Saturday, December 12, 2015

Dumping Dish (How I Cut the Cord)

A while back my Dish Box died so I called Dish to upgrade. They were advertising the Hopper whole house DVR with free installation and free equipment, and free HD for life. However, when I called I was told that offer was available to "new customers" only. Since I had been a loyal Dish customer for over 15 years I figured they'd be willing to throw me a lil' sumptin-sumptin to keep me happy. So I haggled with them over the phone and after a while we worked out a deal where I would pay full price for everything, including installation of the HD satellite. Yep, they even agreed to let me pay an extra $10 a month for the privilige of receiving programming in HD (which only amounted to about a third of the total channels I got).  They were even nice enough to arrange it so I could pay an additional $8 a month to use the DVR function of the dish box they sold to me (at full retail price). My Dish bill went from $50 a month to over $120 a month.

Then I got an Amazon FireTV box. I installed every free channel App I could find and with Netflix, Hulu Plus and Amazon Prime costing around $10 each, my total streaming bill is only $30 a month for a whole lot of on demand programming.  So why was I paying Dish $120 a month? I started keeping track of the shows I actually watched on Dish and realized I wasn't watching very much "live" TV. In fact, 99% of it was DVR'd, and even those shows were on major network channels.  However, I wasn't ready to cut the cord just yet. My first experiment was to buy a 1byOne over-the-air (OTA) antenna ($35). I plugged the antenna in the TV and let it rip. I was amazed to find that it picked almost 30 channels, including all of the major networks. I got Fox, NBC, CBS, ABC, PBS in high definition! In addition to that, each network has at least two "sub channels" in standard definition that show movies, game shows, etc. I also got a whole host of independent channels.

The biggest drawbacks to going OTA only, IMHO, are the lack of a program guide (remember the old days of looking up TV listings in the paper?) and being able to record shows without dragging out the ancient VCR. Fortunately I had bought a stand alone DVR several years ago, but without a program guide it was really no better than a VCR. About a week later, while rearranging some of my equipment, I realized the DVR also had a TV tuner built into it. That meant it could record programs other than what was on Channel 3. In other words, it could change channels on it's own and record Judge Judy at 4:30 on one channel and then Saturday Night Live at 10:30 on another channel. It was like living in modern times again.

But I still wasn't confident in pulling the proverbial plug with Dish just yet. The set up I had worked but it wasn't ideal. The DVR only recorded one channel at a time and did not handle HD, although it does have a DVD player built in, and the program graphics were something akin to Microsoft DOS. I wanted something similar to my Dish box where I could click thru a menu and select programs to add to a recording schedule or simply watch now. I also wanted one box, one remote.  What I didn't know at the time is that something like that has existed for years. It's called a "Media Center". In fact, if you have a computer running Windows 7, 8.1, or Vista you already have it. It's called Windows Media Center and apparently it was the most popular, solid media center around. I said "was" because Microsoft has decided that it doesn't want you to use it anymore and they've done just about everything in their power to disable it. No more program guide, no more Netflix integration, etc.  However, that did lead me on the search for something similar.  After trying in vain to find a "live TV" app (that actually worked all of the time), or even just a local program guide for FireTV I gave up and decided to go the route of the Media Center. I still have, and still use my FireTV box though (more on that later).

I realized that if I got a dedicated computer I could load all of my music, home movies, and pictures on it. Plus, computers come with DVD drives so I can watch movies, and when connected to the internet I can stream Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and others. All I needed to do was add a TV Tuner card and I can watch TV as well. Simply connect the computer to the TV via an HDMI cable and BAM! a media center is born. Now all I needed to do was to find the right software to run it all - and that's the hard part. I started reading forums and blogs to see what everyone was talking about.

MythTV caught my eye because it was well adapted to Ubuntu and I liked the idea of sticking it to Microsoft by not using their OS. But having used Linux for years I was well aware of the short-comings of trying to get things like Netflix to work reliably, and without a lot of hacking. However, I couldn't get past the fact that the "news" blurb so prominently displayed on the home page was over a year old, as were several other "announcements" on the site. Next, I checked out Kodi (XBMC) which ironically is based on Microsoft's defunct Media Center (XBMC is/was Xbox Media Center) and it seems to have a very active user-base, which means people are discussing it, programming hacks for it, etc. However when I tried to visit their website Google had it flagged as "harmful" for some reason.  Since then that flag has been removed, but it's still a crap-shoot if the site will even load when I try to visit it. After finally visiting the site it seems you still need a 3rd Party "backend" to view and record TV so I chose to move on.

I read some good things about NextPVR and downloaded a copy of it. I didn't spend a whole lot of time playing with it though and it relied heavily on a built in web browser for TV Guide and other functions (which may not necessarily be a bad thing, just wasn't what I was looking for at the time.) From there I went on to MediaPortal and it was a hefty program. I installed the most recent version (MediaPortal 2) and it was slick and they have a well documented installation guide. (I might have to revisit this one!)

Instead, I stumbled across JRiver Media Center and after kicking the tires I decided I liked the look and feel of it best. Unlike all of the other programs I mentioned above (which are free) only JRiver is a paid program. It cost $50 to purchase, but I felt like a paid program that was generating income for someone would receive more attention in the way of updates, bug fixes, etc., than a free, open-source program maintained by enthusiasts. Of course that's in complete contrast to my love of Linux, so go figure.

JRiver has an active user forum and is constantly releasing updates, patches and improvements. The downside is that much of the online documentation is either out-dated, tries to cover too many versions, or is just really sparse. One of their Wiki Pages simply re-listed the menu items under a set-up screen with absolutely no explanation as to what the settings meant or did. And, who want to search thru pages and pages of user forums to figure out how to do something? But, I am willing to give them a 30 day free trial and see how it goes.

After narrowing down my choice to one program I was ready to purchase some hardware. I got a "small" Dell Inspiron ($500) with 8gb of RAM, a 1TB hard drive and a 3.40ghz processor which easily fits into my stereo cabinet and is practically silent. It comes with a DVD/CD player, an HDMI port, as well as USB 2.0 & 3.0 ports and bluetooth. Windows 10 was preloaded and all I had to do was uninstall various bits of "bloat-ware" and OEM programs that I will never use (remember, this is going to be a dedicated Media Center) and then copy all of my music files from various sources into "My Music". I did the same things with My Videos and My Pictures. I figured it would be best to use the default locations for these items and that the software's library would have an easier time finding and indexing them this way. Once that was done, I plugged in the USB TV Tuner (Hauppauge Dual Tuner $75) and installed the drivers from the manufacturer. (A dual tuner lets you record one TV show while watching another, or record two shows while doing something else.) Then I added a USB Remote Control sensor (Ortek MCE Remote $20) and installed the JRiver Media Center software (version 21). After firing up the software it auto-scanned my music and other media folders into it's library. Next I had it scan for TV Channels. It found 5 additional channels that my TV didn't find, btw.

I found it more convenient to add a wireless mouse & keyboard while I'm still in the tweaking phase so I can change settings and such from across the room, however, while running in Theater mode all I need is the remote. I can flip from program guide to live TV to music to DVD to home movies to a web browser all from one screen with one remote (although not all of the buttons work as you'd expect). The remote even has a "mouse pad" that comes in handy when using the web browser. It seems that at this time there are no apps for things like Netlix avaible for JRiver. So you have a couple of choices, use the broswer to open Netflix/Amazon/Hulu (each of which is easily mapped to it's own button on the screen) or attempt to program a button that will launch the Windows 10 App for each of these. Supposedly ther is a way to do it for Netflix and 3rd party program that emulate a remote control while using the app. However, I haven't seen anything similar for Amazon or Hulu so to me it's useless if it doesn't work for all of the "big 3" streaming services. Which leads me back to FireTV... while I managed to eliminate several boxes and a handful of remotes from my entertainment center, I've had to add FireTV box back into the mix. But, I'm okay with that, for now.

So... I googled "cancel Dish account" and found the 800 number to call (yes, you have to call and speak to someone) and was pleasantly surprised to get ahold of an understanding, more importantly, articulate, person who only made one attempt to "retain" me as a customer by offering me 24 months at half price with no contract. I politely declined. A week later they shipped me a box and a return UPS label so I could send my receiver back to them. They also wanted the switch and the thingy from the middle of the dish, but there was no way I was going to climb on the roof and start taking stuff apart. I sent them the receiver only, so far it seems to have made them happy.

Below are some of screenshots of what I see on my TV (including customized menu buttons):

Anyway, here is one person's experience in cutting the cord and I would love to hear from you if you have any comments/questions/experiences to share!

Updates: 1.) The Dell's built in DVD drive was way too noisy to use for movie playing (sounded like a plane taking off in the living room), but luckily I had a USB DVD drive by LG that is very quiet. 2.) I kept having various glitches & freezes and after a little bit of research, I unistalled Dell SupportAssist (and Dell SupportAssist Agent) and that solved a lot, if not all, of my problems. 3.) After a couple of weeks of tweaking I felt confident enough to click the "purchase" product button and registration was smooth and automatic.  In all, it's well worth the $49.95 price tag.