For the last 3.5 years I haven’t paid the cable company a penny in rental fees for a cable boxes. I didn’t sacrifice any features I use and actually gained quite a few.
Most people pay around $8/mo. for a dumb box (no DVR) or $16/mo. for (limited) DVR storage. I was one of those paying $16/month before I switched to my new system. It has saved me more than $650 over that time.
I’m going to tell you how you can do the same. However first, a little back story.
The Quest for Cable Box Freedom
A few years ago, I realized that I have been renting cable boxes for 7-8 years… and television technology hadn’t changed much. There was the move to HD, but at the core, it was still a DVR. DVR was the innovation that TiVo popularized back in 1999, when it created software to pair with its computer hardware to record video to a hard drive for later viewing as well as pausing, rewinding, and all the things we love about DVR.
There’s no good reason (other than a cable monopoly) for someone to have to rent a computer with a hard drive for the DVR experience. There’s only one small ongoing cost and it’s updating the guide… something that’s been included with cable service for years.
Over the years, I had spent around $1500 in renting DVR boxes. They weren’t getting any better.
To top it off, they are incredible power hogs adding as much as another $8 a month in energy bills. In total, we are looking at more than $275 a year for DVR.
The situation that consumers find themsevles in is crazy. It’s like being forced to have to rent a television at insane Rent-A-Center rates to work with your cable company’s service. How would you react if you had to spend $100 a month ($1200 a year) for a television that was very, very old technology? That’s what most consumers get with their cable boxes.
And don’t try upgrade your cable box, you’ll lose all your content. If properly designed, they could make the hard drives swappable so that you could get your content, but they don’t do that. They also don’t offer a way to download the content so you could archive it.
With the exception of the cloud services, the whole technology is stuck in 2004.
There must be a way to stop the insanity, right?
CableCARD and HDHomeRun Prime
Back in 1996, it seems there was legislation that required cable companies to provide a means for people to not be locked into proprietary cable boxes. The result was CableCARD, a technology that was included in a few televisions, which very few people used.
Why did no one use them? Cable companies resisted it. The average consumer wouldn’t know about it. In addition, it cost more for television-makers to implement the technology. Consumers naturally took the cheaper option. And by the time it was really effective (around 2007 from the Wikipedia reference), people wanted DVR. CableCARD doesn’t give you DVR, just the ability to receive and decode cable without a set-top box. People weren’t really getting the functionality they wanted, when they bought a television with a CableCARD slot.
CableCARD did find a home in Tivo boxes. The devices work well with CableCARDs and fans of the technology seem to love it. Unfortunately, TiVO is expensive. It comes with the same subscription fees just like your cable DVR’s. You can get a “lifetime” subscription, but it is very misleading. The “lifetime” is of a device (which obviously has no “life”) and not the buyer’s lifetime as one would expect. Also the lifetime subscription is around $500, which will likely carry you to when your device is obsolete. Then you’ll buy a new one with a new “lifetime” subscription.
It became clear to me that Tivo wasn’t a good way to avoid subscription fees. It was a way to pay them at once.
The Winning Combination
You can avoid all these things by piecing together a few computer parts. I go into great detail here, but for the most part you need:
- A Computer
- HDHomeRun Prime
- Windows 7
You don’t need a very powerful computer, I bought the most powerful available Dell Zino nearly four years ago… and they were a little old at the time.
For those who care, it is a AMD Phenom II P940 Quad-Core with a PassMark score of 1674. It uses 35 watts of power. One of the lowest end newer chips today is this Intel Core M with a PassMark score of 2747. It uses 4.5 watts.
Much more power in at a fraction of the energy… isn’t technology awesome!
The Zino has more than handled everything that I threw at it in terms of powering video on my television.
In the meantime, this Intel NUC for under $300 will give you more power than you’ll need and it is a damn cute, wife-pleasing 5-inches by 5-inches (much smaller than that big cable box).
As as much storage space as your like… or as your budget allows. I wouldn’t recommend a SSD, because you don’t need that kind of speed… and they are pricy.
This hardware (currently $99), allows you to insert a CableCARD and get all the live channels from your cable company. Sadly, satellite companies and fiber-optic companies (such as Verizon FIOS) don’t need to adhere to the CableCARD standard and you are out of luck with those.
In technology terms it gives you the three television tuners so you can record three things at one time.
Finally, you’ll want Windows 7. Why? Because it contains Windows Media Center (WMC), which is the only software on the planet that works with the HDHomeRun Prime to give you access to copy-protected channels like HBO. If you don’t care about those, you could do it with Linux and Myth TV, but then you get into an especially techie solution.
You can also do it Windows 8, but Microsoft pushed WMC to a premium tier that cost more money and/or required an extra purchase that could cost as much as $100.
Sadly, WMC won’t be offered in Windows 10 at all. Microsoft pulled the plug saying that there wasn’t demand. There wasn’t, because no one has made a particularly user-friendly version of this solution and marketed it. (I have a conspiracy theory that the cable companies are paying Microsoft big money to back down so that they can keep renting DVRs to people at crazy prices. It’s the only reason I can think of why Microsoft isn’t pushing their own cable box solutions like they push Surface.)
Getting Windows 7 isn’t exactly easy, but ZDNet has a bunch of legal ways to get it cheap or even free. It’s better to get it now, before all the options go away.
Show Me The Money!
You combine the three pieces (grab your nearest 14-year old if you need help) and you should be ready to go. Oh you’ll also want this Windows Media Center Remote Control.
Since I went solar, I’ve been paying crazy attention how much power I use. It is shocking to me that cable boxes can use 500 watts. I think the whole solution would probably take around 20 watts or less. So you’d see that $8 monthly electricity bill drop to around 30 cents.
When you add it all up, that annual $275 or so comes to under $5. The hardware will set you back $400 or so to start, but it should pay for itself in under two years. I think that’s a solid return on your investment.