Cutting Cable with Android TV and an OTA Antenna

It’s been quite some time since I’ve made any updates to our home media system. It’s worked really well for quite a few years. We had been using an older Windows Media Center computer with an XBox 360 as an extender to other TV’s. The last update to that system was back in 2012, adding a CableCard so that we could watch and record encoded channels from our cable provider. The time has finally come for the old HTPC system (and paying for cable) to be retired. I started to add up our yearly costs for cable (we only had a tier above basic) and decided we didn’t need the expense when we could get just about everything we had over the internet and (free!) over-the-air through an antenna. Once the new equipment comes out of the equation, we’ll be saving over $500 per year by going this route. The setup took several steps to complete, in both new hardware and services.

Antenna

The most complicated part of cutting the cord was getting the antenna installed and working. I started with a really helpful site called TVFool, that maps out all of the stats about the TV signals in your area. You put in your address, and it provides all the nitty-gritty details about pointing your antenna in the right direction, and the distance of the signals. This helped in selecting the correct antenna for me to purchase. I didn’t really want to attach the antenna to the outside of my house, so I knew I needed something a little more powerful than the maximum distance listed listed for the signals on my TVFool report since I’d be shooting through the roof. I landed on the Channel Master 4228HD, with a listed range of 80 miles. The maximum distance I needed to reach from my TV Fool Signal Analysis was about 47 miles. I figured the extra listed distance on the 4228HD would help me get through the attic and pick up those signals I wanted. Just to make sure, I also purchased a Channel Master CM-3410 1-Port Amplifier for a little extra oomph.

Now that I had an antenna and amp, I was ready for the most daunting task in this whole process, getting the antenna installed. I found a spot in my attic to place the antenna, and purchased an Antenna Mount to get it up off the floor and make it easier to aim. I also picked up a 100-foot roll of RG-6 coaxial cable from Lowes to run the connection from my attic to the basement. My initial plan was to run the cable down through the wall. I thought I’d found an unobstructed run that followed a ventilation pipe to the central home run downstairs. After a couple of trips into the (hot!) attic, I discovered that my original plan wasn’t going to work. With the slope of the roof, my attic didn’t have the clearance for me to get close enough to the external wall I was going to feed the cable through. Fortunately, there is a closet on the main floor fairly close to the area in the basement I needed to run the coax. I drilled a hole in the upper corner of the closet ceiling and then in the lower corner of the closet floor and ran the cable through there. I secured the cable to the corner of the closet with coax clips. So, while you can still see the cable running through the closet, it doesn’t matter since it’s the corner of a (closed door) closet. I also got lucky and discovered a power outlet in the attic that I could use to run the amp. I had originally planned to power the amp in the basement, but read that the closer you can get the amp to the antenna the better. The cable-running gods were smiling on me that day.

Once the cable was run, I had to mount and connect the antenna. I secured the antenna mount to the house frame, hoisted the antenna, and secured it to the pole. This allowed me to get things pointed in the right direction. My TV Fool Signal Analysis showed that the closest and most concentrated clump of signals was around the 341-degree mark. I used a compass app on my phone (and an old compass I had from Cub Scouts) to get things pointed the right way. All I was really needed for my setup was signals from the major networks (ABC, CBC, NBC, Fox, PBS). The rest of my channels would come in streaming (more on that later). I got everything mounted, powered the amp, secured my excess cables with clips and headed to the basement to hook up the tuner.

Tuner

With the antenna secured in the attic, I needed a way to capture that signal and get it through the house. I have had a collection of SiliconDust HdHomeRun devices over the years (their original tuner, and their cablecard Prime tuner). After trying my old tuner, I leared that I needed to upgrade once again to the HDHomeRun Connect Tuner to get everything working this time. I thought I could use the original Dual tuner I had, but it didn’t work with the DVR functions in Android TV (more on that later), so I grabbed a new HDHR Connect, and threw the old one to ebay. I plugged everything in and hooked up the newly run coax cable coming from the antenna in the attic, and ran the HDHomeRun software to see if this was going to work. I was slightly worried that I wasn’t going to pick up the signals I wanted. The first time I ran the channel scan, I was getting a weak signal from NBC, so I made another trip to the attic (did I mention it’s hot up there!?!) to adjust the antenna angle one more time. Bingo! I was able to pick up 23 channels over-the-air, including all of the networks I was looking for. The nice thing about all of the HDHomeRun devices is that you plug it straight into your network and it pushes the TV through your house that way, so there’s no need for a tuner on each device. The hardest parts of this new setup were out of the way now, time to get some set top boxes to pull it all together!

Android TV

Now that TV signals are flowing through the house, we need some way to get it to the TV’s, and connect up the other media services we want to use. I landed on Android TV devices because they had a good way to pull in the antenna signal and also provide DVR capabilities (when using a USB hard drive to save the recordings). There are a lot of choices out there (Roku, AppleTV, Android Fire TV), but from what I could tell at the time I was researching this, Android TV was going to be the best choice based on how it worked with the over-the-air signal. As of Android TV version 7, Google provides an app called “Live Channels” that will see the HDHomeRun signal (it also works with other tuners) over the network and pull it into an app and provide a standard schedule/channel grid as well as let you watch and record live TV on your device. There are a number of Android TV devices out there. I decided to get the NVIDIA Shield TV for our main living room TV since I wanted something a little beefier for out primary viewing spot. For the other two TV’s in the house, I got the less powerful and less expensive Xiaomi Mi Box. The configuration for the Live Channels app picked up the 23 channels that the HDHomeRun found, and worked like a charm. I also installed a number of other apps on the device that we use for entertainment (HBO Now, NetFlix, Amazon Video, YouTube, Playstation Vue, Plex to name a few). The other nice thing about the Android TV boxes, is that they also work as a Chromecast. I previously had a stand-alone Chromecast on our TV that I can now move elsewhere since that function is built in. So far I’ve been pretty happy with Android TV, and once everything is configured, it’s pretty easy to use. I’ll also mention that the NVIDIA Shield came with a game controller and provides a nice list of gaming options that I haven’t really started to play with yet… something to try out later.

Streaming TV

To round out the TV offerings, we needed to fill in the other channels that we couldn’t get over-the-air. I did a bunch of research into this as well. There are a number of streaming TV providers that have popped up the past few years that I looked at for price and for channel choices. The top of that list included SlingTV, DirectTV Now, and Playstation Vue. They all had pretty similar price points, but the one we landed on was Playstation Vue because of their channel, and more specifically, their sports offerings. We needed to be able to watch our Iowa Hawkeyes Football, so we needed a service that had all the ESPN’s as well as Big Ten Network. Playstation Vue offered all of those options at a pretty good price (also, my wife needed her HGTV!). We signed up for service at about $44/month (less than half of what we were paying for cable!) and installed the Vue app on our devices. The interface is nice with an interesting, but pretty usable side-scrolling channel grid. Vue also offers a DVR cloud service so we can select programs we want to save for watching later.

Final Thoughts

It’s been quite a process to get everything moved over, but we’re generally pretty happy with how it all landed. We’re still getting used to the new system and interface (an app for local channels and a separate app for cable channels), but it’s coming together. I’ll also mention that I was able to get everything running with my Harmony Remote and home automation, so our remote control interface hasn’t changed. The streaming service is pretty good, and there really isn’t a show or series that we’re missing. Even if we want to change to a different service later, or add another service, we can do that pretty easily with the flexibility of the Android TV… just download another app. Also it felt really really good to call the cable company (and wait on hold for 25 minutes… sigh!) and tell them it was time to break up.

Mentos History

It’s been awhile since I’ve made a Mentos post. Don’t worry, I still love them and am still obsessed with them. I still get rare Mentos deliveries from other countries (via my Mentos Ambassadors) In fact, I’m sitting next to a large pile of rare Mentos as I type this post. I was scrolling through my feed reader last night and up comes a really great article from Mental_floss that took me on a trip down memory lane through the history of Mentos.

The Bizarre History of Those ’90s Mentos Commercials (via Mental_floss)

I remember a lot of that and most of it is probably the reason I became obsessed with the candy of the gods. The article mentions the Mentos FAQ, which I fondly remember accessing via Usenet back in the early days of the Internet. Take a trip down memory lane about how Mentos gained their popularity in the US.

Also, I’ll just leave this here…

Smart Home Part Two: Smartthings, Amazon Echo, and Harmony Remote

Check out my last smart home post, Making My House a Bit Smarter with SmartThings, to see how things got started.

Echo + SmartThingsI’ve been slowly making additions to make my home smarter over the past year. I received an Amazon Echo for my birthday this year (thanks Jess!). Out of the box, it has the ability to communicate with SmartThings, so I decided to see what I could hook together. My first foray into voice control was configuring the Echo to turn my already-connected smart bulbs on and off. To set that up, I had to give them a name in SmartThings, and then hook the “smart home” section of the Echo app software at my SmartThings account. The echo then does a quick search of my connected devices to see what things it can control. It quickly found all of my connected “things,” and let me select the ones that I wanted the Echo to have access to. I can now control both lamps by asking Alexa to turn on or off “lamp right” or “lamp left” (the names I gave them when I set them up in SmartThings). I currently have both of those lamps on a timer sequence set in SmartThings, so they are usually alreaady on when they’re needed, so adding voice control wasn’t really necessary outside of novelty purposes. But it’s still pretty cool to be able to call out to the Echo from across the room to turn a lamp on or off.

Kitchen Lighting

GE Z-Wave Wireless Lighting Control Smart Toggle Switch 12727After getting a couple more OSRAM smart bulbs for Christmas this year (thanks Matt!), I started to look into some other uses for them, and to try and find opportunities to better integrate the Echo with house controls. That search led me to our kitchen. There are currently two sets of lights in my kitchen, some inset overhead flood lights, and some hanging pendant lights over the counter. We regularly use both of those sets of lights to light the kitchen and living room areas much of the time. Being able to control those lights with an app and by voice via the Echo would be the most beneficial addition. I started to investigate individual smart bulbs for all of the kitchen lights, but quickly determined that going that route might be overkill, and expensive. There are seven separate bulbs (overhead and pendant) in the kitchen, and I didn’t really need to be able to control each bulb individually, nor could I justify the price for an expensive smart bulb for each fixture. Both the ceiling floods and the pendants have their own single switch, so instead of smart bulbs, I started looking for smart switches. I landed on GE Z-Wave Wireless Lighting Control Smart Toggle Switch 12727. I wanted something that had a similar look and feel to the current switches in the house. I believe GE makes several different version of the switch if you need a different look or switch type. Installation was pretty straightforward (always remember to disconnect the circuit before doing electric work… safety first!). The most difficult part was getting the new switches to fit into electrical box, since the smart electronics take up a bit more room than the standard switches I was replacing. Once I got them in there and connected to the existing wiring, the SmartThings hub found them right away. I could control them using the SmartThings app, and set up some timers sequences and proximity actions to turn the lights on when we arrive home after sundown using the location of our phones. Once I did a simple refresh in the smart home ares of the Echo echo app, it found the new SmartThings, and I could turn them on and off with my voice using the Echo. I can now ask Alexa to turn on “kitchen pendants” or “kitchen ceiling.” I also have the lights grouped into a “room” in SmartThings, so Alexa can also turn or or off the entire kitchen with the “turn on kitchen” command. We probably use that command now more than anything else we ask of Alexa. It’s really handy when we’re coming into the house with a lot of things in our hands and can just ask Alexa to turn on the lights.

TV Control

The other somewhat recent addition to my smart home is TV control. I’ve been using a Harmony universal remote for several years. The one I had previously started to go bad, so I ended up purchasing a newer Logitech Harmony Hub Companion All in One Remote Control. My original need for that remote was just to get a working universal remote (so I don’t need 4 separate remote sitting on the coffee table), but it turned out that the Harmony Hub can also communicate with the Amazon Echo… so why not add it as a skill?!? The setup for the Harmony hub was actually a little more difficult, but that’s mainly due to the complexity of the Harmony software’s ability to control hundreds of different options on many devices. Once I got the Harmony hub and the remote configured, I just needed to make sure the items I would want to control via voice had a name that was easy to call out to the Echo. I think that the Echo can connect with Harmony natively, but I still connected it through the SmartThings Hub (they all talk the same language). I just figured it would be easier to troubleshoot if everything was running through SmartThings. I didn’t even try to connect the Echo directly to the Harmony using the native interface/skill, so I don’t know how easy or difficult that process is. The only command we really use regularly with the Harmony is “turn on tv” or “turn off tv” and it works well. I also want to put in a plug for how great the Harmony systems is on its own. The remote is nice and slim, and uses RF instead of IR, which is great so you don’t need to be pointing directly at the device you want to control. The hub comes with a mini IR blaster that sends the signals to your devices. I have the hub box hidden behind the TV out of the way, and the IR blaster pulled out in front to send signals to the TV and Xbox. It works really well.

 

The Robots are Writing Christmas Songs

I’m pretty sure this is one of the indicators of the upcoming robot rebellion. Apparently the University of Toronto pointing some artificial intelligence at a photo of a Christmas tree, and it came up with a (very odd) Christmas song. This “neural karaoke” program can look at an image and make it into a creepy song. Check out the full story on The Guardian.

I for one welcome our new holiday robot overlords.

2016 Holiday Geek Gift Guide

Techory SnowflakeAnother Black Friday has passed us by. It’s now Cyber Monday and the beginning of cyber week (is that new? how long have we called it cyber week?) so that means it’s time for another Holiday Geek Gift Guide. This is the 13th year I’ve created a gift guide. It started as a way for me to help with my own gift shopping for (geek) friends and family. I’m a geek, so I like to give geek gifts (tech, gadgets, etc.). Most of the guides listed below fall into those categories, but a few are also useful for general gift giving as well. I will keep this post up to date as I encounter additional lists. If you know of any I may have misted, leave a comment and I’ll get it added. Enjoy, and happy (geek) shopping!

(Guides from previous years: 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004)

 

Amazon Dash Button for Mentos

If ever there was a frivolous device it’s the Amazon Dash Button. Unfortunately, they made one I couldn’t turn down. You all know that I’m obsessed with Mentos, so when I discovered there was a Dash Button that would send me Mentos at the touch of a button, I had to order it. It showed up in the mail today and I ran through the setup, which requires installing the Amazon App on your phone and syncing it to the button. It gave me the choice of a few Mentos items (a case of 15, mint Mentos, and a few options for Mentos Gum), confirmed my shipping address and it was ready to go. So now whenever I have a craving for Mentos (OK, that’s always), I can hit a button and they will be on my front steps in 48 hours thanks to Amazon Prime.

Mentos Dash Button

Novel concept? Sure, that’s why I bought it (and because it says Mentos on it)
Frivolous and unnecessary? Yah, that too (but it says Mentos on it!).

Making My House a Bit Smarter with SmartThings

pXeg7y-JI have been thinking about how to make my home smarter for a little while now, but never really had a truly compelling reason to make the investment. The most common use of smart home devices seemed to be turning on and off lights, which didn’t really appeal to me. I think a physical light switch is far easier (and quicker) to use than pulling out a smartphone, turning it on, entering a pass, finding and loading an app, navigating to a particular light and hitting the on button. A couple months ago, I finally found an excuse to dip a toe into the world of home automation. A few people in our neighborhood had a sewer back-flow issues and ended up with flooded basements. Not wanting that to happen to me, I started investigating water and leak sensors that send a notification or text message to my phone if water is detected. I found a few stand-alone options, but eventually opted for something that would be a little more extendable in the future. I landed on SmartThings. This company started as a Kickstarter project in 2012 and were recently purchased by Samsung. The SmartThigns model works in a hub + device model. You install a small hub, and connect it to power (it also has battery backup) and your network, and it talks to all the smart home devices (the “things”) that you install. One of the reasons I liked SmartThings was that it functions with a lot of different smart home technologies including ZigBee, Z-Wave, IP independent of the manufacturer. There are a number of products on the market that only talk to one specific brand of device. SmartThings is very open, and will work with any devices using those communication technologies.

SmartThings Home Monitoring Kit

To kick things off, I purchased the home monitoring kit. SmartThings sells just the hub alone and each of it’s “things” as well. I was keeping and eye out, and found a good sale on the full Home Monitoring Kit, which includes the hub and a number of additional devices to use with it.

  • Two Multipurpose Sensors to monitor whether doors, windows, cabinets, or your garage are open or closed
  • A Motion Sensor to monitor movement in your home
  • An Outlet to control lights, electronics, and small appliances

The hub is a small white box, a little less than 5″ in size. You plug it into power and into your network and you’re good to go. Setup is pretty straightforward. You use the hub ID printed on the device, and connect to it for the first time with the SmartThings app on Android or iOS. Once it’s configured, you use the app to interact with it and connect additional devices to it. I have only used one of the devices in the kit so far, the multipurpose sensor, which I’ll go into with my garage door setup below.

Leak Sensor

The SmartThings Water Leak Sensor is the primary reason I jumped into this in the first place. I purchased two sensors, one for the sump pump room and the other for the room with my water heater and water softener. The sensor is just a small battery-powered box with two short metal prong on the bottom. Setup is pretty easy with this “thing” as well as all things. You power up the device and then via the app select “Connect New Device.” the hub will see it and let you know what it found. From there you can set up rules and routines for those devices, and put them into groups, or “rooms” to organize them. For the water leak sensor, when water comes in contact with the two prongs on the bottom, it sends a signal to the hub which then follows the rule I set up and sends out an alert via the SmartThings App as well as a text message. The video below shows the sensor and what happens when it comes in contact with water (a wet paper towel in my demo).

Lighting Control

OSRAM dimmable LIGHTIFY LED Bulb

OSRAM dimmable LIGHTIFY LED Bulb

You’re probably reading this and thinking, “This is exactly what you said you didn’t want to do with a smart home devices! You Lying Liar!” Whoa, calm down there… The special sauce to this project are the rules that can be set up with SmartThings devices. For this project I started with a couple of ZigBee capable light bulbs from OSRAM that I found on sale at Lowes. I bought the OSRAM LIGHTIFY LED Bulb CLASSIC A Tunable White. This shows where the SmartThings system shines when compared to other proprietary systems. It has the capability to work with devices not made or manufactured by SmartThings. Since these bulbs are ZigBee capable, SmartThings picks them right up since it speaks the same language. I added the bulb via the app just like I added the water sensor, and then set up some rules for it. I previously had a lamp in the living room set up on an old mechanical outlet timer. The lamp would turn on at a set time in the evening so I didn’t come home to a dark house, and would shut off later at night after I’d gone to bed. This also served (hopefully) as a theft deterrent when I went on vacation, showing lights on in the house when I’m not there. So with these new light bulbs, I set them up to turn on at sunset (which changes automatically throughout the year), and turn off at a certain time at night on Sunday-Thursday when I go to bed a bit earlier, and then turn off a little later Friday-Saturday when I’m up a bit later. Additionally, it does give me control of the lights through my phone, as well as dimming capability. The second part of that does add some steps (like I mentioned above), but the primary use of the light control is the rules that I can set. If I wanted (and this might be a future project), I could hook the motion detector thing (that came in my kit) to this lighting rule and set up an if-then-statement saying if there is motion in the room and it’s beyond the normal turn-off time, keep the lights on until there is no motion for X minutes. There are all kinds of great ways to chain events, rules, and things together with SmartThings.

Garage Control

This third project took a little more tinkering than the other two. It’s a bit home monitoring and a bit convenience. It takes advantage of the SmartThings Multipurpose Sensor that came with the Home Monitoring Kit, as well as a smart garage door opener that I cobbled together (spoiler alert: I got to use the soldering iron!). The first part was easy. I simply activated the Multipurpose Sensor via the SmartThings App and attached it to the garage door with the included double-sided tape. This sensor can tell orientation, so I told SmartThings that vertical meant the door was closed, and horizontal meant the door was open. Now I can tell easily on my phone if the door was accidentally left open, or if it’s securely closed.

Module - Garage Remote Wiring

Module – Garage Remote Wiring

Part two of this project is using SmartThings to also control the door. I found a Z-Wave Isolated Contact Fixture Module that SmartThings can communicate with. I think the primary purpose of this module is to control a switch on or off. You could mount it behind a light switch or something similar. I took it and connected it to an extra garage door opener remote, so it makes the on connection when activated to simulate a button push on. I soldered some lower gauge wires to the button contacts on the circuit board of the remote and hooked those to the relay output wires (blue), and then connected the power (white and black) and ground (green) to a power cable (wiring manual PDF). I made sure the contact module was communicating with the SmartThings hub, and then I bundled it all up in a plastic project box to keep it together. Since this is controlling a button on the remote, I had to tell SmartThings that it’s not a simple on or off switch (which it wanted to do by default), but a button, which makes activation stay on for a couple seconds, then automatically turn off. Otherwise SmartThings would keep the button in the on position until it was switched off in the app. Once I figured that out, I grouped the sensor and the contact module together in a “room” in SmartThings, so that I can see if the door is opened or closed, and then hit the button/icon directly below it to control the door. It’s nice to be able to check if the door is closed, and then to open it if I only have my phone with me.

There you have it… the start of a smart home. I’ve still got some more devices in my smart home kit to play with and configure. What should I add next?

Present Wrapping of the Future

Furoshiki Diagram

Furoshiki Diagram

I was doing some shopping a few weeks ago at a local artists store and found an interesting item called a Japanese Furoshiki. It’s a colored cloth used to wrap presents in Japan (with no paper waste). There are a number of ways you an use it to wrap different shaped objects. The diagram to the right is actually straight from the Japanese Ministry of the Environment, and shows all the different uses of a Furoshiki. After a major Christmas wrapping session over the weekend, I started thinking about different ways to wrap presents. I actually like to wrap presents, and try to make the gift presentation look nice. I ran across a few videos this morning of another Japanese method of wrapping – apparently wrapping presents is more of an art in Japan.

This video shows a way of wrapping by setting the gift diagonally on the paper and kind of turning it while folding in the rest of the paper.

Well, you all know what happens when you get sucked into a YouTube rat hole, you end up spending more time than you planned watching videos on wrapping presents. This next video shows different ways to wrap using mathematics based on the size and shape of the item you’re wrapping.

I’ve almost completed my holiday gift wrapping this year, but might give one or two of these methods a try with those last-minute gifts that always seem to pop up. Happy wrapping!

2015 Holiday Geek Gift Guide

Techory Snowflake Black Friday 2015 has just come and gone, so it’s time for another Holiday Geek Gift Guide. I’ve been updating these gift guides for quite a few years to help with my own gift shopping for friends and family. I like  technology and gadgets (and general geekery) so I also like to give technology and gadgets. Most of the guides in the list below fall into those categories, but a few of them are useful for general gift giving as well. I will keep this post up to date as I encounter additional lists. If you know of any I may have misted, leave a comment and I’ll get it added.

(Guides from previous years: 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004)

Mentos Mentors

Well done, Mentos… well done. Kids giving adults live advice on making friends and meeting people.

Mentos, the real-life equivalent of a friend request.

Business Card Video Game

Business cards = boring
Business cards that play video games = AWESOME!

A kickstarter project called Arduboy has taken an Arduino board and stripped it down to its core components, making it small enough to fit into a credit-card sized package. The entire thing is just 1.6mm thick! So while it’s probably not priced cheap enough to hand out as a business card, how cool would it be to give out your business information on a little device that plays Tetris? Arduboy eventually plans to open up the platform for further development. You can buy one now (with improved buttons and case) on their site for $49.

Arduboy by bateske

Makerbase

Makerbase

Anil Dash and Gina Trapani (the awesome people who created Thinkup – check it out if you haven’t heard of it) recently launched a new site called Makerbase. The new site is a big database of digital projects and the people who made them. It’s kind of an IMDb for makers and their projects. Just start to search and you’ll find all kinds of cool artwork, sites, apps and other digital projects. You can add your own to the mix or set up your own maker profile (it’s pulls your info from Twitter to start).

The 1980’s JC Penney Christmas Catalogs

A real hero named Wishbook on Flickr has taken the time to lovingly scan a large number of holiday catalogs from going back to the late 60’s through the early 90’s (including the big Sears and JC Penny Wish Books). I can remember scouring these catalogs as a child picking out what I wanted for Christmas. I still want some of these toys today!

1985-xx-xx Sears Christmas Catalog P444

The clothing sections of these catalogs are pretty amazing too.

Map the Zombie Attack

Ever wondered what would happen if you were patient zero in a zombie attack? Zombie-town USA uses:

Gillespie dynamics on block-level census data from 2010 using 308 million people interacting across the continental US.

Drop the first zombie in your town and see how it moves across the nation.

Zombie-town USA