TV Without Cable

18 Jun

Almost a year ago, we cut the cord (well, dish) and cancelled DirecTV. Over time, I’ve modified, gutted and tweaked our setup, and I’m pretty happy with what we have now. However, most of what I’m about to describe would work perfectly fine (if not better) with normal cable or satellite service, so don’t freak out if installing an antenna isn’t for you.

Our current setup consists of an HDTV antenna, a single PC and an Xbox 360 for each TV. It sounds expensive, but it’s really not—especially when you factor in the monthly savings of not having a cable bill. We’re saving $80-90 a month, so it doesn’t take long to pay for a $200 Xbox.

The Antenna

If you’re going to try receiving your local channels over antenna, I highly recommend using the antenna selector on The tool will give you a detailed list of nearby stations based on your exact location – including distance and compass heading. Using this info, you can choose an antenna with the appropriate range. Personally, my furthest station is about 28miles, so I have an antenna rated for 30 miles. If you need more range, you can get the same antenna in a 55-mile or 70-mile configuration.

The Computer

I use my regular desktop computer as my media center PC. The specs are nothing special—Core 2 Duo CPU, 3GB RAM, 1TB hard drive—but it’s worked without a hitch. You’ll want to be on Ethernet if possible, but I’ve had good success with 802.11n wireless. The only modification I had to make was adding a new TV tuner card. If you’re going to use satellite or digital cable, you’ll want to make sure you find a card that will specifically work with those, but for an HDTV antenna, pretty much any ATSC card will work.

I already had Windows 7 installed on my machine, which includes Windows Media Center. This is key, because it will control your TV tuner and stream live or recorded TV to the Xboxes. As a side bonus, most TV tuner cards include an FM tuner, which Windows Media Center can control too—including DVR-like functionality.

Media Center also supports plugins, so extra sources and tools can be added on your computer (and therefore available on the Xboxes). Some of the more popular ones include Amazon VOD, Heatwave (weather), Photato (Facebook photo albums) and Macro Tube (access to video sites, including YouTube).

The other consideration you’ll need to make is hard drive space. If you’re using Windows Media Center to record a lot of shows, or you’ll be ripping lots of DVDs, you’ll need plenty of space. I’ve found that a feature-length movie, ripped at a “good enough” resolution, can range from 3-7GB each, so I’d recommend having at least a terabyte available.

The Xboxes

Other than various other gaming consoles, each TV only has a single Xbox hooked up to it. Thanks to recent updates, the Xbox can stream Netflix, ESPN3, Hulu Plus, Last.FM, and rented/purchased videos from Zune. The Xbox also works great as a Media Center Extender, so it can stream live and recorded TV from your computer’s tuner card in addition to playing just about any video file on your network. The ability to do all this from a single device was key—the wife-acceptance-factor of cable cutting has skyrocketed now that she can pick any channel/movie/show without having to worry about video inputs and audio settings.

Oh, and it plays games too.

There are multiple Xbox 360 models available, but the primary difference is storage capacity. Because all video in this scenario is streamed, we get by just fine with the Xbox 360 Arcade model that only has 4GB of onboard memory. The newest models are super quiet and come with built-in 802.11n, which is fast enough to stream HD video. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that each Xbox will need its own Xbox live account.

Bonus: The iDevices

This part isn’t a required part of the setup, but it’s too awesome not to mention. On the media center PC I have an application called Air Video, and its companion player application is installed on our iPhones. The app allows you to navigate and stream (with on-the-fly conversion) videos on your computer or local network. The application works over Wi-Fi and 3G, and is absolutely worth the $2.99 they ask for the full version.

Our setup is simple, but that’s what makes it so great. Apps that are already tightly integrated with the Xbox provide a great user experience, while Windows Media Center provides a huge amount of extensibility. More importantly, our basic TV-watching needs are mostly covered:

  • Hulu Plus: Network and basic cable shows, some movies
  • Netflix: Movies, some shows
  • Amazon VOD: Movies, shows
  • ESPN3: College football, MLB, NBA, tennis and more (3500+ live events a year)
  • Antenna: Local news, more sports (NFL), severe weather coverage

Some content is still only available to watch on computers, so we fill those gaps with our laptops, but my personal opinion is that if you get upset because you can’t watch Real Housewives of New Jersey live, then just go read a book.

The Future

Last week at E3, Microsoft announced that they were bringing live and on-demand television streaming to Xbox Live this fall. They haven’t announced content partners yet, but they claim that the service will even include local channels, so my antenna might end up on Craigslist before the end of the year.

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