Over the last ten years, I've spent nearly $2000 on Comcast HD-DVR... and it's time for a change!
A few months back, I wrote about an article: 6 Comcast Secrets… Some of Them Dirty. One of the secrets was that you can't buy a cable box. They hook you into renting it, month after month, year after year. If you are anything like me, you are addicted to DVR now. I have Comcast and it's bundled into my HDTV cable box. Together HD and DVR form a lethal addictive combination. The price? $16 a month for me. That's a lot more than our free-ish landline phone service from Ooma (taxes are still required as well as a $150 up-front fee with the hardware).
I've always felt that you shouldn't be forced to rent physical hardware. I understand paying for service. Companies providing a service month after month should get fees to recoup those ongoing costs. Physical hardware like cable boxes - there's no ongoing cost to the cable company. I've paid Comcast $192 a year ($16 x 12 months) for a box. Over ten years, this is where the $2000 comes into play.
One thing that I've always disliked about DVR service, is that it is essentially a hard drive with some software behind it. The software isn't anything complex. In fact, there are free, open source options like MythTV. In an ideal world, consumers should just have to buy a hard drive at a one-time fixed cost, install the free software, and enjoy the awesomeness of DVR. We don't live in an ideal world. We live in a world where corporations would love to continue to collect nearly $200 a year for a piece of hardware that should cost around $200 total. Sound crazy? Perhaps. However, cable companies DVRs differ from regular cable boxes in that they have the DVR software (the aforementioned free MythTV) and a 500GB hard drive that is my total storage costs around $50 on Amazon. That still leaves about $150 for the rest of the cable box... and I'm guessing it doesn't cost one-third that. In short, the margins for the cable companies on these products are insanely high.
A few years back people got upset that they couldn't buy a cable box and a cable box was required to get all the channels that you are entitled to. (I could go into the difference between encrypted and unencrypted QAM television channels, but that is a whole other article suitable for a more technology heavy site). The answer to this problem was CableCARD a standard that allows the cable companies to provide you with a credit card-sized, well, card. This card can be used in televisions and other devices that support it. Good luck finding a television supporting it today. I vaguely remember seeing televisions with that option about 4 or 5 years ago. Today a search of Best Buy shows no televisions with a CableCARD slot. A search of Amazon shows a few that seem to confirm that they existed years and years ago.
The two most popular devices that support CableCARD from my mind seem to be Tivo and Moxi cable boxes. Most of you are probably familiar with Tivo, but for those who aren't they are considered to be the father of DVR. Unfortunately, you still have to buy the hardware and there's a monthly subscription to the service (at what appears to be $20 a month). It looks like you may be able to get lifetime service for $500 on top of the service. (It's worth mentioning that the lifetime service is the life of the device, not the life of the buyer. Considering only one of those two can be legally considered alive, I would love to see someone challenge this marketing in court.) The Moxi box is similar to Tivo. It costs around $600 and you get free lifetime service. However, these boxes are limited in that you pay for the amount of recording space and can't expand it without buying a whole new device (and with it a new "lifetime" of service). If your cable company offers a free CableCARD (as Comcast does), you can break even in a little more than 3 years. That's not too bad, but it's not great.
We can (and will) attempt to do better...
When it comes to technology, I like to push the envelope. Regular readers know that I'm weird, so this next statement shouldn't surprise anyone. It makes my heart beat a little faster when technology enable us to do more than what we could previously do. (This is what motivates me to write an article about DVR.) I feel like this society progressing and we are getting real value for our lifestyle inflation.
So with that in mind, I present you with a couple of other alternatives to end those cable box rental fees. I present to you the HDHomeRun Prime from SiliconDust. This is a product that I've been watching for the last 6 months. Recently they announced that you can "pre-order" it for delivery in late July. (This should tell you the potential of the product.)
The HDHomeRun Prime changes the HD-DVR game. This is a box has it all. It connects to a Windows Media Center computer which allows you expand the hard drive space. Your recording space is not tied to the device. This big change from Tivo or Moxi mean that you won't have to delete shows. In fact, adding 2 terabytes of external hard disk space (4 times the 500GB that I have now) can be found for around $70 (if you catch the right deal). What sets the HDHomeRun Prime apart from the competition is that it takes a CableCARD, which allows it to give you full cable box functionality and giving you all your cable channels including subscription ones like HBO.
Here's a video explaining how it works:
This should be enough to replace a Comcast HD-DVR. However there are two other advantages. If you have a home network, you can watch the shows on the computer-DVR in any room - as long as you have an XBox or Media Center Extender. I did some research and the Media Center Extenders are a little expensive. There are some cheap options out there, but the prices are like DVR cable boxes - more expensive than they should be. I think that they'll come down in time, but I think this feature is "a nice extra." For some this feature allows people to get HD-DVR functionality in many rooms for a fixed price per room (at worst $200 per room for an XBox).
The other advantage is that the HDHomeRun Prime comes with 3 or 6 tuners. Normal DVRs (Tivo, Comcast) come with 2 tuners. What does this mean? With 2-tuners you can record 2 channels in real time. If you are doing that, you can not watch another show - you are limited to watching previously taped shows or one of the two that you are recording. With 3 tuners you can record 2 channels and watch a different third channel. Or you can record three channels at a time while watching a previous recording. With 6 tuners, well, let's just say you can go ape wild with your recording - especially with the amount of disk space that you have available to you. The sky is the limit.
I know you might be thinking, "But I have to have a Windows Media Center to make this happen." It is true. It is a string that is attached to the deal. However, I paid $300 for a desktop to put near my television and I've found it came with benefits without the HDHomeRun Prime. My wife and I use it to stream Hulu and Netflix. In addition we subscribe to MLB.TV to watch Red Sox games in California which saves us money over buying "MLB Extra", the cable equivalent.
My thinking is that spending $300 for a Media Center Computer, plus $250 the 3-tuner HDHomeRun Prime gets you more features and more flexibility than Tivo or Moxi. You can go the extra mile and spend, $300 (computer), $500 for the 6-tuner HDHomeRun Prime, and $70 for a 2TB drive, and essentially not have to think about limitations with DVR. At some future point you can add another external hard drive, but I'm guessing that by that time, there will be 4TB drives for under $100.
Mathematically, the 3-tuner HDHomeRun Prime pays off still pays off in around 3 years. Although if you have a spare computer and a Microsoft Media Center license it pays off in around 14 months. It pays big dividends if you want to add more space. It is impossible to give the same comparison with the 6-tuner HDHomeRun Prime, since it has much more functionality. I can only suggest that compared to Tivo and Moxi it is a much better deal - more tuners, more flexibility to add space, access to a full computer allowing you stream many services as well as your music - it's value is well worth looking into.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention an alternative product that was highlighted in CNET Cheapstake this week, the Ceton InfiniTV 4 tuner card. This is a card that gives you 4 tuners and CableCARD access like the HDHomeRun Prime. However, you need to install it in your computer. That's a technological challenge for some. It also means that you have to buy an expandable computer as your media center. My wife would prefer that we get a Dell Zino (or similar small computer) to hide the cords.
Please, please (I'm on my knees), give me feedback on this idea. It is a rare occasion that I write 600 words and I'm over 1600. I'd love to convince Energi Gal (my wife) to go in this direction, but she's very protective of her television.
I should note that as I post this I have had no contact with HDHomeRun Prime. I would like to think that they see this and send me a 6-tuner version to review. Silicon Dust, perhaps you could help me convince my wife that this is a good idea. She requires great usability which is potential deal-breaker. At this point I can't guarantee that and I can't risk it. I would love to write a follow-up hands-on review about how it works in a real environment. At this point, I'm handcuffed by status quo. Help me, help you!
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