The Ruffled Crow

Animation, Art, and Other Shiny Things

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My Digital Evolution – Killing the Cable – One Year In

So it’s been about a year since the we killed cable television and began getting all our “video content” online and from the Library. I can’t say I miss CTV that much, or really at all – the fact is that I’m enjoying my big ol’ tv alot more these days.

Aunt Bee and I went to the coast for a few days a couple months ago and the cabin we stayed in had CTV. Although we didn’t watch much, when we did it was incredibly annoying: just trying to find something to watch took forever, and then the inundation of commercials was appalling. Certainly we watch OTA (over-the-air) programs (Wolfman Mac’s Chiller Drive-In on RTV Saturday nights is a staple) and Hulu has commercials (though significantly shorter duration), but this re-introduction to CTV was horrific.

Perhaps an idea of how our viewing habits have changed will explain why watching Cable has become so… well… disagreeable.

For a quick overview; Hulu and XBMC remain significant conduits to our media flow and my local public libraries are big contributors. Over the last year we’ve added Netflix and I’ve tweaked XBMC and other feeds for useability. The Seattle OTA broadcast channel selection remains good with a couple PBS stations and a retro-tv channel getting the most of our business. The rest of them, and there are several, are axiomatic gravy.

To give a more complete picture of the (moving) pictures we’re watching let’s take a look at how we’re using the HTPC now.

XBMC Home Screen

XBMC is getting alot more use than I would’ve figured considering I prefer not to use bit-torrents. Besides streaming the music library resident on my computer, I’ve also put our DVD collection on the HTPC’s drive. With everything’s file names just right XBMC scrapes program/movie/artist information and art and presents it in an attractive interface that’s easy to navigate by remote control.

If that’s not enough, you can apply add-ons that will actually stream online media from the web. They are generally written to scrape content from a specific site and there are add-ons for everything from Aussie rules football games to PBS to self-help videos and beyond.

Hulu Desktop

Hulu is a mainstay for many of our current tv shows like Haven, The Daily Show, and the like. There’s also several old series and movies we keep in our subscription pile such as the old and new versions of Twilight Zone and Outer Limits and the mid-50’s Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. (a great find, if I do say so)

They have been adding a bunch of paid content recently, such as Criterion movies and complete libraries of tv series , but for the same 8 bucks a month a Netflix subscription appears to be a better value for us.

Netflix in Windows Media Center

And speaking of Netflix: Young Master Z, the local scion, has had a streaming+DVD account for probably a couple years by now and sang it’s praises until I finally gave in and signed up for the streaming-only plan. Pretty much just about anything on DVD can be found and the vast majority of it can be streamed. Netflix is my personal documentary heaven; PBS, National Geographic, History Channel, and scads of independent documentaries can be found and my Instant Queue is loaded with ’em. (no, i won’t be expounding on netflix’s recent business decisions. enough ink is out there already)

The integration of the Netflix api into Windows Media Center and it’s easy brows-ability by remote and visibility in the 10-foot interface (in other words, we can see it fine on the tee vee) kept the WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor, a paramount metric) high.

Don't forget your library when looking for new content! (Seattle Public Library - Central Branch)

The Seattle Public Library and King County Library remain big suppliers of our video content. It certainly helps that in my job I process new books and media into SPL’s catalogue so I get a lot of ideas on new shows to put on my reserve or wish lists. (While I may work there, I use my library like any other patron)

The online catalogues are handy in that I can manage a ‘wish list’ and a ‘reserve’ list. The key is timing the moving of stuff onto the reserve list so I don’t end up with a half-dozen 5-DVD series showing up at the same time. It’s especially bad if a season 3 comes in before seasons 1 or 2…

XBMC can be a big help with library DVDs, and not just because it plays them. It’s about unheard of to be able and watch a series on DVD without there being at least a few spots of rampant pixel artifaction and stuttering (if not outright locking), and that’s on a new set of ’em. If it’s been circulated heavily then you can only imagine. When this aggravation presents itself I’ll occasionally rip the disks and XBMC will happily play the files. Once we’re done watching, the disks go back to the library and the files get deleted.

I never would have discovered this on CTV. A most excellent show and as a bonus, "House M.D." is a whole lot funnier to watch now.

And speaking of the WAF; Aunt Bee is well adept with the remote these days. She still leaves the acquisition of content to me, but makes plenty of suggestions on shows and movies to track down. As mentioned before, between Hulu, Netflix, and the Library, just about anything can be found. The stuff they don’t have can be gotten pretty cheaply on E-Bay or Amazon if we’re really interested in watching it.

What I think I’m having the most fun with is the ‘recommendation’ lists, and one can be found in each instance of our Big 3 (yes, even the Library’s systems now have rec lists) as well as all over the the internets. Many shows I would never have considered, or even knew existed, get dropped into one of the queues. It’s much akin to channel surfing CTV, except you don’t miss half the show that you just discovered three-quarters through the fourth season.

And you don’t have to watch so many commercials…

On a typical evening we’ll watch the local news (over-the-air) then pop onto the HTPC for The Daily Show and Colbert Report on Hulu, and any other shows that have shown up (Burn Notice, Harry’s Law, etc perhaps). hit Netflix and watch another episode in Numb3rs and/or Columbo or whatever, then perhaps hit one (or a few) of the Library DVD series episodes via XBMC. And if there’s an awkward amount of time before the late news, then I have a stock of short animation collections tagged in Hulu, Netflix, and locally on the HTPC. I think we actually spend much less time browsing to the next show than we did with CTV and, counter-intuitive as it may seem, watch more television. Shows are not padded with 18-plus minutes per hour of commercials. Over a period of 6 hours that’s saving 1 hour and 48 minutes! Enough to fit in 2 more shows or a movie.

On the weekends, besides a so-bad-it’s-good movie or three, toss in some OTA football, streaming Aussie Rules, and the OTA Universal Sports Channel, we don’t suffer too much. I did get the NBA League Pass last year and it was quite excellent, but I can’t see doing the same for Baseball as we’d only be watching our local Mariners games. Currently, the WNBA streams almost all their games live online, so I am a happy camper there. If we were bigger sports fans we’d be able to find some online subscription to fill the need, but for now…

For this household, the grand experiment of killing the cable has been a great success in my view. Considering the growth of online content it will  be interesting to watch how it changes over this next year.

My Digital Evolution – Killing the Cable – Epilogue

[part 1 – the idea][part 2 – the software][part 3 – the hardware][part 4 – the build]

Part 5 – The Aftermath

We’ve been using the HTPC now for about a month and I’ve realized that I’m actually watching more television now! The TV isn’t on any more than it was, but I’m paying more attention to the shows that are on because I’ve taken the time to chose them rather than to simply settle on them as I flip by. This has actually opened me up to some interesting and good shows I wouldn’t have ever considered tuning into pre-HTPC. More on that later, though.


Interactive TV for Cats


I did finally get good control of everything into the single Harmony remote. Part of the issue there stemmed from having to go through the iMon software built into the case. A bit of a bother, but the remote’s programmability helps alot. Getting it down to the single remote affected the WAF (Wife Acceptability Factor) greatly, but for the first few weeks Aunt Bee was much like a cat at a fish pond; there are things in there that I want but if I try to get them my paw gets wet – and what if I fall in? She is getting the hang of it, though.

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My Digital Evolution – Killing the Cable – Part 2

[part 1 – the idea][part 3 – the hardware][part 4 – the build][part 5 – epilogue]

Part 2 – The Software

I’ve been evaluating the various software available to run my intended Home Theater PC (HTPC) for the last couple weeks on my current computer. It’s a gaming level machine so the video handling isn’t an issue, the main thing I wanted to know, however, was the useability of the various software packages and if they did what I wanted them to. My main criteria were:

  1. Is the learning curve shallow enough to pick up a remote and find what you want?
  2. Do they have the shows and movies me and my family want to watch?
  3. Are they updated regularly and often?
  4. Will it play my local DVD backups and (rather large) music collections?
  5. Is there online support and a forum community?
  6. Can I update it remotely?
  7. Will little things become annoying over time?
  8. Will it play 1080p in 5.1 sound?

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