The Problem

For years I have always wanted to do without a cable tv or satellite provider. This dream began years ago in 2003 when I found MythTV. It was able to capture over-the-air (rabbit ears) channels as well as cable channels if you had cable tv. The best part was that it could record shows and save them. It was really the first DVR besides TiVo. Even better was that I could download shows and movies online and save them to MythTV. It was so close to what I wanted, but just not quite there. This was also limited to viewing on a single TV, I couldn’t easily copy the shows to a laptop without it taking forever and I couldn’t watch things without downloading them to whatever computer I wanted to watch them on. There was zero streaming capability. This was long before the iPhone or iPad ever came about, but it was still a dream of mine to watch shows in multiple rooms just by clicking on the show without having to screw around with downloading to multiple computers. Now take phones, tablets, multiple computers and multiple TVs into consideration, not to mention trying to keep track of all the shows watched regardless of where they were watched on. I also wanted to do this as legally as possible because I wanted to support the movies and TV shows that I watch. I enjoy the entertainment they bring, so I wanted to support them. It isn’t the easiest thing to make happen…or is it….

Fast forward to 2012 and enter the current realm of technology. Some folks might hate the approach I took because it uses basically all Apple hardware. If you are one of those people then I challenge you to come up with a solution that works this easily without spending a fortune.

 

Why?

So, why even bother “cutting the cord”? Well, I pay about $100 every month for Satellite TV. That gets me DVR service on one TV, HD service on both TVs and some odd number of channels. I don’t watch pro sports, so the sports packages don’t matter to me. I wanted whole-home DVR but it’s another few dollars per month on top of everything else, which is just stupid. What made me really think about cutting the cord is that $100/mo comes out to be roughly $1200 per year. $1200!! So I sat down and made a spreadsheet of all the TV shows that my wife and I watch. Every show. Even the ones we don’t admit to other people that we watch. And perhaps one or two we didn’t want to admit to each other that we watch. She judged me for it, I judged her for it, whatever. We’re over it. There were roughly 30 shows on the list. Now let’s say the average price for buying those shows on DVD is $22, that comes out to $660. Well already we are at half the cost of satellite for the year. The problem with waiting on DVDs to come out is that it takes forever, we wanted to watch the shows fairly close to the same day they air on TV. So then I started looking at Hulu Plus, Netflix, Amazon video and a couple other smaller services. Whatever we chose had to work reliably, not rely on some hack to make it work and had to be officially supported. I didn’t need something going crazy and confusing the crap out of my wife or else it would never work. I also didn’t want to have to keep a list of what shows were available on which service, forcing me to watch a couple shows on Hulu Plus, another couple on Amazon and then waiting for more to show up on Netflix or the providers website. That’s just a huge hassle in itself. Some of you might be thinking “Yea, but if that saves me $100/mo then it’s worth it!” Honestly though, is it really worth it? Maybe it is to some folks, but I feel that is too much irritation.

 

Failed Solutions

Boxee

I love Boxee. I love that I can download shows, throw them into a directory and let it catalog the whole thing. I love how simple the interface is. I love the channels it offers. The problem is that it doesn’t have any way to offer all the shows I want without pirating them. My goal here is not only simplicity but also reliability and to support the shows themselves. Torrents just are not reliable enough. Quality differs depending on the release team, sometimes shows aren’t always available the day after they air and then there is the frustration of having uTorrent automatically find the torrents, download them, spit them into a different directory when complete, then have something rename the file so it’s not full of insane characters and extra crap. Then it has to dump that newly renamed file into the directory that Boxee looks at. Boxee had a great interface for tablets and computers, however it didn’t sync up watched status between the various pieces and two separate Boxee boxes wouldn’t talk to one another for watched status either.

If you don’t mind those issues, Boxee box is a fantastic platform. The Boxee team has done an excellent job with it.

 

XBMC

This is basically the same as Boxee as far as feature set and how it handles content. I won’t go into further detail with it but my experiences were the same as Boxee.

 

Everything else

Hooking the computer up to the TV and watching shows on websites, downloading junk and using VLC among tons of other solutions all came down to one major issue. Content delivery. There just wasn’t a reliable method to pull down the content. Amazon offers their solution but not all shows were available and the automatic download program was only available under Windows. I wanted to use Linux or Mac OS for reliability and for cost savings. Again, I’m trying to do this entirely legit, spending another couple hundred $$ every time Windows updates didn’t seem to make sense when the name of the game is saving the most money in the long run.

 

What worked for me

Apple TV and iTunes. Simple as that. I have two Apple TV boxes, one on each TV. They look at the Shared Library that I have on iTunes on a Mac Mini with a butt-ton of storage hanging off of it. This prevents me from racking up large amounts of data transfer on my Internet bill. I didn’t want to stream shows twice. If we watch an episode of something, then decide to watch that episode again, I didn’t want the data to go through the Internet once for each viewing. I wanted to download it and keep it. Forever. Until I get bored or need the space and delete a bunch of old junk.

So how did I do it? See below.

 

Hardware

Here is what I used and the cost for each. Now, you don’t need to do this same setup. In fact, all you really need is the Apple TV but I will explain that later in the “Bare Essentials” section.

  • Mac Mini (2010 model, $699)
  • OWC Qx2 external hard drive bay ($299)
  • Four Seagate 1TB drives ($140 each)
  • Two Apple TVs ($85 each refurbished)
I hooked the Qx2 bay up to the Mac Mini through FireWire 800 and set it to a RAID-5 array. This should give me about 3TB of space to work with, which should suffice for a while. The Mac Mini is hard-wired to my wireless router for maximum reliability and speed. This is HD content after all. I formatted the array in Mac OS as a Mac HFS drive, journaled. I haven’t examined performance of journaled vs. non-journaled, but I don’t think it’s going to matter much for this application.

Software

The Mac Mini was originally just running Snow Leopard, but I’ve upgraded to Lion and now Mountain Lion since then. All I’m really using is iTunes, uTorrent and iVI Pro. I have the Mac Mini setup to run what is called a “cronjob”, which tells iTunes to check for new downloads every few hours. This then causes iTunes to download new episodes and have them ready for me or my wife so we don’t have to wait on the initial download of a show. If you don’t know what a cronjob is, I suggest you google it. It’s not required to make this all work, but it does make life a little faster. Here’s what I put into the cronjob. This should all be on one line.

0 * * * * /usr/bin/open ‘itmss://phobos.apple.com/WebObjects/MZFinance.woa/wa/checkForPurchases?ign-mscache=1’

Now, for iTunes settings:

  1. Open iTunes Preferences on the host computer. Click “Sharing”. Select “Share my library on my local network” and then choose “Share entire library”. Make sure to also check “Home Sharing computers and devices update play counts”
  2. Click on “Store”. Check “Always check for available downloads” and also check “Automatically download pre-orders when available”
  3. Click on “Advanced”. Now, these next settings are optional and depend on if you have an external drive for storage, such as my RAID-5 array. I chose to move the iTunes library to this array by clicking on the “Change” button next to the iTunes Media folder location box and chose a folder on the RAID-5 array drive.
  4. Check “Keep iTunes Media folder organized” and also check “Copy files to iTunes Media folder when adding to library” if you want that behavior.
  5. Click “OK”. We are done setting things in iTunes.

The Magic

So here is how everything works.

I purchase something on iTunes on the Mac Mini, say a Season Pass for a TV show I enjoy or a movie. The Mac Mini then downloads the video. I switch to my Apple TV, select “Computers” from the main apps menu and select my Mac Mini, then I select “TV Shows”. The latest episode of the show appears and I can watch it.

But let’s say I don’t want to watch the show on that TV? Let’s say I want to watch it on my iPad. Well, that’s easy. Open up “Videos” app on the iPad, select “Shared” at the top and choose the Mac Mini. From there I can select the TV show or movie I want to watch.

Now, something that has always bothered me is keeping track of what you watch so you know where you left off on a season of a TV show. If you enabled the option in iTunes that says “Home Sharing updates play count”, then iTunes will do this for you so long as you are watching videos through Home Sharing. The great part about this is that I can use any iOS device such as my iPad, iPod, iPhone, Apple TV or even a computer with iTunes.

So what about when I’m going on vacation? What if I want to take some stuff with me on a plane or in the car? That’s easy too! I plug my iPad into the Mac Mini and tell it to sync the specific shows, seasons, episodes or movies I want to watch. Another alternative, if the Mac Mini isn’t the computer my iPad syncs with, is to open the iTunes Store app on the iPad and browse to the movie or show I want to have on the iPad, then download the episodes or seasons to the iPad by tapping on them. This seems to work most of the time but the most reliable method is to transfer them from iTunes by syncing the iPad.

 

Bare Essentials

So let’s say you don’t have a Mac Mini or an external drive to store everything on. That’s not a problem! You can still do this with just an Apple TV! Without a device storing the videos and sharing them through the Home Sharing system, an Apple TV will stream the videos directly from Apple, just like when you watch a Youtube video or Netflix.

You can also set any Mac or Windows computer to download the content and share it through iTunes, at which point you still click on “Computers” in the Apple TV interface, choose the computer that has the content you want to watch, and enjoy!

 

Couple of “gotchas” remain

The only things I don’t like are mainly with how some networks deliver their shows still. For instance, HBO seems to think it’s funny to try and force people into subscribing to their channels through cable or satellite to watch the current season of a show. For these small number of shows I’m ok waiting until the whole season is released on iTunes and then buying it. That’s really the only issue I have run into with this otherwise perfect setup. Sure I can’t watch the shows until the day after they air but that is something I’m OK with.

 

One last thing…

If you have some home movies or other content that needs processed, such as having files renamed according to episode lists found on TheTVDB.com or movies found on TheMovieDB.org, I highly recommend using iVI or iVI Pro. iVI is available through the Mac App Store and can handle re-encoding files to work with Apple devices (in addition to anything else that can read the format). The big advantage to iVI Pro vs the lighter iVI is DVD backups and encoding. Say you want to rip a DVD to take it with you on vacation via your iPad. iVI Pro is your tool. The best part is that iVI can watch a folder for files and automatically identify, rename and move the files to a different directory or import them into iTunes.

 

That’s it! Hopefully this wasn’t too confusing and maybe it helped someone. Maybe not. In any case, if you have read this far then I commend you on taking the time to, well, to read this far. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to leave a comment or use the contact form to get in touch. If anyone has a question I’ll do my best to answer it. So far, even though I’m purchasing my shows through iTunes, I have managed to cut my $100/mo TV expense down to $45/mo without sacrificing any content or HD quality.