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

Interesting Links

Switch strategies

Derek Sivers really hits home here:

Early in your career, when you are searching for success, the best strategy is to say yes to everything. Reach way outside your current circles. Do it all, and give it your all, no matter how small. The more things you try, and the more people you meet, the better. (They’re a little like lottery tickets.) You never know what random tiny connection could become your big break.

He has an excellent site, by the way. You can get lost for hours reading there.

Soon to be family of three

Over the past week or so, my wife and I have let our friends, colleagues, and acquatences know about an exciting development in our lives:

We are going to be parents sometime around July 3, 2016!

So far the little one (Baby Gonyea, or Baby G as we are calling him/her for now) is healthy, has a good heartbeat (we heard it today!), and looks great on the ultrasound.

It is a moment that both of us have wanted for years. But sometimes, wanting is just not enough. Sometimes, there are forces beyond our control. Sometimes nature needs a little or a lot of assistance.

We lucked out with our infertility treatment. One round of IUI is “all” we needed. After years of no success on our own, lots of tears, and numerous tests leading up to our first IUI treatment. The doctors said, based on various tests not returning optimal #’s in some areas, there was a fairly good chance of this round not succeeding. Yet, it was successful, to a big sigh of relief from us.

Infertility is difficult emotionally, physically, and financially. I cannot begin to count how many twists and turns we went through leading up where we are today. That’s not even counting me changing jobs right in the middle of our first (and only!) month of treatment. I certainly didn’t time that one well, but that is life and you have to take opportunities when they arise.

We have tremendous respect for those who have to go through multiple IUI rounds to the full In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) program. And that doesn’t begin to capture our heartbreak for those who have no treatment options. We had tremendous fear at times that we would fall into the later category.

I knew my life had changed forever when my wife told me the news. And I know today my life will change (again) forever in approximately seven months from now.

It will be all worth it in the end. It is already worth it now.

1Password Smart Folder for One-Time Passwords

I wanted to create a list of my accounts that use a TOTP code (often called by sites as 2-Step Verification, One-Time Password, or 2-Factor Authentication). Luckily it is easy to do this when you store the TOTP secrets in 1Password.

  1. Go to the File menu and select ‘New Smart Folder’
  2. Set the following simple criteria:
    1. “All” of the following is true
    2. “Any field name” “is” “One-Time Password”

Screenshot of this Smart Folder criteria:

Smart Folder for TOTP logins

Save the search and call it something like “2FA Enabled”

Now I can just click on this Smart Folder in 1Password and instantly view all of my logins that have a TOTP code configured.

Upgraded home network to a Arris SB6183 Cable Modem

A few months ago, I received notice that my Internet connection through Comcast was going to be upgraded from 105Mbps down to 150Mbps down. I had gotten into the 105 Mbps package as part of a promo in April. I thought nothing of that upgrade other than a thank you to Comcast, as my uBee DDM3513 Cable Modem was supposedly able to handle ~170Mbps down.

A couple of days ago, I received an automated phone call from Comcast. Normally I would ignore those as the tend to be marketing calls, but it turns out this one was actually interesting. Apparently my cable modem could not take full advantage of this new speed tier after all according to the message. A quick check on Comcast’s device list confirmed that, at least from their perspective.

I measured my Internet connection’s speed and it showed an average speed of ~129 Mbps down. Not 150 Mbps down, but close. So what could be the difference? I ended up purchasing an Arris SB6183 Cable Modem, which has a max speed of 686Mbps down, and tested it.

Turns out, I was losing out on a lot of speed. Buying the SB6183 increased my internet connection download speeds by ~48 Mbps, to approximately ~177 Mbps, a decent amount above Comcast’s advertised rate for my plan.

In reality, with just my wife and I, we don’t use nearly all of this connection even if we are both streaming Netflix at the same time. That said, with some changes upcoming in my life, the increased speed will be very nice. But that is a topic for another post.