Cutting the Cord – Using Pi for Home Media

We officially entered the “cord cutter” world around 2015, when we told Comcast that we’d had enough.  Unfortunately, we still have to get our internet from them, because they’re the only game in town (that can provide service to our home).  But no more no more cable bill for a package of channels that nobody wants, just to get the few that we care about.  No more set-top box, no more second remote, no more nest of cables behind the TV.  Below is the ongoing story…

Phase 1 – Streaming options

We opted for both Netflix and Amazon Prime (for now) because both have some good original programming. However, we found ourselves waiting for new seasons to arrive on Netflix or Amazon that were already available (for free) over the air. Our favorite content seems to be from PBS (various Masterpiece shows, Doc Martin, etc.).

Phase 2 – Optimize Over-the-Air (“OTA”) programming

We were getting hit-or-miss reception on some of our local stations using a rabbit-ear antenna in the attic, connected with the old TV cables left over from when we had Comcast cable service. We replaced it with a reasonably-priced indoor-outdoor antenna (about $40 at the local Lowe’s). This antenna is small — about 24 inches across.  It came with everything needed, except a mounting pole and cable. Below are some tips for placement, installation, and aiming:

  • Location – Determine the optimal direction to point the antenna by using a tool like the one at antennasdirect.com. Position your antenna so that you have the least structural material (rafters, roof, etc.) between your antenna and the broadcast transmitters that are most important to you (in some cities, most of the transmitters are in the same general area).  The closer you get to the exterior of the attic, the less material will be in between. Generally speaking, the higher you can mount it, the better.
  • Mounting – My antenna had a clamp for mounting on a pole.  I found about a 24-inch scrap of unused closet rod and fastened it to a roof rafter, extending straight down.  I loosely clamped the antenna to it, using the parts that were supplied.
  • Aiming – You will need a compass of some type.  Your smartphone should have a compass app.  Using your compass (or app), point the antenna in the direction you determine (from the site listed above) should give you the best reception.  This is your starting point, but it may need some fine tuning. Mine turned out to be about as good as I could hope for on the first try. Remember, digital reception is pretty much good or non-existent (or a frustrating mix of both). There’s no static or snow–just intermittent drop-out.

If you’ve never done a scan for local OTA channels, you may be pleasantly surprised at what you pick up.

Phase 3 – DVR/Personal Media Server

If you like your programming, you can keep your programming. 😉  Yes, if you’re used to streaming services, it’s hard to adjust to the idea of TV shows happening only on a schedule.  In the cable world, cable companies charge a premium for TiVo or other DVR/PVR (Digital Video Recorder / Personal Video Recorder) devices (some include this as part of a package deal). Once again, there are other options. While there are several different devices on the market (even TiVo makes a device for cord-cutters), there are very different approaches that dictate how the devices are designed.  It’s best to consider your “requirements”, because everybody has different priorities and wishes.  I spent several days doing research into what met my requirements most efficiently. I won’t attempt to lay out the options on a grid, because I summarily dismissed the ones that obviously did not meet my requirements, without considering their feature sets any further.

My requirements:

  • NO SET-TOP BOX!  My TV and sound bar are wall mounted, and have no visible wires.  I would not even consider anything that needed wiring or furniture.
  • No second remote.  For those who don’t have a problem with this, and use the Roku, Amazon Fire Stick, Google Chromecast, all of those seem to be good options–but may require a second remote.  With a smart TV, they should not be necessary.
  • Smart TV App integration.  I wanted a system that my smart TV had an app available for. If that’s not important, you may have a bigger list to choose from than what I ended up with.
  • Access from any TV in the house, using the TV app — preferably without having to buy multiple devices. Some DVR devices were limited to the TV that they are attached to.  Instant deal-breaker, regardless of their redeeming qualities.
  • Ability to add storage (disk space) as needed. Some DVR devices give you a choice of 1 or 2 terabytes of storage, with a premium price on the higher options.  I wanted a solution that allowed me to provide whatever storage is needed.
  • Onsite storage (as opposed to “cloud” storage).  Some solutions offered a cloud-based DVR, for a monthly fee. That may be great for disaster recovery, but I wanted to avoid unnecessary consumption of my quota of internet data.  Local (onsite) storage does not affect internet data usage (other than in downloading the metadata about your programming).
  • Ability to run the server software on a Linux device or a Network Attached Storage device.
  • Not a requirement, but a nice-to-have: Smartphone/tablet/computer control. The ability to set up recording from a device, without having to use the TV.

Here’s what I ended up with:

  • Antenna – To get the signal.  Generic, see above
  • Tuner – To convert the signal into a format that is recordable and playable: SiliconDust HDHomeRun Extend.  All of the HDHomeRun tuners feature two or more tuners. This has two, so it is possible to record from two channels at once.  It also features onboard hardware transcoding. In simple terms, this reduces the computing power requirements for whatever devices becomes your DVR and Media Server.  There may be others that do this, but I did not explore them because of the integration with Plex.
  • DVR – To get the shows recorded to your computer or storage device.  I chose Plex (see below).  SiliconDust offers their own, but I plan to start with Plex first because of its Personal Media Server.
  • PMS – Personal Media Server. This is what organizes and plays back all your programming. Since this is the heart of what the user sees, I started here and pretty much worked everything else around it. Plex has app integration for my Samsung smart TV, and virtually every hand-held iOS, Android, Roku, Amazon Fire, Chromecast, Playstation (?) device known. The interface is slick and usable.  Just recently, the DVR was incorporated into the PMS software.  None of the apps (as of this writing) have DVR functionality, but it is EASILY done via the device’s web browser.  It will also stream content to any of the above-mentioned devices.
  • Program Guide – For your DVR to work, it requires program data — that is, it needs to know what shows are broadcast at what time, on what channel. Actually, it goes well beyond that, but that’s the basics.  I have not yet found a free source for this, but there may be one (or more). It is offered by subscription from various sources.  Plex includes it with their “Plex Pass“, and there is a lifetime subscription option. Also, Plex offers perks to subscribers. I found that I missed a 15% discount on the HDHomerRun Extend because I bought it before becoming a Plex Pass subscriber.  There is (at this writing) a 20% discount off Western Digital hardware in their online store. This is a significant savings opportunity, even when compared to my best price on Amazon (even with Prime).  Before you buy hardware: Create a free Plex Pass account, log in, and check the Plex Pass Perks (you won’t be able to see them without a login).
  • DVR and PMS hardware – The Raspberry Pi 3, of course!  The OS is on a 32 Gb SD card. For recorded content, I added a 4 Tb USB drive.

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