Cutting the Cord: Part 4 – Original Xbox

Xbox Softmod

XBMC was what first drove me to get all of our DVDs onto a computer and it also drove me to softmod our Xbox following a guide on Lifehacker. When the DVD drive stopped working in our Xbox, I decided to repurpose it as a device that would play movies and TV episodes, and it does a great job at that. After we finally bought a DVD remote for five bucks, it worked really well. This setup doesn’t do everything, but it’s pretty good at playing back DVDs.

Goals:

  • Play back our media collection – Check.
  • Ability to watch and record TV – Nope.
  • Watch Netflix from any TV – Sort of, through PlayOn

Other Parts of Cutting the Cord:

Cutting the Cord: Introduction
Backend: Desktop Computer (acting as file server) and TV Tuner
Master Bedroom: Roku streaming
Living Room: HTPC and TV w/ built-in Netflix
Basement: Original Xbox with XBMC

Cutting the Cord: Part 3 – HTPC and Living Room Setup

Our living room is our main TV-watching area. This is where we watch our movies in surround sound and right now it’s the only place (besides our computers) where we can actually watch live TV.

HTPC

When we cancelled our satellite dish subscription, we knew that we wanted some way to record our favorite TV shows. With kids it’s hard to watch TV on a schedule (like if our favorite show is on Thursday nights at the same time our kids go to bed, for example).

The first thing that we bought after cancelling satellite was a little computer (it’s an Acer Aspire Revo). It’s powerful enough to do almost everything we want it to (it’s not very good for watching Netflix streaming).

Although the computer came with a wireless keyboard and mouse, we knew we needed a remote control. We bought the Gyration Air Music Remote, which was $40 after a rebate. Lots of remotes would do, but we’ve liked this one pretty good since it can also act as a mouse (you use it kind of like a Wii Remote) for those times when the computer just isn’t acting right.

Windows Media Center

Windows Media Center comes built-in with recent versions of Windows. It does a pretty good job when we want to watch TV, schedule recordings, or play back shows it has recorded. We haven’t got this to work very well over the network yet, but the little Acer Aspire Revo has no problems recording two HD shows at once, even if it’s playing back another. Windows Media Center is pretty easy to use with a good remote – just press the big green button to get it running!

XBMC

XBMC is a great, free program for playing media from local or network sources. It’s similar to Plex (which was actually split off from XBMC a few years back) in that it shows all your media with posters and other artwork. Using it with the Media Center remote has worked pretty well, but there’s a little more learning curve to the interface than Media Center, in my opinion. To run XBMC, we have a little launcher app that opens it from inside Media Center. We could do some more fiddling with the remote to make this easier, but that’s been a bit tricky to figure out.

Hulu Desktop

Hulu Desktop is the best way to watch Hulu. It’s pretty easy to navigate, especially if you’ve set up an account with your favorite shows to watch. We’ve done a free trial of Hulu Plus, and while that works great with Hulu Desktop and also allows you to access the Roku Channel or view on other streaming media players, we came back to Hulu Desktop after we found that almost all of what we watch was here, as long as we don’t get too far behind in watching new series that come out. Psych is one of our favorite shows, and it was easy to watch here. We definitely don’t mind the few commercials that we have to watch to get TV that we can’t watch in other places.

TV w/ Built-in Streaming

Lots of TVs these days have built-in Netflix streaming (and other channels, too), and that’s how we watch Netflix in our living room. Our Sony TV doesn’t seem to be able to provide a consistent stream all the time (sometimes during the day it has to buffer quite a bit), but the quality is pretty good, and it’s pretty easy to navigate. If we have too many problems streaming Netflix through the TV, we usually watch it through the Wii’s Netflix player.

Goals:

  • Play back our media collection – Check. It’s not as easy jumping around between things, but it works great once you’re in XBMC.
  • Ability to watch and record TV – Check. It’s the only way to do that with our current setup.
  • Watch Netflix from – Check. It works great about 75% of the time, and it works pretty good the rest of the time if you let it buffer the show you want to watch before you sit down.

Other Parts of Cutting the Cord:

Cutting the Cord: Introduction
Backend: Desktop Computer (acting as file server) and TV Tuner
Master Bedroom: Roku streaming
Living Room: HTPC and TV w/ built-in Netflix
Basement: Original Xbox with XBMC

Cutting the Cord: Part 2 – Roku Streaming Player

Upstairs in our master bedroom we have a small TV that just has a Roku Streaming Player and a DVD player which hasn’t been used much in the last few months. The Roku does a pretty good job at fulfilling all of our goals that we listed in the introduction to Cutting the Cord.

Roku Streaming Player

The Roku was the first device that streamed Netflix movies. I think it’s still one of the best. This little box is fairly cheap ($60-100, depending on the model) and it can do a lot via its channels and it’s pretty easy to pick up and use. Aside from Netflix, here are some of the other channels that we use frequently:

MLB.tv

I’m a huge baseball fan, and without cable TV I don’t get many games. I subscribe to MLB.tv, which I can watch through the Roku’s MLB.tv Channel or via the computer. This lets me watch all the games, except the local teams, which I can listen to live but not watch (I’m in New Mexico, so that means I can’t watch the Rockies or Diamondbacks games until after they’re over).

Amazon Video On Demand

We’ve had a few coupons from Amazon to their Video On Demand store, which lets you rent or buy movies that can be watched through a computer or other internet device (including the Roku and lots of TVs, Blu-Ray players, etc.)

Plex Channel

The Plex channel has been great for watching movies on our computer. Basically, I don’t have to worry about the format of the file, Plex handles it (it can transcode and/or remux as needed). The best part about this is that I can see the movie poster or other artwork, which makes it much easier for my kids to find their favorite shows. I’ve seen other channels that let you play files from your local network, but none of them were free and none of them were even close to this channel in quality.

Goals:

How well does the Roku box meet the goals stated in the introduction?

  • Play back our media collection? Check. It’s pretty easy, too.
  • Ability to watch and record TV? Not yet.
  • Watch Netflix from any TV? Check. It’s probably the best device we own for that.

Other Parts of Cutting the Cord:

Cutting the Cord: Introduction
Backend: Desktop Computer (acting as file server) and TV Tuner
Master Bedroom: Roku streaming
Living Room: HTPC and TV w/ built-in Netflix
Basement: Original Xbox with XBMC

Cutting the Cord: Part 1 – Backend

In the introduction of Cutting the Cord, I described a little of the background and goals of our cord-cutting solution. Each piece of that relies on our local area network and all of our digital media is stored on one computer. This post details some of those solutions. I try not to go into too much detail, but I’d be glad to answer questions in the comments.

Gigabit Ethernet Network (LAN)

We’re lucky enough to live in a fairly new house (it’s less than 10 years old) that has Cat-5e cabling to many rooms in the house. Most of this cabling was originally used for telephone jacks, but it was easy to change those to RJ45 connections that can more easily support data. We lost a few telephone jacks, but there are still plenty around the house, and we only use one of those jacks anyway since we have cordless phones that all run off the same base station. Most of this would work OK with an 802.11n wireless router setup, but it’s much more reliable having it all wired.

Desktop File Server

We have a desktop computer in our upstairs loft that is plenty powerful enough to stream videos across the network. On that computer, we ripped most of our DVD collection with MakeMKV, which takes the disc and puts each disc title (each movie or TV episode is one title, so there can be multiple titles per disc). Those files (both movies and TV episodes) are then organized for use with XBMC or Plex. We don’t keep the bonus content from the DVDs on the file server, but that’s just a personal preference. If we wanted an exact copy of the disc, that could work with XBMC, too. This takes a fair amount of storage, but we haven’t come very close to filling our two 2 TB hard drives on this computer.

Plex Media Server

Plex Media Server is piece of software that runs on our desktop computer. It’s available for Mac, Windows, and Linux, and it makes it so that we can watch movies from our file server easily from our Roku box. If we had a Mac, an iOS device (iPhone, iPod Touch, Apple TV 2) or an Android device, Plex would let us watch from there, too. Plex can help you watch online sources, too, but we haven’t used it for that yet.

Network TV Tuner

Since we have a bunch of computers that might want to watch TV, we use a network TV tuner. Basically, this means that we can connect it to a source (our antenna) and watch TV from any of the computers on our network. We use the HDHomeRun, which has two tuners built-in, meaning that two channels can be watched (and/or recorded) anywhere in our home at once. If we wanted to increase that to four, it would be just as easy as buying a new HDHomeRun.

Future Plans

If something were to happen to a hard drive on our computer, we would have to re-rip those DVDs again. Since that takes quite a while, I’d like to set something up that has some redundancy. Right now it’s looking like that will be an unRAID server. I have quite a few old computer parts that I can use to build a new computer, and the unRAID server has protection against one drive failure, which should be plenty of redundancy for home use. There are a few pros and cons about unRAID vs. other backup systems, but for my use I think unRAID fits best at a small cost.

Other Parts of Cutting the Cord:

Cutting the Cord: Introduction
Backend: Desktop Computer (acting as file server) and TV Tuner
Master Bedroom: Roku streaming
Living Room: HTPC and TV w/ built-in Netflix
Basement: Original Xbox with XBMC

Cutting the Cord: Introduction

We’ve been without pay TV (excluding Netflix) for about a year now and now that we have most of the kinks worked out, I thought I’d give you an update on how we’ve done it.

For our cord-cutting experiment, we’ve tried three different solutions. This has been fun for me to be able to try out different options, but it also means that it’s been hard for Julia since she’s had to learn how to use three different TV setups. Luckily, though, she’s pretty smart and has picked it up really well, but it’s not always easy to teach new visitors how to use our new setup. There’s certainly a lot of room for improvement in that category, but hopefully it won’t be too tough.

Goals:

  • Play back our media collection from any TV
  • Ability to watch and record TV
  • Watch Netflix from any TV

Other Parts of Cutting the Cord:

Cutting the Cord: Introduction
Backend: Desktop Computer (acting as file server) and TV Tuner
Master Bedroom: Roku streaming
Living Room: HTPC and TV w/ built-in Netflix
Basement: Original Xbox with XBMC