Cable Cutting Fall 2015 – Goodbye Media Center, Hello Tablo!

September 25, 2015 3 comments

The year was 2003, and frustrated by the terrible state of cable boxes I rushed out to the store andWindows XP MCE bought one of the very first Windows Media Center home theater PCs.  I went deep: tweaking and hacking, community support on message boards, ultimately being invited out to Redmond several times to work with the product team.  Media Center was awesome, but didn’t get the traction it deserved and effectively the platform died after the last major release in Windows 7.  Since that time, I’ve kept my own Media Center setup going because frankly there still wasn’t anything better available in the market.

In the summer of 2014 I came across a little startup in Ottawa called Nuvyyo who had come up with a new concept in their Tablo over-the-air PVR.  I visited the office, met with the CEO, and picked up one of their boxes that makes over-the-air broadcasts as simple as using Netflix.  For a full year I ran Media Center and Tablo in parallel, stayed in touch with the company via their active community page, and rode the wave of rapid iterations as a beta tester.  Last week with the new fall TV season approaching, I finally wiped my old Media Center PC and have put it to new use as a Windows 10 PC.

I am so very close to the goal that I set for myself back in 2011 to cut the cable while still ensuring that content creators get paid.  Put another way – I don’t want to pay for a ridiculously over-scoped cable package, but at the same time I don’t want to steal content.  Tall order.

Today I am happy to report that my entire family can very easily record all of the network television they want and get access to it on any TV in the house or any mobile device anywhere in the world via Tablo.  We can watch every Blue Jays game from anywhere (which in 2015 is a definite must-have) via MLB.TV.  We can get access to thousands of movies and television shows through Netflix, and we can rent first-run movies whenever we want through the many different services on Roku.
Tablo TV Web App

The only real gap here is that we aren’t always online, and I’ve had to hack my way around that a little bit so I can have access to the content I’ve paid for when disconnected – in an airplane, on a road trip with the kids, in a hotel with terrible wifi.  Tablo Ripper pulls recordings off of the Tablo, PlayOn downloads video for personal use from Netflix and other streaming sites, and the iPad app Infuse makes it super-easy to take that content with me when I’m off the grid.  My old Media Center PC has been repurposed to act as the hub for my offline tools where it collects and consolidates as much of the content possible for offline use.

So let’s sum that all up – as of Fall 2015 here is what is driving the Near household’s entertainment:

Antenna:  Channel Master 4221 mounted in the attic
PVR:  Tablo 4-Tuner PVR with WD Elements 2TB hard drive
Set-Top Box:  Roku 2 (Model 4210)
Other Services:  Netflix, MLB.TV
Offline Tools:  PlayOn, Tablo Ripper, Infuse

We’re getting close, but we are still living in a world of content silos.  Content owners are finally opening up to the idea of letting people have access to what they want when they want, but they’re all fighting to be the one place where you go to get that content.  That’s never going to happen, and they’ll wake up to it eventually but for now it’s a hunt-and-peck universe for us consumers and sadly yes it is still easier to steal content than it is to pay for it.  I have a glimmer of hope that the new Apple TV will start to pull some of this together finally through universal search, but it’s a faint glimmer to be honest.

Here’s hoping that the trend continues: that I will be able to pay for the content that I want, that it will become easier to access and consume that content, and that eventually it will be easier to pay for content than it is to steal it.

None of my clothes fit any more!

April 13, 2014 6 comments

Last fall, I decided I wanted to get more fit.  There was no trigger point, no health scare, nothing other than the realization that since I’d started working at home I really could make better use of my lunch hour.

So I went to my local gym to sign up, and spent an hour with a trainer.  His first question was “what’s your goal”?
“I dunno, to be more healthy” was my response.  He didn’t like that answer, and after taking me into the gym to prove to me that I was completely out of shape he came back at me with a hard personal training sales pitch that ended with “well y’know mate you’ll never be able to do it on your own”.  He had no idea how motivating that statement would be, he had just challenged a cheapskate to save money.  Game on!

So I set upon a path myself, but everywhere I went I kept coming up against the “what’s your goal” question – websites, apps, workout routines.  Fine, I picked a random goal of 250lbs which at the time meant losing a little over forty pounds.  Seemed reasonably drastic and difficult, yet attainable.

Just having a goal wasn’t going to keep this geek moving though, I needed technology.  So I started with a calorie-tracking app called MyFitnessPal, which has pretty much every food known to man available to be tracked against a daily goal of calorie intake.  The app gives you a daily goal based on how fast you want to lose weight (I chose 1.5 pounds per week).  Eat too many calories in the day, earn those calories back via exercise.  My youngest daughter Jaimee had a fun time with that one, and would take me out in the neighbourhood to be my trainer for walk/run/walk intervals while watching the calories tick off on another exercise-tracking app called Endomondo.  I started to really like the whole calorie in / calorie out thing and gave myself another goal of tracking it for at least a month before I could buy some additional fitness gadgets.

I stuck with it, and my reward was the gear that is now part of my daily routine.  I still use MyFitnessPal to track calories in, I bought a Fitbit watch to constantly track calories out, and a Fitbit Aria scale to track weight and body fat every morning.  Through the magic of the cloud, it all just syncs together in MyFitnessPal so that at any given moment I know where I stand with respect to calories in the day.  Yay!

weightcalories

The tech only tracks what you’re doing, it doesn’t actually do any of the work for you.  Some people have noticed my weight loss and they always ask me what it is that I’ve changed about my lifestyle (getting that question so often is the main reason I’m writing this article, so I’d better answer it).

So what has changed in my daily routine:

  • Remove high-calorie items from the everyday diet.  That means no sugared pop, no juice, light beer only (cuz who’s kidding who, I’m not giving up beer), milk only with cereal and just water with most meals.  Drinks are the “easy” ones to get rid of, but I also stay away from high-calorie snacks in general, replacing with lower-calorie options.  I’m now that guy who asks to see the nutritional info before buying or ordering anything.
  • High-calorie items only when I want it enough to put in extra work.  Eat less on days when I’m going out for dinner, Extreme Pita as my fast-food kick instead of McDonalds, extra time at the gym if I’m going out for beer and wings.
  • An exercise routine that I try really hard to stick to.  It’s booked into my work calendar like any other appointment, and if I need to move it for some reason it gets moved to another day or time.  Two visits to the gym per week for weight-training on the machines, and a ninety-minute hike on the weekend while my daughter is at synchronized swimming class.  Extra exercise when I have the opportunity, including walks around the neighbourhood.
  • Track it all.  I honestly don’t think I would have been successful without getting obsessive about tracking.  Yes, I know it’s incredibly annoying especially for my family as I enter things into my iPhone at dinner but it’s been key for me.

I noticed after about three months that my clothes weren’t fitting any more.  I had dropped two inches on my waistline and the pants wouldn’t stay on.  That was a conundrum, because while I needed clothes I was also hoping that I would lose more weight.  I bought enough clothes to get my by for a few more months, and boxed up the clothes that were getting way too big.  I own two pairs of dress pants and three dress shirts that fit, which gets me by for most work functions for now (although I think my colleagues are starting to notice the limited wardrobe).

After a few more months, I actually found myself unable to eat as much as I had in the past and staying under the calorie goal became more the norm than the exception.  They say your stomach shrinks, I’m guessing that’s what has happened.

And to completely bury the lead in the story, this week I hit my 250lb goal and can officially declare my arbitrary goal as having been met.  Yay!  I’m down almost four inches at the waistline, down a full shirt size, and looking visibly healthier in photos. 

I’m not done yet though, turns out that arbitrary goal wasn’t quite enough and I still have some more weight to lose before I’ll call it mission accomplished and go wild on a new wardrobe.  I’ve tried pretty hard not to talk about it all the time because I know that can be annoying, but I figured this milestone was a fair excuse to share.  I’m proud of the work I’ve done so far and look forward to continuing down the path to a healthier lifestyle.

Categories: Uncategorized

Cutting the Cable in Canada – 2015 Update

April 6, 2014 9 comments

I’m starting to see the cord-cutting conversation move from the geeky niches of the country into more of the mainstream, and given how fast things change in this space it’s time for me to provide an update on the state of things in Canada.

This story has been told before, back when Napster took off and changed people’s expectations about how they get access to music.  The industry wanted you to buy the old way (dropping $15+ on the album at your local retailer), people wanted to buy a new way (only buying the songs they want, and listening to them however they please).  While the industry fought to keep things the way they were, the pirates made it easier and more convenient to steal.  It became easier to steal music than it was to pay for it.  Eventually, the industry was forced to give in and now thrives on new models that allow people to pay for the music they want.

Fast-forward to today, and we are seeing very much the same story with television.  Cable companies have grown the monthly bill to a point where people no longer see value in paying too much for just the small amount of content they want.  The industry is fighting to hang on to that old model, and the pirates have made it easier and more convenient to steal.  Most content is locked up in the all-too-expensive cable bill, what isn’t locked up in cable is spread across too many exclusive and hard-to-navigate apps.  It is now easier to steal content than it is to pay for it.

I believe that if people can pay for content they will, and that’s been my view on cord-cutting.  I have taken the approach in the past that I will only write about options where money flows to the artists who made the content, and have not written about the more shady options for cutting the cord via theft.  However, now that these conversations seem to be going more mainstream I’m genuinely concerned about the general public getting misleading advice on cord-cutting and want to take some time to talk about all of the options to ensure that the dialogue is out in the open.  If you’re what I call tech-curious but not quite tech-savvy, here are the options you’re likely to bump into in 2015.

Option #1 – Antenna and Netflix

Back in the day, you would connect your television to the rabbit ears and pull in that snowy picture from your local network.  The experience wasn’t very good, which is why cable became so popular in the 80s as a way to deliver a consistently sharp picture where antenna could not.  What you might not know however is that the TV antennas are still out there, and they’ve been modernized to deliver crisp HD quality that is often better than what you get on cable.

Indeed, antenna (also called over-the-air or OTA for short) is a great option for cord-cutters and there are a few interesting devices on the market now that will let you record all of your network television alongside streaming options like Netflix.

image

The Tivo Roamio, while a bit pricey, would be top of my list of boxes to try out if you’re looking to get started down this path.  I personally use a PVR from a company based out of Ottawa called Tablo TV which is very app-friendly and gets the Canadian experience right (not always a given for products that are born and raised in the United States).  Finally ChannelMaster which has been in the antenna game for years has their DVR+ box as another option.

Any of these devices, plus a whole host of other do-it-yourself options, will give you access to the majority of the content you might want.  Live TV for big sports events, PVR for first-run TV series, and a vast catalog of older television shows and movies via Netflix.

Is it for me:  check your address on tvfool to see what channels you can get, and see if that’s good enough for you.  The biggest drawback I hear from sports fans is that you don’t get access to all the games you would find on SportsNet or TSN.

Is it legal:  100% legal, yes

How much does it cost:  Assume $500 for the antenna professionally installed, Tivo costs $200 with a $15/month fee, Tablo costs $250 with a $5/month fee, Channel Master DVR+ costs $250 with no monthly fee.  Netflix costs $8/month.

What are the risks:  With over-the-air, there is a risk of poor signal which looks similar to a DVD with scratches.  A professional installer can help minimize this risk.  There is also a risk that Netflix may cause you to exceed your internet capacity, but most internet packages available today will be just fine (with the exception of a lite or rural wireless internet package).

Option #2 – Internet Streamer with geo-unlocking

Internet streamers have become quite popular, the biggest players being Roku, AppleTV, and most recently Amazon FireTV.  In all cases, they’ll give you access to Netflix and some sort of movie-rental service.  There are also some good options to buy apps for MLB baseball, NHL Hockey, and MLS Soccer.

Here’s the rub with the internet streamers though – once it identifies that you’re geographically located in Canada the content available to purchase really drops.  For that reason, many people with internet streamers also pair them up with a geo-unlocking service that can make you appear to be coming from somewhere else in the world.  A good geo-unlocker like unblock-us can let you get access to BBC content from the UK, vastly better Netflix content from the US and the rest of the world, and will take care of annoying local blackouts on the sports apps.

Personally, I use an AppleTV which has the added ability to do what is called “AirPlay”.  Basically, if you can get something on your iPad or iPhone then you can send it to your TV with one tap.  Between the apps that are natively on the streamer and the apps on my iPad, there is a good selection of content available to be streamed.

Is it for me:  If you’re not that into first-run TV series, and are looking mostly for movies or rerun television then yes I’d say an internet streamer will work for you. Also the best option for live hockey, baseball, and soccer (at a price of course).

Is it legal:  The streamer itself is legal yes, but the geo-unlocking service is a gray area.  It’s like cross-border shopping – you can get better selection, better prices, but at the same time you might be depriving a Canadian company of the opportunity to make money.

How much does it cost:  Expect to pay about $100 for a streamer (there are many options), $5/month for a good geo-unlocker.

What are the risks:  Content providers are constantly changing what you have access to.  Some iPad apps block you from displaying on a TV, some television apps have been forcing you to enter your cable bill info before you can get access.  It’s for this reason I recommend this if you’re not that into first-run TV shows, frankly it can be a bit of a pain in the butt to watch first-run TV on a streamer.  Also pay attention to your internet data caps, you’re starting to get into the territory where there is real risk of going over your cap and your ISP starts to charge you extra.  Consider alternate internet providers with better caps like Start or Teksavvy.

Option #3 – Illegal Online Streaming

The illegal online streams are easy to find, and they are also highly risky.  You’re likely to come across them if you search for something like “watch game of thrones online”, which will take you to any number of sites that have links to streaming versions online.  What you’ll also notice are things like porn advertisements, links to get you to go to other sites, or the forced install of some sort of software.  In most cases, these are very bad and they are trying to make a quick buck by forcing you into advertising loops or worse by hijacking your computer for any number of nefarious purposes.

There are also a handful of streaming sites that are popping up with a subscription fee, like hockeystreams.com.  While I have less safety concerns about these types of offshore-run services, have no doubt about it that these are selling you illegal content.

The moral of the story with illegal internet streams:  Seems too good to be true?  It probably is…

Is it for me:  Is free content more important to you than your privacy or having someone install something that will keep track of the next time you log in to your online banking?  Then illegal online streams are for you.

Is it legal:  There is no gray here, this is illegal

How much does it cost:  Generally free.

Risks:  Real risk of getting some sort of virus or theft of data from your computer.  Content quality varies quite a bit, and what you click on might not get you what you’re expecting.

Option #4 – Pirating Platforms

This is the one that gives me the most heartburn, because too many people think that these are legal.  You’ll hear terms like BitTorrent, CouchPotato, Sickbeard and XBMC which by themselves are not illegal, however in this context they’re usually being used to get access to illegal content.  What is most challenging here is that these are the platforms that are doing a good job at delivering what people prefer – an easy to use, professional-looking app to get access to content you actually want.  If only the content owners would design something similar they’d probably make a fortune.  Alas, they prefer to stick to their old ways and so it’s the pirates that have the better platform.  I’ve seen all-in-one boxes like LibertyTV become this generation’s “unlocked cable box”, where anyone can buy something that is so easy it looks legit.

Be aware though, regardless of how polished things look it is still illegal.  The geeks that created these platforms are in a constant game of cat and mouse with the content owners.  While there might be technical ways to cover your tracks, I can virtually guarantee that the majority of “average” people who are using these things are being tracked.  You are stealing, you are stealing quite openly, your IP address is on a list somewhere ready to be used if and when someone wants to sue you.  Yes, there are limits on damages and yes there are still court battles to be fought but do you really want to be a potential test case?

Is it for me:  Are you okay building a record of multiple legal infractions?

Is it legal:  No.

How much does it cost:  While there are do-it-yourself options, a pre-built XBMC box costs about $200-300

Risks:  Aside from the legal discussion above, you should also be aware that because of the cat and mouse nature of pirated content it is highly likely that this will just stop working at some point and will require regular tweaking from a technical geek to keep it up to date.

Conclusion

We are at a transition point with television delivery, and I am confident that some day in the not-too-distant future there will be a way for good honest people to spend their money on the content they love.  The reality is that today is not that day, if you want to legitimately get access to content then you’ll either have to pay your cable company for content you don’t want or you’ll have to work extra hard to find legitimate ways to buy content from across multiple silos.

Some will choose to bypass all of the complexity that the old industry has erected and simply steal the content instead.  I don’t want to be someone who promotes that approach, but I figure that if you were going to steal anyways then this article isn’t going to change your mind.  The conversations are happening, and often with misleading information about the legality of the options.  I hope that a fully open conversation about the options does help to educate those who are just now thinking about cutting the cable, so that your eyes are wide open if someone holds your hand and takes you down a path that might get you into trouble with the law.

As I said at the beginning, this story has been told before and I am confident that eventually, it will have the same ending.

The fine print:  This discussion is very limited to options that I see come up in conversation with the tech-curious.  Yes I know about new option x, and that linux option y, and the super-nerdy option z.  I’ve made assumptions here which I know are likely to cause “yeah, but” type arguments with the tech-savvy crowd.  There are plenty of places where you can go for details and fine-grained arguments and legal use cases for the tech-savvy.  Feel free to point those out in the comments.

Categories: Canada, Cutting Cable

New TV Season 2013

September 28, 2013 Leave a comment

It’s that time of year, when the broadcast TV industry showcases their latest wares and we the general public get to play a massive game of “hot or not”.  Inevitably there will some winners, many losers, and some shows that fall in the middle. 

In our household, the annual event ends in new series that get a coveted spot on the PVR for one of either myself, Jodie, or sometimes both of us to watch.  Those that end up currying favour with only one of us go into the “when Pete’s on a plane” rotation.  My coworker Paul insisted, I say again insisted, that I post the ongoing results to the blog.  Hover over the thumbs for short commentary.

 

Premiere Date Show

Pete

Jodie

September 16 Sleepy Hollow Meh, could be entertaining on my next business trip. Sleepy, and hollow.
September 17 Dads Went into this with very low expectations, it wasn't as bad as I expected.  Probably won't stick with it though, it's not that good. We'll see...
September 17 Brooklyn 99

Acting so bad, it could be on the CBC

Really bad SNL skit.

September 20 Last Man Standing

Elevator pitch: Let's remake Home Improvement, but make it terrible.  Yeah, let's do that!

It just... sucks

September 23 Hostages

No way this deserves to be a series.  Maybe a direct to DVD movie... maybe.

Good idea for a movie, not a TV series

September 23 Mom

Not my thing

September 23 The Blacklist

Upgraded, I've decided I like this oneUpgraded, I've decided I like this one

Thumbs_Up_Down
September 24 Agents of Shield

Big fan, like the premise and the not-too-serious tone of the show.Big fan, like the premise and the not-too-serious tone of the show.

Yeah, Jodie didn't even watch it but I'm confident in the thumbs down rating.

September 24 Trophy Wife    
September 24 Lucky 7

And... canceled

And... canceled

September 24 The Goldbergs    
September 25 Back in the Game Just didn't grab me  
September 26 The Michael J Fox Show

Hmm, this one's on the bubble now.  Will probably keep watching because of my work connection to Betsy Brandt.

Michael J Fox still looks the same as he did in my BOP magazine

September 26 The Crazy Ones

Too much Robin Williams being... Robin Williams

September 27 Masterchef Junior

Big Masterchef fans, and wow are these kids good!Big Masterchef fans, and wow are these kids good!

These kids can cook! Makes me hungry.These kids can cook! Makes me hungry.

September 30 We Are Men    
October 2 Ironside    
October 2 Super Fun Night Super dumb night
October 3 Welcome to the Family    
October 3 The Millers And, no. And, no.
October 3 Sean Saves the World Holy laugh track Batman! Holy laugh track Batman!
November 4 Almost Human  

It hasn't even aired yet, and it's a thumbs down from Jodie.

November 8 Enlisted    

 

Legend:

Thumbs_Up_Down – Yeah, that’s not happening.  Delete!

Thumbs_Up_Down – Okay, I’ll give it a few more episodes to earn its keep

Thumbs_Up_DownThumbs_Up_Down – This could be a keeper!

 

You’ll note some shows that are missing, and they’re likely in one of these “not a chance we’re gonna watch that” categories:

  • Anything to do with vampires (there are a few)
  • Spinoff of something that we don’t watch
  • Premium cable only (we cut the cable years ago)
Categories: TV and Movies

Why does my smoke alarm keep going off? (and how to fix it)

February 14, 2013 3 comments

I recently updated the smoke alarms in our house.  Because I’m me, I did all the research to figure out the most up to date recommendations on type and coverage for the home.  We ended up with several First Alert Dual Sensor smoke alarms throughout the house.

These alarms came with a neat feature that allows you to shut off false alarms using any infrared remote control you might have lying around the house.  Useful I thought for burnt toast and whatnot.

Well the fun began that night, as we were watching TV one of the alarms kept going off.  After several false alarms I just took it down and removed the battery, with plans to exchange it.

The fun continued a few days later, as the alarm would go off in the laundry room when we turned on the lights.  What the heck?

This was now too much to be a coincidence, so I hit the internet to do some research.

Remember that neat feature that lets you use a remote to turn off false alarms?  Turns out it also lets you test the alarm via infrared remote.  And you know what else generates infrared signals that can trigger the test function?  Compact fluorescent light bulbs, yep those twisty CFL bulbs that are by law replacing every light bulb in your house.

Legally-required smoke alarms that are incompatible with legally-required light bulbs.  That, my friends, is what we call a conundrum.

How to fix it

In order to stop this annoying false alarm, you need to disable the IR sensor on the smoke alarm.  This won’t affect the ability to detect smoke, it will simply turn off the IR remote control features.  It’s pretty easy to do:

  1. Open the battery door (disconnect the battery)
  2. Hold down the test button on the alarm
  3. Close the battery door while still holding the test button
  4. You will hear a chirp, and can let go of the test button

You’ll need to do this every time you replace the batteries, because it will reset back to normal when you pull out the battery.

Missing Guide Data from Windows Media Center–Workaround

January 16, 2013 22 comments

It appears that there is a widespread issue causing certain channels to have no guide data in Windows Media Center.  The ball is pretty clearly in Microsoft’s court, but as far as I can tell there are no more players on team Media Center so I expect this one to take a while to fix.

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Like me, many Canadians set up Media Center using a nearby US zip code to enable all of the high-definition TV features.  Unfortunately it seems that the zip code closest to Toronto has been particularly hard hit by this bug.

I’ve updated my Media Center hack to help work around this issue by running a single batch file.  Full updated instructions and zip file are located at the Windows Experts wiki here.

Essentially, this will supplement your buggy US listings with additional listings from Canadian cable and satellite providers.  Canadian providers tend to carry lots of US stations as well, so this may also be a decent workaround for some of our friends to the south.

Early reports from users at Digital Home Canada indicate that this workaround has been successful for everyone who has implemented it.

Finally, I’ve logged the bug with Microsoft (click here).  Please vote it up and mark “I can too” stating that you are able to reproduce the bug as well.  This might help to speed up the official fix.

Categories: Canada, Media Center

Toboggan Hills in Milton

December 28, 2012 1 comment

After a nice deep snowfall, I took the kids out tobogganing yesterday.  Finding a decent toboggan hill in Milton is a tough mission, but there are a few around.

I’ll share our tobogganing spots, and point you to a toboggan hill database where you can both look up some hills or add some of your own.

Best In Milton – Lowville Park
Okay, it’s more *near* Milton than in it but it’s the best hill we’ve got.  Steep, an okay size, easy to get to and park.  On the down side it tends to be busy and if there’s not much snow, bumpy from all the brush.  Watch out for trees near the bottom, although I think they’ve started to put hay bales there now for safety.

Best Nearby: Food Basics
Near the corner of Laurier and Ontario, there is a park with a decent hill.  Mid-grade slope and plenty wide.  Parking is available in the Food Basics parking lot.

Most Popular: Sixteen-Mile Creek
People flock to the hill near Commercial and Laurier, a very wide spot with lots of room for everyone.  It is a steep but pretty short slope.  People park on the road, but I’d rather see you park at the highschool or in the parking lot of Rad Brothers (near Derry & Ontario).

Hidden Gem: Livingston Park
I stumbled across the hill at Livingston Park during a summer cleanup with my daughter’s Girl Guides troop. We went to visit it yesterday, and there was nobody at the hill with pristine powder.  It’s not a very steep slope, but a decent size for young kids.  Parking is available at the end of Margaret Street.

I’ve added all these slopes to TobogganHills.com.  Are there any hills you can share?

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Categories: Uncategorized