Second of a series on maximizing your cable/broadband bang for the buck, and minimizing Big Cable’s presence in your life and living room.
Last time we talked about getting the best package deal on Cable and Internet access…The bottom line? While getting Big Cable out of your living room is a great goal, current package deals make it generally cheaper to get high-speed Internet if you take some kind of TV package along with it. We also looked at buying our own cable modem instead of renting one from the cable company, and figured out how to save a couple of hundred bucks over 2-3 years by doing so
This time we’ll focus on getting a better deal on a DVR, and keeping costs down by using a cable card and tuning adapter as lower-cost options to your cable company’s DVR rental.
As part of my initial deal, I took a monthly rental on a no-frills HD cable box from Time Warner Cable, my provider. If you buy one of the higher-end packages the cable company will “give you” a box for free…Actually TWC (who is the most expensive cable company I’ve dealt with in the last 10 years), does this thing where they quote you one price for the cable package, and then add in the hardware rental prices when you check out…You don’t see the full cost until you’re ready to commit, so the deal looks cheaper while you’re picking your service. <sigh> Sadly, this is probably Big Cable’s idea of opt-in services…To me it’s just another irritating way that consumers get nickle-and-dimed to death by the provider. In any event the lack of recording capabilities made this a less-than-desireable option, especially when you consider the $10/mo. rental fee and lack of recording capabilities.
Rent a DVR from the cable company? Nope. At my discounted rate, getting TWC’s DVR package would add $15-25/mo., which is a bit too expensive for my chord-cutting sensibilities. Luckilly W00t! (the source of some of the best deals on the Internet) was running a special on a refurbished TiVO Premiere XL4, along with a TiVO Stream (that will let you stream or transfer recorded video to other devices in your home), for the low, low price of $249.
A couple of things to mention: First, the TiVO Premiere XL4 is not the latest generation of TiVO unit, it’s a little bit older than the current TiVO Roamio models…You can currently get an XL4 for about $250 new, or the top-of-the-line Roamio for about $600. So this is a good deal…Sure there are some added features in the Roamio, but nothing I’ll miss for the price difference.
The XL4 has four built-in tuners, so it can record/play back four HD streams at once, along with built-in options for Hulu Plus, Netflix, and Amazon video, and can source programs you are looking for across those vendor’s libraries…Pretty cool, yes?
CableCARD and Tuning Adapters
Back in the early days of TiVO, integration with cable systems was dodgy at best…In most cases, you had to hook an IR (Infrared) transmitter to the front of your cable box, and hope that the TV could successfully change the channel on your cable box before starting your recording…It also pretty much meant that you couldn’t background record without doing something like using your VCR, or another output, to watch your TV. It was a kludge.
Now you can install a CableCARD and tuning adapter to your TiVO so all of this can be handled cleanly, internally, by the TiVO unit and, as mentioned before, you can deal with 4 HD video streams at once. Nice.
The upside is that renting the CableCARD (TWC won’t let you buy) and tuning adapter is about $5/month…Which is good, or at least better, than box rental fees.. The problem is that CableCARD tech, which many are already calling an obsolete technology (It was first spec’d out in 1995) are pretty finicky beasts.
The idea of the CableCARD was to help people move away from dependence on Big Cable’s hardware, namely cable boxes. With a CableCARD equipped TV or DVR, you could get away from the monthly rental fee for a cable box…The tech really hasn’t caught on, and is so unevenly implemented that you have do deal with a tier 2 or 3 cable tech to find somone who understands the tech. Bottom-line: It’s an okay option for now, but next year maybe not.
The initial plan was to have the cable company ship me the parts, install them in the new TiVO, and have TWC do whatever on the back end to support the new configuration…I just had to supply them with the MAC address (the unique code that identifies the hardware to the network) of the card, and they would make the proper entries into their network, send some info to the tuning adapter remotely to activate everything.
Well, initial plans…Seems that, in addition to blowing out two tuning adapters, TWC has some problems going on with their inventory management procedures…The hardware I was getting had existing entries in head-ends (cable transmission source points) that were not in my area, and I wasn’t getting all of my channels. A huge problem? No. It just took visits from 3 cable tech, and about 10 hours of time, to finally get the whole thing working properly…
Now I’m just putting that out there as a cautionary tale…Like any trailblazer the path of the chord cutter is fraught with peril. Peril of a seemingly never-ending time suck involving the convoluted phone systems, less than well-trained, or motivated, customer service reps, and a lot of time on hold. It gets better.
Now that things have been sorted out, the TiVO is working spectacularly, and doing all of the things that TiVO does, and has always done, a lot better than Cable Company DVRs…The TiVO software is just far superior to anything that comes with a provider-owned box. This is especially true for Time Warner Cable, which has some of the worst, most obsolete, software on their DVRs that I’ve seen since 1999 (and I think this software dates back that far.) But it’s not all rainbows and kittens with this setup. Like anything else you roll yourself, you’ve got to be willing to roll with some differences…
The Realities of TiVO Ownership
As I said, TiVO excels in the User Experience category because their software is, hands-down, the best menuing system around. Downside? You’ve got to pay for that software, and it’s not cheap.
Currently, the TiVO service costs $14.99/mo. You can buy a subscription for the life of the unit for about $400. Not cheap, but I see TiVO as the modern equivalent of the old TV Guide Magazine, which was, in the analog world, a similar add-on cost to help you get the most out of your TV viewing…Again, it’s a cost, but one that is justifiable both in terms of the service provided, plus ongoing support for the software.
I’m going with the monthly subscription for now…If the unit proves to be the solution I’ll get the lifetime subscription, but that asks the question, just how much money, if any, does this save me vs. Big Cable’s DVR, and how long will it take me to realize any savings?
So assuming renting a DVR from the Cable company would cost me $15/mo., versus the $5/mo. for the CableCARD and tuning adapter, we’re talking $20/month for the TiVO…Okay, not bleeding cash, but not saving money either. So some of that savings from the cable modem will eventually trickle over and make this a little bit cheaper…Still worth it in terms of an overall better experience with the TiVO, the streaming capabilities of the TiVO stream unit, and the convenience of the built-in 3rd Party apps on the TiVO. But there is one fairly large downside with this approach:
No On-Demand w/TiVO
No Big Cable DVR means no software to drive On-Demand viewing. If you’re a big fan of on-demand viewing this could be a problem, but I can record pretty much everything I want to watch, and also have other streaming devices to fall back on, so this isn’t a deal-breaker for me.
So my home entertainment setup does everything I need it to do, at a cost substantially less than market rates if I were to have just gone in and take the all-vendor provided solution from Big Cable. It’s a nice solution…For now.
I think we’re on the cusp of a lot of things happening…Big Cable is in for a big shakeup, demand is on the rise for ala carte pricing, companies like Areo are coming up with interesting ways of expanding over-the-air broadcast signals to get increased reach to people in areas that aren’t antenna friendly, and new vendors are coming up with new strategies for steaming…It’s a pretty exciting time for home entertainment tech.
So I’m looking at this solution as part of an on-going strategy to keep my viewing options as wide as possible, while also keeping the costs as reasonable as possible. I’ll keep evaluating new tech as it becomes available, and incorporating the best into my home entertainment center.