As many of you know, many pay TV TV DVRs and other set top boxes are far behind in terms of technology and recording capabilities. In addition to the reduced feature set, there is a cost of anywhere between $10-$20 a month in rental costs just to bring the TV signal to your television. If you have 3 TVs in the house, like I do, then you can be looking at around $40 a month in rental fees.
About three years ago, I got sick of paying for these rental boxes and decided to build my own system. Not to save money per se, but to increase the capabilities of my cable TV system. When I say cable TV system, I am talking about services from companies like Comcast and Time Warner Cable. Any system that allows you to rent a cable card is supported.
First off, let me point out that there are very little cost savings in the first two years when it comes to building your own system. You will get more flexibility and capabilities such as more recording time. What you will also find is that you will have to buy hardware, software, and spend time configuring things to make it all work. If you want a simple drop in and go solution, this is not it.
I have gone through a couple different TV tuners (Ceton and Silicondust) and what I would like to present is a way for you to build your own cable TV receiver system and get a lot more of out of it.
Planning and the System Specifics
The biggest thing you have to decide is how many TVs you want to provide service to and how many channels you want to record or watch at the same time. The number of TVs and simultaneous watching/recording streams are key because that is going to dictate how many tuners you will need as well as how many extenders you need to purchase.
What I use is Windows 7 Media Center with Xbox 360s running as extenders to Windows Media Center. Then you need a network tuner device with a cable card slot for your cable provider. Finally, you need a cable card which you can get by calling your cable provider.The Windows Media Center computer
• Can be Windows 7 or Windows 8. I have used Windows 7 in the past.
• Just keep in mind that you will want something that is pretty well maintained. Fans are usually the first things to go and can be a major irritation.
• This PC is going to be the hub of your entertainment system and will need to be on all the time if you want to record things at night. Ideally, you should have a 2TB or higher hard drive for recording (which will give you 160+ hours of HD recording time). The bigger hard drive you have, the more recording time you obviously get.
• If you want to watch TV on this system as well, you will need HDMI out to TV. I like this option because I don’t have to pay for an extender in the same room as my Windows Media Center PC. Same goes for if you want to watch DVDs. You will need a DVD drive for the device as well as a DVD software player application.The Extenders
• Windows Media Center accepts a couple different extenders. You have the Ceton Echo and the Xbox 360. You can get an Xbox 360 pretty inexpensively these days. I picked up a couple off craigslist for around $120. You don’t need hard drives in the Xboxes unless you plan on doing more than just watching TV on them.
• Pick up a Xbox 360 remote control for $20 if you can spring it. Using a controller to change channels can be a pain.The TV tuner and cable card
• You have a couple options here. One is Ceton and the other is Silicondust. I used the Ceton Infinitv 4 and that worked very well. It provides 4 tuners on the PC to use between any of the extenders and the PC itself. The Silicondust HD HomeRun Prime is a network tuner that is shared with all Windows systems on the network and can be used on some DLNA players. Having used both, I like the Silicondust because I like watching TV on a wider range of devices and it still works on my Windows Media Center PC and extenders.
• The cable card you can get from your cable provider. In my area, Comcast gives me the cable card for free since it is my only TV device (they provide one box for free normally).
The setup is simple. Connect the Windows Media Center PC to your network. As I said, I like to use mine to control at TV. Install the HD Homerun Prime and install the drivers on your Windows Media Center PC. After you get the cable card, you will need to call Comcast and give them the information on your HD Homerun Prime, such as host ID and serial number. They will program the cable card and activate it for HD Homerun Prime.
Launch Windows Media Center and do the digital cable setup. After the setup is complete, you should be able to watch TV on your Media Center PC. Then you can setup the Xbox 360s anyway you see fit. I run mine in extender mode only since I don’t play games on them, but you may have a different need.
Some Caveats: The Windows Media Center PC and Xbox 360s are great for watching TV, but they are not great across the board. Streaming HD quality TV picture is one thing, but streaming .mkv and very large .avi files to an extender is a disaster. You will have the capability to stream these large video files, but you will be disappointed when you do it through Windows Media Center to the extender. My recommendation is that you get a streaming device like a WD Live if you plan on streaming large files across your network. That works infinitely better than the Windows Media Center and Xbox 360 solution.
The HD Homerun Prime gives you the capability to use DLNA and watch TV on a number of devices, such as a tablet or a PS3. Just be aware that there can be issues with some DLNA players. My WD Live box will not stream TV from the HD Homerun Prime, which is a disappointment. In short, this solution is awesome for streaming TV, but I wouldn't push it with doing anything else.
For many of you, there is the cost consideration. If you plan on getting a DVR and two HDTV cable boxes for a total of 3 televisions, you are going to spend at least $40 a month on rental fees. If your aim is to save money, then you are going to be hard pressed to save money in your first year if you don’t have any of the equipment. At the same time, you will gain more recording space and greater flexibility, such as being able to watch recorded shows on any of your extenders.
For my system, I bought 2 Xbox 360s at a total of $280. The PC I built for $300 from spare parts and a nice external video card. I am going on my 3rd year with this hardware and I am saving some pretty good money on just the TV system. Still, I had to wait over a year to start seeing a price break. Especially since I have bought other hardware such as WD Live boxes, Xbox 360 remote controls, and other cable card products. It has probably been 2 years before I saw a fair savings.
I know that many people are all for booting pay TV out the window, and this doesn't cut the cord. What it does do is enable someone who has intentions of keeping cable TV to make it more robust and maybe even a little cheaper in a couple years after investment. If your intention is to keep cable TV, then look at this as a viable and fully featured option.