Cutting the (Cable) Cord - the Search for the Elusive Perfect HTPC

Jun 19, 2010

I wrote this in March 2010 in my old blog, so I'm porting over

I've recently come around to the idea that I may not need my "Comcastic" cable TV anymore. My Comcast bills are seemingly always a shock when I open them and see that I owe $130 a month for internet service and fairly basic TV service. What am I getting for my $130?

More recently, however, I realized the following about my TV watching:

  • I don't watch many sporting events anymore because the bay area teams SUCK. Yes, you: warriors, A's, Giants, and Niners.

  • Most programs I watch are on network TV: Lost), the PBS News Hour,  The Office), and every once in a while American Idol.

  • I watch a few more shows like Friday Night Lights), Mad Men, and Dexter), but I watch them on disc or through Netflix Streaming.

Why Cable Sucks

Awesome Rabbit Ears

The thing that's so infuriating about cable is that you pay for tons of channels that you never watch - the list is so ridiculously long: HGTV, Bravo, MTV, Blah blah blah. I will not watch those shows unless I'm unbelievably bored and too hung over to read a book or something. Looking at the list above I realize that what I really need is netwok TV, which can ostensibly be pulled down via an old school antenna (rabbit ears style - who remembers those?), a DVR, and Netflix Streaming.

What I Really Need

Netflix Streaming I have with my PS3, so I've got that box checked.

Now where do I get a TV tuner and DVR from? Turns out that my TV - a panasonic plasma - doesn't have a TV tuner, so I've got to get one of those. One option could be a Tivo - they just announced some new models, and they look pretty sweet. They do all of this:

On top of being able to record and navigate through cable, FiOS, or regular antenna TV, the TiVo Premiere connects to the internet to bring you streaming video from Netflix, Amazon, Blockbuster; streaming music from Rhapsody and Live 365; and it can transfer downloaded content to your laptop or mobile device.

Unfortunately what it also comes with is a $300+ price tag and a $13 a month service charge. It's just switching masters, albeit to a much cheaper one!

P.S. Where the hell is Hulu? My guess is Hulu's content providers gave Tivo the big f-u just like Boxee got it.

Hmm, what's this HTPC Thing?

After some Googling and bitching to friends I discovered there are a wealth of computer-based options that might be able to fill the tuner + DVR role. Turns out there are a lot of software options that do this type of thing, including MythTV and Windows Media Center. Whenever I tell people that Windows comes with a DVR I get a blank stare: what? How? But apparently Windows Media Center is actually a really awesome piece of software. You need a PC with a TV Tuner card, and suddenly your windows machine turns into a pretty sweet DVR.

So now I just need a PC to hook up to the TV, and a TV Tuner card. Looks like the newest crop of low-cost HTPC machines center around the Intel Atom Processor (a really cheap low cost processor) and the NVidia ION graphics processor. A few of the options I've seen are:

  • Acer Aspire Revo - the 3610 includes the dual core Atom 330 processor, 2GB of RAM, a 160GB drive, the Ion graphics processor, and Windows 7 home premium.

  • Asrock ION 330 - another dual core Atom 330 processor, 2GB of RAM, a 160GB drive, Ion, but no OS (you have to buy your own)

  • Zotac MAG - similar specs to the Revo sans the OS - but much cheaper than the Asrock.

One potential issue with these units is that they use 2.5" hard drives that spin at 5400RPM so that tends to slow them down, but indications are that these machines are fast enough to record and play HD Video from a TV tuner. Additionally the ION processor with Adobe Flash 10.1+ beta is supposed to have super smooth playback of 1080P video from Hulu, Youtube, and the like.

Taking the Plunge

Computing has come a long way with respect to video and I'm amazed that these sub-$400 computers can become my DVR, stream online video, and enable me to get rid of Comcast. I'm seriously considering taking the plunge.