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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.