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Archive for September, 2011

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.