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.



Comments closed
    • Cannyone
    • 11 years ago

    I grew up on the “back side of beyond”… as in no TV reception possible! =P

    So I joke that I lack the normal degree of social conditioning. But I do like watching a few things. Dish Network seems like the best choice in my neighborhood, if you want to watch 1080i programming (it costs a little less than forty bucks for package with a modest selection). I’m also familiar with Direct TV, and if you want HD you have to pay nearly $125+. Comcast might be changing, though I doubt it… Last I was aware they had a total of 12 HD channels, and for that you had to get their premium package… so we’re talking $140+ per month.

    See I live in Albuquerque, NM atm. We are about 12 miles from the broadcast cluster. And Over the Air just isn’t very good. That means that (at least for Football season) some kind of Dish will remain on our roof for the foreseeable future. Your mileage may vary!

    • LoneWolf15
    • 11 years ago

    I have cable TV for one reason –if I get cable internet without basic cable TV, it actually costs me /[

    • Goty
    • 11 years ago

    You’re way too obsessed with TV if you’re complaining about DirecTV’s HD quality. The quality at my parents’ home (on a setup based around 63″ Pioneer Elite, no less) is quite good and comparable to the image quality provided by Blu-Rays on the same setup.

    • jinjuku
    • 11 years ago

    I am in the Vista MCE camp connected to an Olevia HDTV with a tuner and antenna. $80+ a month, to watch TV? are you kidding me?

    I spend $8.99 / month on Netflix, have a Netflix watch-now plug in, have a Vista MCE RSS installed and use that for Hulu.

    For the $70+ that I am saving every month, I can afford to purchase individually a show or movie that I really want. Consumers have swallowed all the marketing that they have been fed. Sorry state of affairs…

      • SomeOtherGeek
      • 11 years ago

      Hey, man!! Speak for yourself. There are people out there that are not as fortune.

      Take me for example, I’m deaf and so is my whole family. We need CC (Closed Caption) to understand what is going on. Netflix and Hulu don’t provide it. So, you are lucky. Been researching for months on the benefits of removing cable and going digital TV and might very well do it. Netflix provide movies (not online) with CC, but have to look for it. All the other online TV and such provide shit! Nothing, nada, zip! Adding text is cake and takes little bandwidth and all that crap, but I guess they are just lazy or something. Most of the shows are already CC and I don’t get the idea of the online TV don’t include them. Whatever.

      But we get a lot of our movies from the library. Save a ton there! Buy movies, not anymore, it is off to the library we go. I pay good taxes, so I’m getting my movies worth by using the library and schools.

      About the only thing we watch is kid stuff, Disney, Cartoon Network (until 7 PM) and Nick (again until 7 PM). TV is off at 7 PM cuz after that the shows become inappropriate. Kids go to bed then I turn to my computer for library movies.

        • paulWTAMU
        • 11 years ago

        I’m pretty hard of hearing, and I can tell you most netflix dvds have subtitles that work as well or better than close captioning.

        • jinjuku
        • 11 years ago

        Sorry to hear that. I also use the library. They actually have over 45 Blu-ray titlles. Hopefully Netflix/Hulu et al will get closed captioning going.

        Sorry, but my original message wasn’t taking the deaf demographic in. Honestly I know it sucks, but I was referring do the 98th percentile out there of people that pay exorbitant fees for cable/satellite.

        I am not going to post and keep in mind every possible demographic combination out there as I do it.

          • SomeOtherGeek
          • 11 years ago

          Hey, np. Don’t be sorry too. Just my two cents. BTW, you are right tho… There are ways to cut corners here and there and 100% of are looking for ways. 😉

    • DrDillyBar
    • 11 years ago

    I continue to look for a x64 replacement for media center

    • mi1stormilst
    • 11 years ago

    Great article and totally great timing I have just completed a similar transition 2 weeks ago. Canceled cable, grabbed over air antenna, bought a nice HD Tuner put it in left over PC…love it. Plenty of TV with everything else.

    • Fighterpilot
    • 11 years ago

    wtf is the dissing on C.Dion for?
    She has more talent(and way more money) than a cheap ass Apple blogster will ever possess.

      • _Sigma
      • 11 years ago

      I’m not sure, but it seems to be a running joke with Americans. Lots of references on Family Guy, Futurama, etc.

      • jackaroon
      • 11 years ago

      Just because something is hard to do “well” (e.g. singing like Celine Dion) doesn’t make it right.

      • PRIME1
      • 11 years ago

      She sounds like a bag of cats being beaten with a bag of rats.

      • burntham77
      • 11 years ago

      Celine Dion, while very talented, hits notes that makes my balls retreat inward.

      • derFunkenstein
      • 11 years ago

      well, first of all, there are more audio producers on Macs than on Windows. Second, a perpensity to not spend money is in no way a judge of musical talent. Third, as a human being born with perfect pitch and as a student of music, Celine Dion sucks.

        • albundy
        • 11 years ago

        why? does the audio sound better on the mac os than in windows? and all this time, i thought it was the audio software that did the trick.

          • Meadows
          • 11 years ago

          Indeed, and Apple bought Logic which is a very advanced and capable studio. I have a DJ/producer acquaintance who swears by it. I’ll stick to Windows / FL Studio myself though.

          • derFunkenstein
          • 11 years ago

          Yeah, it’s the software, and the best audio studio just isn’t made for Windows anymore. Once eMagic sold out to Apple, Logic support was dropped almost immediately (and I’ve been using Logic since it was still available for Windows at version 4). The app is pretty tightly integrated with the OS and the iLife suite, which makes it easy to work on.

      • shaq_mobile
      • 11 years ago


      holy cow i laughed so hard i started drooling on accident! nice, fighterpilot!

    • dustyjamessutton
    • 11 years ago

    I have DirecTV HD, but the only channels I watch are Fox News and the History Channel. I’m serious, those are the only two. I might ditch it as I can get the news from Fox News’s website, and the History Channel, well, I’ll just have to make a sacrifice. I spend most of my time on the computer or working anyway.

    • liquidsquid
    • 11 years ago

    I’m with ya… I live on a hill, so almost 32 channels, but my wife only watches 4-5 of them. I watch an occasional show with her, but i am too busy contracting at night to bother. I was into Heros for a while, but I lost interest.

    Now if Firefly came back… I would be there.

    Mostly use the TV for the occasional movie.

    • jonybiskit
    • 11 years ago

    I know someone that hates it when you bring up the song “dancing queen” becouse thats the only Celine Dion song anybody knows, oh yea he’s a huge fan.

    sometimes if you get from a new company and they get big, then you end up with a good deal. =)

    • ssidbroadcast
    • 11 years ago

    I think you have too much disposable income.


    • clone
    • 11 years ago

    I’ve never paid for TV reception for any great length of time, the last time I pirated Cable was more than a decade ago but my neighbor was also pirating and during a winter storm a tree branch took out the line and neither of us was motivated enough to get it fixed.

    he switched to pirating satellite and didn’t admit about the cable until he sold his house.

    I found even when I had unlimited access I was only watching 2 non standard channels, one was Space channel and the other was a movie channel and after 2 weeks I didn’t miss either….. ok well I still miss space but not enough and I’m not planning on paying for it until it is being sold on it’s own.

    because of the upcoming transition to Digital I decided it was time to replace the TV and antenna with a DTV antenna… specifically a Winegard SS-3000 that seemed to review well.

    I bought the Sony Bravia during a boxing day sale and surprisingly the broken rabbit ears I had from 4 years earlier picked up 8 digital channels but I had already ordered the Winegard so I tossed the old antenna and hooked up the SS-3000.

    I now get 15 digital channels instead of 8 and 15 analog channels instead of 11… it’s comical how bad acceptable used to be now that digital is on the market and the Winegard is omnidirectional so once positioned no more fiddling, it sits behind a curtain by the window doing it’s thing.

    • jpostel
    • 11 years ago

    75-85% of what my family watches is time shifted. I would LOVE to get rid of cable, but the keys are the kids shows and sports. If I could get them a la carte, then I would save some money, but until then, I think I am stuck.

      • My Johnson
      • 11 years ago

      Yeah, the kids shows. Especially the NOGG channel for my little girl.

    • MadManOriginal
    • 11 years ago

    I’ve had basic cable for years now, and mainly because cable internet is vastly superior to DSL in my location (I did have DSL for a year initially) and it’s basically free to add basic cable. TV, especially all the extra channels, is mostly junk that I certainly don’t care enough about to pay for and what is worthwhile is too small a fraction to justify the monthly cost. About 80% of what I care about and will go out of my way to watch is on PBS. I’ll take syndication reruns for shows that I just end up watching because I’m bored and get my news and info from the net. Maybe when I get an HD TV I’ll set up an antenna for OTA HD.

    • eitje
    • 11 years ago

    I’m in a generation where dinner conversation amongst peers might consist of 20 minutes worth of discussion about what one saw on the internet or TV, and how funny/troubling/through-provoking it was.

    My friends all think I’m crazy for not having cable. However, OTA broadcasts and Vista Home Premium do the job for me; no hacks, no adjustments. I get to watch my shows (Reaper’s back on!) when I want, and I have no recurring payments. 🙂

    • eitje
    • 11 years ago


    • mbutrovich
    • 11 years ago

    Now if only I got acceptable OTA reception at my house. Until then, I’m stuck with cable for my HD.

    • indeego
    • 11 years ago

    Sold the TV in 2001 after daughter was born. never looked backg{<.<}g

    • BoBzeBuilder
    • 11 years ago

    Who is Jason Fox?

    • Meadows
    • 11 years ago

    g{<"And not because I'm a Mac guy—I've got XP running [cliche excuse] via /[

    • TheEmrys
    • 11 years ago

    Dish network’s Turbo HD is pretty awesome.

    • BKA
    • 11 years ago

    I have to admit I luv’s me some cable TV. After the family has gone to bed for the night and I’m done gaming, I’ll pretty much watch anything. Sitcoms, reality, sports, music channels, history, A&E, etc. I can’t imagine not watching NBA double-headers on Thurs and Fri nights. Not to mention music videos, oh what would I do?

    Luckly we have two cable providers in the area so I can play the “but the other company is going to give it to me for less” game. So I’m currently paying around $100 for 2 DVR boxes(the wife had to have one for the bedroom since I keep a high % on the main DVR). And a regular digital box plus HBO (used to be mainly for the Sopranos and boxing but now its mostly for boxing and I’m getting it free for a year).

    • Fighthouse
    • 11 years ago

    I cancelled my cable about a year ago and bought a $15 antenna. I really only miss HGTV, food network, discovery, history, and learning channels – but i don’t miss the $600 I would have spent.

      • JustAnEngineer
      • 11 years ago

      I watch Discovery, The Learning Channel, History, and even Speed more than I watch network TV. During football season, I’ll watch ESPN.

    • Usacomp2k3
    • 11 years ago

    I picked up a refurb 880 as well about a year ago. What an amazing piece of technology.

    • Jive
    • 11 years ago

    We just got Dish Network at the house with all those premium packages for the promotional period. 99% of the channels i hardly watch, CD channels, Sirius channels, other useless channels that survive only with their niche watchers. After the promotional period is up, all im keeping is locals in HD, and the Bronze HD package where you get ~50 HD channels for 30 bucks, which is certainly doable.

      • Usacomp2k3
      • 11 years ago

      The Bronze HD Turbo is what we are looking at as well. (+ locals)

        • Lane
        • 11 years ago

        I just downgraded from Classic Bronze to TurboHD Bronze. Other than losing a few channels that Dish doesn’t provide HD feeds for yet (Nickelodeon, for example), it provides more than enough TV/HD for my tastes.

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