Stickin' it to the sat man

Generally speaking, Americans believe that more is better—except for, of course, leprosy and Celine Dion. And nowhere is this thirst for more better exemplified than television. The old joke about having 500 channels and nothing to watch is only old because having 500 channels is so 2005. The fact that MTV has yet to launch a 24-hour Road Rules vs. Real World channel can only be explained by their apparent fascination with some double-headed blonde monstrosity known as "Speidy."

Personally, I blame the content providers for this idiocy. DirecTV, Dish, AT&T U-verse, Verizon FIOS and the assorted cable companies keep touting their expansive channel lineups and how many of said channels are HD. Presumably, he who has the most channels wins. Wins what I'm not exactly sure, but I'm guessing a lovely case of thumb cramp.

Then, one day not too long ago, I was icing down my thumb when a confluence of facts erupted in my brain. First, my wife and I only watched about five non-broadcast-network shows with any regularity. Second, DirecTV's HD channels are hideously over-compressed and, therefore, ugly. And third, we were paying $86.10 a month for the privilege of watching macro compression artifacts on "Hidden Potential."

This was dumb.

So, about three weeks ago I canceled our DirecTV service and plugged in the old rabbit ears. Although that last part is lie. I actually plugged in a new antenna I hung in the attic and connected through the existing RG-6 cable. Regardless, I was ready to wallow in the 1080i glory of free, over-the-air, digital television.

Of course, I wasn't really going to step back into the world of 1992 and start programming my 4-head HiFi VCR again. After all, once you have a DVR, nothing much else will do short of beaming the signal directly into your brain. I also didn't want to just abandon the cable shows I had grown to love like so many digital refugees on top of a Saigon apartment building. I didn't really need my TV to be free. It just had to be cheap.

So, along with the new antenna, I added a few more gizmos:

1. Tivo HD upgraded with a 1TB drive. I've always preferred Tivo's interface to other DVRs. My DirecTV HD DVR's UI came close to that of the Tivo (not surprising, considering DirecTV used to use Tivo boxes), but still lacked a certain something. Or maybe I'm just mesmerized by the dancing TV logo. Whatever. I was able to get a refurbished unit for $199. And it only took sending one back to get one that worked. Which is apparently not uncommon with this model of Tivo. It originally came with a puny 160GB drive.

This would simply not do.

While one can theoretically buy any 3.5" SATA drive and use some Windows-based programs to reformat the drive for Tivo use, I really didn't want the bother. And not because I'm a Mac guy—I've got XP running via VMWare Fusion, thank you. But when you can, like I did, find a Tivo-ready 1TB drive on eBay for $15 more than a plain drive, it's hard to pass up the time savings. And the drive truly was a plug-and-play deal.

One-time cost for Tivo and HD: $310.
Monthly Tivo subscription: $12.95

2. Apple TV upgraded with a 250GB drive and hacked with Boxee. This is supposed to be a Mac-centric blog, so here's the Apple hardware. I asked for the Apple TV for Christmas mainly to have a way for my wife to view our iPhoto library (we have 13-month-old twins) and play our iTunes library. Of course, I can now do both with the Tivo, but the ATV is a little nicer in regards to synching and UI. I'm also using the iTunes Store to buy the cable network shows we're now missing. Which so far only amounts to "Top Gear." Guess I'm not missing the others as much as I thought I would.

I do wish I could have upgraded the drive to something larger than 250GB. Unfortunately, Apple has yet to upgrade the ATV to an SATA interface and 250GB is as large as PATA notebook drives come. I considered doing a major hack and adding an external drive, but figured I wouldn't need that kind of space for a while.

Installing Boxee went off without a hitch thanks to ATV Patchstick Creator. Boxee will come in handier when I start wanting to add more video that isn't in my iTunes library. I also love(d) that I could access Hulu with it. Unfortunately, as of February 27, 2008, Boxee no longer streams Hulu (due to Hulu's issues with their myopic content providers). Hopefully this will be rectified soon.

I have two major complaints about the Apple TV aside from the SATA/PATA issue. First, the remote is way too simple. It's the standard Apple remote that includes a whopping six buttons. Second, there's no Power Off command. You either have to scroll through the menus and select "Standby," or hold down the Menu button for five seconds—which doesn't always work. I have my Harmony programmed to do this, but the results are iffy.

One-time cost for Apple TV: $0 (gift)
One-time cost for 250GB HD: $79
On-going costs: Varies per TV shows subscribed to; currently $13/season for "Top Gear"

3. Harmony 880 universal remote. Okay, I didn't really need a new remote for my system, but had refurbished 880's for $75, so who was I to pass that up? Besides, it makes everything easy for my wife. She'd learned all the macro keys on our old HTPRO, but still—when babies are crying ease-of-use matters. My only complaint about the 880 is that it's too idiot proof. I'd like to be able to manually build macros and add commands.

One-time cost: $75

The Results: So far, so good. I'm picking up all the Dallas-area DTV stations quite strongly, and the picture is much nicer than DirecTV's. We're not quite in the age of 10-bit uncompressed 4:4:4 video yet, but I am pretty happy. I have yet to miss the 200+ channels I theoretically gave up. I suppose if I had more time to veg out on the couch I might start pining for "Modern Marvels" or "Futureweapons," but I can always hit the iTunes Store if I get to jonesing too hard. (And, yes, I know I could grab some torrents, but I really, really don't have time to deal with that.) Streaming from Netflix is quite nice. The selection of available movies isn't fantastic, but there's always something worth watching.

In the end, I shelled out $389 in direct costs for replacing my DirecTV setup (I'm not counting the Harmony). After the monthly Tivo subscription and random iTunes Store purchases are deducted, it'll take about 3 months to break even on the deal. Then I'll be pocketing $60 a month.

I don't know if I'll always be satellite- or cable-free. But I can't imagine going back until I either have a lot more disposable income, or true a la carte channel packaging is offered. And considering that will probably take a literal act of Congress to get done, I won't hold my breath.

Will you, Mr. or Miss or Mr. Mister Reader, find as much bliss in this setup as have I? Since I hate well-it-depends type answers, I'm going to say yes. There are so many additional avenues for finding content these days, it seems the main reason to have cable or satellite is if you either have to watch something the day it first airs, or if you get the sports packages. But if you're willing to wait to either stream a show or get the DVD—and you don't mind heading to a friend's house to watch a game every now and then – an over-the-air / media center setup can be almost as satisfying as hearing that Celine Dion just contracted a wicked-itch case of leprosy.



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