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Diary of a Cable-Cutter Part 2: Back To The Cable

It’s been a tumultuous couple of months since we cut the cord, and the short story is we’re crawling back to get our cable hook-up(through a different provider, however). My wife has made it clear that either everything is ready to go by October or she’s calling Comcast, so we’re falling back. I’ve learned a lot for the next go-round though–here’s an overview:

  • Netflix lets you adjust the video quality to better accommodate HTPCs but I still had pretty mixed results, even after downgrading the system video output to 720p. I like the Windows Media Center(WMC) Netflix UI much better than the Xbox 360 one, but the console just performs better. Whether that’s due to some sort of priority streaming on Netflix’s end or a lack of some critical optimization on the HTPC I can’t say.
  • I managed to get a pretty great Windows PC Remote which worked like a charm; it was a snap to install and the Harmony 510 could emulate it beautifully(installed it as Anyware GP-IR02BK). Of course then the remote’s screen got smashed soon afterwards; whether it was due to one too many throws by my toddler son or stepping on it myself one too many times, I couldn’t say. I had to order a new Harmony, but now everything’s running smoothly again. The only odd thing is that since it’s a Windows PC remote sometimes it will turn on my Xbox 360 too, but that’s manageable.
  • I wanted to use WMC to DVR live tv, so I went to Amazon and bought the cheapest ATSC USB tuner I could find without reading the reviews too closely. Big mistake. I tried to install this over and over with the latest driver software on Windows 7 Home Premium, but it won’t recognize it. I waited too long to install it so I couldn’t return it; K-World is sending me a replacement. I’m not holding my breath.
  • PlayOn installed fine on the HTPC. I tried viewing the content on my 360 just to see what it was like, and it played fairly well though the navigation was pretty primitive. I went looking for something that would plug PlayOn into WMC. The best I could find was tubecore, which has a much better UI but the performance was really laggy. I think this was just due to running everything on the same box.
  • I hooked up the USB drive I had for the O!Play to the HTPC. It was pretty painless to import all the movies, music and television programs into Windows Media Center. The Movies UI looks pretty nice but the default thumbnail data/metadata was non-existent(though I know plug-ins can remedy this). However when it came time for the field test of playing a cartoon DVD for my son, it played great but froze up after about 10 minutes. I quit and tried again, and it worked fine for about 5 more minutes before freezing up again. I never had anything like this happen with the O!Play. So, WMC is a FAIL when it comes to playing DVD rips.
  • I managed to score a couple free Hulu Plus trials to make the transition easier–I got the first because I had been on a trial program when they first launched on the 360, and I got the second for Facebook connecting to hulu.com. It’s not a bad interface on the 360 or the HTPC(via Hulu Desktop), but it’s a non-starter for my wife because it has commercials–her perspective is why pay for that? She has a point, but what I don’t like is that some programs are deemed “web-only” and can only be streamed on the desktop.
  • I found some basic free plug-ins to add XBMC, Boxee, and Hulu Desktop as menu items in WMC. They could be smoother, but they work well.
  • I heard that enabling Aero would enable the GPU for other HTPC functions on the AR3700, but after enabling it I couldn’t tell the difference.

Last week while scouring the interwebs for other cable-cutter experiences I came across this 13 part story which also ended with a return to their original TV provider. Their main conclusion was that no one yet offers the “sit back and zone out with the TV” experience. Not GoogleTV, Boxee, PlayOn, Windows Media Center, MythTV, XBMC, Plex, etc. Pretty discouraging.

I thought about going back to Comcast and using the HTPC as a DVR, but with Comcast it would require an external TV CableCard tuner–probably a SiliconDust HDHomeRun Prime(around $250). It would also require working with Comcast to get a CableCard and debugging any problems that came up, which nullifies a big reason for returning to cable in the first place.

In short, we have an appointment next week for AT&T to stop by and install U-verse Internet and TV. The combined price is $10 less than what we were paying Comcast for, and furthermore we’re getting $250 back in debit card payments. That’s kinda like getting an extra $20 off TV for a year. I’m a little wary because we tried and cancelled U-verse at our last place, but that was over three years ago when it was somewhat bleeding edge. Comcast is still our ISP of record though until we verify that U-verse is going to pan out.

The plan is to keep the HTPC as an XBMC DVD jukebox until further notice, I may sell the O!Play; it’s great but I would love some metadata-driven graphical flash for all those rips. I found a nice Reddit guide to configuring the AR3700 as an HTPC; I’ll probably go through that as a last-ditch effort.

Diary of a Cable-Cutter

Starting last Friday(7/22), our household has joined the TV cable-cutter movement. Some background:

A little over a year ago I was looking to get some kind of media player so I could watch my DVD collection without having to fumble around with discs. I also didn’t want to spend a whole lot of money, and I didn’t have tons of time to spend tweaking the thing.

After looking over my options(WDTV, Popcorn Hour, Patriot Box Office, Cinematube, HTPC) I decided to go with an Asus O!Play and a 2TB external hard drive to store DVD rips. The O!Play box itself was very cheap($80 after rebate), and I knew even if it didn’t work out I could plug the external HD into whatever the next thing was. As it turned out it worked very well–the picture is beautiful, it displays all the DVD menus, and overall it’s been trouble free. The UI is pretty clunky but it gets the job done.

Fast forward to about a month ago. Maybe 90% of our household TV diet is coming from either the O!Play or Netflix Instant Streaming via the Xbox 360, so why should we pay an extra $86 a month for Comcast HDTV with DVR? I had already tried out(and purchased) PlayOn, but without a dedicated box to run it on, streaming shows was just too slow. One day thanks to a well-timed marketing email I took the leap and purchased PlayOn Premium, so the die had now been cast. I was going to go the full HTPC route, but it had to be as user-friendly as possible. This led me to try going with Windows Media Center on Windows 7, but XBMC may be an option as well.

In short, this is what I want to do with it when it’s all configured:

  • watch Netflix Streaming
  • watch DVD rips
  • watch live HD TV
  • DVR live TV with Windows Media Center
  • watch commercial-free streaming TV shows w/PlayOn & plugins(TV Links, Ice Films)
  • stream content to 2nd TV with Xbox 360 via Media Extender

So, time to get started.

Step 1: Basic Hardware

I decided to go with a refurbished Acer AspireRevo AR3700-U3002. There’s even a site someone made for using the Revo as an HTPC. This thing is by far the quietest PC, desktop or notebook, that I’ve ever owned.

I re-installed Windows 7 Home Premium 32-bit(it was pre-installed with 64-bit, but from what I read 32-bit was just as fast and had more compatible codecs). It took forever but I managed to accept all available Required and Optional updates. I also installed the latest ION Graphics and HDMI Audio drivers from nVidia, as well as Flash and Silverlight. I was disturbed to discover the wired ethernet driver wasn’t working, but I managed to find the drivers on the Acer site(absolutely buried there under Desktop -> Aspire -> Aspire R3700). So far I’ve just used Netflix on Windows Media Center; the performance is okay but not as good as the Xbox 360.

Also tried ordering my first on-demand movie via the Xbox 360 yesterday–except for all that Microsoft Points nonsense it worked great in HD.

Next up: PlayOn premium!