Cord Cutting 14 Months Later

Fourteen months ago we cancelled AT&T U-Verse.  We kept AT&T for internet access only.  We now use Vonage for our land line.  Yes, I know we could have dumped the landline too, but what can I say, we’re old and set in our ways.  We just can’t quite give up the landline yet.

We were originally paying $60 a month for SlingTV but since the Olympics ended, we dropped the Sports Extra package and we’re back to paying $50 a month.  Since we have an antenna in the attic, SlingTV works fine for us.  We get nearly all the channels we used to watch on cable.  SlingTV recently added some of the Discovery networks so now I get to see Deadliest Catch and Gold Rush.  Those were the main two series that I had to originally give up to cut the cord, now I have them back.  Yea!!

We started out using a Tablo 4-Tuner for our local TV.  The only channel that gave us trouble at first was KOTV.  It would sometimes drop out and become difficult to watch.  I’m convinced that it has to do with a combination of the frequency they transmit on and the fact that we are in a river valley and there are hills and trees between us and the tower.  About 10 months after cutting the cord KJRH started giving us problems.  It was not all the time, but seemed to happen mostly during primetime.  Since it came in clear for 10 months, I really think that someone near us is creating some RF interference with the frequency that KJRH transmits.  That made two of our most watch networks nearly unviewable, NBC and CBS.

I had to find a solution.  We tried a free trial of PSVue since they carry local channels and it worked fairly well, but to get some our favorite shows would require subscribing at a level that would cost a fair amount more that what we pay for SlingTV.  Other live TV streamers had similar problems for us.  We needed a solution for the antenna.

I had a spare PC that I had built a couple of years ago to use as a media center PC.  When Microsoft dropped support for Windows Media Center that was the end of that experiment.  Now that PC was going to get a new purpose.  I had heard about Plex so I downloaded the Plex Media Server and installed in on the PC.  I bought a Plex Pass so I could experiment with Live TV and DVR.  I then purchased a Haupauge WinTV HD Dual USB tuner to use with Plex.  Once the channel scan was finished, I tried to tune into KJRH.  Wow, it worked with a nice picture and no sign of interference.  Then I checked KOTV, again a picture that was watchable.  We are down to two tuners, but if it becomes a problem, I can drop in another WinTV USB tuner and we will be back to 4 tuners.

Now we can watch OTA TV via Plex on our Roku boxes.  Occasionally we get some pixelated bands across the screen when the signal gets bad, but most of the time it comes through just fine.  I am disappointed that we don’t use the Tablo anymore.  I really like their user interface.  But Plex works well and we are getting used to the interface.  Using Plex for live TV is easier now since the latest preview version has a traditional grid guide.

We have yet to come close to using up our 1 terabyte per month limit with our streaming.  We have two TV’s that we stream, although we mainly use just one.  We might get closer to the limit if we were not using our antenna as much as we do.  If we did get too close, I guess we could switch from AT&T to Toast for our internet access, they have the same speeds as AT&T for a bit less money and they have no limits.

Bottom line is we are still saving nearly $100 a month vs cable and can watch virtually everything we used to watch when we had cable.  If we ever give up the land line we will be saving $120 a month.  That may be an option to consider.  At this point, I’d never go back to cable.  We are not in any long term contracts.  We can change anything with our TV packages whenever we want, no contracts at all, just month to month.

A Short Cord Cutter’s Tale

Well we have had a bit of a glitch lately.  I realize that being a cord cutter things don’t necessarily go smoothly all the time.  Instead of one provider you basically have several and, of course, they don’t really coordinate with each other.  They are all independent companies after all.

I had heard that Roku was requiring their app providers to update their apps to use the new Roku API’s.  They were soon going to phase out the old API’s and the only choice for providers was to update their app or have it removed from the Roku channel store.  For some providers that would result in a complete rewrite.  I get it.  I was a software developer before I retired.  I understand that API’s evolve and that can force you to update and sometimes rewrite your app.   It’s painful but unavoidable since you don’t have any control over the API provider.  This is just some background for the below description of the pain we went through when PLEX recently updated their app for the Roku player.

Back around mid December I started our Roku and opened the PLEX app.  I immediately noticed that the app had been updated.  I had heard that a new app was rolling out but I had not yet seen it.  Like it or not, now we had it.  I went to Live TV and selected our favorite channel and after a few minutes boom an error page popped up.  I tried to go back to the channel but I couldn’t get it to load.  I exited the app and opened it back up and was able to get back to the channel.  Then after a few minutes, sometimes maybe as long as an hour, boom another error screen.  This was making watching Live TV a very frustrating experience.

At least the recordings were working and they would play back fine.  Because of the problems, most of our Live TV watching went back to the Tablo.  We just had to put up with the garble on NBC and CBS.  (Those two local channels worked OK on PLEX, until the update that is, when no channel worked right.)

I went to our PLEX server and did some checking and noticed that there was a new update waiting to be applied.  I updated the server thinking that it would go just fine and maybe it might help the app work better.  I’ve not had any problems applying server updates in the last year we have been using PLEX.  Then a day or so after the update, I went to the PLEX app to view a recording and there were problems with the recording.  Not just the one recording, but many other recordings that were supposed to be made.  I immediately went to the server to see if it was just a PLEX app bug or if it was a server problem.  Unfortunately, it was a server problem.  This just wouldn’t do.  I got online and found out how to roll back an update.  Once that was done, I checked the PLEX app and the recording problems were fixed.

I logged in to the PLEX Forums and posted a message about the problems we were having hoping to get a response from someone (hopefully from the PLEX Team) on how to get all this fixed.  Maybe I could even find out how to roll back the PLEX app update.  I found out that I was not the only one having these problems.  At least my misery was shared.  I kept checking back each day, and then someone posted about going back to use the PLEX Beta app.  It was working for them, no Live TV playback issues.  This was fantastic news, I figured out how and installed the Beta app on my Roku.  Sure enough, no more playback problems.

In the meantime, PLEX pushed out a new PLEX Media Server update.  I crossed my fingers and applied the update.  This time there were no problems.  At least I didn’t have to wait long for them to fix the server.

I kept going back and checking the forum for updates and someone on the PLEX Team said that they had updated the Preview app and that we should try that.  I installed the Preview app a few days ago and have had no problems with playback and also got the long wished for TV Grid for selecting shows.  I thanked the PLEX Team for listening and working on the bug.  Hopefully it won’t be too much longer and the release version of the app will get updated.

I really like PLEX and want to continue using it.  The 5 dollars a month for a PLEX Pass is well worth the value returned.  Hopefully for the next update they will do a bit more beta testing before they unleash it on the rest of us again.

Until the production PLEX app is finally fixed, we will continue to use the Preview version.  Now everything is back to normal and our TV viewing has become routine again.

Getting Ready to Cut the Cord

Some time ago I wrote a post about an HTPC (home theater PC) that I was building.  The intent was to use it as a DVR on our cable system via a Ceton TV card.  After quite a bit of trouble I finally had it ready to go using Microsoft Media Center to control the DVR and playback.  Well, about the time I got it ready to go, Cox Communications decided to implement switching to their cable system.  This required that I get a switching box to use my Ceton TV card.  After trying three different switching boxes I could not get the box to work with my Ceton TV card.  So the HTPC basically became just a PC attached to our TV.

Since that time Cox has raised their rates to the point I had to switch providers.  We now have AT&T U-verse which uses a streaming technology for cable TV delivery rather than the traditional cable.  So I still can’t use the Ceton TV card on the PC.  Our two year discount with AT&T has run out and their charges for cable TV are just as much if not more that Cox was.

Paying nearly $170 a month just for cable TV is stupid.  So I have decided that it is time to cut the cord and go with streaming TV.  I have been investigating this now for about the last 6 months trying to determine all the pieces that we need to get the TV service we really want.  As part of this investigation, I discovered some software called PLEX.  PLEX at its most basic is a personal media streaming server.  The cost for PLEX is free.  There are a few more advanced features that require a $5.00 a month PLEX Pass subscription.  Not a bad investment for what you get.

I used the Media Center PC that I mentioned above to install PLEX.  I did upgrade from an AMD A4 processor to an A8 processor and added an additional 8 Gb of memory.  I also replaced the DVD drive with a Blu-ray drive.  I have ripped most of our DVD and Blu-ray collection and put it on the PLEX server.  It puts a very nice front end on the media and automatically downloads some additional meta-data about any media you put in the PLEX file system.  You can access the media via the web or apps that are available on Windows, smart TVs, streaming boxes, X-box, and smart phones.  All my testing so far has gone well. Continue reading “Getting Ready to Cut the Cord”