Categories
Video

DIY DVR

Background

I became a TiVO early adopter in 2002 buying a Sony TiVO for use with Cox Cable. Having a couple of greyhounds who needed walked during the evening, I quickly became hooked by the ability to record shows for later viewing and to pause what I was watching when the dogs demanded attention or to use the loo. As digital TV approached, I traded the Sony for a TiVO HD and went digital with cable cards. The writers strike drove me to take a look at BBC America. I discovered Doctor Who, Torchwood, and Top Gear.

With the passage of 5 years or so, the TiVO HD’s disk is getting tired, I tired of commercial cable, and TiVO’s $20/month is no longer a good value. After all, how many episodes of Ice Road Truckers can one person watch before going batty? What to do next?

Elgato

Enter the cat. Elgato makes media center software and video capture hardware for Apple Macintosh computers selling under the EyeTV name for about a decade. In the Apple community, Elgato is the company to go to for this capability. The current version of EyeTV supports the current Elgato video capture devices plus selected video tuner hardware made by others.

EyeTV 3 can record programs by channel and title. No need to do the VHS thing and set channel and time. Just open up the program guide and select record or record all. Record will create a one-time schedule entry to record the selected program. Record all creates a smart schedule to record all unrecorded broadcasts of that program on that channel. This capability mimics a TiVO Season Pass but goes it one better. You can add additional conditions that an episode must satisfy in order to be recorded.

Some Silicon Dust

I wasn’t keen on the Elgato USB tuner. This device is laptop oriented and can work with off the air and cable tv but I was not keen on connecting a lightening rod directly to my computer. It would be nice to have at least a little isolation. Silicon Dust HDHomeRun Dual came to the rescue. This is the current version of HDHomeRun which has been around for 5 or so years. The device has a dual cable/air turner, a bit of computing, and an Ethernet connection. Application protocols allow EyeTV or Windows Media Center to tune channels and start data streaming. The new digital TV is already digitized so no finicky analog to digital converters are needed. Just recover the MPEG-2 stream and tunnel it over IP to the host.

Silicon Dust makes multiple versions of HDHomeRun for use in Europe with DVB and in North America with ATSC. The current Dual version has 2 tuners and can stream 2 streams at a time. The HDHomeRun Prime version has a cable card slot and can stream both “clear QAM” and copy protected QAM. The Prime version also has a USB port for controlling a cable company switched digital video interface.

Putting it All Together

Setup is simple. Move the antenna cable to the HDHomeRun, plug up Ethernet, plug up the power adapter (small switching supply, not a hulk). Install EyeTV 3 from a disk image, start it, and add the license key. EyeTV 3 wakes up a start up wizard that guides you through the process of setting up the HDHomeRun, creating a TV Guide account ($20/year not $20/month), and loading the channel guide. Once this process is done, your DIY DVR is ready to use. The first year of the program guide is included in the EyeTV 3 price. All of this took about an hour with a little wrestling needed with TV Guide. It didn’t load at first. Elgato support forums had the fix, clear the guide and reload. This worked well.

EyeTV Remote App

For the princely sum of $5, Elgato has an EyeTV remote app which shows the program guide, lets you schedule recordings, review your completed recordings, and view recorded programs on your iThing. EyeTV App is AirPlay capable so output can be redirected to an Apple TV. Once the program is running on Apple TV, the iThing is free for other use like making phone calls, playing Angry Birds, or reading while PBS talking heads drone on.

EyeTV and Live TV

EyeTV 3 has the ability to pause and rewind, and resume live TV in a manner similar to TiVO. Unfortunately, with my older Mac Mini, this feature is usable on the main display but not on iThings or Apple TV. The Mac OS X Quick TIme libraries support MPEG-2 rendering allowing proper play back locally. Air Play to iThings is another story. iThings require conversion of the video stream from MPEG-2 to H.264. This is a compute intensive process that my older Mac Mini cannot do at 30 frames per second. It kept falling behind and trying to catch up Keystone Cops style.

The Apple Quick Time Codecs can use the video hardware for this process. This capability was in development and was one of the reasons Apple moved from Intel on board video to nVidia GeForce 9400 chips in that particular Mac Mini. But the older parts just don’t have the horses needed to do video conversion tasks at broadcast resolution in real time. A check of the Elgato forums did not have a clear answer t this question. Elgato’s specification is for the processor. They’re not thinking that the trans-coding process is actually occurring on the video hardware.

The solution was simple, keep the TiVO HD alive for live TV viewing. It has no trouble with that task. It occasionally snow crashes when retrieving the program guide or the recording catalog but I’ve moved these tasks to EyeTV. I can keep this guy going. Cost for this solution, $20 for a new high quality splitter. My older NTSC splitter is not up to splitting DTV.

Money

Here’s what this project cost.

  • $90, EyeTV 3
  • $5, EyeTV App
  • $80, HDHomeRun Dual tuner
  • $20, Digital splitter 1 to 2

Operating costs

  • $20/year, TV Guide
  • $240/year savings, TiVO program guide 

This project has about a 1 year pay back. As I approach retirement, I’m all about getting Corporate America’s hands out of my pockets. Sorry TiVO, you’ve been disrupted.

Categories
Video

New DTV Antenna

In early June, a local company installed a DTV antenna for me. About 2 weeks later, I discontinued Cox TV service but kept Cox Internet service. The experience was reasonably pleasant and my TV watching not at all affected. After all, how many reruns of Ice Road Truckers and Mythbusters can one watch in a night? There’s so much program being produced that you can’t see it all as it originally airs. As I learned my way around Netflix, Hulu+, and iTunes, I found myself watching less and less off the air (TiVO, actually). Thus the decision to scrap cable TV.

A DTV antenna is the device that lets you do this. This is a post mounted device similar in appearance to an oven rack with some wire frame bow ties in front of it. The Antennas Direct antenna that I have gives about 14db of gain and is surprisingly compact but it is UHF only. Our area has only UHF channels so the reduced bandwidth is no loss. The antenna mounts to a J post mount secured to the roof. This requires some roofing skills. The antenna feed line and ground line cross the roof and drop down. The feed line continues to the smart home voice/data/video distribution panel in my closet. The ground line continues down to the power panel ground rod.

The local installer installs these antennas for $300. It typically takes a 2 man crew 2 hours to do the installation. On my day, they got behind courtesy of Tidewater congestion and left as a thunder storm approached with the mast and feed line ungrounded. I contacted the owner and they came out about one week later to complete the work. The crews doing this work have some basic construction skills but are not licensed electricians and don’t have old work electrical skills. If they did, they’d be much better paid licensed electricians.

If you are considering a change from cable or dish TV to DTV by antenna, I’d recommend having a licensed electrician do all the inside wiring out to the exterior of the building. Your electrician will have the old work skills to add wiring to your building with a minimum of mess. Let the antenna people wire down to the ground block that your electrical installs. This will result in a much neater installation. The folks who do this work just don’t have the time to do a neat old-work job like your electrician would.

When I was researching grounding, I learned several things. The antenna and feed line must be grounded. This is true for both DirecTV and DTV antennas. The National Electrical code requires it and DirecTV requires its affiliated installers to do proper grounding. A quick survey of the neighbors shows that grounding is not happening. Most installations have no grounding at all.

Why ground? Electrical and fire safety. Grounding keeps exposed wiring, like the F connector body, at ground potential to protect you and your equipment from the mysterious influences of strong electric fields. The second thing it does is to mitigate the possible lightening damage should the mast be struck. I’m surrounded by trees but a strike on one of my trees could hop over to the house, particularly the TV antenna. The energy follows the ground wire which directs it to ground. This is a better deal than having it use the building to find its way to ground. Even with a ground wire, the lightening energy will probably hole the roof deck and splinter the framing it passes near on the way to ground. There may be a fire. Without grounding, the damage would be much more and the fire off to a much better start. A Ledyard neighbor learned about lightening strikes. This one punched a hole in the garage roof and splintered the corner studs and started a small fire which the volunteers were able to put out without major loss. Back in the day, antennas were properly grounded unless homeowner installed. All the local TV retailers provided antenna installation service and did it right.

How well does off-the-air work? Better than cable actually. Digital TV works perfectly or not at all. When it begins to get flaky, the picture tiles where packets of the picture data went missing. There is no snow, ghosting, strange colors, etc. Just a pristine image or nothing. The cable companies typically compress the local broadcasters additionally to get more channels on the cable. Got to make room for that adult content somehow. It is typical that PBS looks better off the air than off cable.

By not watching cable, I’ve missed most of the political nastiness that the SuperPACS have aired 😦 I’ve been using Hulu+, Netflix, and iTunes to watch the best of the best from the last decade or so. I’ve been buying Game of Thrones and Merlin from iTunes, and filling in from Netflix and Hulu+ I can always find an hour of TV worth watching after catching News Hour, Daily Show, and Colbert Report.