Home Theater PC

After years of dedicated Satellite access, we decided to see if we can make the move to OTA-HDTV (Over the Air High Definition Television).  We realized that although some of the specialty shows on HBO and Showtime were part of our usual DVR addiction, we didn’t really watch the rest of the premium channels all that much.  In addition, like many Americans we’re trying to cut our monthly expenses, and it was getting hard for us to justify the $165 TV bill. We already have a 12Mbps DSL link so we’re not hurting for access to the Internet for streaming content.

I started doing some research to find out what was needed to get the OTA TV signals in my area, and do some sort of DVR functionality.  Also, we signed up for NetFlix, and for $9 we get nearly all the premium channel shows that we like to watch, albeit a season or so behind.  To be honest, it wasn’t all that important for us to be up to the minute on True Blood. 😀

The first step to the OTA setup was getting an antenna to pick up the signals.  Lucky for me, I looked in the crawl space in my basement and found a huge antenna that a previous owner had left behind, a Radio Shack VU-190XR.  I did some research on it, and found it should be able to pick up the transmissions for all of the local channels I watch (ABC, NBC, CBS, CW, FOX) although it wasn’t exactly highly rated on HDTV Antenna Labs.  I didn’t want to mount my antenna on the outside of the house or on my property because of concerns with HOA restrictions, and to just keep the eyesores to a minimum.  I decided to install the antenna in my attic, as we are pretty high up on a hill, and there are no big buildings between us and the TV Transmitters that are nearby.  I went to the HDTV Antenna Alignment page and got the coordinates for my area. Almost all the channels I want are in the same general direction. So, after a couple of hours assembling the antenna in my attic, climbing up and down a couple of times to check I was getting signal, I had the first step completed … free signals acquired. One thing I should mention, if you have cable TV or Satellite coax running through your attic already, you should be able to splice into it and re-use it for sending the OTA signal down to your TV.  I had already pulled coax from my satellite dish through the attic to a TV in the master bedroom. So, I just cut into that cable and re-used it for my antenna.  That saved me a lot of time.

Once I got the HDTV signal captured in the attic and sent down to my TV, I needed a way to record content to DVR system.  I decided the best device for me would be a purpose built Windows7 machine.  I had an old case lying around and I have my sound components in a different room from my TV, so I don’t have to worry about sound or heat coming from the HTPC. Some new hardware is available for reasonable prices that didn’t exist when that article was written, so I upgraded the CPU to an AMD Phenom II X4 910e 2.6GHz 65W … four cores and only 65Watts of power makes this an awesome chip for an HTPC.

The reason I built a new machine is because I already have a lot of content encoded into DIVX and XVID format.  I have movies stored on DVD and watch them with a DVD player that can read those formats.  I thought it would be a good chance to improve on that setup, ditch the DVDs, and just use a PC to serve up my archives.  I have to say that the Windows Media Center system works great.  I know there are many alternatives and by all means do what you’re most comfortable with, but for me it was nearly plug and play, thanks to a special box that transfers my OTA signal to Ethernet.

The secret to making the OTA HDTV signals available to all of my TVs is in a small box called the HD HomeRun Dual. This awesome device takes an OTA HDTV or unencrypted cable feed and puts it out an Ethernet port so that a Media Center PC can pick up the stream and encode it. I took my OTA cable and split it into three different runs, sending two feeds to the HD HomeRun and one directly to my TV. This gives me two encoders for the Media Center, and one feed directly to the TV. It’s a lot like my old DirecTV DVR … I can record two channels, or record one and watch another on Media Center, but I also have the third option of watching live TV directly. My Plasma Hitachi 55HDX99 has a built in HDTV decoder, so it can take a direct antenna feed. I assume most newer TVs can do the same. An interesting thing I found is that the shows that I watch directly OTA are better quality than the Hi-Def channels I used to get on Satellite.  Another bonus.

With the HDHomeRun putting the OTA signal on the network, I can use any network connected device in my house to plug-in to that feed, or use the built in Media Center protocols to watch programming that is saved on the HTPC.  My wife and I have our laptops setup to connect to the HTPC so we can watch our saved shows, and I also bought a Western Digital WDTV Live Plus box for the master bedroom. This device is the final piece that serves to connect regular TVs to the media streams on the HTPC. I didn’t have an Ethernet jack in the master bedroom, so I bought a USB WiFi dongle that plugs in to the WDTV and gets me connected wirelessly to my network. I was thinking ahead a few years ago and bought a dual-band wireless router Linksys WRT610N so that I can have two wireless networks running in the 2.4GHz and 5GHz range.  I keep the 2.4 reserved for laptops and handhelds that run 802.11G, and use the 5GHz band for 802.11N systems.  I had to do a little digging to find which USB WiFi adapter would work with the WDTV, but found a forum post that said the Linksys WUSB600N was on the approved list. Bonus that it was available from Amazon for $24 refurbished!

Not that it’s all up and running, I really have no complaints.  Sure, we have to do a bit of digging around to find things on websites to fill in the missing content that we used to have on 600+ satellite channels, but the reality is that most of that stuff is available online somewhere.  Most major cable network shows can now be watched in near high-def directly on their websites.  I guess I spent about $500 acquiring all the parts I needed to get this running … here’s a list of everything from my “buy list”.

OTA to Ethernet:
SiliconDust HDHomeRun HDHR-US

HTPC Hardware:
Gigabyte GA-MA785GMT-UD2H Micro ATX Motherboard
AMD Phenom II X4 910e 2.6GHz 65W
Extra Disk Storage – Western Digital 2 TB Caviar Green SATA Hard Drive
IOGear Multimedia Keyboard
Media Center PC Remote Control

WDTV Live Plus:
Western Digital WD TV Live Plus HD Media Player
Cisco-Linksys Refurbished Wireless-N USB Adapter

3 thoughts on “Home Theater PC

  1. Hi Toby,
    Bravo on ditching the cable company! We’ve been happily watching the network channels OTA in HD since we moved here, no cable for us. The quality of the broadcast is awesome, and we get all the usual Fox, CBS, NBC, ABC, all the stuff that we’d want to watch anyway. I’ve also hooked it all up to a HTPC, it’s a little AOpen D965, which looks like one of those small square Apple Mac’s but a PC version. I use an Avermedia Volmax USB tuner, and Windows Media Center in W7. Flawless. Of course with the wireless USB we are online + networked with it as well.
    Read with great interest your solar panel journey, one day we’ll do that here too.

    • Yeah G … I know those little AOpen boxes. I was thinking about going that route too until I realize I was putting the machine in the garage, so it didn’t have to be small or quiet. Would definitely consider doing one of those for the kids room when they need a TV in a few years.

      I’ll have to look up that USB Tuner … sounds like a good alternative to doing it over Ethernet like I did.

      If you are staying in your house for the foreseeable future, you should do the Solar as soon as you can. The system really does start to pay for itself pretty quickly. Give me a call if/when you decide to do it and I can share a bunch of research with you to help get started.

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