Wednesday, June 2, 2010

cut the cord - dealing with multiple TV locations in your house

When you cut the cord from pay TV, one of the challenges is how to deal with multiple TVs (and family requirements) in your house.

For example, we used to have a High Definition digital cable DVR in our living room and a plain (non-DVR, non-HD) set top box in another room.  For us, the challenge with cutting the cord was how to get TV into at least two locations in our house (and replace our place-shifting ability).  Initially, I thought this was going to be a big problem.  I'll explain how we solved this a little later in the article.

However, the way we thought about this problem (and TV in general) was fundamentally changed by a rather fortunate "accident".  In the process of doing some remodeling we had the Cable unplugged (and the TV boxed up) for several weeks.  This wasn't a problem for me, but my wife was rather addicted to some of the her favorite TV shows.  It wasn't until we were forced to look for content on the web were we pleasantly surprised to find how much really is available.  My wife was able to catch her "Gray's Anatomy", "House" and other shows without problems.  Not only that, but she enjoyed watching them on her laptop and used headphones when watching late.  We would have never explored alternate ways of watching TV (or getting content) had our Cable and TV been available.

Of course, the whole time we had the Cable box off, the Cable bills didn't stop coming.  So when it came time to reattach the Cable boxes, I knew we were ready to cut the cord.  If you haven't tried this free experiment, I highly recommend it!  There is nothing like paying for something you don't use (or need) to motivate you to make a change!

Not everyone who wants to cut the cord has the same requirements as we do.  However there are several common issues and many, many different solutions available that can make it all work.

Issue #1:  Start with a good home network

Since there is so much content on the web now, it almost goes without saying that you need a good network to allow you to access it in different locations in your house.  This is the very first problem you need to solve as a prerequisite to cutting the cord.  Of course, a good network in your home is useful for so many other purposes as well so this is time well spent.

If you have a new house, you may be fortunate enough to already have wired Ethernet ports in each room.   If so, I really do envy you.  If you don't have this, you might be able to run your own wires (or hire someone to do it for you).  Providing this is feasible for you, this shouldn't be an expensive option and can be a really nice do it yourself project.

If running a wired network isn't an option (like for me), there are various reasonable alternatives.  Wireless can work well and I've had good luck with my current Wireless N network and streaming video.   Besides, you probably want a wireless network anyway for laptops and other devices (Wii game systems, Squeezeboxes, etc).

You can even try running a network through your power outlets with the various homeplug av products.  Make sure they are "AV" or else they might be too slow.  Here is one that seems to have good reviews (but I haven't personally used):  ZyXEL PLA401 200 Mbps Powerline HomePlug AV Wall-plug Adapter (Starter Kit--2 units)

Having a good home network will allow any of your computers, Media PCs, laptops (and newer TVs) to share and access Internet content.

Issue #2: Do you really need all of those TVs?

This may be obvious, but you might not want to watch TV in your home on a "TV" any more (at least in some rooms).  Many people watch media using all kinds of devices now like netbooks, laptops, iPads, and desktop computers.  These devices can easily replace a TV in many situations.

This is the lesson we learned after being forced to watch TV on our latptop when the TV was boxed up.  Laptops make great personal TVs.

Also, while we don't have TVs in our kids' rooms, they do have older model computers.  However, they work just fine playing movies or streaming content.  We try not to make a habit of this, but having the ability to do this has come in handy.

For us, when we cut the cord, we never found the need to replace the Cable set top box that we had in another room.  We get by just fine with a single Media PC and don't find it limiting at all.

Issue #3:  What will be driving your TVs

If you do want to watch on a TV, most computers will temporarily connect up to a modern TV.  Of course, this is why people choose to have a dedicated Media PC.

The choice of the type of device (PC, Mac, Linux, Other) really is up to you.  You can build or buy satisfying and powerful home media systems using many different technologies.  I happen to have chosen Windows 7 Media Center for my Media PC, but there are lots of good choices.

Even if you really like Media PCs, you may not need identical Media PCs in every room.  Some of the Media PCs may not need TV tuners or could be configured in minimal ways (reducing cost).

If you have a Media PC with Windows Media Center, you can use what are called Media Extenders.  These function as portal devices to your main Media Center PC to easily access their content.  If you have an Xbox 360, you can use that, but there are also devices sold by HP, Linksys, and Samsung.

I'll do a comprehensive review of different Media PC options in a future post.

Issue #3: getting Internet content in multiple locations (in your home)

Okay, this one is obvious but it is worth making the point anyway.  If you have a good home network and more than one connected computer, you already have shared access to any Internet content that you want.

Internet content is usually streamed on demand so each device in your home can access it independently.  Provided that you have enough downstream bandwidth, you should be able to watch Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, etc. all independently in multiple rooms.

Issue #4: sharing local content in multiple locations (in your home)

A media PC can record TV and you might want to watch these recordings in multiple locations.  You could also have slide shows, home videos, music or other downloads.  Since each device (computer) you have in your home (usually) stores these files locally, all you need to do is use standard computer file sharing techniques.

Computers are great at file sharing and they are usually pretty easy to setup.  Provided you have a good home network (see issue #1), there is no need to copy large files around to enjoy them in different locations in your house.  It is really nice to not have to do this!

Having a good network is really important here because sharing content inside the home is usually done at full quality (unlike place-shifting).  For High Definition content, this can place a significant load on your network.  Older generation wireless networking equipment (e.g. wireless G, B, A) might not be up to the task.  Even wireless N may not work if you have poor signal quality or have longer distances.

I'll do a quick review of simple file sharing for media in a future post (or provide links).

Issue #5: accessing content (outside of your home)

When we had our Cable DVR, we also had a Slingbox for place-shifting.  This nifty little device allowed us to enjoy our Cable TV content anywhere in the world via the Internet.  Of course, all the device did was allow remote access to our Cable DVR so we were stuck with it's old interface (except it was even slower going over the Internet).  Still, it was nice.

With a Media PC (or any computer really), you can accomplish the same thing with free software.  The challenge with sharing media over long distances is that the media (videos) usually have to be transcoded (smaller) to make them consume less bandwidth.  This reduces quality, but is certainly better than no access at all.

We also have the issue of remote (away from home) control.  What are you going to do if your computer is asleep and you want to watch a movie stored on it?  What if you want to update the recording schedule?  Again, there are software programs that can do this for us.

I've recently covered this in a new post here.

Issue #6:  getting Live TV in multiple locations (in your home)

Finally, what if you want to watch Live TV in multiple rooms?  I've avoided this issue until last since there are multiple ways to solve this problem.   First of all, broadcast TV is like Cable TV.  You need to run a coax cable to (each) "device" which will "tune" the stations you want to watch.  Unfortunately, this means a cord to a device that isn't easily moved from room to room.  There are three basic types of devices that I know of:
  1. a digital ready TV
  2. a digital video recorder / Media PC
  3. network tuner
The simplest (and cheapest) solution is to run the antenna wire directly to your TV.   New TVs have the ability to tune Digital TV (with what is called an ATSC tuner).  Of course, you won't be able to do anything fancy like pause or record TV.   However, this may be fine for some situations (or individual rooms).  In fact, this is not unlike the functionality you might already be used to with old cable set top boxes (or basic analog cable).  If you don't want the complexity (and don't need the functionality) of a Media PC, then this may be all you (or certain family members) need.  Sometimes the simple solution is best.

The next step up in functionality is to connect your TV antenna to one or more devices like a Media PC with an attached TV tuner.  The Media PC can then record TV and play it back just like a cable or satellite Digital Video Recorder (but better!).  You can, of course, have two or more Media PCs (each with their own tuners), and this is an ideal setup for some.  This is not unlike having multiple cable DVRs.

Another alternative to consider (especially if you have a good home network), is to use a device that puts one or more tuners directly on your home network: SiliconDust HDHomeRun HDHR-US Dual Networked High Definition Digital Television (White).  This may be very convenient as multiple computers / laptops / media PCs on your network can share the same set of tuners (and you only have to run your antenna wires to one place).


Before we cut the cord, I was worried that I'd miss the functionality and convenience that I had with my digital cable system.  Ignoring the issue of content (I cover that in another post), my fears couldn't have been more unfounded.  Yes, it is a bit more complex, but not by all that much.  My family can use the system and like it so far.  Also, I now have a media system that is far more flexible and enjoyable than I could have imagined.


  1. Hi George,

    My kids love "linear TV"; i.e., the ability to just sit down and watch whatever is on at the moment on Disney or Cartoons. They don't want to have to think about it. I'd love to see a way to have my own internal "channel". for example, I could maybe go buy every season of Sonny's Suite Life with Hannah Montana and rip to xvid or some format. Then a quick randomize to make all of them into a "channel".

    Have you seen anything like this?

    Another George

  2. Hi George,

    Regarding linear TV, I think you could approximate this with any popular media player that supports a media library and playlist functions. VLC, Winamp, Windows Media Player, etc will do this. Create your playlist and set the player for random mode. Multiple playlists would approximate different channels.

    You might also be interested in checking out VLC's built-in streaming capability. A VLC stream is even more like linear TV in that you "tune in" to a stream. There are *lots* of options in streaming including multicast (allowing multiple computers to watch the same stream at the same time). This is definitely a bit of an advanced feature.

    VLC can do this and more, but I'd bet that a simple playlist will do what you want with minimal effort.

    Of course, beyond watching your own local content, you might be able to find this on the web as well. However, then you would surely get commercials, etc.

    Lastly, my Kids have really enjoyed watching the one or two local broadcast channels that show kids programs most of the time (e.g. like PBS Kids).


  3. Hi George, great ideas. I didn't think about randomizing a playlist. My kids are 6, 8, and 9, so we are in that PBS transitioning to Hannah-all-the-time phase. I'll check out VLC. Thanks again!

  4. I've had great success rebroadcasting content from my cable company's DVR to all the other rooms in my house that are wired with coax using a modulator such as the Channel Plus 5545 device. Then I just use a remote extender like the ATH-418 RF battery sleeve transmitters to control that cable box from anywhere in the home.

    It's really convenient because you can pause and resume any content in any room. Obviously, only one content stream is available on any of the TV's at any time though, but for small families with homes pre-wired with coax, its a great solution.

  5. Hi TechClicker,

    Cool, thanks for the tip! Seems to work in principle much like a SlingBox but will allow you to easily watch on a TV with a regular tuner.


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