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My New Media Centre Setup

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My wife and I try our best to live a pretty prudent lifestyle. We don’t have to have the biggest house, or the fanciest car. We search for sales and bargains wherever we can. And every so often we review our bills to see if there is anywhere we can save a few bucks.  Recently I was telling her how I was reading on a forum I frequent that many people in my area are switching to antenna for their TV signal.

When I think of antenna television, my mind goes to nights in Muskoka as a child watching the one channel (CKVR anyone?). Well this is a long way from that. These days if you are lucky in your geographical location, you can probably get anywhere from 5 to 25 channels, some of them in stunning digital High Definition absolutely free. This is called OTA (over the air) television, and it is gaining momentum.

Now being the good geek that I am, I can never miss an opportunity to overdo it and wire up my living space like it is mission control at NASA. Many times I have told my wife of some new gadget or toy that I just had to have, only to have her look at me like I’m mad, pat me on the head and say “sure honey, whatever you want” (yeah right).

So imagine my surprise when I told her that I wanted to install a 6 foot antenna on the roof of our house, run wires outside to the main and top floors of our house, drill holes through our walls, buy a special computer, buy little boxes for our TV’s and buy some special remotes, all to the tune of about $2500 and she actually agreed that it was a good idea!

The Rundown

Basically what I wanted to do was have a central “Media Center PC” that stored all of our media like movies, MP3’s, Pictures and home movies, as well as acted as our PVR (personal video recorder) to record the television shows that we watch. This Media Center would be placed in the basement (our main TV room), and from there we would be able to watch or listen to the media on any of the other 2 TV’s in our house through the use of “Media Center Extenders”.

At first the cost and scope of the work made it intimidating, but once we realized that we were spending $90 a month for cable, including $20 for a PVR rental, the economics made more sense.

The Project

Antenna – The first thing was to get the antenna installed. I knew absolutely zero about antennas and OTA TV, so I decided to leave it to an expert. I called in a company called Mohawk TV (http://www.weblocal.ca/mohawk-tv-campbellville-on.html) who helped me understand what was required and what the best placement for the equipment was. I was told that always higher is better. Even though some people have good results placing the antenna in the attic, I wanted to be sure that I got the best reception, so I opted to have it placed on the roof. They told me that I should get a dual antenna so that one could be aimed towards the CN tower, and one aimed across the lake to the Buffalo area. I also needed a special “booster” so that the signal from the one antenna could be sent to 3 TV’s. They did a great job installing the antenna and were very helpful.

Media Center PC – The next thing I needed now that my antenna was working was to get the Windows Media Center PC setup. This is really the heart of the system, so it was important to do my research and get it right. I knew that I was going to get a dual TV tuner in it, and I wanted to be able to multi-task, so it was important to get a good processor that could handle the load. Here are my specs:

  • Intel Core i5 3.2 Ghz CPU
  • 4 GB DDR2 Ram
  • Huappage WinTV HVR 2250 Dual Tuner TV Card
  • Windows 7 Ultimate 64 Bit
  • Antec Fusion Remote Black Media Center case
  • Nmedia Wireless Mouse & Keyboard
  • Seagate 2 Terabyte Hard Drive

Total cost for the PC was roughly $1500. The case was a bit unnecessary as it turned out but it is a very nice looking component. The Keyboard is built for Media Center and has a built in mouse ball which allows me to sit on the couch in the basement and have full web surfing capability on my 42′ Plasma screen. So far the computer has had no issue with performance when we a re recording 2 shows at once and watching recorded shows, so the specs are good for our usage. We have loaded all of our photos, videos, and movie collection on there, have recorded about 100 hours of TV, and added a large MP3 collection and we have not even used half of the hard drive space yet.

Media Extenders – This part was a bit more work. I had purchased a Linksys DMA2100 Media Center Extender about 2 years back when I first started researching this idea. They offer either a wireless or a wired connection. The first time I tried back then to watch  a small MPEG file over wireless it was choppy. I knew there was no way I was going to be able to stream Hi-def over Wi-fi. I was going to have to run Cat5 network wire. This fact alone probably delayed this whole project by at least a year while I procrastinated with how to run wires to my living room and bedroom TV’s. In the end I decided on the direct approach: out through the basement, along the side of the house and in through the brick. I used outdoor rated Cat5 so there is no fear of the cold or rain destroying it in the near future. I have to say I am happy with the performance of the extenders except for one thing: the remotes are basically useless. I decided to purchase a base model Logitech Harmony for $49. I love it. It handles all my devices (Extender, TV, DVD Player) and works from almost anywhere in the room.

ATSC Tuners – This one was kind of unexpected. Once I had the system basically completely setup, I realized that our 2 older tube style TV’s in the upstairs of our house did not have the ability to tune in digital signals. They did not have a built in ATSC tuner. This meant that I would only be able to get the analog station on those TV’s, which was not going to do. We ended up purchasing Channel Master CM7000’s for our 2 older TV’s. We paid $100 each for these. We could have gotten a lesser brand fro $85 but we would have had to use the remote that came with that box. Upgrading to the Channel Masters meant that we could use the Logitech Harmony.

The Benefits

The great thing about this system for me is the convenience factor. With 2 kids under 4, time is precious and the convenience of having their shows and movies available no matter what level of the house we are on is awesome. Also for my wife and I, we have certain shows that we record and watch together (we haven’t watched live TV in about 4 years). It is nice to be able to decide where we want to watch them. I love the fact that I can sit on the couch and watch a slideshow of our pictures (we have about 20,000) while my MP3 collection shuffles in the background. There are also little extras like playing Chess or Solitaire from the comfort of my couch, listening to Internet radio stations, and watching the latest videos on Youtube.

The Bottom Line

As I stated earlier, we paid $90 a month to the cable company to be able to watch TV on 3 TV’s and record on one. Now we can record and watch TV on all 3 for free. Again, this is digital, High Def TV, free over the air. We spent about $2000 on this project in total so it will take 2 years for the system to pay for itself, but in the meantime we have a much better system than we had before.

There are some sacrifices to be made. For instance, no digital specialty channels like Slice or A&E. But in the end it is only TV, and these days a lot of shows are available online.  Also we figure that as our kids get older maybe less TV is a good thing.

I would definitely recommend this system for anyone who enjoys multimedia and technology as I do. I can look ahead to the entertainment value that this system can offer at get-togethers: playing music, looking at photos and home movies (our guests can bring their pictures on a media stick so we can sit on the couch and look at pictures of their trip to Cuba), we can play online games or watch interesting and funny online videos in comfort. For me this system is about liberating your media from the dusty little computer in your cramped office space and bringing it out where it can be enjoyed with comfort and convenience.

Well I think that about covers it. Hope I didn’t leave anything out. Please let me know if you have any questions.

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