Dreams of a DVR

‘Cord Cutter Curious’ part 4.

While going about the business of “replacing” our incredibly expensive TV service with antennas, the wife asked that we keep the capability to record the shows she loves. Fortunately, they are on major networks available on the antenna.

In the interest of being geeky and maintaining marital bliss on a budget, I did a lot of research.

My first move was to buy a simple `over the air` (OTA) tuner with software capable of acting like a digital video recorder (dvr). An iView Premium Digital Converter (3500STBII).

The principle is simple enough. It’s a black box controlled by a remote that connects to an antenna in line with a TV. If you’re old enough then you remember how old fashioned VHS recorders were set up. With the tv on a certain channel (3 or 4) then your box would display from the tuner box whether it was broadcasts or operating menus with your remote.

The model I chose was arbitrary, but I wouldn`t recommend it. The menus are not intuitive, controls without the remote are limited and video playback is played back in a horrendous format that is much smaller than our screen format.

To play back video, you can use the set top box or you can pull the USB stick out and plug it directly into the USB port of a tv or media center. In fact, the playback from the set top box was so poor, I did that very thing and was astonished at the quality of the playback. Vivid picture and colors.

I set this up to auto record on the timeslots where her shows normally air. No, unlike a full featured DVR it can not record just new episodes or first run episodes. You pick a timeslot to record a channel and it records that timeslot on that channel. If something completely different is aired, that gets recorded. Nothing fancy. Ultimately, after a few months this failed and the recordings we mere clips of a few seconds.

I believe it’s a handling of the recorded memory problem, but frankly it was more problematic to try troubleshooting extensively. So I abandoned that effort.

Now for more homework and a whole lot of time. I wanted something more full featured. I own a Raspberry Pi 1, 2, 3B and 4 and was aware there might be a way with their help. The ideal would be to set up one as a PVR with a USB tuner that could record shows with the help of the freely available enhanced program guide (EPG). The recorded shows would also be available for replay through some of the key TV`s through our home network directly or via a device like a ROKU.

We’ll cover that more in the future. Tune in again for another Cord Cutter Curious installment.

Spaghetti Strands – pt 3

This is Part 3 of the ‘Cord Cutter Curious’ series.

Having found an antenna placement sweet spot, the next move was to arrange for antenna connection to the living room TV. This clearly would require more thought and effort.

For that I spent time at the top of a ladder examining the different coax runs with the attic light bulb across the dusty insulation.

I was able to find a coax that ran from the living room near our TV, through the exterior wall, toward our garage around the multitude of service access boxes. From those boxes there were multiple runs of coax that clearly ran into the attic ultimately ending up in that spaghetti pile in the attic.

The idea was to mate the coax run from the living room with one of the attic coax runs and then connect it to another attic antenna.

After noodling the options, it became clear that I would need a little more than just a keen eye to unravel this. Checking online I wanted an inexpensive means of signal tracing and making my own coax.

A little online searching and I found a Klein Tools Coax tester kit and a kit for making coax cables (cutter, stripper, ferrules and crimper).

The tester kit included four color coded mail end points. I needed double sided female connectors to use when testing loose cables with the end points. The way it worked is you attached the color coded pieces on one end and apply the tester to another loose end (like in my spaghetti pile). The tester shows which color is on the far end and then you should mark that cord to remember where it terminates. In my case, I used painters tape with magic marker designating the far end from the attic.

After setting up the test end points, what I discovered is the majority of our upstairs bedrooms all had useable coax legs leading to the attic and meet at a few splitters. And I found one leg running down to the gathering of garage boxes. I also had some loose ends I could not identify their end point. This tester saved me hours of running back and forth with trial and error guess work.

I happened to have a diy fractal TV antenna that I mounted in the attic. I attached the cable that ran to the outside of the garage to the balun.

While outside the garage I found a cable running from the living room to the garage termination box as well. I attached that to the cable running to the diy antenna. The living room leg I attached to my living room tv.

The signal was phenomenal.

And that established the basis for my antenna feeds. I may set up more, but for now, that’s where I’ve started.

Cord Cutting in My Future

For the past several years, I was lucky enough to have an employer provided TV discount that was incredibly generous for broadcasts services for less than $4o a month. This included premiums like HBO and NFL games.

That changed when I was laid off in September of 2020. The services jumped to more than $150 a month with no premium channels. That would mean the yearly expense would jump to $1800 a year. I’m also aware that my experience is not unique.

And with Covid lockdowns creating a questionable work future, saving on monthly expenses is important.

I’ve been ‘cord cutter curious’ for at least ten years. I treated it like a useful little hobby. Especially when my TV service went through periods of being unreliable. I’ve made my own fractal antennas. I’ve installed inexpensive, but very effective TV antennas in my attic. I’ve played around with various ROKU models over the years and some of the free services they provide. I bought a very inexpensive OTA DVR that I’ve dusted off and started to use again. I’ve cobbled together OTA tuners with vga monitors and speakers as makeshift TV’s.

Now I need to examine this hobby more in depth. I need to replace the TV service with far less expensive options. Some specific goals to consider.

1- I want to have TV services available on each of our current TV’s for free or as near to free as possible.

2- It has to be useable by the untrained. If it’s not straightforward for my wife or the teen child in our house, it’s not worthwhile.

3- DVR functionality. I want to be able to record or replay episodes on demand. The wife and child are ‘General Hospital’ fans.

4- DVR functionality. Preferably, I want the replay to be available on multiple TV’s, like through wifi replay direct to a ROKU or TV.

5- Access to NFL games if possible. The child is a Seahawks fan and we live in Florida. This would be a good nice to have, not a must.

A summary of where I already am with things: I have older ROKU’s, old DVD smart players, a few chromecasts, a variety of smart TV’s and dumb TV’s, a mish mash of pre-existing coax running through the house, coax tools for attaching ferrules allowing me to make custom lengths of coax, a little electrical and cabling experience, two already installed attic tv antennas, and a few different Raspberry Pi’s that may help play into the picture.

Services I already have: Netflix, Amazon Prime and occasionally shared access with other services with family members.

So, this is the start of my “Cord Cutter Curious” Series. Stay tuned.