Duct Tape the Cord – Apple TV, HDHomeRun, and Comcast

The Problem

I feel like my home theater setup is always a ticking time bomb. “Universal” remotes suck, I haven’t met anyone who likes their Comcast cable box, switching inputs is annoying at best or never worked at worst, and it was rare for my wife and I to use the TV & not get an input or device out of sync.

Thinking with my Product Manager and Support Engineer trained mind, I eventually figured out the core problem to solve: it is too damn hard to consume media on my TV.

Goals

My acceptance criteria to fix my home theater became:

  • Eliminate the space wasting TV stand in our very small living room, along with as many wires as possible.
  • Consolidate to one remote and one media playback device to avoid input switching and out of sync devices.
  • Provide as consistent of an user interface as possible.
  • Keep access to my live TV and sports (specifically, baseball…I love my Red Sox).

The Solution

The biggest problem is how to get rid of the Comcast cable box, without losing my live TV/Sports. Thankfully, enough technology trends have finally converged to make that possible. This isn’t cutting the cord and switching to 100% streaming services, it is more like duct taping the cord. It is a good halfway point until a 100% streaming future is possible for us live sports fans who are in-market.

I ended up going from this home theater configuration:

  • 32″ Vizio TV on a flimsy particle board TV stand.
  • Yamaha 5.1 receiver, but with only 3 speakers connected (Left/Right and Center) due to small room.
  • Apple TV 4
  • Comcast X1 Cable Box
  • 3 “everyday” remotes (Harmony Touch, Comcast, and Apple TV)
  • Who knows how many wires and certainly not organized.

to my new home theater configuration:

And this in my server cabinet:

So how does this solution work?

Silicon Dust HDHomeRun Prime

Since live sports are a requirement in this house, the key to getting rid of the Comcast X1 cable box was finding a replacement that still allowed access to my cable TV subscription. This is the duct tape part 🙂

The Silicon Dust HDHomeRun Prime solved this problem. First, the HDHomeRun Prime utilizes CableCard technology to properly authenticate with Comcast’s TV infrastructure. This is the same technology that TiVO uses to work with Comcast or any other Cable TV provider. Which means this device is 100% legal in the eyes of everyone involved.

Second, the HDHomeRun actually doesn’t connect to your TV directly. Instead, the HDHomeRun connects to your home network via ethernet. Any compatible device on the TV side will stream video/audio from the HDHomeRun over you home network. Since the HDHomeRun supports up to three streams at a time, one HDHomeRun might serve you entire house’s needs. What are the odds of watching live TV on three separate devices with streaming services also in the mix today? I think most houses could get away with one HDHomeRun Prime.

Setting up the HDHomeRun Prime was very simple for me:

  1. Visited my local Comcast office to pick up a cable card.
  2. Inserted card into HDHomeRun Prime.
  3. Plugged in ethernet and power.
  4. Visited http://www.comcast.com/activate/ to activate the CableCard.

What if you never want to give another dime to Comcast and can do without regional sports channels, but just need local channels? Good news, Silicon Dust also has HDHomeRun models that work with Over-The-Air (OTA) antennas, the HDHomeRun Connect and HDHomeRun Extend. I didn’t review those models, but this guide should largely apply minus the CableCard parts.

Apple TV and Channels app

Next up, I went to my Apple TV’s app store and searched for the Channels app. It’s $24.95, but worth every penny as this is the glue that makes it possible for one Apple TV to handle all of your home theater needs when a cable subscription is still required.

Channels is designed specifically to view HDHomeRuns streams on your TV. Configuration of the Channels app is simple:

  1. Launch the Channels app
  2. Go to the Settings page
  3. Select the HDHomeRun Prime that Channels automatically found on my home network.
  4. Select the “Scan for Channels” option.
  5. Favorite various channels as I see fit.

Now every time you launch the Channels app and go to the Favorites view, each channel will display a graphic for whatever show is currently on. This is my favorite feature since we only watch 6-7 channels consistently. Within seconds I can know what is on TV and switch to it. I can even browse what is on live TV from the Apple TV dashboard if the Channels app is on the top dock.

During the initial setup, I had the Apple TV connected via Wi-Fi (802.11ac) instead of connected via Ethernet and could still stream the HD broadcast I was watching without a hiccup. That said, I highly recommend connecting via Ethernet to avoid any risk of Wi-Fi connection drops as these streams are very bandwidth heavy.

The only downsides I have seen so far:

  • No grid-based TV guide, since apparently this is patented. The app does great job showing what is on TV now and what is coming up next if you are on a channel, but doesn’t give you that entire view of the TV broadcast landscape now and in the future.
  • HDHomeRun Prime doesn’t support access to Comcast’s OnDemand services. But I don’t remember the last time I used OnDemand. And Comcast has an iPad app if I really need it.
  • DRM’d channels (usually only premium channels such as HBO) are not available in the Channels app. However, this really isn’t a big deal, because your Comcast subscription gives you full access to HBO Go, which is basically the same thing. Game of Thrones episodes are usually available on HBO Go within minutes of the live broadcast starting.

And since Channels is just an Apple TV app, it is easy to switch to another app (Apple Music, Netflix, HBO Go, TED talks, etc) as I see fit without switching inputs or a lot of button presses. One media device to rule them all!

Remote

Another bonus with this setup my Apple TV remote is the only remote needed now. The remote will wake the Apple TV and turn on the TV at the same time. The volume buttons will turn on the sound bar if it isn’t already on. And to turn off everything (except the sound bar, which goes into energy saving mode when not in use) just requires holding down on the TV button on the remote and select the Sleep option.

I have managed to get the TV out of sync a couple of times by not successfully shutting it down via the remote, but by and large this works well. While the remote itself has some quirks, it works and is far simpler compared to the 50+ button universal remotes.

And the lack of a channel number input interface? I could care less about remembering what channel #851 is. Channels hides all of that channel # complexity away with favorites and the all channels view.

Conclusion

The results? I have a single UI and media box experience (Apple TV 4) that can even watch live TV on my Comcast subscription (Channels App + HDHomeRun Prime), while easily allowing me watch Netflix, HBO Go, or listen to Apple Music. All in one user experience and one TV remote. I can also add more Apple TVs in the house (in our family room and my home office) and just share the one HDHomeRun, without paying the extra CableCard and “HD Technology Fees” that Comcast loves to charge.

The future also promises to bring a Channels app version compatible with the upcoming HDHomeRun DVR. I personally don’t need a DVR, but I know some folks really want one and this will fill that need.

What is amazing is this experience really only became theoretically possible in October 2015, when Apple finally released an Apple TV with an App Store. It then took a team from Fancy Bits until early November 2015 to come up with the amazing Channels app and integrate with the HDHomeRun Prime. It took me stumbling across this combination in early March 2016 to hit the ground running.

After a week with this setup, I can tell I will  struggle when visiting any house without this setup.

Equipment List

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