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

Going cable free

Tonight my wife and I decided that by the end of the Stanley Cup playoffs (roughly a week or so from now), we are going to turn in our Cable TV boxes and go Cable TV free as an experiment this summer.

Why we are doing this:

  • It is the summer, let’s get out and enjoy it instead of sitting in a chair being zombies.
  • Online options (Netflix, iTunes, and similar services) are now very viable options for when we want to watch TV.
  • The only time we watch TV is for local news & sports. Here is the kicker though…we rarely watch the sports, we just listen to it while doing other things. Use the radio for that, much cheaper.
  • We want to do more reading, work on our condo, and hopefully be moving into a house this summer. The last thing we need to do is be distracted by whatever is on the Food Network.
  • Of course the big part, our cable bill will be significantly cheaper. An early estimate is a reduction of half our current bill.

The only thing I will miss is the sports game that I WANT to sit down and completely focus on. Like a Red Sox/Yankees game. But maybe in this rare cases I will go to a family or friend’s house, a local bar, or just listen to it the old fashioned way as well.

Finally, no distractions

It is rather odd to say that it is now July and this is probably my worst season of watching the Red Sox. It isn’t even close. Between the Bruins having a nice run in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Celtics making it to Game 7 of the NBA finals, and the World Cup, it feels like I am completely worn out watching sports. There were days I just did not feel like watching the Red Sox or just couldn’t due to too many other important games on.

That is going to change for the rest of the year. I am looking forwarded to having the game on and being interested again. I feel like I have missed out on enjoying a team that has really fought hard despite a huge amount of injuries to key players. Let’s hope they can continue to play well as reinforcements arrive back from the DL.

How could I get rid of cable TV?

My earlier post on using Netflix on my cable TV has gotten me thinking. Realistically, how could I realistically ditch my Cable TV bill and use just Internet streaming, over-the-air TV signals, and DVD rentals? A move that could easily save me $60 a month.

After some careful consideration, I think the following would need to happen:

  1. Access to live streaming video of sporting events. There is some moment in this direction with ESPN360.com, MLB.TV, NBA League Pass, NHL GameCenter Live, etc. In fact, outside of NFL Network broadcasts, I do not think any NFL games are available online. In order to cut the cable bill, I would need to be able to access live streaming of my team’s games, no matter where I am located. I am willing to pay for it too.
  2. A well designed and reasonably priced HD device that allows for streaming feeds from multiple providers while also allowing me to use my local content. What I envision is a meld between a Roku player, Boxee, and AppleTV.
  3. Live news feeds when needed. Obviously watching the 24-hour news networks is like asking for your brain to turn to mush, but for live breaking stories or even as general background noise for an hour, they cannot be beat. While some occasionally offer live feeds on their sites, I do not see any permanent live feeds available…yet.

How are we doing so far?

#2 you can argue is pretty close to being accomplished. If Apple were to come out with AppleTV version 4 with “app” support that allowed Netflix, Pandora, MLB.TV, etc. to create apps that run on the AppleTV, that would clinch that part for me.

That would also open the door for #3 to occur and potentially, #1 once a big enough market can be generated for someone (my money is on MLB.TV) to remove blackout restrictions. In fact, MLB appears to be moving in that direction already with deals with the Yankees and Padres to stream in-market games.

Never doubt Apple's ability to counter-punch

CNET said it perfectly:

When it comes to public relations battles, Apple is a devastating counter-puncher.

NBC just learned the hard way. Late last night, NBC leaked that it would not renew its TV show contract with iTunes. Supposedly, NBC was not satisfied by the financial terms Apple was offering. Nevermind the fact that it was iTunes single-handedly rescued the TV series The Office from being canceled, turning the show into one of the few hits NBC has had recently.

Apple recently has championed consumer rights when it comes to digital media and decided dust off the boxing gloves once more by removing the upcoming fall season of NBC TV Shows from the iTunes Store.

The move follows NBC’s decision to not renew its agreement with iTunes after Apple declined to pay more than double the wholesale price for each NBC TV episode, which would have resulted in the retail price to consumers increasing to $4.99 per episode from the current $1.99. ABC, CBS, FOX and The CW, along with more than 50 cable networks, are signed up to sell TV shows from their upcoming season on iTunes at $1.99 per episode.

In one paragraph, Apple laid perhaps the best argument it has ever had for its iTunes pricing structure. After all, if 50 cable networks think $1.99 per episode is acceptable, then why does NBC need to double the price? With rumors that NBC wanted even more DRM on its TV Shows, this price increase clearly would not help consumers in any way. Apple seized on the moment and with one press release, practically knocked NBC out.

So now, NBC has lost its iTunes marketshare (30%), the vast majority of its digital sales, no access to the iPod/iPhone, and has pissed off consumers royally.

Brilliant move NBC. Can’t wait to see what you come up with next. I am sure this will make the stockholders really happy.