Cutting Television

I’ve had a television service ever since I was a little kid. I remember when I had an antenna on top of my box that we called “bunny ears.” Yes, the television was a large box with ears. We had to adjust the antenna once in a while to get clear reception, or the channels would get some fuzz or be gone completely with white noise. The problem was that some of the channels would be clear and others would not. If I wanted to see another channel, I would go up to the television and change the channel by a knob. I may have had to adjust the antenna again to get a picture. We knew something was on a channel at a certain time through TV Guide. It’s still around today, but it’s all digital. It was similar to a magazine, and it had ads throughout so you knew what the latest and greatest shows were.

At some point in the mid-90’s, we upgraded to a cable-based television. I think the only reason we got it was because both of my parents were employees at AT&T, and it was offered for a major discount, if not free. Of course, Comcast eventually bought that part of AT&T. We had a television with a remote control by this time with a box provided by AT&T. We were able to see the latest shows through a digital guide. It was very useful, and there were plenty of channels to watch. 

Why am I telling this story? As long as I can remember, television has been the default method of entertainment. I got to the point where I had hundreds of channels with Comcast through their service. I also tried Dish Network and even subscribed to the newly offered Century Link Prism television. I loved the DVR feature, but I still question why they still sell optional HD channels. Shouldn’t that be a requirement this day in age? While those service providers are good, except Comcast, the price is no longer justifiable. Hundreds of channels provided and how many do I watch? Maybe 3-5 channels? They don’t offer an “a la cart” that I want. I just want some local channels like the Altitude channel to watch the Colorado Avalanche. Denver Broncos are typically on CBS4 or NBC. I may also want ESPN, Fox Sports, FX, Discovery, and History. 

I’ve realized that a lot of the shows I want to see on any of the channels above are either on Netflix, Prism, or Hulu. Sure, they may not be same-day or even same-year as the releases, but they all make it somewhere. Amazon Prime is a yearly fee of $100 that is worth it. I shop a lot online since I hate stores, so the free-shipping is a no brainer. Netflix costs $10/month and offers thousands of shows. I have a “to watch” list that grows faster than I watch the shows. I hate Hulu for various reasons. Yet, I find myself paying roughly $100 for television service on a monthly basis. It’s time I cut the wire.

Smartifying my Television

We have a some-what smart television with a Sony Bravia. A smart television is one that connects to the internet and has applications like the services I mentioned above. The quality is decent, but the connection frequently dies with any service. My first step to cutting the wire was to find some device that could make our television even smarter. I found a few options:

  • Roku – I like the idea, but I didn’t want to deal with another controller. Still a possible option for the future as it supports all three major services
  • A game console (Playstation 4 or XBox One) – Didn’t want to spend $400 on a streaming device. I just don’t have time for games as I used to.
  • Chromecast – $35 price tag and I can use my phone or tablet as a remote to select a show and watch
  • Apple TV – Same as Roku, but I’m just sick of Apple everything. I feel like it has limited options for services.
  • Boxee – Viable option, but I just want a plug-and-play. I deal with enough technical stuff at work
  • Amazon Fire TV – A good option, but they’re competing with Netflix so it’s not available, and it’s my preferred service.

There are several others, but these are the biggest players. I went with the Chromecast because there seems to be many more services available for it. Other services I liked such as CrunchyRoll (for anime) and Crackle were available. I could also stream from my Chrome webbrowser if I found streams of videos. I’m not completely satisfied with my Chromecast, however, but it mostly fills the void. Another factor in this decision was the support for NFL Gamepass and NHL GameCenter.

Watching Live Sports and Recording

Some streams don’t work properly, and I can’t seem to get NFL GamePass to stream. NFL GamePass is a $99/year service that allows you to watch football games on any device in either the full game without commercials or in a condensed 40-minute game. I love this feature, but the one device I want to watch games on, my television via Chromecast, doesn’t seem to work properly. Their technical support seems to be unable to help me now that I have several tickets open and no responses for over two weeks.

Then I realized that if I wanted to watch Football that I didn’t even need NFL Gamepass except the occasional game not on publish television. I recently discovered that various television networks still send signals through an antenna. Shocked, I decided to scan for signals where I live. About 30 channels showed up. The major sports channels are NBC, CBS, and Fox. Guess who has strong signals? It’s strange to think that I’m going back to using technology from two decades ago.

I did further research and discovered that not only are antenna channels still available, but their quality is quite good. In fact, they’re far superior to cable or satellite HD television. Why? Encryption and compression. Companies like Comcast will encrypt channels to prevent people from stealing television services. This encryption requires a specific device that can decrypt the signal, which is the major reason they have a digital receiver. It’s also another method they can earn your money, because only their device is compatible with their services, and you’re paying a monthly fee on it. They also compress the signals for service to reduce bandwidth, something they seem to be complaining about lately and why there are data caps. With antenna television, the signals are produced at 100% without any encryption or compression. 

 I had to see it to believe it. There are multiple options including outdoor and indoor antennas. Outdoor antennas will often provide more channels, but indoor antennas work very well too. I also determined that I needed an antenna with an amplifier too, which boosts signals and reduces noises. I narrowed down to two:

I ended up with the Winegard FL-55YR since it was slightly cheaper. The next thing I needed was a device to read the signal. I missed the features of DVR, so I had to find a device that would allow me to record games, shows, or whatever if I wasn’t at home. I found the following:

The Channel Master is probably the best of them all for price and value. The more expensive models and the ones with subscriptions have a channel guide that goes up to a week. They take advantage of internet technology to see what shows are upcoming for the future. The cheaper models will only have information for the next 24 hours since their data is received through antenna signal. Some of the more expensive models include various apps or their own channels built-in. Regardless, I went with Mediasonic for $35 since it offered what I needed, and it can read more media files than the other cheaper models.

The Setup and Verdict

The Winegard antenna was very flat, almost like cardboard paper, only with a little electronic device (amplifier) at the bottom. I wondered how this could receive a good signal. After discovering where all the signals were coming from (link above), I found that most of them were North. Using Google maps, since I’m not good with directions, I found that the North-facing wall is right next to our main television. Perfect! I  plugged the cable from the antenna into the Mediasonic and turned it on. I took the paper-ish antenna and held it up to the wall and scanned for channels. They were unbelievably crisp and clear. A football game was on, and I was astonished at the quality. For comparison, I went back to my CenturyLink Prism on the same channel in HD and the antenna picture clarity was indeed better. 

I setup an extra external harddrive I had lying around and formatted it to NTFS, the recommended format by the manufacturer. I plugged it into the Mediasonic, and it recognized the harddrive immediately. I hit the pause button to see what would happen, and I saw a “setting up timelapse” screen. Then it proceeded to record that show. I could view it later by clicking the usb button on the controller. I tried setting up a recording for a later time, and that worked well too. An hour show will take about 4 GB of data, and the Mediasonic supports up to 1 TB (about 1,000 gigs) of data. However, you can setup both the recording and your television to work at different resolutions. I set the Mediasonic to view in 1080p. 

What I don’t like is that it records on what you’re watching. You can’t record a show and watch something else unless you use a different device like the Chromecast. I could record the football game while watching a movie on Netflix, for example. Another thing I don’t like is the lack of a 30-second skip button or a reverse button. I can fast forward up to 4x or reverse up to 4x, but I can’t just skip periods of time. I’m wondering if I can alter the code for the controller in the software to accomplish this. 

Overall, I’m pretty happy with my choices. I spent the past two weeks testing only the Chromecast and NFL GamePass. Since Amazon’s FireTV is competing with Chromecast, we’ll have to use the television’s built-in Amazon to watch their shows. Almost everything we watch is on Netflix, however. The antenna setup I have is working pretty well, and I think it will be good enough to cover my sports. I know there are sites online that allow you to stream games if they’re not available. I will end up cancelling NFL GamePass since their customer service hasn’t been helpful, and I can watch the games through my setup anyways.

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