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Lance Robinson is a software engineer in Durham, Chapel Hill, Raleigh, and surrounding areas. More about Lance.

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I have been free of my monstrous cable tv bill for many months now, and I love it!  Woooo!  A while back I posted about how I want to get revenge on Cable companies by helping as many people as I can kill their cable service in favor of free HD tv over the air and over the Internet.  You can read about that here.

There are other “free TV” guides on the Internet – but they suck because they are too generic, too technical, or not technical enough.  Hopefully this one doesn’t suck.  Let me know if you have any questions – if you tell me that you are going to cancel your cable tv service, I will answer all your questions.

Over the Air HD

Most people (including me until not long ago) don’t realize that tv stations all over the place are broadcasting over-the-air (OTA) HD signals, and that the quality of those signals can be better than what you can get over cable or satellite (because these OTA signals don’t use all the lossy compression that cable and satellite signals do).  Buying a UHF digital antenna, available at your local hardware store or online, will allow you to pickup these signals, for free.  Of course you won’t be able to pick up cable networks like TNT, ESPN, MTV, and Comedy Central with this – instead I just get whatever signals are broadcast in my geographic location.  In my case those are FOX/HD, CBS/HD, NBC/HD, ABC/HD, PBS/HD, CW/HD, WRDC/HD, and some spanish channels.  Sweet! 

The OTA antenna gives me access to HD pictures from all the major networks:  FOX, CBS, NBC, ABC, PBS, plus the CW (whatever that is) and WRDC which is a local network.  This pretty much covers most of the tv shows that I watch, except a few that come on cable channels like Good Eats, Colbert Report, Daily Show, Psych, Monk, and a few others I’m not willing to mention.  But, don’t stress.  Most of those other shows I can catch online.  More on that later in this post.

There are three criterion to consider when purchasing a digital antenna:

  1. Range: You can get short-range, mid-range, and long-range antennas.  To decide which you should get, visit antennaweb.org, enter your address, and it will show you all the broadcasting networks in your area, and how far away they are, and what kind of range your antenna will need.
  2. Mounting:  Antennas can be tv-side, atic mounted, or roof mounted.  For best results you’ll want the roof mount, for which you’ll probably want to get a pro to mount it for you (ask at your local hardware store and they can probably handle that job for you).  I personally have my DB4 antenna mounted in my attic, and it does a fine job for me.  The tv-side antennas, like the Philips PHDTV1 Silver Sensor, sit right on top of or beside your tv and do a good job for short range signals.
  3. Directional/Multi-Directional:  If you purchase a directional antenna, you’ll have to point it in the direction in which you want it to pick up signals.  If you purchase a multi-direction antenna, no pointing is necessary, it will pick up signals from all directions.  Obviously I recommend multi-directional.

Internet TV

Many people don’t have an interest in Internet TV because they don’t want to watch tv on their laptop or on their desktop computer.  That’s completely understandable.  But most of those people don’t realize that it is extremely easy to connect your computer to your tv!  You can take this as far as you want to go – from literally just connecting the computer video output to your tv, to having a dedicated computer sit next to your tv, to adding a remote control to your computer, etc.

  1. Basic Setup

    For the basics, all you need is one of those cables that people use every day to connect their computer to their computer monitor (this is called an RBG cable).  Most televisions purchased in the last 10 years will have a connection on the back for such a cable.  Just connect the two, and use your television remote to put it into “PC Input” mode.  At first you may not see anything, but on your computer look for the function key (Fnc) and the F8 button.  Pressing Fnc and F8 simultaneously should toggle the computer through its possible output modes – including the one that outputs to television output.  F8 is commonly labeled “crt/lcd” or something similar.

     

  2. Advanced Setup

    If you want to get a little more nerdy with your setup, you’ll want a dedicated PC for your tv (aka, a DVR or PVR).  There are a lot of choices here, but since most people are comfortable with Windows, probably the easiest solution is just to buy a cheap PC with Windows Media Center pre-installed on it (ie Vista Home Premium, which comes with Windows Media Center).  This will not only give you convenient access to the Internet from your tv, but you can also connect a digital antenna to this PC and get free HD over the air.  Media Center PC’s usually come with one tv-tuner card, but you can add one or more additional tv tuner cards.  When you buy another tv tuner card, you’ll most likely get a remote control bundled with it.  I also recommend a wireless keyboard for browsing the net, something compact that you can hide away in a coffee table drawer or beside the couch.  If you just want somebody to tell you exactly what to buy, let me know and I can talk you through a shopping list.  There’s more on setting up your own DVR later in this post.

  3. Content

    There are many choices for watching fresh television content online.  Network websites, Hulu.com, Amazon UnBox, etc.

    a.  TV Network/Channel Websites: All of the major networks and channels provide on-demand viewing for many of their top shows, including NBC (The Office, etc), ABC (LOST, Grey’s Anatomy, etc), FOX, and CBS.  CBS is the worst, they only provide 1 or 2 episodes at a time, if any.

    b.  Hulu.com.  My new favorite website of all time.  Hulu.com lets you view an unlimited amount of free tv and movies.  The quality of the content here is great!  On Hulu you can watch The Office, Daily Show, Colbert Report, Family Guy, and many many more.  You can create an account, and “subscribe” to television shows, so that when a new episode airs it will be added to your queue.  Thank you Hulu!  I love you and will cherish all of your advertisements.

    c.  Amazon UnBox – ok, this one is not free.  But, you can purchase entire seasons (or single episodes) of television shows.

    d.  NetFlix – if you already have a NetFlix account, you can watch an amazing amount of content for free over the Internet through Netflix’s “Instant” play-now functionality.  This includes movies and television show seasons that have already been released on DVD.

Free DVR

If you’re into setting up something more advanced, you’ll want to setup your own DVR.  I built a dvr out of some spare parts from an old PC and a few purchases from Tiger Direct.  I got a second one buy just buying a cheapo Vista Home Premium (which comes with Windows Media Center), also from Tiger Direct. 

What you want in a DVR:

  1. A nice graphics card, but you don’t need anything special.  Contrary to popular belief, whatever comes pre-installed on the PC is probably enough! 
  2. SATA hard drive.  You’ll want a SATA drive.  I recommend two.  One for your OS and software, and one dedicated to tv tuner recordings. 
  3. Lots of ram.  Its cheap, so you may as well stock up for best performance.
  4. Vista home premium pre-installed.  Vista Home Premium, which comes with Windows Media Center, works great and requires almost zero setup time to get started!  If you are afraid of Vista, you can go the XP route as well.  Also, I hear great things about the Windows 7, the successor to Windows Vista.

Other Options

  1. Internet service provider:  AT&T offers high speed DSL service.  Currently high speed DSL is not available in my area, so for now I will stick with Road Runner for my Internet connection.  Verizon also has high speed service in some areas.
  2. DVD only.  Many people are killing their tv watching completely except for purchasing full season DVD’s of television shows they want to watch.  If you go this route, I recommend a Netflix plan.

 

Posted on Thursday, November 6, 2008 10:12 AM Personal | Back to top


Comments on this post: Non-Techie Guide to Free HD TV

# re: My plan for revenge against the cable company – part 1
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Great plan! I'm always down for sticking it a little to Time Warner. I pay for the most basic cable package and basic Road Runner possible and my bill is still about $75 per month (that's the price WITH the little discount they give you for being locked in to them for 15 months). Simply rediculous.

As far as the attenna, I'm not sure how far out you are from your broadcasting stations, but I'm literally using a $9 RCA attenna, the standard el-cheapo rabbit ears, from Wal-Mart and getting amazing HD content for free. I've read that it's a common misconception that you have to have the special digital attennas to get the programming and sure enough, $9 did it for me.

Good luck on your quest, looking forward to following your progress.
Left by Jerod Crump on Nov 06, 2008 1:15 PM

# re: My plan for revenge against the cable company – part 1
Requesting Gravatar...
That is very funny, I have been looking at doing something similar. It sure is pricey.
Left by Matthew R. Miller on Dec 07, 2008 3:58 PM

# re: My plan for revenge against the cable company – part 1
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my cable bill is a lille more than $200 per month for 5 HD hookups, 2 DVR's, cable modem, and unlimited phone service. this is basic HD - no premuim channels whatsoever. the DVR's are going back to save money.
Left by Seth on Dec 14, 2008 7:18 PM

# re: My plan for revenge against the cable company – part 1
Requesting Gravatar...
Nice one. I've been thinking along the same lines. Check out http://www.boxee.org - a free media center for Mac/Linux that brings together a lot of good streaming content.
Left by Brad on Jan 12, 2009 8:26 PM

# re: My plan for revenge against the cable company – part 1
Requesting Gravatar...
This is so cool. I'm going out to buy one. waiting to see your part 2.
Left by gloria on Jan 26, 2009 1:43 PM

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