Monday, April 13, 2009

Two Years Without Television – Windows Media Center and Streaming Alternatives to Cable

Copyright 2008-2009, Paul Jackson, all rights reserved

March marked two years since I stopped paying for cable or satellite television.  No, I didn’t string a cable from the neighbor’s box, neither did I give up watching movies and television shows altogether – I simply stopped paying cable and satellite providers for content that was already being paid for via advertising.

At the time I made the decision to do this I’d noticed that most of the programs I watched were made available on DVD at some point, and that I’d almost always rent the DVDs to catch up on missed episodes; also, online alternatives were becoming more prevalent, so what was the point in paying exorbitant cable or satellite fees?

So I set about building a Windows Media Center PC and, since I’m lazy, ripping all my DVDs so I wouldn’t have to get off the couch to watch one.  Actually, Media Center wasn’t my first choice – I was originally going to simply build a file server and get a media extender device, like those from DLink.  In fact, my first purchase toward this goal was a DLink DSM-320RD. 

The 320 worked wonderfully for streaming music, but I soon found problems with video, especially DVD-quality video and the device’s interface.  The way these devices typically work is that video is streamed from a PC to the device, so the server software is important.  After trying the software that came with the 320, the compatible software from Nero and the free TVersity, I finally gave up on the dedicated-device solution and decided to hook a PC directly to the television.

Base Hardware

One nice thing about building a Media Center PC these days is that you don’t need to get the latest, fastest hardware in order to make it work.  Ultimately all it’s doing is playing video, so there’s not a lot of horsepower required.

Intel Dual-Core 1.6GHz
2 GB
On-board 256 MB Video with DVI connector
300 GB Main Drive
SoundBlaster Live! 24-bit External
Media Center Remote
Wireless Keyboard and Mouse

This has proven to be plenty of power, even with some other things I run on the system, which we’ll get to in a bit.


I started with a 42” Mitusbishi real-projection television that we already had.  In fact, this is the reason I chose a motherboard that had DVI out for the video, instead of HDMI.  Though HDMI was newer and better, the existing television, that was already a few years old, didn’t support it, so I went with DVI. 

After connecting the television and the PC, I ran into the problem of overscan, or the fact that tube and projection televisions project outside the border of the television itself.  This is somewhat incompatible with computer video, so some of the desktop was cut off along the four sides.  Media Center adjusts for this phenomena, but the Windows desktop doesn’t, making the experience fine in Media Center, but rather awkward using the browser.

Last year I replaced the television with an LCD – since LCD’s don’t have an overscan problem, I now have a true 1080p desktop. 


Everything you really need is included in Windows Vista Home Premium or Ultimate.  There are a lot of people out there who still use XP Media Center Edition, but I’ve been running Vista for two years now and haven’t had a single problem that was Vista’s fault.  That being said, I’ll still be switching to Windows 7 Media Center, because of the new features.

A nice thing about Media Center, though, is that it’s extensible and there are two plugins that are essential.


First, is the MyNetflix plugin, written by Anthony Park.  Obviously, since my goal was to replace cable and satellite with online and DVD, Netflix was a critical component to my solution, but beyond the mailed DVDs is the Watch Now feature of Netflix.  The MyNetflix plugin provides a Media Center interface to Watch Now, allowing you to browse, search and view Watch Now offerings from within Media Center.

You can also browse your mail queue and search for movies, adding them to your mail or Watch Now queues with a Media Center remote.

MyNetflix is free, but donations are accepted. 


The second essential plugin is My Movies from Binnerup Consulting.  My Movies is important to me because it helps organize my DVD collection and plays them from the hard drive. 

My Movies has tons of features, including a comprehensive database of DVD information – front and back cover art, cast and crew, categories, and descriptions.  All of this is searchable and browsable through the Media Center interface, so you can, for instance, find all the movies you have that star a particular actor.

My Movies manages a DVD collection whether you rip them to hard drive or not and supports several DVD carousels.  Even without having the DVD online, it’s nice to have a database of your collection and My Movies also allows you to export your collection data to a website provided by Binnerup – here’s mine.

Getting movies into My Movies is easy, the software can recognize a DVD when it’s inserted into the drive by its Disc ID.  Alternatively you can enter its barcode or scan the barcode with a webcam, search the main My Movies database by title, or enter the data manually.  That last option is useful for entering your own videos – for instance I have all of my family’s Christmas and birthday videos, as well as my daughter’s dance recitals, as part of the collection, so when someone visits I can just browse to these with the remote and show hours of family videos …

There’s also a My Movies client, written by a third-party, that can access the My Movies database from any Windows client, even without Media Center.  I put this on my son’s XP system so he can watch movies in his room.  With My Movies and this client, my original DVD discs remain safely stored away, no matter how many times he wants to watch Star Wars.

My Movies is also free, with donations accepted.

One change I’ve made to my Vista configuration is to enable multiple Remote Desktop Sessions – this is a hack that lets me access the Media Center PC remotely while it’s also running a session on the television.  This allows me to use the Media Center PC to perform other tasks even while I’m watching something.  What tasks?  Well, I’ve used it to capture and process video from old VHS tapes, download large files, even to rip a new DVD while watching a different movie – the CPU isn’t really struggling to play video, either streaming or from a file, so there’s plenty of processing power available for me to use.

Ripping DVDs

I use two programs from Slysoft for ripping DVDs: AnyDVD and CloneDVD.  This combination allows me to rip just the title and audio tracks I want, leaving behind the trailers, menus, special features and other languages.  Doing this reduces the amount of space necessary to store the main title, which is what I typically watch anyway – if I want to watch a special feature, I can always dig the original disc out of storage.

This space savings is important to me – a typical DVD, with all features and sound, runs upwards of 7GB, but stripped of non-essentials, they average between three and six.  One or two gigs may not seem like a lot to save, but added up over four hundred titles, it becomes significant.


I went ‘round-and-‘round on the storage issue at the beginning, debating between internal storage and external.  Remember my original intent was to build a file server and stream to a media device, so internal storage made sense, but when I changed my mind on that it also changed the storage solution.

With a streaming solution, I could put the file server in a back room or closet, which would solve two problems: dirt and noise.  See there are three dogs and nine cats in my house … yeah, I know … so dust and hair are issues.  A lot of internal drives would mean a case with a lot of fans, and a lot of fans add up to two things: noise and openings in the case.  Having that amount of fan and drive noise in my living room when I’m trying to enjoy a movie wasn’t optimal – neither was having a case with so many infiltration points for dust and hair. 

I could have built two systems, and may take that route one day, but I also wanted to keep startup costs low and build up drive space over time as I expanded my library, so I went with external drives.  The current storage solution is made up of:

Western Digital My Book World Edition 1 TB Network Attached Storage (quantity 2)
Western Digital My Book Essential Edition 1 TB USB 2.0 External Hard Drive
Iomega Prestige 1 TB USB 2.0 Desktop External Hard Drive

The World Books attach directly to the network and the USB drives hang off of them, giving me 4TB of storage on the network.  All the drives were acquired over the last two years by carefully scouring sales, closeouts and store-closings, so I was able to pick them up for much less than the normal price, making it a pretty cheap 4TB.

On a separate note, I think it’s utterly amazing that we live in a world where I can have 4TB of data storage in my house.  To put it in perspective, when I bought my first hard drive, a 20MB drive for my Apple IIgs, it cost around $600 – today, for less than that, I have 4TB just for digital media.  I can’t imagine what will be available in another twenty years or what we’ll use it for … it’s amazing.


I quickly found that wireless simply wasn’t fast or reliable enough to serve video in my environment, so I had to string some cable.  My house has steel studs and wireless has always been a challenge here.  I took the opportunity, while up in the attic, to drop cables into the kids’ rooms as well, so now the only computers not wired are the laptops.  Since they’re usually in the same place all the time, I may break down and string some cable for them, too, leaving the wireless solely for visitors.  From a security-standpoint, I like this idea, too.


In addition to DVDs, the Internet a source for me to find video content, with Hulu and FanCast being my favorites.  Although there isn’t an official Media Center plugin available for either site, there is a third-party option in beta.  The plugin doesn’t only work with Hulu and Fancast, but other providers as well.

SecondRun has an advantage in that it’s network- and show-based, so content from multiple sources is aggregated based on the program or network, not the streaming provider.  A disadvantage is that, since it’s not provider-based, you have to browse for shows, rather than setting up your Hulu queue and playing that.

I like SecondRun for browsing shows … a lot … but I still want a Hulu plugin for Media Center so that my subscriptions will just show up in my queue.

In the meantime, I’ll simply use a browser.  With Vista set to a large font and a wireless keyboard/mouse, the browser has a decent ten-foot experience.  I can live with it until someone (or me) gets fed up and writes a plugin that accesses the queue.


So that’s it … two years with no cable or satellite bill, I figure that’s saved me close to a couple thousand dollars, more than paying for the hardware.  The Netflix subscription has a fee, but I’d have been paying that anyway to get new movies to watch, so it’s a wash.

It’s a little different – with some shows there’s a delay before they’re available online, so I’m not always “up-to-date” when talking to others about the show, and I’m a year behind if I wait for the DVDs; but even that has advantages, because I can sit down with the full set of DVDs and watch an entire season without having to wait a week between episodes.  I like that.

I really think streaming is the future and sites like Hulu and FanCast have it right – on-demand content supported by advertising.  I’m okay with the ads because they pay for the show and they’re shorter and fewer than in broadcast television.  In fact, I’m looking forward to the day when one of those sites ties the viewer’s profile to the ad-server, so the ads can be targeted better.  Like Google Adwords, being able to target specific markets, instead of just everyone who watches a show, will make the ads more valuable – which translates into fewer ads being necessary and better content … and maybe seeing ads that the viewer’s actually interested in.

As more content moves online, and more viewers realize they have options other than the traditional cable and satellite companies, it’ll be interesting to see how those companies react to the changing market.


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Maxx Well said...

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