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Summary:

What’s it like to cut the cord from pay TV? What’s working, what’s missing, and what equipment does the best job replacing the cable box? This week’s featured cord cutter is J.T., who uses an elaborate setup including a Mac Mini and an EyeTV tuner.

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What’s it like to cut the cord from pay TV? What’s working, what’s missing, and what kind of equipment does the best job replacing the cable box? In our weekly Survival Stories series, we’re asking cord cutters to tell us about their experiences. This week’s featured cord cutter is J.T., who came up with a pretty elaborate setup including a Mac Mini and an EyeTV tuner.

J.T.'s TV setup.

I ditched cable about five months ago. My cable bill was approaching $125 a month for basic service with one HD DVR box.  I was forced to pay for a multitude of channels I neither watched or wanted. Once I started learning about how individuals can take back control of their TV from the cable companies, I got really interested and started on my project.

The beating heart of my setup is a 2010 Mac Mini (the one with HDMI output). An HD Homerun dual tuner decodes the QAM256 signal with which Cablevision delivers over the air content. This means that ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, PBS etc. are all “free.” On the Mac Mini I use EyeTV as the “cable box.” It contains a program guide and allows me to use my Mac Mini like a TiVo/DVR.

For stored content I use Plex. The Plex media server scrapes metadata and organizes my TV shows and movies. Plex also has video plugins that allow me to access a wide range of streaming media in a convenient format.

Because Plex is a media server, I can watch on my Macbook and with an iPad or iPod. To control both Plex, EyeTV, and the hardware (TV, speaker system, etc.), I use a Logitech Harmony One remote.

I use Hulu (not Hulu plus) and Amazon Prime’s movie streams. Because I can’t do this with the remote, I simply use my MacBook’s “share screen” function to point my browser.

I admit this system is a bit more expensive to set up than just a Google TV or Apple TV or Boxee Box. It also takes a bit of extra work to hook it all up, program the remote, and other things. But it works, and it works very well. In my opinion it is far more flexible than any of the other systems because you are not locked into any one company’s ecosystem or limited by the deals they can cut with content providers. You have it all.

J.T. lives in Connecticut and works in the financial services industry and says of himself that he’s “by no means all too tech-savvy.” He didn’t want us to mention his full name for privacy reasons. The views expressed in this guest column are entirely his own and do not necessarily represent the views of GigaOM. His post should not be understood as a how-to guide. Please check with your cable company on its policies about accessing OTA content as part of your Internet subscription before doing so.

Want to ask J.T. a question? Then fire away in the comments! Send us an email to cordcutters (at) gigaom.com if you have a survival story of your own to share, and please also check out the most recent episode of our weekly web series Cord Cutters:

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  1. I cut the cord about 2 months ago, after my local cable company increased it’s rate at the first of the year. Before I gave up cable, I had 3 areas of concern: 1) Inability to view my favorite programs 2) The loss of Digital Video Recorder which I use to time-shift and watch one channel while recording another 3) Poor picture quality because I live in New York City where there are large building interfering with broadcast signals. Here is how I dealt with each individual concern.

    1) Inability to view my favorite programs.
    I first made a list of all of my favorite programs. I separated them into those I could get over the air and those only available via cable. The shows only available via cable, I searched the internet to find alternative sources to view those programs: Hulu, Sidereel, Netflix, show websites, etc. After my research I found that I could easily continue viewing at least 95% of my favorite programs. I purchased Apple TV in order to enlarge my pool of sources and discovered a new world of viewing via Podcasts! I already had Netflix, so now have the ability to stream content.
    2). Loss of DVR for time shifting/watching one program while viewing another:
    Like most people I have a busy schedule, so the cable companies DVR helped me to manage viewing schedule by giving me flexibility. In order to replicate this flexibility, I purchased 2 DVD players: One recording with a built in Tuner; One without a Tuner. I hooked each DVD player via HDMI to my TV. So, I can watch over-the-air TV shows via the antennae input, while the DVD recorder with the TV tuner records TV shows on another channel. I use the DVD player without the TV tuner to watch DVDs that were recorded. So the DVD recorder with the TV tuner is only used to record off-the-air TV shows.
    3. Poor picture quality.
    I did extensive research about indoor antennas and decided on the TERK HDTVi. It isn’t the most stylish or compact, but it gives amazing picture quality. I use a splitter to send signals to both my TV and DVD recorder/tuner.

    My set-up:
    LG 36” HD TV (with 3 HDMI inputs)
    Apple TV
    Terk HDTVi antenna
    Toshiba DVD Recorder with TV Tuner
    Toshiba DVD Recorder without Tuner

    So, I am very happy that I made the decision to leave cable. I am saving about 100.00 a month now. Those of you that are concerned, don’t be.

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  2. I’m interested in hearing more about the HD Homerun. So, its basically an antenna that you hook into your mac mini? How’s the quality and signal?

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    1. The HD HomeRun is not an antenna. It is a tuner. The macmini does not have a tuner. It is a computer, not a TV. Because I want to use the macmini as the hub of they system, I need a tuner to decode the QAM256 format my cable company uses for OTA TV (because of this, I don’t need an antenna.) I then output that signal, decoded, to my TV via HDMI from the macmini.

      As the diagram indicates, the HDHomeRun is attached to the wireless router, then a pass-through to the macmini. I did this because EyeTV allows two installations. I can now use my wireless network to watch HD TV on my laptop because I installed EyeTv on that, too.

      With a MacOS you need EyeTV (software), working together with the HDHomeRun or another tuner (hardware), to have DVR functionality. Elgato’s EyeTV also sells packages with tuners included so if you don’t want to buy the HDHomeRun you can try another configuration. I chose HDHomeRun because it is a dual tuner, allowing me to record one channel and watch another, or record two shows at once.

      Check out the websites (both Elgato and SiliconDust and the others mentioned) for what they offer. Do a bit of research. Lots of people have done this lots of different ways. Then choose the method that best suits your needs and dive in.

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  3. so how much did it all cost? and how much do you spend a month now? these are vital to decide if it is worth it

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    1. Using the information provided you can calculate, approximately, the current costs for this approach. My current internet bill is $50/month, so I realize a savings of about $75/month. I calculated my break-even at just under 15 months. As noted, it is not the cheapest option out there. Nor the easiest. I try to explain the benefits, to me, of why I did it this way. But, as other cord-cutters have shared, there are other ways to accomplish a similar result for less money.

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  4. Why is the QAM256 signal free? Don’t you have to pay for at least basic cable in addition to Internet access to receive this?

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    1. I don’t know why the QAM signal is free, although I believe the cable companies are required to deliver OTA signals (such as CBS, NBC, etc.) ‘in the clear’, or unencrypted, by various sections of telecommunications laws. Remember, this is *ONLY* signals that, if I put an HD antenna on my TV, I would get if I had adequate reception. I can’t watch, for example, ESPN, TBS or any other premium, cable-only content. To learn more about different ways to receive OTA content, I suggest kicking around the AVS Forum ( http://www.avsforum.com ). Lot of great information on that website.

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  5. We cut the cord about 10 (?) years ago. Any TV shows and movies we watch via netflix on our very old TV or online; sports at the local pub. My apartment building of over twenty people share wi-fi internet access for free. Netflix $10 a month which I share with two other housemates.
    Our neighbor across the street has cable with hundreds of channels,($120!) which I occasionally flick through when I watch their dog, but there are so many channels, I find it too frustrating to watch–and usually just watch a movie from Netflix. I know there is a slow learning curve, but in 5 years I can’t imagine why anyone would be paying over $20 dollars a month for cable/internet/movies.

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  6. J.T. I’m just curious about your setup. I have cancelled everything including Basic and just receive Internet from CV. The day after I cut a tech showed up near my pole to probably install something (a filter perhaps). I heard these filters block everything except the Internet frequencies that are supposed to go over the coax. I was thinking of getting the QAM256 tuner from HD Homerun but I was wondering if this filter would block the unencrypted OTA channels that are supposed to be sent in the clear. I guess I won’t find out until I try, but I’m thinking that the filter blocks TV signals in th 5-45 MHz range and only allows the Internet frequencies. What is your experience with CV after you cut? Did a tech show up at your home to install a similar filter? Am I just SOL because I don’t have Basic? OTA Antenna’s don’t work in my area and I don’t want to subscribe to Basic to get the OTA channels. Any thoughts?

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    1. Mo,

      Sorry for the delayed response. I did not know anyone asked another question. I, too, am a CableVision customer. When I stopped the service I did so by just calling them and telling them to switch me to internet only (cancel cable) and returned the HDDVR Box to CableVision myself. No tech was needed.

      I receive my OTA channels ‘in the clear’ just fine. If the inability to receive the channels concerns you be sure to purchase the HDHomeRun from a store that has a solid return policy (such as Amazon). Also, if you are unable to receive the OTA channels via the coax cable, call CableVision customer service / tech support. I believe (but am not certain) they are required by law to pipe OTA into your residence. So if they are, in fact, blocking it, insist that they unblock it.

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