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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

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.

image

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

Rabbit Ears Can Save Your Super Bowl Party

January 31, 2012 2 comments

I am not a sports fanatic, but a long-running tradition in my house is the annual dusting off of the deep fryer to nosh on some home-made wings, take in a great game of football and enjoy some even better commercials.

football-tv-screenNo offense to your Super Bowl party, but the Super Bowl is just better at my house.  Yes, the deep fryer adds a certain “I don’t know what”, but the real star is the antenna.  My cheap little antenna lets my guests watch the Super Bowl the way it was meant to be seen, in full high definition glory with the proper big-budget commercials to entertain us between plays.

The typical Canadian Super Bowl experience works like this:

  • Local cable company gets the HD feed from the US
  • They remove the US commercials and insert (usually unfunny) Canadian ads
  • They compress the picture quality so they can jam more channels onto your cable
  • You get a sub-par Super Bowl experience

In previous years you *might* have gotten away with tuning into the US high definition channel on cable, but not this year.  With all of Canada now digital, the cable networks are required by law to show you the Canadianized broadcast regardless of which channel you tune.

Don’t Panic.  There is time to correct this injustice before everyone shows up to your house for the big game and finds out how you allowed the cable company deprive them all of the full Super Bowl experience.  I’ll tell you how.

For starters, you’ll need a high definition television.  Every HDTV sold since 2007 includes an over-the-air HD tuner.

Next, you’ll need to be within broadcasting distance of an NBC affiliate.  You can check your specific address at TVFool and see if NBC is on the list but if you’re in the Toronto, Montreal, or Windsor areas then the answer is likely yes.

StealthHawkFinally, you’ll need an antenna.  If you’re handy, then you can build your own with just some wire and a couple parts you can get at Home Depot.  If you’re like me however (handy with the wings but less so with the home improvements) then you’ll want to buy an antenna. Given that time is short, I’d recommend stopping by Save and Replay in Mississauga to get a good antenna which will cost you about $50.  I cannot recommend any of the antennas you’re likely to find at Best Buy or Walmart.

Plug the antenna into your TV, point it in the general direction of the United States, and you should be able to enjoy the Super Bowl as it was intended.

If you’re feeling extra ambitious, you can install the antenna in the attic for even better reception.

Enjoy the Super Bowl!

Categories: Canada, Cutting Cable

Cutting the cable in Canada–Conclusion (Part 8)

January 4, 2012 13 comments

This is the conclusion of a blog series on cutting the cable in Canada.

Back in the spring, I began to look at options for cutting the cable in Canada, including IPTV, Apple iTunes, Netflix, TV Websites, Boxee, and a brief look to see if the grass is any greener south of the border. 

The ground rules were as follows:

  • My family must accept the solution, this is not a geeks-only endeavour
  • The content creators must be compensated, no stealing from the artists
  • The quality must generally match what I get today, which means high definition
  • Costs must fit within our existing budget, I’m only allowed to spend what I save elsewhere

I’ll admit that after the initial review I got somewhat dismayed because the conclusion was leaning to “not possible in Canada”.  The biggest sticking point was content for my kids, six and eight year old girls who enjoy watching Teletoon and some other kid-oriented cable channels on a little TV in the basement.  I decided to throw in the towel.  Cable had won.

However, this summer my cable provider gave me an extra push by removing all of the kids channels from their analog tier which meant that cartoons would no longer work on the little TV downstairs without additional investment.  This was the time to strike!

After a bit of trial and error, I did end up with a solution that works for my family and we are now 100% free of cable in our household.  Here’s what the Near household looks like:

Over-The-Air High Definition Everywhere

4221HDA small antenna in the attic drives the majority of what we watch in the house.  I ran the coax cable from my antenna down into my basement, literally unplugged the cable feed from the road and instead plugged the antenna into the splitter, and now every room in the house how has HD antenna.  Plug in an HDTV, and about 35 channels come in crystal-clear.

Whole-Home PVR

So now I had all the TVs in the house running free and legal live TV, but what I really wanted to do is record that TV to a PVR so I can watch it anywhere in the house.  To do this, I activated the free Windows Media Center program that comes with Windows 7 to turn my Windows PC into a fully functional PVR.  I plugged my antenna into an HDHomerun tuner, which allowed my Windows PC to record two HDTV channels at the same time.  To get everything working in the Toronto area, I simply told Media Center that I live in the United States at Zipcode 14174 (for other areas of Canada the setup is a bit more involved).

The steps above turn the PC into a PVR that’s quite frankly better than any PVR from the cable company.  When you have both an XBox 360 and a Windows Media Center PC in the same house, it turns the XBox into a PVR too!  Microsoft calls this a Media Center Extender, I  have three extenders in my house which means that every TV in the house is a high definition PVR.

For The Kids

netflix_logoSurprisingly, there is very little content on broadcast television for kids these days.  However, kids programming is an area where Netflix really shines.  I picked up an Apple TV 2 for about one hundred dollars and plugged it in to the TV in the basement.  I taught my eight-year old how to use it in about ten minutes, my six-year old still needs a bit of help getting it going.

Netflix is now the kids’ primary source of content, and since they’re using my account I can monitor everything that they watch.

Some Extras:

So there we have it, Cable TV has been completely replaced in our household!  Flush with an extra $60 per month in cash, I find myself a bit more liberal with the entertainment dollar.  I spent an extra $30 to buy simple.tv, which takes everything from my PVR and syncs it to my iPod for business trips.  I bought the entire Scooby Doo box set for about $60 and added it to our DVD collection.  We rent HD movies on the XBox for family movie nights.  My daughter watches Netflix in her room on an iPod Touch.  Overall I’m spending less and getting more for my entertainment dollar.  I count that as a win!

Is it right for you?

This setup works well for my family, but there’s one key difference between my house and most other Canadian households… we don’t really care too much about live sports.  I get all the games I care about including the Stanley Cup, Superbowl (with US commercials!), World Series, and the Olympics.  However if you spend most of your time on TSN or Sportsnet then what I’ve done probably won’t work for you.  I am not aware of any legal way to get those live sports other than cable or satellite.

Where to get more information:

The Digital Home Canada forums are a great place to ask questions and dig in to some more options for cutting the cable.

Over The Air forum

Home Theater PC forum

The Shopping List:

While I would recommend doing a little research to see what’s best for you, I know the reality is that many will just want to know what I’ve got so they can go buy the same thing.  Here’s the full list of what is involved in my setup.

Antenna Installation

Windows Media Center PVR

Media Center Extenders

  • Xbox 360 ($200)
  • Linksys DMA-2100 (discontinued, find on Kijiji or eBay)
  • Linksys DMA-2200 (discontinued, find on Kijiji or eBay)

Netflix:

TV Options For Your Canadian University Dorm Room

August 30, 2011 5 comments

It’s back-to-school time, and across the country students are packing up their stuff to settle into a dorm room for the next ten months.  Having lived in a university dormitory for four years myself, I know that getting TV into your room is always top of mind on move-in day.  Until recently it was a futile effort in most schools, but this year things are different.

Over The Air

TERK INDOOR  HDTV AMPLIFIED ANTENNAStarting September 1, the airwaves surrounding our country’s colleges and universities will be overflowing with free high-definition digital TV.  You’ll need an antenna to pull in these signals, and based on research I recommend the Terk HDTVa for your dorm-room window.

You can simply plug the antenna into a small HDTV and you’re good to go.  However, since you likely already have a laptop in the dorm room you might want to use that instead.  For a Windows laptop, I’d recommend going completely wireless with the HDHomerun3 tuner and a fast 802.11N wifi router.  Once you’ve got the tuner set up, you can use Windows Media Center (included in Windows 7) to watch Live TV or Record TV using the PVR functionality.  If you’re running a Mac, you can get the same tuner bundled with the EyeTV software which also lets you watch TV on your iPhone.  For a little less money, the Hauppauge 950Q is a well-regarded and tiny USB tuner.

See the table at the bottom of the article for what you can expect to receive from your dorm room at some of the schools around the country.

 

Internet TV

Most of the major Canadian networks make their primetime shows available on the Internet.  Quality isn’t nearly as good as you’ll get over the air but you can’t beat the convenience (assuming your dorm-room connection is fast enough for streaming video).  While you can go to each of their individual websites, I recommend using an app called Boxee. With Boxee, you get all of the shows nicely organized like an Internet PVR without all the clicking.  You can install Boxee on your laptop or if you can get a little Boxee Box to plug in to your TV.
Boxee TV LIbrary
BBT Listbbt_episode_ctvbbt_playing

 

Summing it all up…

When I was working in the dorms, the game was trying to steal cable from the lounge (which never worked BTW, at least not on my watch).  With the availability of Over-The-Air high definition TV and Internet TV there’s no reason to run afoul of your RA’s wire cutters any more.

The table below summarizes the channels you can expect to get with an indoor antenna at the more prominent (according to Macleans) schools across the country.  You can always check your exact address at tvfool.com to get a more detailed report.

CBC SRC Global CTV CTV2 CITY OMNI Other
McGill Star Star Star Star TVA, TQ, Metro, V, CBS, NBC, PBS
University of Toronto Star Star Star Star Star Star TVO, OMNI2, SUN, CHCH, CW, CTS
University of BC Star Star Star Star Star Star Star MeTV, KBCB, CHEK, PBS
University of Alberta Star Star Star Star Star Star CTS,
Queen’s University CBS, PBS, ABC
McMaster University Star Star Star Star, Star Star CHCH, CTS, TVO, OMNI2, SUN
Dalhousie University Star Star Star
University of Calgary Star Star Star Star Star CTS
Western Star Star Star SUN, OMNI2, CTS, TVO, CHCH
University of Saskatchewan Star Star
University of Ottawa Star Star Star Star Star Star Star TQ, TVO, TVA, V, CHCH, SUN, CTS, OMNI2
Laval Star Star TVA, TQ
University of Montreal Star Star Star Star TVA, TQ, V, Metro, CBS, NBC, PBS
Sherbrooke Star Star TVA, V
University of Manitoba Star Star Star Star Star JoyTV
Simon Fraser University Star Star Star Star Star Star Star MeTV,KBCB, PBS, JoyTV, CHEK
University of Victoria Star Star Star MeTV, JoyTV, KBCB, PBS, CHEK
University of Waterloo Star Star TVO
University of Guelph Star Star TVO, CHCH
Memorial University Star NTV
University of New Brunswick Star Star
Carleton Star Star Star Star Star Star TQ, TVO, TVA, V, CHCH, SUN, CTS, OMNI2
University of Windsor TVO, CBS, PBS, MyTV, ABC, Fox, NBC, WADL, CW, TCT, DTN
University of Regina Star Star Star Star
York University Star Star Star Star Star Star TVO, OMNI2, SUN, CHCH, CW, CTS
Concordia University  Star Star Star Star TVA, TQ, V, Metro, CBS, NBC
UQAM  Star Star Star Star TVA, TQ, V, Metro, CBS, NBC
Mount Allison Star Star
Acadia University
University of Northern BC
University of Lethbridge Star Star Star Star Star Star CTS
Wilfrid Laurier University Star Star TVO
Trent University Star
St. Francis Xavier
Bishop’s University TVA
University of PEI Star Star Star
University of Winnipeg Star Star Star Star Star JoyTV
St Mary’s University Star Star Star
Lakehead University Star Star TVO
University of Ontario Institute of Technology Star Star Star Star Star Star TVO, OMNI2, SUN
Brock University Star Star Star Star Star Star TVO, CHCH, CTS, CW, SUN
Laurentian University
St. Thomas University Star Star
Brandon University
Ryerson Star Star Star Star Star Star TVO, OMNI2, SUN, CHCH, CW, CTS
Mount Saint Vincent Star Star Star
Universite de Moncton Star Star Star
Cape Breton University
Nipissing University CBS, ABC, 3ABN

The Canadian Digital TV Switch – Myth vs Fact

August 30, 2011 1 comment

News reports, advertisements, and telemarketers are operating at full speed with the transition from analog to digital TV transmission just a couple of days away.  The misinformation is driving me absolutely nuts, so I wanted to take a minute to clear up some myths I’ve been hearing.

Myth: On August 31, your rabbit ears will stop working
Fact: On August 31, your rabbit ears will continue to work but instead of fuzzy analog TV you’ll now get crisp high definition digital TV

Myth: If you get your TV via antenna today, you need to switch to cable or satellite
Fact: If you get your TV via antenna today, your newer HDTVs will get more channels tomorrow. If you have an older TV, a relatively cheap digital TV converter is all you need

Myth: The only way to get a HDTV signal is through cable or satellite
Fact: All TVs sold today include a digital tuner for free over-the-air HDTV

Myth: Over the air TV is dead in Canada
Fact: There has never been a better time to get your TV by antenna.  The majority of Canadians can get the majority of their TV programming for free using an antenna. Toronto residents can expect to get 25+ channels of digital TV from all the major networks, 30+ in Montreal, 15+ in Vancouver, and the list goes on.

Myth: The CRTC is forcing cable companies to switch from analog to digital
Fact: Many cable companies are choosing to switch entirely to digital, but that is entirely their choice and has nothing to do with the over-the-air switch or government mandates.

The digital switch is a good-news story, and an opportunity for Canadians to re-think that $100 (or more) cable bill now that most of the TV they watch is available in high-definition for free.  I’ve written additional in-depth articles that will help you determine what channels you can get at your home, and some instructions on how to install your own antenna for less than what some people pay for one month of cable.

I’ve noticed this week that there are plenty of unscrupulous telemarketers, uninformed salesmen, and headline-seeking news outlets who are using this digital transition to serve a different agenda.  For just the raw facts, the Government of Canada’s digital transition website is the place to go.

Enjoy the new world of HDTV coming to Canada, I know I will!

Categories: Canada, TV and Movies

Installing an attic antenna for free HDTV in Canada

August 11, 2011 26 comments

On August 31 2011, the Canadian airwaves will light up with new free HDTV signals from your local television stations.  In order to take advantage of these signals you’ll want a good quality antenna to pull in the signals.

The best option is to install an antenna on your roof, but if you’re like me then there are a few reasons why this might not happen:

  1. My wife (and likely neighbours) doesn’t want an ugly antenna sticking out of my roof
  2. I’m not comfortable working on the roof myself
  3. I’m too cheap to pay someone to do it for me (about $250 labour to install)
    The next best thing to an outdoor antenna is to install an antenna in your attic, which is actually quite easy to do.  I’ll walk you through the basics.

    What you’ll need (expect to spend about $150):

    A good-quality antenna:

    • See the chart over at Digital Home Canada for the latest recommendations
    • The CM4221 was my choice because it can grab fringe channels from Buffalo and will fit through my attic hatch
    • Note that you’ll need to match the antenna to the channels you plan to receive and there are a few odd ducks out there that will be tough to match to an attic-sized antenna (I’m lookin’ at you Global TV on channel 6 in Paris, Ontario)

    A pole to mount it to:

    • Personally I used some cheap PVC conduit from Home Depot

    A pre-amplifier:

    • This is only necessary if you plan to split the signal to multiple TVs, but a pre-amp is a good investment as it amplifies the signal right at the antenna before any signal gets lost in the cable or splitters
    • See the chart over at Digital Home Canada for the latest recommendations. 
    • The Winegard AP-4700 was my choice as I didn’t want to over-amplify the signal and at the time I only needed UHF channels 14 and up.

    Coax cable:

    • RG6 grade is the way to go here, which is available at Home Depot in bulk
    • You’ll also need a way to put screw-ends on the coax, which usually involves a special cutter and crimper which is also available at Home Depot (I’m happy to lend my compression crimpers out to local friends and colleagues)
    • Look in the telecom section for good quality stuff, not the TV cables section which is where Home Depot puts the cheap junk

    Step 1 – Mount the antenna

    Find a spot in the attic that is relatively easy to access.  Use conduit clamps (also at Home Depot) to mount the pole vertically between rafters.  Use a level to ensure the pole is straight.

    Mount the antenna to the pole following the manufacturer’s instructions, as high as is possible.  The CM4221 is a simple U-bolt that you loosen via a couple of nuts.

    Step 2 – Run the cable

    Figure out how you’re going to run a cable from your antenna to its ultimate destination (likely the TV).

    Here’s how I did it:

    • Found a cold-air return duct that ran from the ceiling of the top floor all the way down to the basement. 
    • Popped off the cover from the vent, and drilled a hole upwards into the attic
    • Stuck a coat hanger through the hole so that I could find it through the insulation
    • In the attic, use electrical tape to attach the coax cable to the coat hanger, then pulled it through into the duct.
    • Pull the cable through until I felt it hit bottom in the basement
    • Asked a buddy to jiggle the cable while I located it by sound in the basement
    • Cut a relatively large opening into the cold air return duct with tin snips to locate the cable, then pulled it through into the basement
    • Stapled the cable into place in the basement, ultimately ending near where the rest of the coax comes into the house (generally near your electrical box)
    • Closed up the cold air vent with the sheet metal I had cut out and some aluminum tape
    • Sealed all the holes with caulk
      Step 3 – Connect the antenna

    • Connect the balun (the little adapter the converts two wires into coax) to the antenna
    • Using a small piece of coax, connect the balun to the antenna side of the preamp
    • Connect the long piece of coax to the power supply side of the preamp
    • Back in the basement, connect the long coax to the power supply that came with the preamp.
    • Connect another length of coax from the preamp power supply to a splitter, and ultimately to the TVs you wish to connect (you can probably re-use the cables already in your home that were put there for Cable TV).

    Step 4 – Adjust the antenna

    • Using maps on TVFool, figure out in which direction the TV stations are broadcasting from, and point your antenna in that general direction.
    • The next set of steps is mostly trial and error, and you’ll likely need a helper. 
    • Pick one of the channels from your TVFool report that is relatively low on the list, we’re going to try to point the antenna optimally to bring in that hard-to-get channel. 
    • Tune your HDTV to that channel (you may have to run a channel scan first), and set the TV to signal strength mode. 
    • Try adjusting the antenna left or right until you get the best signal strength. 
    • Once you’ve got that hard-to-get channel working, check the signal strength on the other channels to ensure they’re coming in strong.  If not, you may have to keep tweaking until you find a happy medium for all the channels.
    • Nerd tip: If you’re using the HDHomerun3 network tuner (highly recommended), there is an iPad app called Signal GH that makes quick work of pointing the antenna.  Maps, compass, and signal strength all on your iPad
      Step 5 – Enjoy!
      That’s about it, you should now have access to all of the free HDTV signals that are flying through the air here in Canada.
      I’ve included a couple photos below of my setup to help you visualize.  You may notice that I actually chose to stack two Channel Master 4221 antennas in the attic, which helps me to pull in some of the more challenging channels from Buffalo.

      Stacked 4221 antennas in the attic Stacked 4221 antennas in the attic

      Additional Resources:

      Digitalhome.ca: More help and info on over-the-air antennas and reception in Canada

      TVFool.com: Tools to help you figure out the channels available in your area

      Save ‘n Replay: Canadian online retailer that sells over-the-air supplies

      Media Center and HDTV: Instructions to set up Windows 7 as a HDTV PVR

      Free HDTV across Canada starting August 31

      August 11, 2011 16 comments

      Following years of dutifully paying our cable and satellite bills, most Canadians have forgotten that TV in this country used to be free.  Back in the good-old-days you’d pick up that nice wooden-cabinet television from Sears, extend the rabbit ears, and be good to go.

      6RABBITEARS2-articleLargeWell those old TV signals are still flying around in the airwaves, but come the end of this month they’re all about to get a shot of 21st-century steroids that actually leapfrogs the HD quality that you’re getting from your cable company.

      Here’s a quick FAQ that will help you get started with the free digital TV in your area.

      What channels will I get?

      The number of channels varies by your location, but there’s a great website that will let you know what you’ll be able to receive at your home.  Click here and enter your address into TVFool, and on the next page choose “pending” to see what the world will look like on August 31.  Everything in green you’ll get with rabbit ears, everything in yellow by putting an antenna in your attic, and if you’ve got an old antenna tower from the 70s still attached to the outside of your house then you can expect to get pretty much every channel on the list.

      A few sample locations that I know at least a few of my readers will find interesting…

      Toronto-Area Free HDTV

      Waterloo Free HDTV

      Ottawa Free HDTV

      image image image

      Will it be all staticky like when I was a kid?

      No.  With the switch to digital you either get the channel in full high-definition dolby digital glory, or you don’t get it at all.

      Why would I use an antenna instead of cable?

      The financial factor: Cable bills continue to rise, and many people will see this as an opportunity to re-evaluate whether you really need to pay $100 a month for TV service.  In many cases you’ll get all the content you’d normally watch without a monthly fee.

      Picture quality: Cable and satellite companies compress the high-definition channels so that they can fit more channels into their lineup.  Antenna channels are compressed as well, but not nearly as much and the quality is noticeable.

      Portability: The HD you get through your cable company is encrypted, and only works when connected to your cable box.  Antenna channels are not encrypted, and can be recorded to a PVR , streamed around your house, or copied to your iPad to watch on the train.

      Is this legal?

      Yes.  Television has been broadcast over the air for years, and this transition to free, over-the-air digital TV is mandated by the Canadian government.

      Ok I’m sold, what do I need?

      Pretty much every HDTV sold since 2005 has included a digital tuner (called an ATSC tuner), so all you need to do is plug an antenna into your TV.  To try things out, you could get a small indoor antenna like this one and see what you get.  Personally, I put a slightly larger antenna (about the size of a pizza-pizza box) in my attic.  If you’re feeling handy, you can even build an excellent-quality antenna yourself.

      Really, is that what you do Pete?

      Well no, because I’m a bit nerdy things in my house are somewhat more sophisticated.  I have that antenna in the attic plugged in to a tuner that’s connected to my network.  I then use a free program in Windows 7 called media center as my PVR.  I have little media center extenders (or an Xbox) attached to all of the TVs in the house so that the PVR works on any and every TV.  Finally, I sync all of my TV shows to my iPod and iPad for when I travel.  (You can do something similar on the Mac using a program called EyeTV)

      In Conclusion…

      It really is as simple as plugging some rabbit ears into your HDTV, but as you probably gathered from that last answer there’s a ton of cool stuff you can do with this if you’re so inclined.  If you want to learn more about how the sausage is made, I’d recommend checking out the OTA forums or the Home Theater PC forums at Digital Home Canada.  If you just want to enjoy the tasty free sausage, there’s nothing to lose by picking up a little antenna from your local electronics store and plugging it in to your TV.  Keep the receipt, you can always take it back if it’s not for you.

      Adding Multiple Guide Listings to Windows 7 Media Center

      April 29, 2011 9 comments

      Posted here temporarily while thegreenbutton.com undergoes an upgrade.

      There are some situations where you would like to manually add more guide listing data to Media Center.  Most notably for those of us who live in Canada near the United States border, it is incredibly useful to add in guide listings that include the broadcast channels that you can receive but are not part of the Canadian antenna guide info.

      Step 1a – Easy Instructions for Major Canadian Cities

      For those of you who live near major Canadian cities, I’ve prepared a batch file to take care of adding US OTA listings to your media center.  Simply download the zip file (click here), extract the files wherever you like, and run the file “USGuide.bat” with administrator privileges (Right click and select “Run as administrator”).  This will instruct Media Center to add the guide listings for the digital over-the-air channels in the zip code nearest to that city, and add a scheduled task to Windows to download a guide update every morning.  See, I told you that was easy, now you can skip right down to step 2 and assign your guide channels.
      ATSCFiles
      batch

       

      Step 1b – Custom Instructions for Other Locales

      If you don’t live near a major city, or for whatever reason you want to add some other guide information into Media Center, you’ll need to customize the batch file a bit.  We need to get a key piece of information from Media Center, the guide id, for the guide you wish to add.  To find this, you’ll first need to set up Media Center to work natively in that geography.  Navigate to Tasks, Settings, TV, TV Signal, Set Up TV Signal.  Set up Media Center to use the guide that is most appropriate for your needs (for example, I selected the Rogers Mississauga lineup which has all of the OTA digital channels listed).  Next, navigate to Tasks, Settings, TV, Guide, About Guide Listings and take note of the nine-digit ID number.

      Before continuing, you’ll want to get Media Center set up again for your “real” geography.

      Now that Media Center is back to normal, we’ll want to instruct Media Center to use the additional guide information that we want.  Because you’ve decided to use a custom location you’ll need to modify the custom MXF file to include the guide ID that you just selected.  In the folder you extracted earlier, navigate into the MXF folder and open the file “CustomGuide.mxf” with notepad.  You’ll notice that in three separate areas I’ve used the Guide ID “189833220”.  Replace that number in all three places with the guide ID that you noted from the “About Guide Listings” page.  Save the file and close notepad.
      CustomGuide

      Assuming that the guide you inserted above is in the same country as your primary Media Center setup, MC will take care of updating the listings every night.  However, if your guide lineup is in a different country (for example, I choose to use guide listings from Buffalo New York) then Media Center will fail when it tries to download on its normal schedule.  We need to add in a scheduled task that will change a registry key fake MC into thinking it’s located in the US, download the listings, then set the registry key back to Canada.  This is all captured in the XMLTask\ImportATSCCustom.xml file, which you can edit pretty quickly using notepad.  Similar to what you did above, replace the number “189833220” with the Guide ID that you noted from the “About Guide Listings” page.  Save the file and close notepad.

      Navigate back up a level and run the batch file “USGuide.bat” with administrator privileges (Right click and select “Run as administrator”).  Select option 7 if you’re adding US guide listings (the batch file will set up nightly downloading), option 8 if you’re just adding Canadian listings (we’ll just add the custom lineup to Media Center).

      batchbatchdone

      Step 2 – Assign Guide Listings to Channel

      Now we want to map any channels that previously had no guide data to the new guide information that we just added to Media Center.

      First, navigate to Settings, TV, Guide, Edit Channels.
      guide2

      Select the channel that you want to work with by clicking on the callsign of the station. In this example, we’ll pick some an over-the-air digital antenna channel 5.1.
      guide3

      In the settings page for the channel, click on “Edit Listings”
      guide4

      You’ll now be taken to a list of all the channels that your Media Center is aware of (including the guide data that we just added manually).  This list is organized alphabetically, and you can type in letters to skip to the appropriate point in the list.  Assuming that you’re setting up a digital antenna channel, be sure to select a guide data with HD listings.

      guide5

      If you select a channel that also comes in via some other source (for example you get CBC Toronto on both cable and antenna) you will be presented with the option to merge the guide listings or to copy the listings.  I’d suggest “copy” so that you can manage the ATSC channel independently and take advantage of the HD guide logic for that channel.  Once you’ve selected the correct listings, you’ll now see that the listings are associated with the ATSC channel.  Click Save.
      guide6

      Click on save, and at this point you can keep assigning channels or you may choose to go to the guide and test things out before continuing.  Once you assign guide listings to all of your ATSC channels, you’re done the setup and should be able to enjoy pristine high-definition recordings on your computer and throughout your home on your extenders.

       

       

      Questions and Answers

      I’ve noticed some errors in the mcupdate logs, should I worry?
      No.  Due to the nature of this setup, Media Center will try to download US listings daily using the normal update.  Since you’re located in Canada, it will fail and throw an error that the headend ID is invalid.  No worries, that US guide will get updated by another scheduled task at 5am every morning.

      Where can I get some help if I’m having trouble?
      I’ve set up a forum here at TGB where you can post your questions and I’ll try to help you out. Fair warning – my day job is pretty demanding so it can be a challenge sometimes to keep up with Q&A. I take no offense to you asking multiple times if you haven’t gotten an answer to your question.  Click here for the forum.

      Enabling ATSC & QAM in Canada for Windows 7 RTM

      April 29, 2011 23 comments

      Posted here temporarily while thegreenbutton.com undergoes an upgrade.

      I’m thrilled to see so many people have taken up the challenge to get ATSC working in Canada with Windows 7 since the untimely demise of the Vista hack.  Alas, as time marches on some of the holes that made new hacks possible were plugged and more capabilities were removed from Canadians (notably QAM).  I’m pleased to present this new method to enable ATSC and QAM here in Canada with the release version of Windows 7.

      First, some background.  Like the United States, Canada has decided to transition all television broadcasts from analog to digital.  These new digital signals have greater effective range, provide a crystal-clear high definition picture, and as with all over the air network TV broadcasts are free and legal to access.  It’s worth noting that over the air signals represent the best high-definition picture quality you can get for network television – better than cable and much better than satellite.  While high definition is available for a fee via cable and satellite, those high definition channels are subject to ever-increasing compression and picture quality degradation as they try to squeeze more and more content into your subscription.  And unlike cable and satellite, over the air broadcasts are not encrypted and can be easily incorporated into a Media Center setup, copied over to your iPod, and are generally easy to use.  The United States has nearly completed their digital transition, and will be shutting down the analog broadcasts in February 2009.  Canada is well into its transition, with most major markets now broadcasting in digital and 100% of the country switching over to digital by 2011 before we shut down our analog transmitters.  Here in Toronto, I can get access to every major US and Canadian network in full high-definition glory using a $40 antenna that I put in my attic.

      QAM is very similar except that instead of getting the signals over-the-air using an antenna, the signals travel over your cable company’s network.  However in most of Canada this isn’t useful, as Canadian cable companies tend to encrypt or scramble their signal making it completely useless without buying their cable box.  There are some lucky regions in the country however who do get access to unencrypted QAM, and for those people it’s a virtual nerdvana of digital TV.

      Here’s how to get digital high-definition broadcasts into Media Center.

      If you’re using Media Center in Windows XP or Windows Vista, follow this link for detailed instructions.

      If you’re using Media Center in Windows 7 or Vista with TV Pack 2008, continue reading below.  I’ve tried to provide excruciating detail, but don’t get scared.  It’s not difficult, I’m just going a bit overboard with screenshots and explanation.

      Prerequisites:

      • For ATSC, you should get a good quality UHF antenna.  In most cases I’ve read about it comes down to a Channel Master 4221 or Channel Master 4228 depending on your distance from the transmitters.  Consult this handy chart (PDF) to select the right antenna for your area.  I personally have a 4221 in my attic which was both easy to do and very neighbour-friendly.
      • For ATSC, you will need an ATSC tuner for your Media Center PC.  Any tuner that is supported in Windows Media Center will do.
      • For QAM, you will need a QAM tuner for your Media Center PC.  Any tuner that is supported in Windows Media Center will do.
      • None of these items are the sort of thing you can walk into WalMart and find on the shelves, but there are several online vendors including eBay sellers who carry these items.  I personally have purchased from Sensuz, a Toronto-area HTPC dealer, and have been very happy with their service.

      Step 1 – Force Media Center to allow ATSC and QAM in Canada

      I’ve prepared some files that will automate the process for you.  Simply download and extract the provided zip file (click here) to your desktop or any location on your desktop.  Double-click on the file “EnableATSCandQAM.bat” which will insert some configuration information into the Media Center database that forces ATSC and QAM tuners to be recognized.
      ATSCFiles

      Step 2 – Configure Media Center to use your tuners

      I’ll walk you through the setup of the tuner in Media Center, although this isn’t any different than what would normally occur out of the box.  Launch Media Center and navigate to Settings, TV, Setup TV Signal.  We want to set up Media Center using the correct region, Canada.  If Media Center doesn’t automatically detect that you’re in Canada, be sure to select a different region and choose “Canada”.
      tv1 tv2

      Enter your postal code, and agree to the terms of service (assuming you do indeed agree to the legaleze).
      tv3 tv4 tv5

      At this point, Media Center will configure all of the signal types that were detected.  For any cable or satellite tuners, it will automatically link to the guide data for the region.  For digital antenna (ATSC) it won’t find any guide data since it’s not officially supported.  No worries, we can add in guide listings later.
      tv8

      Next, Media Center will scan for ATSC and QAM channels.  This process took awhile for me, up to fifteen minutes.
      tv9   tv10 tv11

      Congratulations, your tuners are now set up!  However at this point, you likely won’t have any guide listings associated with the channels that were detected via the scan.
      tv12

      Step 3 – Map guide listings to your ATSC channels

      For those of you who have used the Vista hack, you may like me be pleasantly surprised by the way the guide works now.  For each channel on each tuner you can specify which guide listings should be used, which is incredibly flexible.  Media Center also now has some much-welcomed logic in the Advanced Record Settings that allows you to specify that any given recording should be recorded in HD Only, HD Preferred, SD Only, or SD Preferred.  Because of this feature, I personally would recommend that you always attempt to associate your high-definition digital channels with listings from your cable company’s high-definition channel lineup or the US over-the-air listings so that the recording logic works properly.  I’ll walk you through how to set that up.

      First, navigate to Settings, TV, Guide, Edit Channels.
      guide2

      Select the channel that you want to work with by clicking on the callsign of the station.
      guide3

      In the settings page for the channel, click on “Edit Listings”
      guide4

      You’ll  now be taken to a list of all the channels that your Media Center is aware of (including channels that were set up via other sources, such as Analog Antenna, Satellite, or my multiple guide listings hack).  This list is organized alphabetically, and you can type in letters to skip to the appropriate point in the list.
      Select a channel with HD listings.
      guide5

      If you select a channel that also comes in via some other source (for example you get CBC Toronto on both cable and antenna) you will be presented with the option to merge the guide listings or to copy the listings.  Select “copy” so that you can manage the high definition channel independently.  Once you’ve selected the correct listings, you’ll now see that the listings are associated with the digital ATSC or QAM channel.  Click Save.
      guide6

      Click on save, and at this point you can keep assigning channels or you may choose to go to the guide and test things out before continuing.  Once you assign guide listings to all of your ATSC channels, you’re done the setup and should be able to enjoy pristine high-definition recordings on your computer and throughout your home on your extenders.

       

      Questions and Answers

      I’ll try to capture some key answers that come in over time here in this section.  To kick things off, here are some things that came to mind for me.

      What happens if I select “Merge” instead of “Copy”?
      I’ve found that by selecting merge, Media Center assumes that all sources for a given channel are standard definition.

      Doesn’t Media Center support Analog Antenna in Canada, and can’t I use those guide listings?
      Yes analog antenna is supported and you’ll get the listings for your local channels, but because it’s analog Media Center will assume that all channels that use these guide listings are standard definition.

      But isn’t it incredibly stupid for Microsoft to support Analog Antenna but not Digital Antenna, given that analog channels are all shutting down and digital is the government-mandated standard for all of North America?
      Yes.

      Media Center didn’t automatically detect all of the ATSC channels that I’m able to receive, is there any way I can manually add them?
      One of the users at digitalhome.ca maintains a list of all the channels that you should be able to receive in major centers of Canada.  You can use these lists to manually add stations to media center using the functions in Settings, TV, Guide, Add Missing Channels, Add DTV Channel.
      Southwestern Ontario
      Kitchener-Waterloo
      Niagara Region
      Toronto & Hamilton Areas
      Montreal & Surrounding Areas
      Ottawa & Surrounding Areas
      Vancouver & Surrounding Areas

       

       

       

       

       

       

       

       

       

       

       

       

       

       

       

       

       

      I’m not able to find guide data for all of my over the air channels, is there any way for me to get guide data for more channels?
      Yes, you can force Media Center to load in guide information from any region using my multiple guide listings hack.  For example, my cable provider Cogeco doesn’t list many of the Buffalo-area over the air stations since they source their high definition content from Detroit instead.  I added the listings for Buffalo over-the-air digital antenna to Media Center using the multiple guide listings hack, and used those to complete the mapping of my channels.

      Where can I get some help if I’m having trouble?
      I’ve set up a forum here at TGB where you can post your questions and I’ll try to help you out. Fair warning – my day job is pretty demanding so it can be a challenge sometimes to keep up with Q&A. I take no offense to you asking multiple times if you haven’t gotten an answer to your question.  Click here for the forum.