Archive for the ‘Cutting Cable’ Category

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.

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.


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  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.


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

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, 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)


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 to get a more detailed report.

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

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

      Cutting the Cable in Canada–US Content (Part 7)

      March 5, 2011 10 comments

      This is part seven of a blog series on cutting the cable in Canada

      During the course of this review I’ve bumped up against a wall several times, and that wall is the invisible internet border between Canada and the United States.  From the Canadian side of the content fence, the grass sure does seem greener on the other side.

      No review of cutting the cable would be complete without an honest assessment of the gap that exists between the US and Canada, so I decided to walk a week in the shoes of an American consumer.

      What I discovered is that while the services are certainly more mature, some of the same issues that make internet content frustrating to work with in Canada also exist south of the border.

      The Good

      Internet TV services in the United States have a good head start on similar services here in Canada, and those years of experience really show. 

      Recognizing that people don’t want to hunt all over the internet for their favourite shows, websites such as,, and (as well as many nerd-targeted aggregator applications) have popped up which have HD content available from multiple networks. 


      Recognizing that people don’t really want to watch TV on their computers, Internet TV providers have adopted wide-ranging device strategies from Hulu’s Plus service that brings TV content in a fantastic user experience to the XBox, PS3, and computer to’s mobile app.


      And recognizing that people are willing to now actually watch the advertisements in return for a good experience, providers are working hard to ensure that those ads are relevant for you.


      Movie rental/streaming sites are significantly ahead in the US, with services like Vudu offering BluRay-quality HD streaming of all the new releases to multiple devices for less than your local Blockbuster.


      The Bad

      At first pass, the plethora of content options is downright awesome.  But after actually putting the services through their paces some of the same warts start to shine through.

      On the Hulu website, if you search for CSI you’ll get a hit and be redirected to watch it at  But through any of the Hulu applications, no dice.  Nearly half of the shows we watch are CBS shows and they’re simply not available on Hulu apps even after you pay $7.99 for the privilege of watching premium content.

      On Boxee (and other similar aggregators), you have access to much more content than when in Canada but because of the massive amount of cutthroat competition in the US it keeps breaking.  On one day, all Hulu content became unavailable on Boxee, another day all of the fancast videos didn’t play properly.

      While our content providers haven’t quite matured their services yet in Canada, the mature services in the US are in a constant battle for content that leaves you with a fractured experience.  Our broadcasters are just dipping their toes in the water, but the US broadcasters have recognized that this is the next battlefield and are leveraging their biggest asset (content) to try to make sure that the other guy doesn’t win.

      My Conclusion (for this segment)

      In my opinion, the grass is just a different shade of green on the other side of the fence.  Services are much more mature, but because of the exclusive content deals there really isn’t one single family-friendly answer to cutting the cable yet in the US either.

      It does paint a positive picture for the future, assuming that we’re a couple of years behind in the experience department it is likely that the better tech will be running in Canada around the same time the content wars are getting settled.

      U.S. Content is not generally available to Canadians and will not be a part of my solution.  The search continues…

      Cutting the Cable In Canada–Boxee (Part 6)

      March 4, 2011 8 comments

      This is part six of a blog series on cutting the cable in Canada

      In my last post, I reviewed the content available through the web sites of Canadian broadcasters and concluded that while interesting it was generally not particularly family-friendly.

      Enter Boxee, a product that hopes to solve this problem by making internet content accessible in a more friendly way on your TV.  They have recently launched the Boxee Box, which is a small silent little cube that sits beside your TV.  You can also run Boxee on your computer, which is what I’ve done for the purposes of this review.


      The capability list is long, including the ability to play back all of your music, photos, and videos on your TV as well as aggregation of internet content.

      To get to the internet TV content, you simply use the remote control to click onto the TV Library where you can browse through available TV shows by popularity or hone in on just the new shows.  Select a series, pick the episode, Boxee recommends an internet source for the show, click and it starts playing.  Brilliant!

      Boxee TV LIbraryBBT Listbbt_episode_ctvbbt_playing

      Once you’ve found a series you’re interested in you can add it to “My Shows” so that new episodes show up for you automagically on the My TV screen.

      Behind the scenes, Boxee is actually navigating to the broadcaster’s website for you, so you’ll get the same video quality and embedded ads that you would see if you were on their website.

      Boxee is currently partnered with Global, CBC, CTV, CityTV, Comedy, History, Food, Slice and Showcase as content providers here in Canada.

      There is a similar experience available for movies, although the content providers available in Canada are pretty limited right now.  Only films from the National Film Board of Canada are available through Boxee.

      boxee movie libraryboxee_movie_nfb

      Just in the last week, Boxee has announced that Netflix Canada is now available through the Boxee Box as well but I haven’t tested that capability.

      While Boxee is pretty cool, there are some wrinkles that they need to iron out.  Because they are essentially clicking the mouse for you across multiple websites, the Boxee team needs to make sure that they’re keeping up with changes that might happen on those sites.  Generally it works well, but when a content provider stops working you’re at the mercy of Boxee to update the software.

      Let’s go to the ranking board…

      My current Cable TV bill: $56.99

      Cost of content via broadcaster websites: $0 (but indirectly paid via forced advertising)

      Amount of my content covered:  85%

        Cable TV Antenna Bit
      Fibe TV
      iTunes Netflix Canada TV Web Sites Boxee
      Family Accepted Star Star Star Star Star Steaming mad Steaming mad Star
      Creators Paid Star Star Steaming mad Star Star Star Star Star
      HD Quality Star Star Star Star Star Star Steaming mad Steaming mad
      Cost Neutral Star Star Star Star Steaming mad Star Star Star
      What I Want Star Steaming mad Star Star Steaming mad Steaming mad Steaming mad Steaming mad
      When I Want Star Star Steaming mad Star Star Star Star Star
      Where I Want Steaming mad Star Star Star Star Star Steaming mad Steaming mad
      Rent vs Own Star Star Star Star Steaming mad Star Star Star
      More Info Part 1 Part 1 Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5  

      As you can see, Boxee takes the experience of the TV Web Sites and makes it more family-accessible.  For my primary requirements, the only one that it doesn’t really meet is the HD quality requirement. 


      Boxee alone isn’t going to meet the ground rules of this review, but I have a feeling that it may just be a major part of a hybrid solution.

      Cutting the Cable in Canada–TV Web Sites (Part 5)

      February 24, 2011 10 comments

      This is part five of a blog series on cutting the cable in Canada

      One of the reasons that digital media seems to stop at the Canadian border is that media companies have signed distribution deals here in Canada that give them exclusive rights to that content. So let’s take a look at what those companies are doing to capitalize on their content.

      A quick visit to Global TV’s website shows what basically all of the Canadian broadcasters are doing with their content.  Whatever is airing on their network is also available online, which to be honest is pretty darn cool.


      However, the efforts of the Canadian broadcasters fall down when it comes to usability.  I don’t want to have my family huddle around a computer screen to watch TV, and even if I did have a computer plugged in to my big-screen TV (which I do), I wouldn’t want to be fishing around on multiple websites with my mouse to find the content that I want to watch.

      Other problems with the broadcaster’s websites include varying levels of video quality, most leaning towards “unacceptable” and a painfully ineffective attempt at ad insertion.  I asked my wife to go through a night watching nothing but web TV from one of these sites, and by the end of the experience she wanted to strangle whoever made the Dove man-hide commercial.  After sitting through any ad ten times in a row, the blood does begin to boil.

      I’m sure that the people who put these sites together are all working hard, but overall the attempt is half-hearted compared to the relative maturity of the US broadcasters.  While not perfect (I’ll review some of the US services in a later post), the US sites have made it easier to find your content through aggregation sites, to make HD content available on many mobile and tv-connected devices, and to help ensure that the ads which hit your eyeballs are relevant to you.

      The product manager in me says stop wasting your money, and partner with some of the US players to leverage their platform and economies of scale while retaining your license and advertising revenue rights.

      Okay, so enough of the pontification and on to the review against our cutting the cable in Canada ground-rules.

      My current Cable TV bill: $56.99

      Cost of content via broadcaster websites: $0 (but indirectly paid via forced advertising)

      Amount of my content covered:  85%


      Cable TV Antenna Bit
      Fibe TV
      iTunes Netflix Canada TV Web Sites
      Family Accepted Star Star Star Star Star Steaming mad Steaming mad
      Creators Paid Star Star Steaming mad Star Star Star Star
      HD Quality Star Star Star Star Star Star Steaming mad
      Cost Neutral Star Star Star Star Steaming mad Star Star
      What I Want Star Steaming mad Star Star Steaming mad Steaming mad Steaming mad
      When I Want Star Star Steaming mad Star Star Star Star
      Where I Want Steaming mad Star Star Star Star Star Steaming mad
      Rent vs Own Star Star Star Star Steaming mad Star Star
      More Info Part 1 Part 1 Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4

      For the purposes of this exercise, the Canadian TV Web sites are not a useful alternative for cutting the cable.  I have a feeling that they may play a part once I start to look into hybrid solutions, but on their own they just don’t cut it.

      For reference, here are the Canadian TV websites that you can leverage for content (if I’ve missed any good ones, let me know in the comments).

      Aggregators (Closest thing we have to a Hulu, but bad video quality)

      Major Networks With Significant Content

      Specialty Networks (They have Weeds!)|templates/video.php|0&xVar=0