How I Dumped Cable TV and Phone
Review by R. Preston McAfee, April, 2013
Last summer, we had work done on our house, which entailed not having access to cable TV for two months. No one missed cable TV at all. Netflix and YouTube are what the children (ages 10 and 13) watch, and the adults (never mind their ages) watch movies, typically on Amazon or Google Play. We have an upstairs TV and a projector downstairs, with the projector connected to a PC. To have TV easily accessible upstairs, I added a Lenovo Q190 PC upstairs, for about $360. This PC plays full HD 1080p perfectly, no stutter at all (contrary to some reviews). Indeed, video looks great and the biggest problem is that no one can read file names or alert boxes without getting up and walking close, even though I turned the accessibility settings to full magnification on a 50 inch TV. Overall it is a great experience, and using Windows Media Center as a DVR is much easier than any digital video recorder, including Tivo. However, no one in the house is fanatical about sports, and sports is the hardest content to get on the web.
To have access to the network channels, I put in an Mohu Leaf Paper-Thin Indoor HDTV Antenna. I installed this antenna inside the attic, pinned to a pole (a 3 foot, 2 inch diameter dowel screwed to a rafter) that I installed to let me angle the antenna. The HD broadcasts are of higher quality and noticably sharper than DVD. We have a thick wood roof (cedar shake) on top of plywood, but we do have line of sight to the TV broadcast antennas, which are on a mountain 17 miles away. I used Antenna Web, along with the compass on my cell phone, to figure out where to point the antenna.
We use Windows Media Center to record. I use the SiliconDust HDHomeRun DUAL High Definition Digital TV Tuner HDHR3, about $80, as a tuner. Windows Media Player sees the output of this device as being like a cable. Moreover it distributes the TV signal through ethernet, so that both TVs get it.
For video where we own discs, I already had the Asus N66U router and I attached a 3TB Western Digital My Book Essential to it, which provides access to video throughout the home network, as well as space for backup and sharing other files across computers. This required no setup and it is an excellent feature of Windows how easily a home network can be created. The only thing that was mysterious to me was how to access this hard drive on a chromebook, but ftp://192.168.x.y, where 192.168.x.y is the IP address of the router, reaches the hard drive attached to the router and allows either copying or playing files. I use DVDFab to rip DVDs and Handbrake to encode them into MP4s for storage on this drive. I did have one problem with this router -- large or frequent file uploads would crash it. I activated Quality of Service (QoS) on the router, which limited the rate for file transfers to about 75% of the my internet service speeds, and this problem went away.
Even over N band, wireless connections often produces lousy video playback in my experience. A frequent symptom is audio lagging a second or two behind the video. So I've run ethernet to locations where there is a TV, and I also put a wifi router at these locations. That way I can hook the TV up to an ethernet port on the router and have two more ports for other devices to connect (having the router act as a switch requires plugging the incoming ethernet line into one of its four "out" ports). This gives me good wifi coverage throughout the house as well as good TV. My other routers are Medialink - Wireless N Broadband Router. These are not nearly as good as the Asus router but less than half the price.
Our typical use is to watch TV series on Netflix, buy movies from Amazon or Google Play, or buy whole seasons of shows on DVD and copy them to the hard drive for easier access.
Turning off cable TV saved $90 per month and cost a one-time fee of $360 for the Lenovo, $40 for the antenna for the PC, $80 for the HD Home Run, and $8/month for Netflix (the last of which we were already paying).
Update: my Lenovo died -- spun the hard drive but no video output. I described the symptoms to Lenovo over the phone and they sent a technician two days later. He replaced the motherboard and all is back to normal. This is amazing service for a $360 device. Update #2: Started getting pixelation on the TV. After trying lots of things, culprit turned out to be routers. All the routers were 10/100s, which theoretically should be sufficient for 1080p, but as the TV signal went from antenna to the HD HomeRUn box to a router to a gigabit router, to another switch, to another switch, to a router, to a PC to record, there was a lot of scope for degration. Only the middle router, and none of the switches, was a gigabit router. Now I've shortened the links and replaced 10/100 switches with gigabit switches so that it goes from antenna to the HD HomeRun box to a gigabit router to another gigabit router, to a gigabit switch, to a PC to record. No more pixelation. The cables are mostly 5e's, although a couple of the connections are Ethernet 6's. I'm glad I didn't need to replace the ethernet cables as they are hard to run. The switches are from Monoprice, 8 port switches for $25 each. I'm mostly no longer using the switch functions of my remote wifi access points because these were 10/100s, but I still have security cameras plugged into them because that works fine.
Time Warner charges $30/month for telephony with a US-wide calling area. This is VOIP (voice over IP, i.e. internet) telephony. So we transitioned to Google Voice telephony, using these instructions. The only thing that was tricky was getting the security system to work, and even that was reasonably straightforward, I just set DTMFMethod from the default (Auto) to "InBand", and changed the DTMFRxMode from "Hardware" to "Software", settings which worked for someone else. (There are hundreds of settings, most of them opaque to me, but as these are dropdown menu items, changing them is easy enough.) These two settings apparently make the device more able to understand dial-up phone tones, which is how security systems communicate. Note that because I had a cable company phone and hence already was using VOIP telephony, I could see that the security system should work with VOIP. Once I made those two changes on the OBI 110 settings, the security system passed all the communication tests, and we've even set it off accidentally once and it worked. In addition, I'm paying $12/year for E911 service, although we've never called 911. I probably didn't need the OBI 110, instead of the OBI 100, but copied someone who got the OBI 110 to work with their security system.
Edit (April 15, 2014): As feared, Google discontinued Google Voice, at least the aspect that allowed the Obitalk to work with GV. I switched to PhonePower.com, which has an unlimited plan at $60/year. That is a lot more expensive but we use too many minutes for the 60 minutes per month plans, that are around $35/year. The unlimited plan includes 60 minutes of free international and for most countries 1 cent per minute thereafter, which is more than I need. Overall PP seems to be working great. I set my GV number to transfer to but that hasn't happened yet (costs $18 do to this, one time).
So for the moment I have my GV number calling my home phone by ringing my PP number, but eventually the GV number will transfer and I'll have a direct to the home number calls and can cancel GV for the home phone. PhonePower should fix one bug where a call to my home number rang my wife's cell simultaneously even though it was supposed to roll over 25 seconds later. PP has a nice system to configure what happens when a call comes in: ring home for X seconds, then ring cell for Y seconds, then transfer to voicemail, and if none of these work, a busy signal. One loss is the transcription that GV provides, but PP offers an audio file by email. Given the error rate on transcriptions this isn't too much worse. The interface is clean and easy to use and setup was easy.
Having Google Voice for a home phone is nice.
The disadvantages are:
*Having incoming calls go to both my wife's cell and to the home meant that by default she couldn't call the home from her cell, which was a distinct disadvantage. To fix this, first set the cell to call from the cell number rather than from the Google Voice number. This is done from settings in the Google Voice app on the cell phone -- "Make All Calls from Cell" rather than from Google Voice. Second, create a group in Gmail contacts (currently in Gmail, click on the GMail drop down icon in the upper left) and put your cell number in it. If you don't have a contact that has your cell you will have to create one first. Third, in the Google Voice website (in the banner of options in any google property, click the right hand More, then Even more, and Voice is under Home and Office), choose Settings (in the right hand side gear icon), Groups and Circles tab, find the group you created (I called it Cell), Edit, and then Forwards to and uncheck the cell number. Now the cell doesn't try to ring the cell (which is busy with your call and hence forwards to voicemail). Note that you can also control which calls to the home phone forward to the cell by similarly creating a group that forwards and then setting everything else to not forward.