in your house, you can stop here. We have a second one in front of our exercise equipment and we wanted to be able to watch recorded shows from there too, so we needed a few more steps.
Share your WMC libraries
Now that you have WMC and a PC setup, you can share these files to other TVs in your house. Those other TVs need to have a way of reading files on the network. Some TVs these days have that built in. I had a networked Blu-ray player that we are currently using to play shows in our basement. Make sure to enable WMC file sharing. Then convert the windows media player videos to a format your other devices will understand. In our case, we used MCEBuddy to convert.
Use your HTPC for more than just TV
Your HTPC can do more than TV related things now! I’m sharing all our music from our office PC to our HTPC, so we can play music from the TV setup through WMC. We can also view slide shows, since all our photos are also shared from our office PC. And we can view shows seamlessly online on our TV now (without commercials, if you use Firefox with AdBlock plus).
The functionality of smart TV’s has come a long way recently, and sticker prices seem to be lower every time I walk through the electronics department. In some cases, smart TV’s are even cheaper than buying a desktop computer. However, they are not going to give you all the functionality described in this post. Perhaps that will change soon, but for now, in order to be able to watch free HDTV over the air, record shows to watch them later on multiple TV’s, and watch shows online from any web site, a desktop PC hooked up to a traditional (non-smart) TV is the way to go.
Have you cut the cord in your home? How do you watch your favourite shows?